The Writing Rookie #2: Slow Writer

Here it is — part two of Jonathan Langford’s writing rookie series. Wm

For the complete list of columns in this series, see here.

How quickly should you write, if you want to succeed as a writer? Answer: More quickly than I do.

One of the things I found dispiriting, back a few years ago when I first started trying to restart my creative writing, was just how slow things went. Every time I started writing a scene, it seemed like a hundred questions would pop up in my mind. Just how does one make candles anyway? What would a candlemaker’s shop be like? How big? What materials would they use? How many candlemakers would there be in a city of 20,000? Inquiring minds needed to know.

And that was just questions about the setting. Trying to figure out what to say, how to say it, what would happen next — it all added a toll. That slowness was probably the single largest reason why I gave up on that novel after a year or two.

So. Jump ahead to a little over half a year ago, when I started writing again — mostly little throwaway pieces that had the advantage of not actually needing any real research or advance plotting. Not surprisingly, these went much faster, though they also didn’t really go anywhere as stories. Case in point: a set of six one- to two-page conversations among middle schoolers written purely for my own amusement (since I can’t imagine any venue where they could be published). Composing them them was a bit like eating popcorn, one handful right after the other.

And then I dusted off a side-story to my fantasy novel, one I started six years ago and abandoned after 20 pages. It went well. It went relatively quickly, for one thing. I’d already put in a lot of the effort of creating the milieu, and the story I was trying to tell was relatively simple. 20,000 words later, I had me a novella.

And then I made what was probably the smartest decision I’ve made in a long while, relative to my writing: I didn’t try to go back to my “big” fantasy novel.

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One of these days, maybe I’ll comment on the oddity of a wannabe fantasy author writing a mainstream Mormon novel. For now, though, suffice it to say that out of several projects I puttered with, that’s the one where I wound up putting my next major effort.

I’d had the basic idea for some time, though I thought of it mostly as a possible short story. Then I was struck with some ideas that might turn it into a novel. And so, after a few initial stutters, I got started — without a detailed outline, but with a basic sense of where I wanted the story arc to go and some of the main plot events on the way.

At first it went quickly. Then I showed it to a friend whose opinion I respect, and he pointed out some fairly substantial problems with what I’d written, including the fact that my teenage boys didn’t always sound like teenage boys, or at least not the same teenage boys I wanted them to be.

And so I went back and revised my early scenes, adjusting them in ways I hoped would make them work better. It was very slow going, since I was reconceptualizing conversations and events that I had already thought of once in a different way. Maybe it would have made more sense to keep pushing ahead instead of going back to the beginning, but I felt like I couldn’t do that, since knowing what had gone before would affect what came after. Besides, I felt like I had to make and stick to some fairly basic decisions about the nature and voice of my characters.

And then when I got back to writing new scenes, I found that my pace was slower than before. I’d sit for long moments, staring at the paragraph in front of me and wondering how to get the characters to say what I wanted them to say. Surely, I thought, if only I had a better grasp of my characters, dialogue would fly off my keyboard instead of being forced off one jerking phrase at a time. I also worried that composing it this way would make it sound just as uneven as the composing process was. But I didn’t seem able to make it go any faster.

And I would stop writing whenever I felt uncertain about what to write next, instead of pushing on and making something up — mostly because I’d found that the “make-it-up-as-you-go-along” approach took me down strange paths that had to be retraced later on. Given the negative impact on my writing morale — and thence on my writing output — when I’m exposed to negative feedback (including my own), I eventually decided it was worth taking a little more time during composition so that I’d be forced to hate my own writing just a little less.

(That’s three paragraphs in a row that started with “and.” Maybe there’s something to Orson Scott Card’s suggestion that as Mormon writers, long exposure to the Book of Mormon trains to us to think that all really true, profound, meaningful sentences have to begin with “and.”)

Mostly, I think it worked. But my writing was very slow for several months afterwards, and I very nearly gave it up completely.

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Working on a story is a lot like taking care of a whiny child. It’s always there in the background, wanting a toy or a cookie or some chocolate milk and complaining that you didn’t fix its sandwich just right, and please let me watch just one more YouTube video before bedtime.

Okay, so maybe I got a little too much into that comparison. (Can you tell I’m a parent?) The point is, though, that once you invite a story into your mental space, I find it tends to nag at you if you don’t work on it. That’s what I probably owe for the fact that I didn’t actually quit writing, all that summer that I was bummed out over just how slowly my writing was going and how uncertain I was that it was going anywhere worthwhile.

Eventually, though — sometime in September when I finally realized that I was actually making progress on the thing — I decided there were some advantages to the way I’d been doing things.

