Writing fast has long been held out as a way to increase productivity and to liberate the creative mind from the constraints of the inner editor. These days, people focus on things like NaNoWriMo — the national novel writing month held each November when people are exhorted to dash off 50,000 words in thirty days.
But the practice of fast writing goes back a long way. Ernest Hemingway used to brag that he could write 500 words every day — 1000 on a good day. Fairly paltry compared to the champions of NaNo, some of whom do double or even triple that. But you have to remember that Hem wrote his drafts longhand, standing up. And his work day ended at noon. He had to keep his afternoons free for fishing, fighting and fucking.
It was the advent of word processing that really unleashed the speed demons. When you could simply type as fast as you wanted without worrying about typos or errors of any kind, speed, even for four finger typists like me, really skyrocketed. Get it done and fix the errors later. No messy scribbles; no retyping of drafts. Word processing also led to the gradual expansion of the length of books. Back in Hemingway’s day 50000 words actually was considered a novel — by 2000, some fantasy writers barely considered it a chapter.
An interesting sidelight of e-books and self publishing is that novels are getting shorter again. When it’s all electronic there is less a sense of length than when it’s a print book weighing in your hand.
I’ve had my own experiences with fast writing. Early in my career as a full-time (more or less) writer, I won the Three Day Novel Writing Contest. It had started in the late seventies — as soon as word-processing became widely available — primarily as a fund raising stunt for a small press. It proved wildly successful. By the time I entered in 1992, it had been taken over by Anvil Press and more than 250 people around the world paid their $50 to enter.
It was done on the honour system — you could have a 2-page outline but all the writing had to occur over the 3 days of Labour Day weekend (first weekend in September for non-North Americans). I wrote hard the first day — producing 13000 words. Then I got drunk with friends. With a roaring hangover, I managed 8000 on Sunday before bouncing back with 12000 on the last day.
Was it any good? Well, after six or eight months working with a good editor, Brian Kaufman, it got good. Good enough to garner some decent reviews in Books in Canada and Geist magazine. And it was recently translated and published in French.
Did it do me any good? I’m not sure. It was fifteen years before I sold another novel (the seventh I had written). By then I had learned that it was sometimes better to take your time and think your way through a story before trying to get the words down. These days the only time I write really fast is…
But that’s ten minutes.