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November, 2008 : Feature:

Fast Writing

Fast writing can be an amazingly effective tool for tapping your creativity, by-passing your inner blocks, and creating strong drafts. Assuming the technique fits into your process, it can be a terrific addition to your writer's toolkit.

Probably the most important aspect of fast writing is how it can sidestep the inner critical voice at a time when that voice may not serve you well. Consider this: most of us have been at retreats where writers work in parallel in a common room or around a large table. There is sometimes a writer, often a very gifted one with perfectionist tendencies, who will sit at their keyboard (or notepad) and write for five or ten minutes, pounding out a few hundred words, then stop to re-read their work. On looking it over, they will cry out, "This is shit!" and erase most or all of their work and restart.

Several hours later they have typed 4,000 words and have 250 of first draft copy to show for their efforts.

While there are certainly some people for whom this is an essential part of the process, that degree of effort with instant revision is often a severe waste of time. When we include the inner editor in the drafting process, it can cripple our output, kill dozens of ideas before they get any chance to develop, and create a wall of frustration around the writing process.

A basic rule of thumb in writing: the writer is the worst judge of his or her own work. This means you don't know what is effective on the page and what is ineffective, especially not when you are first creating text. You're too involved in it, too close to it, too much aware of your vision of the story.

The value of fast writing lies in slipping past that internal editor to commit words to the page without the intermediation of self-judgment. Much good writing is tapped from veins deep in the subconscious. The subconscious gives us the new, fresh, outrageous ideas we have rarely seen before; when at its most uninhibited, it can mine the places of dark and light in the human soul. By contrast, the internal editor is a conscious process. A very different animal, rational and logical, which brings concerns of ego and self-consciousness into play. All writers need both: the playful ideas and the ability to organize them; the sometimes painful tapping of our own inner vision and the editor that can make it coherent for others. But when a writer is successful in banishing that editor to the revision process and keeping it out of the first draft, the results can be amazing.

One of the things that the subconscious can influence positively is voice. The writer's unique vision of the world, filtered through their experiences, their emotions, their needs and desires, lends a distinctive authenticity to prose which appeals to editors and readers alike. Much of this can be found through the vehicle of dream, if you are a lucid dreamer with a good memory for the transitional states between sleeping and waking. Likewise, the imagery in visual art, music, even cooking can stimulate that vision. This distinctiveness is closest to the surface in writing which is least mannered or forced—and fast writing can bring it to the surface like mayflies bring trout. While editors buy stories for many reasons, a distinctive voice can make the difference between "I liked this a lot, but ..." and a sale. Fast writing is a tool which enables us to approach story with the most open access to voice.

Another benefit of fast writing lies in the relationship between story and manuscript. The manuscript is a tool for transmitting the story, nothing more. Think of it as an envelope, while the story is the text within. The story itself exists in the mind of the writer as a vision, as an experience, as a sensation—whatever the writer is reaching for. In Jay's case, that is very often a specific view of place, with details that may reach many fractal layers below what is presented in the finished text. In Ruth's case, it tends to be an emotion or idea or reaction she wants to convey through story. The perfected Platonic form of the story exists in the mind of the writer; the shadow of that form is cast into the mind of the reader through the intermediary of the manuscript.

Fast writing, removing the role of conscious editing and self-conscious judgment from the drafting process, can with practice improve the projection of that ideal story in a form which will provide the richest experience for the reader.


That may be all fine and good, but how does a writer trick the inner editor into keeping shut? If you've never done it before, how can you possibly produce five hundred, a thousand, maybe even two thousand words in an hour or two? It's a truism that no two writers are alike, but among the many different strategies others have adopted to prepare the mind for a fast writing session, there may be something that will appeal to you as a writer, something you can use and adapt to your own writing habits and routine.

Here are just some of the things that we or others we know have used:

Break your habitual schedule

Try rising an hour before your usual waking time, and spend that time at the keyboard. You'll be as close to your subconscious then as at any time of the day, and you may tap into a flow which your still-slumbering inner editor may well have blocked otherwise. Or the reverse, write late in the evening, right before sleep, when the day's free associations are creeping up on you.

Write in a different environment

This is otherwise known as the coffee shop trick, and is related to the first strategy in that it also provides a break in your routine. It can be particularly useful for writers who work from home and use the same computer both for the day job and writing. The idea is to signal to the mind that you are not at work anymore, that this is writing time. This works best, of course, if you are not distracted from your writing by random strangers chatting nearby. If silence is critical to your production, the public library may be a good alternative.

