Monday, February 16, 2009

Tansy Muses on Writing Time - also Writing, Time

So I made my deadline, for those of you hanging out to know! I had the manuscript for French Vanilla done a little after 6pm on Saturday February 14th. My Valentine's gift was my honey agreeing to take our 4 year old on an adventure so I could work... (note to self, request this EVERY year)

It was rather nice to receive an email back from my editor within 24 hours - she just peeked at the manuscript to check out a question I had for her about formatting, and had read 156 pages before she knew what she was doing! You can't really ask for a better response than that...

Now that I've had some reassurance that the book is actually quite good (all together now - PHEW) I've been having some thoughts about writing, and speed.

This is the fastest full length book I've ever written, in pure chronological terms. The previous contenders were Three Janes (also last year), which comes in at about 6 months, and Liquid Gold back in 1998, which I completed in 5 months. French Vanilla was written in about 6 weeks (that's two weeks plus Nanowrimo) last year, and had four very solid weeks of editing this year, which brings it in at 2.5 months, for a novel just shy of 70,000 words.

Now the first important thing is that none of those numbers mean anything. When I was writing Liquid Gold, from what I recall, I was in my final semester of my BA, and had one uni-free day per week in which I could write. I also had weekends, but those were for uni work and my social life. I did not have a child. (VERY IMPORTANT DETAIL) I did not write all day of that one day a week in which I could write. I suspect from what I know/remember of my writing habits, then and now, that I put in between 2-3 hours at the computer. With possibly one other writing stint over the weekend, or in an evening.

Three Janes was dragged out of me painfully, every step of the way. It was one of those dreadful books in which every page produced is WORK, without a single one of those magical frenzy days in which the writing is just going marvellously. It was also the first original, starting-from-scratch book I had written in years, since before I halted my writing to finish my PhD, since before I had my baby, who was three and in daycare 3 days a week when I was writing Three Janes. It was far shorter than either of the other books (Liquid Gold came in at about 80K, Three Janes at around 50). I worked on it in fits and starts, half hour blocks in between other things. And I glared at it a lot when I wasn't technically working on it. It owned my soul. The first several months I think I only managed about 10,000 words, and then gradually picked up the pace as I added different plots and other good things. The whole thing stuttered along, taking up far more stress-time than writing-time until my beloved Swedish Writing Fairy read it, tore it to pieces and organised the broken fragments for me to mend, all within the space of 24 hours.

See what I mean about time meaning nothing, when it comes to writing?

French Vanilla was written fast, insanely fast. Everything I've heard about Nanowrimo is along the lines of - well sure, it's fun, but you'll never get a publishable book that way. 50,000 words in a month. It sounds too fast. It sounds completely wrong. But I know writers who work that way regularly - who draft their first book in a month or two months, and polish it later. I've never been one of those writers.

The guidelines of Nanowrimo mean you write approx. 1700 words a day. Every day. For a month. Now for me, that's somewhere between an hour and a half and three hours' work, depending on how on form I am. The trick is the every day part. That's hard. Especially with only 3 days daycare a week - that's 3 official 'work days' and 5 days of juggling child or child and honey to work around. I still wasn't one of those writers who sits at the computer and writes from 9 to 5 (thank GOODNESS I write fast when I write, or that would kill me), but I was hitting pretty much my maximum capacity. Sometimes I would write the day's alotment in two or three instalments - sometimes more. I utilised first thing in the morning AND last thing at night.

