I wrote my second published novel, The Detour, in about nine months, and I still recall my discomfort when a family friend at a holiday dinner asked me, “But isn’t that too little time in which to write a real novel?”
Okay, she did not say "real." That's just how I heard her question.
“You’re right,” I should have said. “I’ll send the advance back.”
I wouldn’t remember the conversation at all if it hadn’t reinforced some illogical worry of my own. Part of me had idealized the sheer length of time some writers take to complete their works. Ten years is certainly not unheard of, and in another post, I've praised the concept of taking a long time. Just not all the time.
My first novel, which required lots of research and two trips abroad, plus long breaks when I was working on nonfiction projects, took about three to four years, including final editorial revisions. But time alone is no guarantee of success or literary value. I spent another two years on an in-between novel that was never published. In fact, it was frustration over that book, with its overcooked quality and intractable rewrite problems, that made me choose to write The Detour quickly and with pleasure, as if I were writing it—like my very first novel—only for myself.
Why should it be hard to write a novel draft in nine months? That’s only about 2,000 words a week. Write twice as much, and throw half of it away, and you’re still good. Set it aside for six months, spend another nine months revising intensely—my own process often involves as much revision as early drafting—and you’re still on a fairly productive track. The business side of writing is enough to frustrate the most stoical among us, but simple math is always on our side.
Of course, some writers believe we can do better by taking less than two years. A lot less. Writing fast is a great way to get ahead of the censors, to stop thinking in a paralyzing way about results, audience, market, and so on. As Alan Watt, author of The 90-Day Novel says, “When we write quickly, we tend to bypass our critical voices and tap directly into the heart of the story.” Both Stephen King and John Steinbeck, Watt reminds us, were able to knock out first drafts in three months.
(Note that no one is suggesting here that a first draft is a final draft, or that every manuscript—written quickly or at a snail’s pace—will be publishable. But as every person who has spent $30,000+ on an MFA can attest, you can spend three years and have lots of help, and still end up with something unpublishable.)
As many NaNoWriMo participants have discovered, if you commit to writing fast, 50,000 words or more can pile up quickly. Are they all perfectly chosen words, fitted into syntactically perfect sentences? Maybe not. But sometimes, quickly written prose can be more playful, more surprising, more creative, and—as a teacher this interests me greatly—more instructive. Instead of lingering at the studio door, second-guessing ourselves, we dig in and get a lot of clay on the table. We make a lot of pots—some better than others. Hopefully, we become less attached to results, and in so doing, may paradoxically end up with a better result.
That’s what happened to Watt, who wrote his own award-winning debut novel, Diamond Dogs, in 44 days.
(Be amazed at that, and then forget it, because unfortunately, if we labor in pursuit of similarly astonishing results, we’ll miss the point, which is to focus on process.)
Breakthroughs are possible. The person who always dreamed of writing a novel but couldn’t start finally gets some pages done. The person who has become over time more cautious, more self-critical, throws off the chains and ventures into new subject matter, or discovers a new voice, or finally tells a more natural, more authentic story. Or at the very least amasses some new skills quickly, having finally found a low-stakes opportunity to test out a new POV or genre or something else, using the excuse that this experiment won’t take long.
I’m not suggesting that the speed-drafting or NaNoWriMo approach is right for every person and every project. But given how much some of us dream of writing and publishing novels, wouldn’t it make sense, at least once in a lifetime, to 1) try a slower, more analytical, left-brain method, and 2) at least once in a lifetime, especially if writer’s block, anxiety, or loss of beginner’s zeal has become a problem, try a fast-drafting, right-brain method?
If this sounds interesting to you, consider joining us beginning October 11 for “Your Novel Now,” a 6-week, asynchronous (log on when it works for you) online class that will emphasize quick-drafting with light instruction and discussion. We won’t aim to write full novels in that short time, but we will aim to to get a great start: 10,000 words, writing about an hour a day. What do you have to lose?
Andromeda Romano-Lax is the author of The Spanish Bow and The Detour, as well as a forthcoming novel, Behave. She is a co-founder of 49 Writers and teaches in the UAA MFA low-residency creative writing program. She is also a book coach with a special interest in revision, narrative structure, and the lifelong development of the writer. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org for more info on her book coaching services.