Ask A Wendigo: The Speed With Which One Ejaculates Prose

Looking for the requisite Tuesday “list of 25?” HA HA HA IT’S NOT HERE. You just got served! Ahem. The lists-of-25 are going on an “every other week” basis as I wind them down to completion — that’s not to say I won’t do them from time to time but I’m looking to get another 10 or so for a book and then I’ll pull the ripcord, at least until I have something more to say on the subject. So! In the “every other, uhh, other week” slot goes this: you ask me questions at Tumblr and I answer them here. Let the inquisition begin!

I had two folks ask me very similar questions.

Anonymous Abby asked:

“My name’s Abby and I just bought your 500 Ways to Tell a Better Story (surely that means I count!). My question comes from reading Dean Wesley Smith’s blog. He often blogs about writing fast and not believing that the longer it takes to write a book, the better it is. I’ve heard of writers who’ve written books in just a few weeks and I was wondering, for a first draft, what’s the shortest time it’s taken you to complete a MS?”

And Anonymous Not-Abby asked:

“How fast can you, Wendig, type out fiction (of any quality) and, if you’ve honed this as a skill, how did you go about getting faster (and, perhaps, better)?”

Let me answer the second question first: I write at bare minimum 2000 words a day. Ideally I write 3-4k a day, but hey, not every day is ideal. It is, however, very rare that I dip below 2k per day — days where I’m sick or on vacation or eating the frozen hearts of wayward campers as I chase them through the woods with my big stompy Wendigo hooves, those might be days I don’t make my goal. But I only need 13 frozen hearts to survive one full century, so? Pretty rare. Rare as a bloody steak. Rare as a dodo orgy.

That means, for me, every week I’m generally writing 10 to 15,000 words of new content. That does not include blog content, by the way. By the end of a year I have, bare minimum, a half-a-million words chipped into the digital marble that is my computer screen.

Are those good words? Do they make up good stories?

Fuck if I know.

I like to hope they are. But they’re never good enough on their own — a word doesn’t just tumble out of my finger-holes as a pure and perfect entity, unmarred and forever impervious to criticism. Words change. They need to get extensions or repairs. Or have friends added to them. Or be thrown into a dark yowling abyss where they are eaten by ancient God-Worms and defecated out to form the deviant sub-layer of Gaia’s subconscious mind. (YO I’M DROPPIN’ MYTH ON YOUR FACEBRAIN, SON.)

And this leads me to the first question:

Speed is not an indicator of quality in terms of fiction. That’s true of one’s relative slowness or swiftness — taking 10 years to write a book or taking 10 days to write a book (or a comic or a film or an angry postcard) guarantees nothing in terms of how good or how bad that story is.

Put differently, the story needs what the story needs.

Now, I’ll grant you: many stories are like wine. With more time they ripen and the flavor deepens — not automatically and not without authorial intervention, but over time an author can sift out the sediment and play with additives and subtractives, changing the formula gradually over the many moons. Of course, some wines should be consumed young, shouldn’t they? Bottled and guzzled with, oh, a nice shellfish dish. Or the pudding-like brains of your foes. So, there the wine metaphor yields some truth across the board: some wines are better aged, some are better right after you squirt ‘em in the bottle.

Which tells us, yet again: the story needs what the story needs.

If it’s fast and it works: it works. If it’s slow and it works: it works.

Who gives a fuck how many days it took if the story crackles? If it makes us think, feel, laugh, cry? The audience doesn’t care how long it took. The audience only cares if it reaches deep and grabs their guts.

Blackbirds took me yeaaaaaars to write.

The sequel, Mockingbird, took me 30 days. And was almost 10,000 words longer.

Ah, but here’s the trick: where some stories are fast and others come slow, one thing I believe to be true: the writer needs time to age. Authors need time and experience to reach fruition — and so you must have the patience to develop a voice, to train your skill and hone your talent, to practice the craft of writing and foster the art of storytelling (for that’s how I see them: writing is the craft, storytelling the art).

Give yourself that time. Because that’s how you get better. And, sometimes, how you get faster.

Worry less about how long it should take to write a story.

Worry more about how long it takes to become a storyteller.

