The Clearing at the Center of the Forest: Speed, Guilt, and the Process of Writing

Fair warning, this post contains unadulterated writing shoptalk. If jargon and rampant writer-ish excess bore you, I suggest hitting the Skip button.


The Clearing at the Center of the Forest: Speed and the Process of Writing

On rare occasions I pause and wonder how fast I should be writing. This generally happens when an author friend produces far more word count volume in a shorter amount of time than I do, or I’m lapped in book releases by peers, or everybody (including me) forgets what the hell happened in the previous book of the series to which I’m writing a sequel. The voices in my head attempt to make me feel guilty, or lazy, or self-indulgently slow.

Don’t listen to the voices.

I didn’t release a book in 2010. The lack of a release was entirely my fault. I stopped seventy-five percent of the way through Ghost Soldiers to chase an idea that had just crashed home with all the subtlety of a tractor-trailer race on an icy mountain road—an idea that ended up being the core of the humor urban fantasy novel The Zero Dog War. Then I rewrote much of Ghost Soldiers to better integrate the two separate character plot lines. I read and rewrote and read again, tweaking the language, the placement of the scenes, etc. That, more than anything, is the wind drag on my little red writing racecar. The tweaking. The layering. The stripping away of excess words, or the adding of details and depth where lean prose has crossed a line into emaciated. It is simply a function of how I write. Some writers can get it right, or very nearly so, during the first couple of drafts. I envy them in the same way I envy golfers who can tee off without slicing, but I understand I do things differently, and that works for me.

Just like slicing into the pond.

Every single damn time.

First off, I don’t recommend following the writing pattern I use. It is a jumbled, haphazard approach that will never win any awards for efficiency. However, I’ve tried to change and can’t seem to pull it off, so I run with what I have. The path to finishing a piece of writing is unique to each writer. We stand in front of a dark forest. We each cut an individual trail into the shadows beneath the trees. No two writers will arrive at the clearing in the center of the forest by means of an identical path. Take comfort from that. You must forge your own trail, and this can be both tremendously exciting and wildly terrifying.

I tend to write fast, burning through a rough draft of a scene. Then I go back at some point and layer in the detail, adjust the words and rhythm of the prose. This, for me, is the greatest time sink. I may go back and add details/layering/tweaks several times after the “rough completion” of a scene—and this is before edits. The most obnoxious personal record I remember setting was when I did this nine or ten times in one book, layering in plot/character points, adjusting, fine tuning, as the novel developed and I gained a better grasp of the characters and motivations. Other times, as I wrote my way further along the path, I came up with an idea I liked better or was more efficient or created more tension/conflict and had to start back at the front of the book and layer it through the whole text.

There are plenty of writers who believe this tweaking and rewriting is akin to spinning one’s wheels in the mud. Get it out and get it on, they like to say. I certainly appreciate where they are coming from, but I’ve never considered this wasted time. I know the tendency for a writer, especially a writer under deadlines either external or internal, might be to see this as inefficient or wasteful. However, if you write slowly—or even erratically—I urge you not to feel guilt or find fault with your process if it works for you. If it doesn’t work or you grow dissatisfied, by all means, change things up. If you are pleased with the end result, don’t feel pressured to change to conform to any other writer’s opinion on how things should be done.

What matters is the finished product.

If you are a writer who creates strong first drafts and great finished product in short amounts of time then never feel ashamed by your speed. I’ve heard just as many snide comments about writers who write fast as I have about writers who take forever to cross the finish line. Ignore such blather. Somebody is always bitching about somebody else. Death. Taxes. Somebody bitching about something. Universals all.

Write in the way that works best for you, as an individual. The path you follow is your own, unique, and while it might pass close to the trail of other writers, have faith that each step, each word nested in each sentence has been walked by none before in exactly the same way. Run the path or leisurely stroll the trail, whichever you prefer, because the clearing at the center of the forest is where we present our writing to the reader.

A well-written book speaks for itself, whether pounded out in a feverish week of hyperactivity or slowly built over the course of years. At times I wish there were a magical shiny Chutes and Ladders rainbow slide one could take to zip from I Just Wrote The First Chapter! to I Just Crushed That Ending With a Six Ton Elephant of Awesome, but such slides do not exist.

And if they do exist, somebody have mercy and please point me in the right direction.

Although I did not release a book in 2010, I will likely have four releases in 2011. The Zero Dog War and Ghost Soldiers are both out now. 9mm Blues should release shortly. My current project, A Thousand Ravens Dark, might even score a December 2011 release date. I’m walking that path, albeit slowly, but I get there.

My only rambling advice is this: in the final tally, it doesn’t matter how long it takes to finish, doesn’t matter how many days or months or years are needed to push through the last line of trees out into the sunlit meadow.

Sit down and write.