In Defense of Slow, Thoughtful Writing

A guest post by Stephanie Raffelock

The other day I saw something on my Facebook feed that read, “Write Your Book Faster With Half the Effort.” In a world than demands instant gratification and a “winning” strategy, I understand the marketing behind the promise. But that doesn’t make it a good idea.

Writing faster doesn’t make your writing better and half the effort, well, it’s just half the effort. This sort of advertising pops up too often these days. Well-known authors promise me that I can crank out commercial fiction with their $99 eCourse, motivational speakers offer me “credibility” as a writer if only I will give them my money.

And few people talk about the long haul of craft, and those who do usually aren’t found advertising on Facebook.

Imagine that you are a young man, crawling into bed with a beautiful woman, and you say to her, “Tonight I am going to bring you to orgasm faster with half the effort.” Do you think she is going to say, “Oh baby, sign me up?” Chances are, unless you are a real idiot, you wouldn’t have that conversation in bed.

The faster/less effort trend with regard to writing is just as lame a conversation as the one with the beautiful woman in your bed, yet it seems to be oozing out of social media these days like it’s actually something to be desired.

Why the need for the short-cuts?

That’s what I want to know.

The answer takes us back to my first point, we are a culture that want things fast and we don’t want to sacrifice too much to get it. Why sacrifice, sweat and tears of mastering craft remain an unsung nobleness to which any artist should pay homage is beyond me.

Becoming a novelist demands that I write stories in a thoughtful construction that will provide a framework to create a world. And I want to know everything about that world and everyone in it. How can you possibly cut that work in half?

Novels are two-pronged. The first prong is structure. Our brains are hardwired for the order and sequence of story. Without structure, you don’t really have a story, you have rambling narrative, at best. The second prong is prose. Well-written, thoughtful prose that reveals the nuance and dimension of your story telling.  Neither of these two components can be rushed.

“Do the work and the results will follow,” says Robert McKee.

The work is the preparation, the building of a frame upon which your story will hang. Can you synopsize your story in less than two minutes? You have to really know the story to be able to do that and yet I meet lots of writers who, when asked what their story is about, will go off on a narrative spin that leaves me wondering how long I will have to listen to them before I can make an escape.

Here’s the thing, we all know about fast food. It has little nutritional value, which means it can’t sustain you. Keep eating like that and you will get sick. That’s also the thing about fast writing. There is little sustenance in half the time and half the effort, and not only will it not sustain your manuscript, it won’t sustain your reader. It will make them sick.

A novel is best birthed in a slow, simmering environment. Thoughtfulness should be the intent.

And here is the hard truth that a lot of rookie novelists do not want to face: learning to write a good novel is a slow process.

You learn from each manuscript and each manuscript is going to require 70-thousand to 80-thousand words. Without the striving for excellence in structure and in prose, without the willingness to put in the time and not try to rush it,  you are just another “trending now” wanna-be.

I understand a desire for quantity.

Hell, at my age I don’t exactly have decades in front of me with which to build a volume of work, and that’s putting it kindly. But it’s the quality that concerns me the most. We live in the most literate time in human history. That should be the best excuse of all to strive for excellence in craft.

Some tips on getting serious?

  • Sit down and write every single day whether you feel like it or not.
  • Keep a stack of yellow legal pads next to you and sketch out scenes, scenarios, quirks, intent and obstacles for each bit of prose that you write.
  • Structure is the pre-requisite—bringing the story to life with nuance and dimension is in the thoughtful details.
  • When you have finished a draft, re-read it with discerning eyes before you begin your first set of edits and revisions.
  • Sit with it for a while. Think about it.
  • Don’t skimp on changes that will make your manuscript better.

Most importantly, don’t delude yourself into believing there is a magical formula that makes novel writing quicker and easier. Just do the friggin’ work.

And the next time you crawl in bed with a beautiful woman, tell her this: “We have all night, sweetheart.”

‘Nuf said.