First, there was the whole dialogue-thing. On rereading what I’d written since my big slowdown, I thought it genuinely had fewer problems than my first few chapters. Of course, I still need to get my first reviewer to look at my latest stuff and see if he agrees. But that’s my impression, anyway.

Second, I found that pausing every now and then gave an opportunity for more cool ideas to bubble up to the top for things that could go in my story.

Pause now for transition to Jonathan launching into an extended comparison…

See, writing is like a Christmas tree. (Bear with me here.) For any kind of writing, there’s the trunk: the main idea, thesis, or primary conflict. And then there are the branches: the main arguments, plot threads, etc.

But when it comes right down to it, the part of writing that wins the oohs and aahs is the ornaments: the shiny glittering details, insights, bits of conversation, memorable characters, vivid metaphors, and so forth. For a piece of literary criticism — the type of writing that first provoked me into developing this comparison — it’s the new insights you provide into the piece you’re critiquing. Who cares about the theory or underlying argument? Really, the main importance of the trunk and branches is to hold up the glittery bits, which are what we really care about. So long as they don’t snap off under the weight, we hardly even notice their existence. (As someone who came very close to becoming an English professor, I can say that this is far closer to the truth than many literary types would like to admit.)

Applying this to stories, it’s my theory that these ornaments (like Douglas Adams’s fiddly bits around the fjords) are a big part of what impresses us as readers, and thus a big part of what we as writers should be trying to provide. Dawdling along the way gave me more opportunities to go rummaging around for more shiny sparkly decorations to add to the tree.

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I’m still hoping that I’ll get faster as this goes along, especially if I ever start writing fantasy. There’s a sense in the fantasy and science fiction universe that if you don’t publish fairly frequently, your name will drop out of sight. Certainly a book a year is the right pace for keeping interest in a fantasy series, or so it seems based on my observations.

At the same time, I don’t want to lose the hard-won lessons of my current experience — the most important being that simple persistence does in fact add up over time. Despite my slow pace and the weeks when I basically lost my nerve and did nothing, still six months after starting my novel, I’m at 50,000 words and halfway through my projected plot. So something seems to be working.

Now all I have to do is finish the darned thing… But that, once more, is a topic for another time.

 

13 thoughts on “The Writing Rookie #2: Slow Writer”

  1. That’s a great metaphor of the Christmas tree. My favorite author, John Updike, is all about the line-by-line ornamentation just as you describe it. He doesn’t really have much to write about other than adultery, though, and I don’t think he’s very strong on things like structure and plot.

  2. I too like the Christmas tree metaphor.

    One thing that I really related too is your decision to not go back to your big fantasy novel.

    I think one of the more difficult things for me to do is settle on a project and commit to it — and then know when to abandon it. So instead of a whiny child, I end up with whiny children (especially once you add in blog posts).

    One thing that I have found is that it helps if there’s a certain amount of external pressure (a contest deadline, for example), but that the external pressure only works if at the same time I’m working on what I most want to work on. It’s a bit of a cliche, but I think you have to go with what interests and excites you as a writer.

  3. I have tried two approaches:

    (1) crafting deliberately paragraph by paragraph on the first writing; and
    (2) going through a series of start-to-finish drafts that become increasingly focused, crafted, and so forth.

    The key difference between the two: the creative and critical facilities are always at war in the first approach. In the second approach, the creative side is allowed to run amok in the beginning, and the critical side gradually asserts itself.

    For me, the second approach is more demanding, and it produces better results. It is the best way to mine for “ornaments”: unexpected associations, insights, images, etc.

    I don’t know if it is faster overall. But speed isn’t everything, right?

  4. Even though you’re probably right that people like the ornaments and don’t pay much attention to structure, I’m still a hugely annoying advocate of structure as the most important thing.

    See, if the economy collapses and you lose your job and you have to use your Christmas tree for firewood too keep from freezing to death, you will be awfully angry when you take off the ornaments and see that all you’ve got is a tumbleweed.

  5. It’s a dangerous subject prone to draw long preachments from the depths of my…my depths. I’ll try to keep it as short as possible under the circumstances.

    Writing method is an interesting problem, and while it might be a cop-out, I have to say that everyone is different and each of us has to find our own way–and accept that different pieces often gestate differently.

    I tend to be a high word-count writer. I try to get the frame of an idea down quickly, the refine the structure and add the ornamentation on a set of subsequent passes. That works for me because I have no scruple about deleting very large blocks of text, or reworking what I have until it’s unrecognizable from a first draft.

    In other words, I’m a rapid iterator. When I slow down, my prose gets muddy and overwrought and my ideas become too carefully constructed and feel artificial despite their honest origins.

    A good friend of mine (a better writer in all possible ways) finds that once the sentence is written he becomes bored with in and he finds rewriting to be excruciating. He takes the time to write each sentence correctly before moving on.

