The Prig's Writ, and Other Writers' Stories
A novel is not the singular of data

Dreaming the map: the efficiency of magic

You can't assume that someone who takes a day to write six words must be a finer artist and greater writer than someone who writes sixteen thousand: after all, would you say that Yeats is a greater writer than Dickens? And, indeed, you'll know how valuable I think the NaNoWriMo approach to first drafts "building up without tearing down" can be. And then novelist Sally Hinchcliffe pointed me to this post. Rachel Aaron explains how, with a new baby, and some very tight deadlines for a new novel, she had to re-think radically how she worked.

I approached it rather sceptically, because she's not talking about NaNo and shitty first draft stuff: her deadline was for a properly written and finished novel. And it's funny how horrified so many writers' reaction are to the idea of "efficiency" - as if it's only machines which can/should be efficient. And yet isn't it just one more aspect of learning one's craft? Artists who work in clay or paint or dance spend time and thought on avoiding wasted materials, where it's possible, so why wouldn't we? It's just that our material is time.

And none of us have enough writing time, so thinking about how you might put what time you do have to the best use is always worth doing: I kept reading. And so much of what she described I recognised in myself that her post began to make enormous sense to me. To explain - and suggest a way for you to think about Rachel Aaron's post for yourself - I'll start with things I know about myself:

  • my slowest and dullest writing happens when I don't know what happens next, because when my instincts don't know what they should be trying to do, my word-hoard can't serve up the right words
  • when I've internalised the research and know what's going to happen to the characters I write quite fast and fluently. And it's those scenes which invariably turn out really well and don't need deep revision (they always need editing, of course)
  • it's the slow, writing-my-way-in beginning of a session which is most likely to go up a blind alley of plot or ideas
  • the good-and-fast writing tends to happen towards the end of a session
  • I naturally think on paper. If writing a scene is like pulling teeth, then I grab a piece of paper and work out the stages of what it's trying to do and where it's trying to go
  • a scene I'm looking forward to writing - highly dramatic, important to the story, a climax - is always easier to write than one which is dull but necessary, or uses characters I'm less involved with

Rachel Aaron needed a process which used her own writerly nature to its best advantage, and she came up with three basic principles. The first - the most important - is

1) Knowledge: know what you're writing before you try to write it. In other words, don't use precious desk time for working out plot, characters and ideas from nothing: do it when pushing the pram or strap-hanging on the tube. This is just as much writing, it's just not at the desk. The more alive and present your characters are to you - the stronger a sense you have of their needs and wants and what they (being who they are) might do, and do do, to get them - the more fluently any scene you put them in will unreel itself.

And then, she says, know what you're writing at the micro-level. At the beginning of each desk session, grab a bit of paper and, with your full understanding of these people and their story ready and alive, spend five minutes imagining out how this scene is going to work. Not just the "they have a row" which your plot needs, but what the row's about, what the two sides are, the choreography and action of the row, the outcome, and so on. With the whole scene imagined, the words will unroll as fast as your word-hoard can release them, because your instincts know what's wanted.

Most writers would call this planning: drawing maps, not conjuring magic. But is there any reason we can't call that bit of paper not a map, but a zero draft? Surely what's often called planning is really an act of imagining just as much as we all know the actual writing is. These notes are just imagining separated from the business of first-draft-words-on-screen. I know wonderful, highly literary writers whose four-hour, draft-a-short-story stint is actually two hours on the sofa, staring into space, and two hours writing the 2000 words, because they know, by then, exactly, the story they're telling. And the words oblige by telling it, and although of course a lot of revising and polishing goes on, the story is essentially there from the beginning. 

If you say "but I'm a pantser" all you're really saying is that you use your first draft as a zero draft: the one where you work out what you're up to. You may chose to do the imagining by working it out in first-draft words. But a first draft for most writers is actually a first attempt at a final draft, and it's asking a lot of your writing mind to simultaneously work out the story you're trying to tell, and find the nearest-to-best words in which to tell it. Essentially, if you're desperately short of desk time then maybe it's not a given that your main imagining has to happen at the desk, word by hopefully-nearly-final word.

Aaron's other two corners of her triangle for making the most of your writing time are also interesting, and the third, I admit, I'd never thought of.

2) Time: track your time/wordcount/circumstances so you understand every aspect of what suits you: record how long you wrote for, where you were, how many words you wrote. That way you can really know whether a coffee shop with no wifi is best or your bed is, morning or evening, six hours twice a week or two hours every day, yoga before or a walk after, and so on. Most people have a vague idea, but I bet you've never really focused on making the absolute most of that knowledge, let alone got really ruthless about making your circumstances support it. Again, you may choose not to get ruthless, or you may not need to. But it's valuable knowledge to have.

3) Excitement: get excited about what you're writing today: There are always some scenes, some characters, some situations that the novel needs, which don't excite you. Writing them is not only slower, but, much more importantly, rarely gets your best writing out of you. So, says Aaron, when you're imagining out onto that bit of paper what you're about to write, try to get excited; look for what could excite you, where the vividness, the ideas, the surprises might be. She even suggests cutting the scene if you can't get yourself excited, because you're never going to be able to get the reader excited, You'll have to imagine out another scene that will do the same jobs in the novel, but at least, that way, you'll have decided this one's not right before you've written it.

None of this, of course, is the only way. But I do think it's worth thinking about, because what Aaron's really talking about isn't fulfilling contracts or racking up the words, but how to get your best writing out of you, by not expecting your writing mind to come up with the best words to say something, when you don't really know what you're trying to say.

A last thought:- Given how many writers agree that the scene that writes itself fluently, if not effortlessly, is so often the one that needs least revising, and ends up being one of the great scenes of the book, it's odd that so much snobbery hovers over the idea of writing fast. There's more than one professional novelist who hides from even his editor how fast he writes the books that officially take a year to produce, and Joyce Carol Oates's critical reputation suffers unfairly because she's so prolific. I guess it's because a) people wrongly equate time in the office with time doing the actual, real, core work, and b) the writing that's done away from the desk is so much less visible. But I notice that Joyce Carol Oates is quoted here, saying that you can't write the first sentence of a novel till you know what the last one's going to be. Which is where Rachel Aaron comes in.