Writing At The Speed Of Light

I’m a slow writer. One of my primary goals this year is to increase my writing speed. Last year I released four titles – three shorts and two full-length books. About 170,000 words total.

That sounds pretty impressive until you factor in that two of those shorts were written in 2010, and I had been writing the historical novel over a period of many years – it only had to be rewritten last year. Subtracting both of those, and adding in new text added to the novel, leaves me with maybe 90,000 new words written and published last year.

It could be worse, I suppose, but there is a huge amount of room for improvement – especially when I break it down.

The bulk of those new words written and published were for my short story Transfection and my how-to Let’s Get Digital. I wrote the short in a few days and it only needed a small amount of revision before it was published. Let’s Get Digital took around three weeks. With revising time, back-and-forth with my editor etc., you could probably add another couple of weeks.

I know I can write fast when I put my mind to it. I’ve done 4,000 word days (on very rare occasions). But I lack discipline and focus. I’m a poor planner. I work on whatever I feel like working on. That’s fine, but the obvious corollary is that I will cast something aside when I don’t feel like working on it (as attested by the innumerable half-written shorts, novel outlines, and story ideas on my hard-drive).

A Storm Hits Valparaiso took five-and-a-half years. But a lot of that time I wasn’t working on the book. The first draft took three years and three months. I remember because the first half of the book took me three years, and the second half only three months!

The first half took so long because I was researching as I was writing, I was traveling around the world while working on the book, and I walked away from it at some point in the middle and didn’t write a word for maybe nine months. Plus I was still learning the craft, of course.

But there was another reason why the second half went much quicker: I had a deadline.

It was summer and I was living in the Czech countryside in a small town east of Prague. I was writing full-time and the beer was very, very cheap. But the real world loomed; I was moving back to Dublin in September, and would have to look for (paying) work. I didn’t know when I would get another three-month window like this, so I put the pedal to the metal and got the job done.

Similarly, I started the final rewrite last August. I circled it for a while, working on small parts when I felt like it (which wasn’t that often). Let’s Get Digital was selling like crazy, so it was all too easy to get pulled into guest blogs and interviews (and checking those sales numbers). I went on holidays in September and spent two glorious weeks away from the internet, and did a lot of thinking about the weaknesses in my novel, and how to improve it.

But even on my return, progress was slow – that is, until my crowdfunding initiative and the limited availability of my editor forced a deadline upon me. Again, I pulled my socks up and got the job done.

I can give a million excuses for being a slow writer. I write longhand (i.e. with pen and paper). I write primarily in a genre which requires more research than most (historical fiction). And I’m still pretty inexperienced – I haven’t developed a good sense yet of which ideas are going to last the pace, I still write myself into a lot of dead-ends, and I get stuck lots, for all sorts of reasons.

But, I’m done with excuses.

I know that Zoe Winters used to be a slower writer, but now she is able to pull off 10,000 words a day (sometimes). Now, she writes straight-to-keyboard, and I don’t think it’s any slight to suggest that paranormal romance might require a little less research. However, I know that Courtney Milan can write 4,000 words a day (when the day job allows), and she writes longhand. She also writes historical romance, which probably requires a similar level of research to my stuff.

Purists might claim that quality can’t be written at that speed, but I think that’s a ridiculous notion, and the sales and reviews of the two above writers would argue otherwise. Let me give you some more examples, though.

Sebastian Faulks is not known as a fast writer. However, when he was asked by Ian Fleming’s literary estate to pen a new Bond novel, Faulks decided to copy Fleming’s six-week time-frame, and pulled it off.

However, Fleming and Faulks were not unique. Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in six weeks. Graham Green spent the same amount of time writing The Confidential Agent in the mornings, while writing The Power And The Glory in the evenings!

Anthony Burgess said A Clockwork Orange was “knocked off for money in three weeks.” Mickey Spillane wrote one of his Mike Hammer novels in nine days (which sold millions of copies). And Steven King dashed off The Running Man in three nights.

So we know it’s theoretically possible, without quality having to suffer. Armed with that knowledge, all I need is some kind of deadline.

I wanted to participate in NaNoWriMo last year, but I was in the middle of the rewrite for A Storm Hits Valparaiso. But on Saturday night, I stumbled across this thread on KindleBoards where Michael Wallace (author of the bestselling Righteous series) was proposing an informal February writing challenge: 60,000 words by the end of the month.

There were a few takers already who have been fiendishly outlining for the last few weeks. I’m a little behind, but I decided to jump aboard.

Immediately, I could think of a million excuses. But, as I said, I’m done with excuses.

I’ve got two days to outline… something. Well, it’s more about deciding which project to work on. Initially, I thought the dystopian novella that has been kicking around in my head for months would be a perfect fit, as very little research would be required.

I spent some time yesterday trying to come up with a very vague outline, but realized it’s still at the “half idea” stage, and needs something else before it’s ready to go.

Instead, I’m going to try and write the first draft of a historical novel. This might seem like a crazy idea – and it is – especially considering that I’ve only done half the research needed. And also because I promised my poor, battered brain that I would work on something else, anything else, before attempting another historical.

Sorry, brain. I published 170,000 words last year and most of that wasn’t new stuff. I wrote around 200,000 words on my blog. There’s something wrong with that picture. Something has to change radically, and I don’t want to stop blogging – I enjoy it too much.

The working title of the book I am going to attempt is Bananas for Christmas. It’s set in New Orleans and Honduras at the beginning of the 20th century and follows the story of a guy called Lee Christmas – a color-blind railroad engineer who fled the US and got mixed up in several Central American revolutions, often at the behest of a certain American fruit company – someone who was quite famous one hundred years ago, but whom most people seem to have forgotten.

I have a bullet point outline of the first half of the book, and a (very) rough blurb:

Lee Christmas falls asleep at the throttle of his locomotive, dead drunk, driving straight into an oncoming train. His life in tatters, he boards a steamer to Honduras, hoping for a fresh start. But when civil war breaks out, he is forced to choose sides.

Bananas for Christmas is the story of America as it moves from The Gilded Age to a new era of Imperialism, of a revolution born in a New Orleans brothel, and the nation’s most famous soldier of fortune, a color-blind railroad engineer who becomes the head of the Honduran Army.

I need to outline the second half – and digest a biography and re-skim a history book (pictured above) – in the next two days.

I don’t expect to have a publishable novel at the end of this. Or even something ready for beta readers (let alone an editor). But I would like to have a good first draft, or at the very least, a good chunk of it done.

This is going to be tough – especially for a slow writer like me, who has never even attempted something like this before. And announcing my participation in the challenge here isn’t particularly smart, considering the overwhelming likelihood of failure.

But I also remember that my father used this same trick. When he was considering whether to run a marathon, he went around and told everyone he met that he was going to do it – which then forced him to run the bloody thing.

And he did it (and in a good time too). In fact, he’s run three of them. He’s in his sixties now – still running half-marathons – and he’s twice as fit as me.

I need to do my own writing marathon, and hopefully it will break some of my bad habits (irregular binge writing, general lack of discipline and focus), and teach me some good habits which I can carry through my writing life.

This challenge is 60,000 words in 29 days. Just over 2,000 words a day. Anyone else game?