37 comments

  • A fine post, sir.

    Confession: that’s really all I had to say. I might normally simply have gulped down your wise words, grown a little, burped, then moved on. But no one else has commented yet, and I totes want to be first.

    Cheers!
    @BarbieAndHerKen

  • “Worry less about how long it should take to write a story. Worry more about how long it takes to become a storyteller.”

    Truth on thy lips and from thy fingertips. Amen,

  • Truer words were never spoken. There seems to be a lot of snobbery (and reverse snobbery) when it comes to writing speed – everyone’s all “my way or the highway”. Jeez, lighten up, guys!

    Like Chuck, it took me years to finish my first novel, because I was learning as I went. The second one went much quicker, though not as fast as Chuck’s 30 days, because I’m still learning. What I will say is that some of my best prose – or at least the stuff I’m happiest with – is written in the white heat of inspiration. Unfortunately that doesn’t happen every day, so you just have to drag the words out of your brain as best you can. And then a lot gets thrown away and rewritten, not because the prose is awful but because it doesn’t take the story in the right direction. But the more you write, the better the words are to start with and the better (on average) they flow once you get going, until you reach your optimum pace. YOUR optimum pace.

    Ignore the “experts” – this is Art, not Applied Mathematics. You have to find your own way…

  • “Ah, but here’s the trick: where some stories are fast and others come slow, one thing I believe to be true: the writer needs time to age. Authors need time and experience to reach fruition — and so you must have the patience to develop a voice, to train your skill and hone your talent, to practice the craft of writing and foster the art of storytelling (for that’s how I see them: writing is the craft, storytelling the art).”

    And fifteen years after I sat down at my parents’ old AST Desktop, this is exactly why I have yet to submit a manuscript and just recently begin signing my name to things. It took my fifteen years to not completely suck, and I’m sure it will take me several more to truly enter the mix as a seasoned, committed writer.

    -A.M.

  • I know it it’s all about how much work you put into it, but I want fame and recognition now! *crosses arms and stamps feet on the floor*

    Anyway, I was a little disappointed you only answered one question with your call to action last week, but it’s a great article as ever, and I can’t wait to see what else you’ve got cookin’.

  • I interviewed sci-fi author Neal Asher a while ago and asked him about how he writes. He treats it like any other job, gets in front of the keyboard at 9am has an hour for lunch and takes 15 mins for a tea break morning and afternoon. he writes 2k words a day/10k words a week and he never outlines, he can’t be arsed, he just makes it up as he goes along and if it works, great, if it doesn’t he fixes it. When he’s done he submits and doesn’t think about it again (until agent/publisher comes back to him with edits). I’m not sure I could be as prescriptive about it as that, or write without an outline, but the discipline of writing 2k words a day – come rain, shine, hell or high water – is the bit that impresses me most.

  • “the story needs what the story needs.

    If it’s fast and it works: it works. If it’s slow and it works: it works.”

    I was 3/4 of the way through the post and saying to myself, “Yes, but…” as in, “Yes, but, it also depends on the writer–some are fast and some are slow.” And then you got to that part. Everyone is looking for a secret formula, a magic bullet, a One-size-fits-all approach to writing and getting published. It don’t work that way.

    • @Jeffo:

      See, that’s the thing about writing advice — some folks like to denigrate writing advice and pooh-pooh it any chance they get, but they’re looking at it the wrong way.

      It’s just advice. It’s not gospel. Every piece of advice is not equal in every writer’s eyes — nor should it be.

      If a snidbit of writing advice works? Incorporate it.

      If a snidbit of writing advice fails you? Discard it.

      And yet folks see writing advice as a thing of absolutes, of secret formulas, and that’s just not how it flies.

      — c.

  • So true. Half the writing advice out there is so contradictory that if you listened to all of it you’d never get anything done! If you stick to the common sense points – commitment, know where your story is going, create well-rounded characters, and be prepared to do revisions – many many revisions – then I think you’ll be okay.

  • When it comes to storytelling, it seems like alternating between wrestling a firehose and patiently guiding sweat dribbles into the same word barrel. What do you suggest when it’s not so much telling your story that’s on the table but getting the cash to flow? Is there writing that you find it easier to dash through, treat like a job, or otherwise fall back on for cash money when the MS is taking its sweet ass time?

