Why fast drafting might make better novels; or One answer to “how long does it take to write a book?”

I got serious about finishing the first draft of my current novel-in-progress in mid-November. I already had a second draft of the first 25,000 words, but the final two-thirds of the plot had been on hold for several months (while I rewrote a previous book on the advice of the agent who now represents me.)

To get the new novel draft done, I wrote another 40,000 words in 5 weeks. (My first drafts are always short. It’ll grow as I revise.)

That’s not as fast as the standard NaNoWriMo goal, but it was still pretty fast by my standards, and given my day job and parenting commitments, it meant writing in headlong stints without editing.

It’s caused me to think about whether there’s an optimal novel-writing speed for me — from an artistic standpoint, leaving aside the pragmatic considerations. And funnily enough, I do think faster is better. Part of the snobbery about NaNoWriMo is the idea that anything written quickly must be written badly. But novels do not always benefit from sitting and stewing, in my experience. And hey, if fast drafting is good enough for Kazuo Ishiguro, it’s good enough for me.

I know novelists who take several years to write each book. This seems to be a fairly standard expectation among literary novelists, or at least it doesn’t raise eyebrows. (Camilla Gibb, the talented Canadian writer, recently wrote about the money side of writing and used five years as a benchmark: “Yes, $75,000 sounds like a lot, but when it takes five years to complete a book and your agent is taking a cut of 15 per cent, you’re still below the poverty line if this is your sole source of income.”)

In genre fiction, five years is considered a really long time between books. (Just ask George R.R. Martin. Or Saladin Ahmed, another talented writer, who recently explained about his upcoming much-anticipated fantasy sequel: “It will be published in early 2016. This marks four years between novels, an unforgivable stretch in the world of genre fiction. Why? One word: depression.”)

I also know novelists who write and publish several books each year. In self-publishing especially, this seems to be a good way to keep momentum going by building an audience.

None of these is right or wrong. We do what we do. And it takes the time it takes, and that almost always includes more than one draft.

I can leave novels to sit between drafts. But for me, I’ve found that if I pick away at a novel draft slowly, I lose track of it in my head. Perhaps if I were the sort of writer who could outline every scene and stick to that outline, that would be fine. I could just fill in the blanks. But I am not that kind of writer.

I can outline all I like, and I do, but that only engages my planning brain. My planning brain is not terribly creative. It makes a structure, but that structure will not be beautiful. It won’t make any kind of deeper sense for the characters.

Drafting engages my creative brain. That’s where the beauty comes in. That’s where I get to understand my characters and why they’re doing the things they do.

I can only outline in broad strokes, to leave room for serendipity and the kind of understanding that comes from drafting. With short stories, this is just fine. I can pick away at a short story at whatever speed I like, because I can hold the plot in my head. With novels, and their long and many subplots, a basic outline is not enough to guarantee the structure won’t fall apart.

If I draft over a long period of time, with or without an outline, I am not able to hold the whole structure in my head as I go. (I know because I’ve done this with previous novels, which will never see the light of day.) My creative brain will float free, unconnected to my planning brain. I’ll lose any sense of structure. The draft will come out with beautiful bits that aren’t connected to each other and the whole thing will fall apart.

So I need to be able to work the clay while it’s wet. For me, that means writing a first draft fairly quickly, and adding copious notes as I go, because no scene will survive as it is drafted. But I’ll have engaged both the planning and creative parts of my brain and created something I can use, a foundation for a second draft that works. It’s a sort of combination zero-draft/outline, and it seems to work for me.

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