Is There a Place for the Slow Writer in the Digital Age?

We live in a speed-obsessed culture. Whatever it is we crave—cars, trains, electronics, food, dates—we want them ever-faster-and-furiouser.

In fact, much of the developed world seems to be engaged some turbo-charged drag race of the soul, hurtling our frenzied selves from cradle to grave, terrified of slowing for even a minute.

Nobody is pressured to go for speed more than writers. Everybody tells us we need to churn out books as fast as Mickey D's grills burgers, or we'll never make it in this business.

One of the chief prophets of the speed-writing gospel is uber-prolific indie guru Dean Wesley Smith, who recently got into a verbal contretemps on the subject with his former friend, literary agent Donald Maass.

Dean Wesley Smith vs. Donald Maass on the speed question:

In early February, Donald Maass, author of the popular how-to-write-breakout-novels books, posted a controversial piece for Writer Unboxed, dividing all authors into three classes with the imperiousness of Caesar dividing Gaul.

He relegated self-publishers to "Freight" class, and the direct-to-paperback/ebook trad-pubbed authors to "Coach", while pronouncing the "First Class" artistic elite (like Snooki, Rush Limbaugh, and the Duck Dynasty guys, presumably) deserving of hardcovers, big bucks and the undying respect of the literati.

Many big-name indies rebutted him, but none with more passion than Dean Wesley Smith, who had apparently, up to that moment, enjoyed a cordial relationship with Mr. Maass. Or at least Mr. Maass thought so.

I agreed with much of what DWS had to say, until I read his remarks in the comment thread:

"He [Maass] thinks all writers need to rewrite and rewrite....He thinks that slowing down and writing less is a better way to become a better writer."


"I tell writers to write with passion and never rewrite."

I think DWS did more harm to the self-publishing movement with those statements than any of Maass's silly elitism.

He's reviving an old piece of advice from scifi great Robert Heinlein, excerpted from a 1947 essay, "On the Writing of Speculative Fiction", which offered the following counsel to young writers:

1. You must write.
2. You must finish what you write.
3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
4. You must put the work on the market.
5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.

I'm sure those were excellent rules for writing science fiction for pulp magazines 67 years ago—when writers were submitting to actual editors who would later give those "editorial orders".

But in the age of self-publishing, this stuff can be dangerous. It can derail a promising career and stoke the fears of every reader already cowering in dread of the indie "tsunami of crap."

Later in the thread, Donald Maass himself appeared, and I found myself agreeing with some of his points, like this one:

"What I advocate and teach is not any particular pace of output but the techniques that I’ve observed result in strong fiction. I do see that revision is pretty often part of getting that result."

My problem with both men in this argument is they're lumping together completely separate issues:

1) Writing fast

2) Self-publishing

3) Refusing to edit

So let's look at them separately:

1) Writing Fast: Authors have been urged to write faster for decades. Writing fast has nothing to do with the self-publishing movement.

As early as the 1970s, P.G. Wodehouse, prolific author of the "Jeeves" novels, gave this advice to new writers in the Paris Review, "I always feel the thing to go for is speed." 

In 2011, the trad-pubbed Sci-Fi author Rachel Aaron wrote an article for SFWA outlining how she built from a pathetic 2000 words a day to 10,000 words a day or more, when her publisher required it.

And this month, The New York Times reported, "The practice of spacing an author’s books at least one year apart is gradually being discarded as publishers appeal to the same “must-know-now” impulse that drives binge viewing of shows like 'House of Cards' and 'Breaking Bad.'" They say it's now ideal to come out with books in a series every three months.

2) Self Publishing: Many self-publishers are also traditionally published, and hybrid authors are the best paid in the business, so these ridiculous "either/or" arguments should be long over. Donald Maass's own hybrid client Delilah Marvelle wrote a rebuttal more eloquent than anything I could say.

"I have to say, Freight Class is awesome. The seats are bouncy and let me swivel any way I want so I can write and deliver the books in any way I want. And the conductor isn’t sticking his nose in on my business telling me what I can and can’t write. It’s soooo nice. I guess what you’re not seeing is that I learned to appreciate the wonders and the joys of Freight Class after being stuck in Coach Class for so long. I’m loving it back here and I kinda wish you’d actually rename all the classes. Because the people in Freight Class deserve more respect."

3) Refusing to edit: In telling writers they don't need to edit, Mr. Smith sounds as imperious as Mr. Maass. His statements remind me of a quote sometimes attributed to Oscar Wilde:

"I never rewrite my own work. Who am I to tamper with genius?"  

(Although it's said that Wilde actually edited his work meticulously.)

Maybe Mr. Smith himself can write a perfectly crafted novel in a weekend. He's had a lifetime of experience cranking out those puppies, so it's entirely possible.

Some people can jump off mountains with wooden planks strapped to their feet, do somersaults in the air and glide effortlessly to safety and Olympic glory.

But it's ridiculous to say that everybody can.

Or should.

Especially newbies.

A beginner can't do the same thing as a seasoned professional, no matter what skill set you're talking about.