Stephanie Raffelock  graduated from Naropa University’s Creative Writing and Poetics Program. She writes a bi-monthly column for Sixtyandme.com and guest posts for sites like Storyfix.com, JenniferBlanchard.net and Huffington Post. Her debut novel is represented by Dystel & Goderich Literary Management. You can find her at Stephanieraffelock.com.

*****

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21 Comments

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21 Responses to In Defense of Slow, Thoughtful Writing

  1. Totally agree, Stephanie. I see those ads on Facebook, too, and they’re ridiculous. But I wonder how many new writers fall into the trap.

    • The word “sacrifice” used to be used in connection with being noble. It is noble to sacrifice for your writing, to push yourself toward excellence. No quick and easy route to excellence. You of all people, know that and demonstrate it in your work, and I appreciate you for it. Thanks for commenting.

    • Ryan

      I find it best to stay off of Facebook all together. Much better content on blogs like this and the Kill Zone

    • I agree. These fb ads are changing though,.

  2. The logic of the appeal is in synch with the theory that publishing frequently is the route to success. Write faster so you can publish more. So that is who these ads appeal to. Whether the strategy is right depends on your goals. Some writers, especially in romance, find that they lose traction if they aren’t publishing a novel at least every month. At least that is their perception.

  3. Publish a novel every month? Do these people ever sleep. . . or proof, for that matter? The question comes down to “more” or “better.” I’m not convinced that you can have both. Thanks of taking the time to comment, Ed.

    • Many use proofreaders and beta readers. On several forums writers talk about writing 10,000 words a day. They are serious. Some dictate their books. I’m not advocating it, but it is a business model a lot of people use successfully. So your analogy doesn’t hold for them. For them it’s more like the man crawling in bed with three women and telling two of them: “Be with you soon ladies. This won’t take long.”

  4. I appreciate your analogy, for it might help improve my love life. 🙂

    I’ve always enjoyed the following quote by A.J. Liebling.
    “I can write better than anybody who can write faster, and i can write faster than anybody who can write better.”

  5. Great article, Stephanie. I agree–the bulk of the work is in the preparation. Nice sentences won’t matter if the story goes nowhere. I’m in that prep phase now. I always feel a little frenzied in it, like I need to get all the story parts out quickly before they leave my mind.

  6. Carrie, I can’t wait to see what you do with your third novel! You are a very thoughtful writer and one that I can’t seem to get enough of!

  7. Kerry Boytzun

    Great post!

    My gutter imagination could easily take this thread downhill…

    Not everything is a race. But the point is “thoughtful”.

    Being thoughtful isn’t promoted in today’s times. Specific detailed questions and conclusions take time and will take the person, writer or reader, to places they don’t want to go.

    The devil is in the details? No, but the details will show that what you’re being told happened–couldn’t have, and would be something else, or not possible.

    For example, many people love Outlander. Surprising all the laws of PHYSICS, in the second season, the villain is alive and well enough to somehow still have a position with the military. The excuse has been given to the audience that the “board” didn’t cover his head, thus he was protected by it. (scene from season 1).

    Here’s the deal in that scene in season 1.

    You stand behind a 17th century door that is made of SOLID OAK (real heavy), not the hollow doors today. Okay, you standing behind it now?

    Here come a dozen full grown cows and steers, running at full speed. Yes, it’s a stampede. They’re running straight for the door you’re standing behind.

    Gee, guess what happens? We’re shown the door is knocked off its hinges, and underneath the door goes one bad guy. On TOP of the door travel the stampeding herd of cattle.

    How much did that door weigh? It was knocked over (FAST) on top of YOU, the guy standing behind the door. Did the physical force and weight of the door damage you? How did your head do when it HIT the stone floor? Crack it much? How about your neck? Need an adjustment? How about your back?

    Moving on, how much does one cow weigh? What is the physical force of a single cow that jumps and LANDS on this door that you are underneath? What kind of damage is that doing to your bones, your hips, shoulders and knees? How about your organs? How about your back? You think you’re gonna be swinging a sword again? How about walking?

