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"Quantity gives experience, experience gives quality"

In Zen in the Art of Writing Ray Bradbury says this:

An athlete may run ten thousand miles in order to prepare for one hundred yards. Quantity gives experience. From experience alone can quality come.

What I really like about this is that it runs counter to the idea which is implicit - or explicit - in so many people's ideas about how creative work happens, perhaps because it's implicit in so much of the modern, capitalist West, at least: that the better and cleverer you are, the more quickly and efficiently you should be able to reach your goal. Bradbury says it more elegantly than I did when I was talking about wonky ducks, but it's essentially the same idea. You gain experience just by the sheer practice of your craft, and get better, as a baby's mind and body learn to walk without falling down, just by wanting and trying to walk in as many different places and for as many different purposes as possible.

Creativity is mistakes, says Grayson Perry, which means that creativity is also just doing it again and again and again, letting the mistakes happen so you can go beyond them. It's wasteful. So be it. Waste not, write not, as I said a while ago.

A while back, I had some revisions to do to a novel, and it also needed cutting. A friend was surprised, because I was going to do the revisions and then cut it. "But then you're working on stuff you're going to cut!" he said. Yes, I was. But it was only once I'd revised it that I'd know what could be spared. And yes, I'd then have to do yet another pass of revisions, making sure that all the raw ends left by the cutting were darned back in again. So be it. In the rest of my life I'm a slapdash cutter of corners with the impatience threshold of a flea, but in writing I know that what makes sense in creative practice can often look like "inefficiency" in narrow terms of time or action, but it's nothing of the kind.

You can always tell a good craftsman by the ease they have in the workshop, no flourishes but also no restraints or inhibitions, no obsessive self-monitoring: just the right match of body and mind to the business of working the material from raw to art. Good writers, too, have stopped trying to "do things quicker" (except when a deadline looms, perhaps): they accept the time their stuff takes to write. So if Bradbury says this:

All arts, big and small, are the elimination of waste motion in favour of the concise declaration. The artist learns what to leave out

I don't think that need simply mean that we should all be trying to write like Bradbury, or Hemingway, in terms of simplicity, nor like Barbara Cartland in terms of speed of production. In cutting that novel I needed to know what I was trying to declare, as it were, before I knew which bits were "waste". Not waste material in the literal sense of being surplus to conveying the action (we could all reduce our stories to rattly skeletons of main verbs and single nouns and very dreary that would be for readers as well as ourselves) but waste motion: the movements of thought, image, action, which are in the wrong direction for the reader's journey through the experience you're offering, or leave no space, between the words, for the reader to make that journey their own. That's what you're trying to leave out.

So the working on a creative piece is about working towards what - by perhaps wild and apparently wasteful processess - is necessary to that experience: what the musicologist Alfred Einstein called the "second simplicity ... fullness in brevity". It might be Mahler Nine, or it might be a Dowland lute song. One is a thousand times bigger and more complex than the other, but they are both as full, as simple, and as brief, as they need to be.


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Cynthia Robertson

"I needed to know what I was trying to declare, as it were, before I knew which bits were "waste"."

Nicely said!


I agree that the more you (meaning me) write the better you get - up to a plateau. Then it gets more difficult to rise to the next level, if at all. Any advice on how to (at least try to) achieve that?

Tracy Fells

This is such a reassuring blog post! I'm always concerned when I hear about writers who claim to write a novel in days or weeks. I never have that many thoughts in my head and can only write what I've already plotted out in my head. Consequently, my novel moves along one chapter at a time. Short stories come out more quickly but even then I rarely write a whole story in one go.


Your posts, and many of the replies you receive, like the one above from Tracy, never fail to reassure me that my tortoise like approach is ok, even if it feels like I am getting nowhere fast and expending lots of energy in the 'achievement' of what? much time given, so little to show, and yet, and yet it does sometimes feel as if I am further along the road than say a few months back. But still, so much to write and learn in the writing. Will there ever be a finished work? Who knows? Certainly I do not! :)

Emma Darwin

:-) Cynthia!

Emma Darwin

I think it can help to try to write something radically different: refuse to let yourself plough the same furrow. To some extent that puts you back down at the bottom of the mountain - but it's a different mountain, and will teach you things that your current mountain never can.

But this is also the perfect time to do a course: when you've gone as far as you can on your own, with only feedback from your peers on the specifics of your current writing.

I'd suggest picking a course which isn't based on your own work and genre, if you see what I mean, but one which will really stretch you with exercises and forms and reading that you wouldn't do by nature. It's that kind of thing, paradoxically, which will shove you up the next level.

Emma Darwin

It also depends what you mean by "write a novel" - shitty first draft, or finished article? Some writers take longer because

Some writers are just not very interesting or exciting to read. If you're mostly working with your own and your genre's defaults - which will make for a perfectly acceptable saleable read, perhaps - then it's quick to do once, you have a reasonable amount of craft and can correct as you go.

Among more interesting writers, I think when your voice is very firmly established, and you have a very clear idea of where you're going in terms of plot, AND, arguably, your plot and structure are relatively simple, AND you've got the childcare and/or day job well sorted out, then it probably is possible for some to write very quickly. Anthony Burgess was incredibly fast - and his output is very variably, but at its best it's amazing. He obviously had an amazingly fertile brain, but that doesn't mean writers who write more slowly are less good. Just different, as marathon runners are different from sprinters.

Emma Darwin

I think it's worth reviewing your process every now and again - whether you write very slowly (could you write faster without losing what slowness gives you?) or very fast (could you force yourself to challenge your habitual words and phrases and ideas?). That Rachel Aaron piece on 10,000 words a day was very interesting not (for me) in the absolute numbers, but in the way she paid attention to her process.

So often people write slowly because we're using the act of writing the (first attempt at) finished words, as a way of working out where you're trying to go. But it may be that other processes are a better way of doing that working out, and only then, once you've a clear idea of the goal of this scene, the plot, the characters-in-action, do you start putting down your first shot at the actual text which the reader will read.

But in the end, you write how you write.

Jim Murdoch

Ah, if there was only a Tao of Writing. I belong to a writers’ forum on Facebook and, as you would expect, there are a lot of newbies there looking for reassurance, looking to know if they’re doing it right; we are a very insecure bunch us writers. I’ve just written a novella. Took me five weeks. Scary quick. That’s after spending two years trying to write a novel that refused point blank to come into focus. It may yet get written—the concept’s good—but it clearly wasn’t the right time to write it. In my novella I quote Harlan Ellison referring to Bradbury—“He had writer’s block once—worst ten minutes of his life.” Actually Ellison was actually talking about Asimov but he might as well have been talking about Bradbury. I think the hardest thing for every writer is working out how they write and learning to trust it. For me it’s the long gaps in between. I tell myself it’s not writer’s block, I tell myself I simply don’t have anything to say yet, that the time to begin hasn’t arrived, I tell myself I have a long gestation period but then I read about writers like Asimov and Bradbury and I can’t help but feel I’m not a real writer. After forty years—if I hit you over the head with my back catalogue I’d do you serious damage—how can I still not feel like a real writer? Experience only takes you so far down the road.

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