    I produce more work, but my friend has more quality sales. I’m not sure what lesson is to be learned there except that I have less of a core self to present, and so some sorts of stylistic refinement are simply impossible for me to see.

    I simply don’t have some of the kinds of problems Jonathan mentions–needing questions about details answered before writing the scene, for example. I write the narrative nut in order to refine the questions I need to research, then move on.

    Then again, I have never been accused of art, so perhaps what I’m describing here is less about method than intent. I love exquisite ornmentation, but I admire a well-shaped tree just as much and see the ornament as revealing the core in the kind of literature that most draws me.

    I have to hope that sheer word count can eventually produce a masterpiece (with apologies to the thousand monkeys), because if innate brilliance or vision is required, I’m in deep, deep trouble.

  6. Scott wrote:

    “Writing method is an interesting problem, and while it might be a cop-out, I have to say that everyone is different and each of us has to find our own way”“and accept that different pieces often gestate differently.”

    To which I say: Yes. Probably the single most interesting thing to me, watching myself as I write, has been discovering that a lot of what I *thought* would be true about my writing often isn’t.

    A big part of it’s the psychological aspect. You do what you have to in order to keep yourself writing.

  7. At the risk of excessive blathering, I find myself seized of a desire to comment on my own metaphor, and so comment I shall…

    For me, one of the interesting–possibly telling–things about different literary genres and styles is exactly what constitutes the “ornaments” of the genre. In fantasy, it’s often high-quality, interesting worldbuilding. In science fiction, it can be the ideas.

    One of the criticisms that was made of Tolkien as a writer was that he wasn’t terribly literary, on a phrase- and sentence-level. Not enough striking images and mots justes (is that how I’d pluralize that)? Indeed, one of the silliest published critical essays I’ve ever read had, as its premise, the notion that Lord of the Rings, while a very nicely written book, wasn’t actually “literature” because it didn’t have what Our Sort look for in literature.

    The irony, of course, is that Tolkien was indeed a very stylistically sensitive writer–just in ways that weren’t in style among the literati at the time. Still, though, the point I’d make is that “ornaments” as I’m defining them in my metaphor don’t have to reside at the sentence-level or consist of flowers of rhetoric. An interesting character, a striking bit of worldbuilding, a magnificent irony–any of these can be an “ornament” as I’m thinking of them.

    Which leads to an interesting question. In deliberately postmodern works that experiment with story structure, is the structure itself the ornament? Sometimes I think it can be.

  8. “In deliberately postmodern works that experiment with story structure, is the structure itself the ornament? Sometimes I think it can be.”

    Absolutely. Great follow up comment — I say blather on.

  9. At the risk of posting the least intelligent comment on this this thread (which would be nothing new for me) I just wanted to say thanks for this, Jonathan. This helped me a lot today.

  10. Adam,

    Glad that what I said resonated in some way for you.

    Can I ask what part was particularly helpful, and why? (Kind of an “I’ve shown everyone mine, now I wanna see everyone else’s” syndrome, I guess.)

  11. Of course, Jonathan, only mine’s not very impressive.

    Its just that I’ve been on the brink of giving up on my current project for a week or so – wondering if it was worth the time and effort because it seemed to be going nowhere. I haven’t been working on it for more than a few months, but the progress is so slow that at times I’ve wondered if I was even cut out for this sort of thing. Plus I have to ask myself if its better to give voice to my creative vision, or spend more time with my family, which I don’t do enough of anyway. That’s not an absolutely faithful dilemma because if I write, it’s usually on the train to work, but I could use that time for other things that would free up more at-home time. Everything just piles up, you know? I’ve been at that place that asks whether I even want to try anymore.

    Your post gave me confidence that slowness – even occasional periods of stagnation like my current one – are not only OK but are experienced by people who I admire, like you. In case you’re wondering, I haven’t read anything of yours other than you blog posts and comments, but I admire your thoughtfulness and the way you express it. I admire your voice.

    Plus, you reinforced my wife’s advice, which was that I switch my focus to a different project that is more exciting, but that I’ve been avoiding because of its complexity.

    So you’ve basically helped to revive my creative spirit in a way that I wasn’t able to do. I was running out of energy to try. Thanks again.

  12. This idea of keeping multiple irons in the fire is one the works very, very well for me.

    Taking time on another project often gives one the cognitive distance they need to figure out what’s blocking the first.

    Of course sometimes the blockage can’t be avoided, either. I all but stopped writing a few years ago when I realized that a story I had started (and that was deeply personal) but never finished had blocked off all creative avenues for me. It took me nearly a year to come to grips with–and complete–the memoir that had dammed the flow.

    Slow is good, sometimes.

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