Monday, September 1, 2008

Reading and Writing at Different Speeds

So one of my professors mentioned again in last week's class that part of our job as graduate students was to learn to read at different speeds--to learn to scan some things very quickly while choosing to spend hours reading more important things in-depth.

I feel like my ability to do the fast kind of reading in the COM field is finally coming to me. It's always a learning curve for me to master this fast reading when approaching a new genre of heavy critical tomes (the same was true when I went back for my MA in English at first), but after a year of slogging through COM theorists and quantitative and qualitative articles and essays, I finally feel like I can scan these genres when I need to, which should make this school year significantly less laborious.

The thing is, as I reflect on Ril and the others at TextFIGHT doing the slightly insane but incredibly gutsy 3-day novel thing this weekend, writing is something that can--and probably also should, at times--also be done at that fast-scanning sort of speed.

I think the key to this fast-writing, as with fast-reading, is not just in learning to do it, but learning to do it so that one does it relatively well. That calls for a facility with both the craft and the rules of whatever genre you're working in. The material you come out with is bound to be rough, but being able to do it well shows a sort of mastery over the material you're working with, as well as a lack of self-consciousness about the process.

Our media ecology is an ideal test bed on which to develop this sort of lightning speed--and I can do it in blog posts, facebook statuses, wall posts, and emails, which is excellent priming for the pump of other kinds of quick writing. I've also been known to plow out a quick poem, creative non-fiction essay or a homework assignment, and I'm getting closer to this speed for COM essays--hoping I can get closer to it this semester.

The one key place where I haven't quite mastered the speed of fast writing, however, is in my creative writing. I feel like my mastery of the generic conventions and knowledge of my characters comes so slowly that I'm not there yet. I've been known to speed-edit after the first draft, but the first draft tends to come incredibly slowly, in part because it's always a very long side project that gets easily de-prioritized. I think, oddly enough, it will take going over the hump to fast-writing COM essays before I'll get the confidence to try something similar with my novel-writing.

I do hope that I get to do one of these contests someday, however--I think it would help. Oh, 3-day novelists (or anyone else), any comments on the process?


RyanStates said...

Well, I do have some thoughts, mostly relief based.

I think this process was possible for me only because I have lived with the central character in my head for about four years now, but never found a place for him. I had him there, fully fleshed out, to drive the story.

Once I'd made the decision to do the 3 Day, I did a monster amount of reading to familiarize myself with the period, and to get my head in the right space. I also created a loose outline. It wasn't much, both sides of a piece of 8.5x11 paper.

In the end, that outline went right out the window, and only key scenes from it survived. The act of making the outline, and revising it several times acted as a sort of rehearsal for me.

I'd had my head in the tale for long enough that the actual writing required less creativity than it did discipline.

I found the challenge was to rein in my scope, and to be as succinct as I could, focusing on one narrow sliver of story.

With varying degrees of success, I think I did that.

It would be a terrible mistake, though, to think that all the work was done this weekend. The writing, yes, the creativity, no.

Even with the story nearly full in my head, I had a block for two hours on Sunday that I was truly scared I would not break.

If I'd been just winging it, I don't think I'd have made it.

I, too, seem to be able to write at a scanning pace in my blog, and in essays. I, too, think the fiction takes more time. You can, however, front load your brain for the process.

Pardon me if I'm rambling. It's 1:54 am, and I'm still coming down from the rush of racing the clock to finish my revisions.

rilla said...

I had a very different experience from Ryan because I ran out of things to write way before he did. After about 10:00 yesterday morning, I realized I didn't have to speed anything anymore. At that point, I made the shift from careful deliberate reading and careful deliberate editing.

I think my real experiment with speed writing was primarily done on Saturday. The first four chapter, so the roughly the first 5,500 words were things that I wasn't that interested in, but that I knew had to get into the book: What are my main character's expectations of the world? What does she think about her life, her job, her friends? What does she do on an average day? I needed those things only to flip them up side down, and I was looking forward to the flipping part more than this "boring" normal stuff. To be fair, I don't think anybody in their right mind would call Dahlia's life boring, but it felt that way because I knew what else was coming.

In those first establishing paragraph, I think anybody can do speed writing. Get them out of the way, and say what you have to say. When you've finished the book, then go back and make sure they're full-fledged creations, but I think you'll find that they stand with little revising, even with the speed writing steps.

On a different bent, I found my word count flowed far more rapidly when I was writing something that I hadn't seen coming. As my imagination crafted the scene, my fingers flew through it. So, there's another kind of speed writing -- probably similar to when you read a book really fast, not because you're trying to get over the material, but because you're so into it.

Anyway. Those are some thoughts.

RyanStates said...

Yeah, I have to concur with something Rilla said.

The parts of the writing that came fastest were the parts that took me a little by surprise, and therefore engaged my own interest. I think they came quickly because of my own desire to see what happened next.

The consequence of that, unfortunately, was that they came out raw and emotional, but maybe not so polished.

Deborah Leiter said...

To both of you: I find it fascinating that you both wrote faster when you discovered something you hadn't seen before: those were the parts that stopped me in my tracks when I wrote the rough draft of my first novel. All of a sudden I'd realize something I hadn't planned for, and I'd be stuck. So I find it fascinating that the opposite can also be true.

ryanstates: I'm reassured that the principle holds: building a house in a day is only possible if one spends a year of intense planning first.

Ril: I totally struggle with what you said about knowing more about your character than your audience does. I think that's been the thing I've been struggling with most during the editing process--knowing exactly how much information they need, vs. what to withhold, and at what points. The new novel seems to be better that way, but the old one has remnants still, it seems, of the original roughnesses...

RyanStates said...

That quandry wherein one has a huge familiarity with the personality and motives of the character is a rough one. I fear it bit me on the hind end this weekend, too. I think the very ending of my book is robbed of ninety percent of the resonance it should have because I forgot that a) most of my readers have no idea who Tom (the journalist in the framing sequence) or his ex-lover are.

People who've read the manuscript to my first novel Now England Sees have more likelihood of reading it and grasping the intrinsic incredible emotion (Hi, Meryn Cadell. I hear you're a dude now. Welcome to Deborah's blog.)

However, my best friend, and one of the closest readers of the book did not get the ending.

Which is because, in the heat of the moment, I lost sight of the information in the hands of my readers. A rookie mistake.

Also a third season veteran's mistake. And the mistake Steinbeck never stopped making.

So, I fear I've little chance of shortlisting this year, but I'll try not to beat myself up too much

suzzane donald said...
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