  • “It’s just advice. It’s not gospel. Every piece of advice is not equal in every writer’s eyes — nor should it be.”

    I forget who it is (hell, maybe it was actually you, Mr. Wendig), who said that you should always keep in mind when hearing how someone became successful that it is just an anecdote. Not a “How to” guide. Not a guarantee. Just an anecdote.

  • But I wonder…does a story idea in your head count? I often feel like story ideas need time in the head before they’re ready for the page. But not too long, or it becomes stale.

    But Chuck, I’m curious. When do you know a story works?

    Since it’s all subjective, I’ve seen horrible writing become bestsellers. So what is the goal? Becoming a bestseller or writing a story with more positive feedback than bad?

    • @Amber —

      Sure, “head time” counts. It has to. But even there, it’s not like a story has a prerequisite amount of time in the mental oven before it’s ready. I’ve come up with whole novel ideas from start to finish in a weekend. I’ve had others that sat in my head for YEARS before finding a way to work on the page.

      You can never factually “know” that a story is ready, but you can “know” it in your gut — some greasy combination of faith and confidence and who-gives-a-shittedness come together and tell you that the story is ready to roll.

      And I don’t find it’s valuable to try to write to be a bestseller. There you’re writing for an uncontrollable outcome — the outcome you DO control, however, is writing a story you can be proud of. So, do that.

      — c.

  • I’m also a 2,000 words a day writer and my works generally come in at about 100,000 – 120,000 words so yeah I can write a novel in a few months. For me though, there is a lot of “contemplation time” the stuff I do before I actually start to write and in some cases I may be working on multiple projects at once. Still, finding a consistent number of words (whatever yours is) and doing it EVERY DAY is really essential. Once you can routinely do that, everything gets a whole lot easier.

    • @Gary:

      It’s hard to quantify editing time because that’s me reading it, then my agent, then the editors at Angry Robot and putting together the changes after all three phases. All told that took like, six months, but it didn’t take ALL six months, y’know? I’d say actual editing time is probably around 30-60 days.

      — c.

  • I am ashamed to say it, but recently I had concidered giving up on my writing “career” in order to persue ones that were more…well, not witing. Then I found your blog, and this article and particular, and that idea went strait down the john.
    I can’t remember the last time I wrote so much in one cluster of time. Thank you, Mr. Wendig, for inadvertently making me hold on tighter to a career that will have my father tisking and shaking his head for many family dinners to come.

  • Speaking of edits, when you’re editing, do you still get your 2-4k a day on something drafty, or do you put the new shiny things on hold while you polish the diamonds?

  • A fine post. It’s definitely true that we all take our own time. I generally write about a thousand words a day. That also takes into account the fact that I am writing in addition to working my day job and other things. On the opposite end of the spectrum, we’ve got Matt Forbeck who’s been known to pen six thousand words in a day.

    The point you made that writers need time to age is definitely true however.

    I’ve written a number of stories, some full length novels, that I’ve mothballed so that I can rewrite them later. Even when I wrote them, I recognized that my skills and technique in the craft wasn’t nearly good enough for me to properly tell the story.

    Even the story I’ve designated as my first novel that I intend to publish is now going on a year old, and I’m still not done. I wrote the manuscript in about three months, then edited it for a couple months while completing other projects. After a number of improvements to my own skills in the meantime, I decided to just scrap the current manuscript and rewrite it.

    The way I view it is simple. If I’m not happy with the story I’ve written, why would anyone else be happy reading it?

  • A thousand words a day is about my sweet spot. I have tried to write faster, but it all goes by too fast. I need time to chew it over and to give my imagination time to come up with really good stuff (she said with all modesty). Also I sort of like to pat their little bottoms before I send them toddling out into the world.

    I admire people who can write fast. But a grand a day is still a book in about three months so I’m good.

  • There’s words-per-day, and then there’s words-per-minute.

    When you’re in the groove, writing out first draft fiction, does it help that inward-pointing third eye to go so fast that every other word is a typo… or ponderously correcting and rewording things along the way? What works better for the seeing eye o’ fiction?

