Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
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Thoughts on Writing

#31: This Is Not A Race

by Seanan McGuire

As always, and because it's good to explain yourself, here's our expanded thought for the day:

Measuring your output against someone else's output is a game with no winners at all. Maybe you write fast. Maybe you write slow. Maybe you're somewhere in the middle. I can write an obscene number of pages on a good day, and finish it off with a song and maybe a sonnet or two. Another friend of mine considers herself to be doing amazingly well if she finishes three pages in eight hours. Neither of us is doing anything wrong. Some of the best books ever written took years to finish; so did some of the worst. Write at your own pace, and know what that pace is.

Everyone naturally moves at their own speed. Some of us are fast, some of us are slow. Some of us are somewhere in the middle. Our quality will often be determined by our natural comfort zone. Is it something we can push out of? Is it something we should push out of? Let's talk speed, why it matters, and why yours is no better than mine. Ready? Good. Let's begin.

What Is Output?

For the sake of this essay, we're going to need a working definition of "output." So, in order to allow us all to be thinking along the same lines, we're going to say that "output" is any of the following:

* Text added to a project, either existing or new;
* Text revised or rewritten for an existing project;
* Outlines or detailed proposals written for a new project.

Basically, anything that generates text or forces you to actively review existing text is considered "output" for the purposes of today's discussion. These things take time, and how much time they take is going to vary from person to person. I'm not counting "processing edits" or "entering revisions" as part of the output process, as these are more data-entry than composition a lot of the time. If your edit-entry differs, feel free to consider that as output. Nobody's grading anybody here. In fact, that's a lot of the point.

What's Fast?

There are people who reliably cranky out short stories in an evening, novellas in a weekend, or novels in a month. This is terrifying. Stephen King says that if you can't finish a book in "the span of a season," it's probably not a book that wants to be written...and when you consider that some of his books could be used as murder weapons, this says some pretty scary things about the man's daily output. When Meg was serving as Bard of the Mists, I regularly saw her produce incredibly intricate works of structured poetry in the time it would take most people to come up with a rhyme for "cat." These are some extreme examples of speed.

What's Slow?

There are people who take ten years to finish a draft. Not to finish a book, with all its associate revisions, rewrites, edits, and agonies: the first draft. I used to take poetry classes with a girl named Crystal, who was a fantastic poet, and finished approximately one sonnet every six weeks. She was never going to lead the pack for quantity, but she was definitely at the head of the class for quality. Some people work for twenty years, dilligently, and never actually reach the end of their first manuscript. These, too, are some extreme examples of speed.

So Which Is Better?

Neither one.

If you're fast, you're going to encounter people who'll tell you that quality always suffers in the face of quantity. You're going to encounter people who will swear that your speed means you can't possibly be any good, because no one can be both fast and accurate. You're going to encounter people who call you a hack, because all true art takes time. Are these things occasionally true? Yes, they can be. Sometimes a rush job is worse than no job at all; sometimes people who move quickly miss mistakes because they're not willing to stop and review; sometimes people work at high speeds just because they don't give a crap. These things are not, however, universally true. Try not to let them hurt your feelings.

If you're slow, you're going to encounter people who won't believe that you're a "real" writer, since you're obviously just dabbling. You're going to encounter people who look at you pityingly and ask if you have writer's block, rather than believing that you enjoy moving at your own pace. You're going to encounter people who refuse to read your work, because they don't want to wait for the sequel. Are this things occasionally true? Yes, they can be. Sometimes adding two words a year to a manuscript is enough to satisfy the urge to write; sometimes people slow down because they're blocked; sometimes slow writers lose impatient readers. Again, however, these things are not universally true. Don't let other people dictate your opinion of yourself.

There will always be specific cases where speed matters. You can't write for comic books—a monthly medium with very little wiggle room for anyone who's not already Warren Ellis—if you can't maintain a reasonably high level of output. You'll probably go crazy writing for a less regular market if you're one of those people who finishes a project every other night. Be aware of the way a specific market treats delivery speeds, and go into them informed, but don't assume that just because your speed isn't what that market needs, there's something wrong with you. I'm not equipped to write exciting books about sports, and that doesn't mean there's anything wrong with me. We are not universal remotes. We're not going to be tuned to every channel. And that's fine.

What If I Don't Like My Speed?

First, a disclaimer: some things don't change. If you're a naturally fast writer, you're only going to have so much luck at slowing down. Ditto the naturally slow writer trying to speed up. That's fine. We are what we are, and learning how to work within the boundaries of our own skins is part of growing as writers and as human beings.

That being said, there are ways to adjust your speed, within reason. Slow writers often find that they speed up with practice, becoming more at ease with the processes that go into assembling a good story. Fast writers often slow down on the second draft, taking their time as they navigate their way through the trickier bits of text. It'll all average out. I do recommend that you neither rush yourself nor force yourself to slow down more than you think you can handle without losing your mind. All that will do is make you crazy, and crazy writers are not, as a rule, the most fun to read. (The most fun to observe from a distance, yes, but the most fun to read, not so much.)

Is There A Point Here?

Yes. My point was in my original thought, and here it is again, just in case you missed it the first nine times:

Measuring your output against someone else's output is a game with no winners at all.

This is not a contest. It's not a race. It's not a "whip it out and measure already," because nobody will win. Maybe I write ten pages in the time it takes you to write one, or one page in the time it takes you to write ten. Since all we're measuring is pure word count, not quality or genre or effort involved, this is a false result. All you will do is upset yourself, whether you're fast or slow. We will always be calibrated to work at our own pace, and I've seen writers break themselves trying to keep up with the speed-demons, or do the same trying to be slow enough to be "thoughtful."

Write. Whatever your pace, write. Don't say "well, my book doesn't count, because Bob there finished three." Your book counts. Your words count. And the only output you should ever stack yourself against is your own.

Thank you.
© 2011 Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire is an author, poet, and musician who lives in the San Francisco Bay area with two cats and a small army of plush dinosaurs. She has recorded two albums, Stars Fall Home and Red Roses and Dead Things, and has published five novels. In 2010, she was awarded the John W. Campbell Award for best new writer in the field of science fiction and fantasy.

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