I'm pretty sure Dale Earnhardt Jr. didn't vroom into a NASCAR race the day he got his learner's permit. Any music lover can tell you the notes produced by a first-year cello student won't fall as delightfully upon the ear as those of Yo-Yo Ma. And I promise you, nobody wants to wear a pair of socks created by a first-time knitter.

Why do people think it's different with writing? Telling beginning writers they should be able to do the same thing as a seasoned professional is not helpful. It can hurt the fledgling writer as well as the poor reader (who should factor into the equation somewhere, I think.)

And as far as the argument that writing lots of pages makes you a better writer—

That's only true if you get feedback. And learn from it.

Making the same mistake two hundred times is not an improvement over making it once. 

Getting back to the speed question:

In spite of my undying admiration for Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, I think it's important to remind people that not all bestselling authors write fast. Not even in the e-age.

Donna Tartt, whose brilliant novel The Goldfinch topped everybody's lists for the best book of 2013, has only written three novels since her first in 1992.

Lots of professional writers create slowly and edit as they go.

I do.

Okay, I've learned to compose a little faster than I could a few years ago. I've moved from a snail's pace to that of an arthritic penguin, but I still can't write much more than 1500 words a day on a WIP, combined with an average of maybe 500-1000 words of nonfic for blogs and social media. And maybe spend a few hours editing.

Am I a failure? I don't feel like one. I'm mostly published by small presses: one of Maass's pathetic mid-listers in "Coach" class. And I'm certainly not keeping the publishing industry afloat like those Duck Dynasty guys, but I have eight published books, several of which have made bestseller lists, and I'm being read all over the world.

Hey, I even have haters, which might be the real mark of success in today's snarky Internet culture.

The power of SLOW:

I remain a believer in doing things slowly.

And I'm here to tell you it's okay to be a slow writer.

Especially if you're a beginner. Write a little each day. Get joy from it. Feel pride when you get a page out.

Because a writing career is not a race or a contest.

It has to be a source of joy. It doesn't pay well enough to be anything else.

I'm not saying you can't be successful popping out a first draft at NaNoWriMo speed. In fact I encourage new writers to try NaNo at least once. It can help you overcome inhibitions and let your muse loose on the page. But afterward, you'll need to put in a lot of time editing, especially if you're a new writer.

No matter what Robert Heinlein said, I'm pretty sure no reader wants to pay money for your "sh***y first draft." As an editor, I had to read a lot of them, and I can tell you I wouldn't have finished 90% if I hadn't been paid.

If you properly edit your NaNo book, the bottom line of time spent is probably going to be about the same as if you wrote it slowly.

It's also wise to consider the following: 

1) Many editors dislike working with people who write to a high daily word count. Speed writers tend to fall in love with the very bulkiness of their own product. That high number of words feels valuable, so they can't let go.

2) It's also important to be aware that for some people, writing more than a certain number of hours a day can be dangerous to your mental health.

The New York Times reported a few years ago that scientists have discovered the part of the brain stimulated by deep thought is the same part activated in clinical depression. The reason so many writers suffer from depression isn't because we all started out miserable. Writing for long periods without a break can actually trigger the illness in some people.

I think there's a role for slow in today's publishing world. In fact, I believe it's the best way to build a career. It's worked for me. And I'm not the only one. Most writers who become "overnight successes" have actually been at it for years, maybe decades.

My friend and mentor Catherine Ryan Hyde, who became a publishing star with Pay it Forward in 2000, and has become an even bigger success (#1 seller on Amazon) since she went hybrid a couple of years ago, collected 1000s of rejections before her first novel, Funerals for Horses was accepted by a small press. She had a decade to create a body of work and learn her craft before she needed to start producing books on a regular schedule. This is how most writers build their careers.  

A slow writer who sells more than Asimov:

I've loved watching the career of sci-fi author Alex J. Cavanaugh. He's not a particularly fast writer. Yes, he's a prolific blogger, but he only puts out about a book a year. His career started out slow and he's still in "Coach class" with a small press. But last month he was outselling Isaac Asimov on Amazon.

Here's what he says:

"I am a slow writer. (Slow typist as well. Thirty words per minute if I’m lucky.) Since I also play in a band, I have to devote time to practicing my guitar every night. Plus spend time with my wife. I’m also juggling a busy blog schedule, not only with my own, but with the IWSG site and the A to Z Challenge. And yes, I work full time. So, cranking out a book or two a year just isn’t going to happen. Despite the fact my books aren’t very long. I know authors who can turn out quality books quickly, but I just don’t have that kind of time. I’d spend all my time writing and I don’t want to do that."

OMG, the man has a life.

And he's a bestselling author. Perhaps he might be a better role model for most of us than either Mr. Smith or Mr. Maass.

What about you, scriveners? Do you write slow? Have you been feeling pressure to write faster? Have you attempted NaNoWriMo? Did it improve your writing? How do you feel about being advised not to edit your work? 

We LOVE comments. If you have trouble commenting because the Blogger elves won't accept your ID (They prefer Google+ IDs, because they're owned by Google, alas) just email me through the "contact us" page and I'll personally post your comment.


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