The timer trick

Set a timer for a specific period of time, perhaps thirty minutes or an hour. During that time, concentrate exclusively on writing, not allowing any interruptions—no email, no research, just word creation. If you do hit a passage you're sure you can't write without research, make a note to yourself on what needs to be looked up, skip it, and go on to the next section. It might surprise you how much progress you can make in just an hour working this way.

Develop a writing ritual

Many writers swear by little personal rituals to get them in the right mood or frame of mind to write. This can range from reading a poem or two, to lighting a candle and meditating, to going for a short run before turning on the computer, to practicing self-hypnosis sessions before writing. The important thing with any ritual is that it resets your mind to writing mode. If you think candles and meditation are silly, find something else to signal your brain that it's time to write.


If you like to use writing books to kick the muse into gear, there are several that deal with fast writing, for example David Fryxell's Write Faster, Write Better, Roberta Allen's Fast Fiction, and Susan K. Perry's Writing in Flow. While Fryxell advocates planning in order to produce faster during actual writing sessions, Allen emphasizes short writing exercises in order to promote play. Perry looks at the theory of "flow" and analyzes the habits of a number of different writers to see how they manage to achieve a state conducive to fast writing.

Many writers are skeptical whether fast writing can be at all useful for them personally, either because their process involves careful consideration of the words or phrasing while they write, or because they can't imagine achieving a state of flow where the words seem to come of themselves. Even if you consider yourself in this group, a fast writing session or two might still be worth the effort. Growth as a writer is about experimentation, about change. Make an attempt, give it an honest try, and see if it works.

It may not. If a writer's process genuinely is one of carefully considered initial drafting, then a speed run through the text may well be a disservice. This is not an argument from principle, it is an argument from cases, some of which will be valid.

The best recommendation we can make is if this technique sounds interesting to you, make a run at it. Set aside a time when you will not be interrupted, establish a modest goal—between 500 and 2,000 words should be ideal—and write without backspacing, replacing or significant pauses. See what you get. Put that in the drawer for several months, pull it out, and give it multiple careful revision passes: one for line edits, one for style clunks, one for plot, one for character, et cetera.

You may be quite surprised.

Works Referenced

Allen, Roberta. Fast Fiction: Creating Fiction in Five Minutes. Cincinnati, Ohio: Story Press. 1997.

Fryxell, David A. Write Faster, Write Better. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer's Digest Books. 2004.

Perry, Susan K. Writing in Flow: Keys to Enhanced Creativity. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer's Digest Books. 1999.


Copyright © 2008, Joseph E. Lake, Jr. and Ruth Nestvold. All Rights Reserved.

About Jay Lake

Jay Lake lives in Portland, Oregon, where he works on numerous writing and editing projects. His 2008 novels are Escapement from Tor Books and Madness of Flowers from Night Shade Books, while his short fiction appears regularly in literary and genre markets worldwide. Jay is a winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and a multiple nominee for the Hugo and World Fantasy Awards. Jay can be reached through his blog at jaylake.livejournal.com or his Web site at www.jlake.com.

About Ruth Nestvold

Ruth Nestvold has published in Asimov's and Realms of Fantasy, and was a recent finalist for both the Tiptree and Sturgeon awards. She holds a PhD in literature with specializations in genre issues, gender issues and hyperfiction. After getting out of academia, she switched to translation and software localization to feed the writing bug. She maintains a web site at www.ruthnestvold.com.

COMMENTS!

Nov 4, 07:50 by IROSF
Comment on turning off the inner editor.

Article is here.
Nov 5, 03:41 by BJ Muntain
Bravo! A wonderful article! I've linked to it from my blog, Points on Style

Thank you!
Nov 5, 15:54 by Bluejack
Thanks for the link, BJ! Always appreciated!
Nov 6, 20:35 by David Bartell
Another excellent article. I often write "fast" myself, on first drafts. Someone once said to write the first draft with the heart, and rewrite with the brain.

Here's another suggestion for fast writing that serves a dual purpose. I back up my files often, having lost hours and days of writing due to technical failures long ago. At least once a day, I also save to a second and third medium, then remove one of the copies to a second site (home and work.) To lose work, I'd have to suffer multiple failures. Hey, I'm in IT, so call me anal.

Yes, backing up may break the flow, and I don't stop to back up if I'm on a roll. But a cleansing breath or potty break at the end of a passage is a good time to back up. Now, suppose after I back up the file, I close it. When I resume work on the ms, I start a new file. I do not have the privilege of referring to the previous passage, but I am not tempted to edit it either. This might increase the editing required later, but might also serve to get the first draft done much sooner, while the ideas are fresh and flowing.

Just a thought.

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