    Repeat with the rest of the 11 or so cattle, as they jump on the door on TOP of YOU.

    What kind of hospitals exist at this time? Does the word CRUSHED mean anything anymore?

    This is what happens when scenes aren’t thought through, and we have FM, fricken-magic for physics.

    Am I being harsh? No. I am being a guide to others writing fiction that your scene must be believable, especially when you are trying to FOOL the audience that said villain did NOT get killed, and is FIT enough to be accepted as a MILITARY officer!! You have GOT to be shitt-n me! This guy should be dead, dead, dead. Or the very least a cripple.

    Don’t write things from a lack of knowledge. You will LOSE the reader and credibility.

    Imagine if you took the TIME to do it properly. The proper scene here should have been either the villain died, or he got out of the way of the cattle. PERIOD.

    Can’t tell you the amount of hours I’ve taken researching my own world, scenes, because I am fed up with the FM magic that is being written out there.

    So yes, this post is right on! You must be thoughtful and accurate.

    Otherwise go write for Bugs Bunny Road Runner cartoons!

    • Oh, so very well stated! What you describe is the type of writing that I aspire to, and damn if it just doesn’t take time and thoughtful contemplation to do that. Thank you so much for your comment. You said it so much better than I did.

  8. Robert Jones

    Hi Stephanie,

    I agree with your post completely.

    I have read some of the blogs and books advocating the “faster/better” approach. And yes, they are all geared towards self publishing where the business model dictates 4-6 novels per year in order to succeed by keeping you name constantly in the public’s view.

    Dictation is a key factor for many. Some even state that they “authored” their books rather than writing them because they never wrote a single word. Yet, these people are acting as the new breed of writing gurus to the self publishing crowd.

    Dictation, unless one can think in terms of crafting great words, stories, structure, as they speak, gets you a very rough first draft at best. Great at getting something on the page to work with, but has little in common with writing in terms of craft. One such author went so far as to state this sort of technique works best for non-fiction subjects in which you are an expert and can speak in a casual, yet fluent manner on a topic in which you’ve researched and divided into sections in which you can lecture on for a couple of hours like a public speaker.

    Okay, great. But how does that translate to into 80,000 words in a novel? I think the sheer number of books that are written badly as apposed to the number of writers who actually make a living on Amazon speaks volumes. And among those who are making money you’ll find writers who work full time without a day job, putting in very long hours to publish a new novel ever few months. It is working for those who have the time and stamina, but that kind of pace can lead to serious burn-out and even huge back problems–as an ex-freelance artist who put in such hours for over eleven years can testify!

    Writing fast and keeping books flowing isn’t exactly a new idea. However, even guys like Lawrence Block and Ed McBain at their peak would be pressed keep the pace recommended by the new regime. And those guys have an amazing grasp on craft.

    Self publishing is an ever changing world. Eventually the hacks will fall away and a handful will remain standing, altered, ragged, weak-eyed, and lumbar deficient. The public may not understand craft, but they have a sense of nuance and good writing vs. bad. I believe the writers who stick around will have to learn to write smarter, not fast. Meantime, there are always opportunities for those in the know when people flock together in chaos trying to reinvent the wheel.

    • “I believe the writers who stick around will have to learn to write smarter, not fast. Meantime, there are always opportunities for those in the know when people flock together in chaos trying to reinvent the wheel.”

      Robert, you state the current condition of the ever-unfolding self-publishing world so well! Just like the changes in the music industry when artists realized that they didn’t need a company behind them to put their music out into the world, writers have discovered that freedom of that as well. But there is within that freedom the cautionary tale of too much self-promotion and not enough substance. (And of course the lumbar issue).

      While I don’t know how it will all resolve, I have to believe that excellence, quality, nuance, and thoughtfulness counts and that readers will be drawn to that. You make excellent points. Thank you for your well-structured comment.