    Everyone talks about daily output, but what about finding flow in the moment? To dodge the inevitable “it’s different for everyone,” how is it for you C-Dub?

  • @mmafc: I type at a measly 50 wpm, and that has slowly increased through practice. The thing is, in typing classes, they don’t let you backspace or fix anything. But when you’re novel-writing, there’s no ruler-wielding tracer watching. Backspace is just fine. My 50 wpm includes backspacing. Then again, my personal handicap is reading punctuation as letters (thanks, Mom and kindergarten! :| ) so I can’t let a typo fly without fixing it because the result is illegible.

  • I used to fret how long it took me to write, then I got faster and fretted that I was putting out sludge. Your post helps me keep it all in perspective. I keep a quote on my keyboard that has helped me as well. It marries the concept of art and deadline. “I write when I’m inspired and I see to it that I’m inspired at 9:00 every morning.” ~ Peter de Vries

  • Terrific post. Have been meditating on what it takes to be a writer, in that interplay which involves our place of memory and imagination. Am curious to determine whether this can be a learned application, aided by conscious awareness or is it something that comes through practice and the conditioning that occurs from simply putting words on paper.
    Thank you for the insight.

  • Hiya,

    It’s my first time at your blog. Nice place you’ve got here!

    Your post reminded me of the time I visited a lacemaker’s shop in Belgium. My dad pointed to an intricate doily and innocently asked, “How long does it take to make one of these?” to which the shopkeeper crisply replied, “With lace, we prefer to discuss the quality and not the time spent upon it.”

    This opened up a whole conversation about Americans and their obsession with speediness!

    I like your statement here, too: “the story needs what the story needs.”

    So true! Plus, the phrase has such a nice rhythm that it makes a good writerly mantra.

    Anyway, I dropped by from ROW80 on Twitter. I’ll swing by again soon!

    ~Tui

  • p.s. Your blog title reminds me of when I was about 13-years-old and I read the following line in a book:

    “Hello!” he ejaculated, as we entered the room.

    I kept thinking I’d missed a sex scene, but there were no missing pages!

    ~Tui

  • Tui, ha! Funny anecdotes.

    I’m currently submitting to low-res MFA programs and have a deadline in less than two months, so I’m more worried about how long it takes to tell a story. But, I’m also worried about quality. I’m just worried, period. I blogged about this worry. It didn’t help.

    hlnelson.com
    @HLNelsonAuthor

  • On average, how deeply do you need to edit? How many of those 2k words a day will remain untouched?

    I suspect a huge part of maturing as a writer is getting more of the gold out first time….

  • I have noticed a pattern between writers who write slower and those who write faster; the former of which tend to have better, more elaborate prose, while the latter TEND to have worse prose. Case in point: Ian McEwan and Stephen King, respectively. Of course it also depends on the writer, perhaps Ian McEwan is just better by nature, but it somewhat proves my point, I hope. And if you disagree… well, to you your own.

    (I saw in an interview that McEwan said he’s happy when he writes 500 words a day [and this probably also has something to do with him having the privilege to allow himself that satisfaction, in that he’s not an unknown or indie writer] and I’ve seen King numerous times say that he used to write about 3k a day.)

    • @Brandon —

      One assumes that in roundabout you’re suggesting I have or would have worse prose than slower authors.

      That may be true. I don’t know.

      But I do know that writing faster and writing slower is not an indication of quality.

      I also know I’d rather read Stephen King than Ian McEwan, so.

      To you your own, as noted.

      — c.

  • I guess you could assume that, but that’s not what I was trying to say, so sorry for the indirect insult. I haven’t even read your prose (by that I mean books/stories), only things you’ve written on this website, so I won’t be judging. It’s logical, really: more time to think of a word = better word. And I think to say that King writes better prose than McEwan is just silly; King’s a great storyteller, not the best writer (I think I could get a lot of people to agree with me on that). Preference toward their different genres is another thing altogether. But that’s not the point. And this is just in general, of course it’s not always the case. But you’re the experienced one, so I can admit to being erroneous. It was just an observation.

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