Thursday, December 10, 2009

Writer's Commandment Number One

One of the first things you hear as a writer is that there are no rules when it comes to writing a novel. This is true. However, I have come to the conclusion that there are certain rules that apply to the writer or the practice of writing that have nothing to do with how-to-write-a-novel.

Before I confuse you any further I shall demonstrate by laying out my first rule of writing. A Writer's Commandment, if you will.

Commandment #1: Thou shalt not compare thyself to any other writer for the purpose of beating thyself up regarding personal writing practices.

An online acquaintance just wrote a rather long rant about authors/writers who criticize her for the amount of words she is able to write in a single day. For the most part, I agree with her. But the thing I really started thinking about was how deadly it can be (creatively, of course) to start comparing what one does writing-wise with what someone else does writing-wise.

I type pretty fast. Not super-fast, but still fast enough that when the thoughts are flowing I can put 1500 words on the "page" in a little under an hour. This is partly because I have taken the time to actually learn how to type. While typing (or writing - if one does this by hand and not on computer) is not the most important skill in becoming a successful writer, it is a very useful tool. My speed is also do in part to the fact that many times I have run through scenes in my head while I'm doing other things and when I sit down I am prepared to put all of it on paper. (Doesn't always come out that easily, but most of the time I'm typing out something I have already mentally "written.")

So, given the amount of time I am able to scrape together for myself I can usually turn out around 3k a day. If I sit down with a good idea of what to write. And I'm not tired. Or hungry. Or otherwise distracted. (And yes, I chose to have a family. It is not an excuse it is merely a fact. I do not have the same amount of free time now as I did when I was single.)

3k a day is a very respectable number. At that pace I can (theoretically) finish a first draft in a month.

But it's still hard not to get frustrated when I look at other writers I know (like Lori Witt) who due to less strenuous demands on their personal time and (probably) a lot more discipline when it comes to writing can write an entire first draft in eleven days. (And we're talking a whole first draft. Not just a NaNo-like challenge of 50k. But the whole damn thing. Beginning. To. End. I get tired just thinking about it.) It's hard not to get frustrated when I see people say they only need one, maybe two, passes editing a rough draft to get it ready for submission.

I think I am not alone here. Others must feel this frustration too.

The solution is not (as Scarlett has pointed out) to deride those who do better than we do. It is not to accuse those who can churn out 5k a day of being hacks or to say "Oh, well I prefer to focus on quality." That is cheap. It only makes the ones saying it look petty and insecure. (And I would like to point out that while I've never been accused of producing volume at the expense of content, I have been exposed to the "I don't know why anyone would write about vampires. That's so overdone. And unoriginal." argument. And all I can say is, once you read my book you'll eat your damn words.)

No, the solution to the problem is to stop comparing how you write to how anyone else writes. I am all about getting people to write every day, to learn how to reach daily word count goals, and produce rough drafts in a month instead of a year. But not everyone writes that way. I have learned (through much blood and tears) how to turn off the filters and write. But not everyone writes that way. Not everyone can write that way.

That is okay.

I don't want someone looking at what I do and feeling bad about how they produce a book. If you are writing you are doing it right. If you put words on the page, one after another until you have a sentence and then a paragraph and finally a chapter, you are doing it right. Whether it's 5 words a day or 50 or 5,000, you are doing it right.

Don't look at someone else and let their accomplishments get you down. That is counterproductive in so many ways. If you want to compare yourself to someone, look at your own work. Anyone who writes every day will improve month to month and year to year. That is what counts.


Helen said...

I agree with you - we need to look to ourselves more and others less.

Like you, I get frustrated when I see SP and Lori rack up huge word counts, but my frustration is with myself - I know that I can write more words than I do, but I allow myself to get distracted.

That is no one's fault but my own.

Scarlett Parrish said...

How do. :D

Yeah. One of my favourite authors took ten years to come up with her second book which was pushing it, I thought. And mighty frustrating for fans like me!

But in all seriousness, the rant you mentioned was an accumulation of hearing the same thing time and time again, that quickly-written books are, by dint of their speed, crap. And that's just not true.

Fast or slow, the only way you can judge the quality of a book is by reading it. I have no idea how long it took my favourite authors to write the books I love. All I know is, I enjoy them when they're published. That's all I care about.

As for comparing ourselves to other people, that's fatal. I compare myself to Lori and (I am honoured to say) she compares herself to me, so we're the perfect fit. We build on each other's strengths, for instance in her case, drive, and in mine, perhaps dialogue or a zinger of a paragraph to tie up some loose ends in the story. Weaknesses? Oh we have them too, but we work so well together we barely notice.

Sorry; I'm rambling. What I mean to say is, we do the best we can. And that's all we can fairly ask of anyone. I honestly don't talk about what Lori and I do to boast or to make other people feel bad; it's just relating facts. "Today I did this, she did that." And there are things other people do way, WAY better than I.

I look to people like Kazuo Ishiguro and Wally Lamb and think, "If ONLY I could write like that." I use them to inspire me but if I despaired and told myself, "You'll never be that good/fast/eloquent/whatever," well, I'd only get depressed.

So I guess what we're ALL saying here is, do the best you can under your circumstances and something we all have room for is improvement, so as long as we keep that in mind, who cares how fast or slow you write?

I don't think ANYONE should apologise for living their own life as long as they're doing their best.

Blimey I don't half ramble sometimes...

Scarlett Parrish said...

Oh, and I will smack anyone who disses vampires.

That is all.

sue laybourn said...

I couldn't agree more.
Every writer has a method that works best for them. We're not made from the same mold. I don't get all torn up when I see the likes of SP and Lori clocking up huge word counts because that's how they roll and having read bits and pieces of their work, the quality of the writing doesn't suffer at all.
We're all in this game together, we just have different ways of getting to the finish line.