apart from starting with a bonus 15,000 words or so (two weeks work), I followed the Nano guidelines fairly strictly. There were many elements that contributed to my success in producing a publishable book in this time period:
a) fear - I'd left it too late to hit my deadline any other way (technically I still had two and a half months after Nano to work on it, and I cuddled those to me, but I knew I had to use those mostly for burnout and editing).
b) social pressure - I had a brilliant team of in person Nano buddies and another of online ones, and we worked to allow each other time and energy, feeding off each other's wordcounts to get the job done. Best support network ever. The fact that most of the friends I talk to regularly were participating meant that all my usual social energies got channelled into work.
c) quality control - this was where I broke the Nano guidelines (and learned the error of my ways) because I was so concerned about the "just produce words, don't worry about quality" aspect of Nano. That didn't work for me at all, I had to produce a book that worked and could be turned into something really good within 10 weeks of the end of the first draft. So I had this plan to ensure quality control through shame by sending regular twice-weekly chapter updates to three of my closest and most trusted people. However, this was a BAD idea. Any hint that they had read the chapters, any word of feedback, sent me into a tailspin. I couldn't cope with the pressure. It was hard enough figuring out how to make the book work myself at super speed without letting other people into my brain. So I cut them off.

The most interesting thing about the "speed" of Nanowrimo is not that I was writing all day every day (because I wasn't) but not having as much time to breathe between writing sessions. Back when I composed a novel in five months by writing once a week, I had a whole week in between sessions to think about what I'd done, gear up for the next one, or solve any problems that had turned up. With French Vanilla I had to solve the problems NOW. That actually helped with fluid and speedy writing, because it meant procrastination was not my friend. It's easy to put off writing a scene if you're dumping the workload on next week's Tansy. Not so easy when it's 11 o clock at night and you know you'll have to deal with it again as soon as you wake up...

I alotted myself six weeks of editing (and one month, December, of collapsey goodness and real life catch up). Sadly I discovered that the 1st of January is not actually that conducive to getting work started, and I didn't start the editing until one month before my deadline. That dividing fairly sharply into two weeks of working on the big papery manuscript, and two weeks flat out of entering said edits into the computer (the pace only slowed down when said edits contained things like 'write good' or 'make better' without specific suggestions on how to do that. Talk about being mean to my (immediate) future self!

So yes, considering the frenetic pace of this book, and the sheer "impossibility" of producing something marvellous under those writing conditions, I received my editor's comment on how readable it was with one huge sigh of relief. Because you just never know.

Some time ago, the very wise Justine Larbalestier commented about the perceptions people have of the "speed" of writers, and how the question 'how long did it take you to write XXX?' has no meaning at all. One writer might take a year to write a first draft of a novel, another might take two months. We would assume the two month writer had produced a rawer draft that requires more editing, but what if the one year writer only has one free day a week to work, has a family and kids to juggle, or (even more common) works a full time job with lunch breaks and evenings their only writing time, while the two month writer has no commitments and far more available time? Books can not be measured in months, or years. Working hours might be more relevant but as with most craftspeople, few writers log the number of hours they actually work, because once you work out what your hourly pay scale is, you have to spend several hours sobbing in the bathroom, and we have far too much to do!

The really interesting/depressing thing is that there is absolutely no correlation between the time it takes to write a book, the effort it takes to write it, and the quality of the end product. There is no maths here. I know for a fact after my Year of Drafting Three Novels that a month's slog can produce the same amount of words as one fun, enjoyable week, and while I suspect the fun week will produce better writing (sadly the easiest writing is usually the best in my experience) there is actually no way to know from the process which will be the most effective, successful or just plain good piece of work.

All a writer can do is sit in the chair and produce the words, and hope that the end result will be worth their time.


Havock21 said...

Tansy, insightful and helpful and depressing and scary and, and, all sorts.

As always here, another snippet of the writing gyrations within the writers mind dispensed, as always I have taken something away once again. Just make sure you lot keep at it, if for nobody else but JUST ME!.

Oh, if you do not, I am sure I can find a way to get the big hairy fella to come after the rest of you, not sure how mind you, but Dirk has to have a weak point somewhere.

Well done, that’s great.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


'Especially with only 3 days daycare a week - that's 3 official 'work days' and 5 days of juggling child or child and honey to work around.'

Can you tell me where to get these 8 day weeks? I could really use the extra day!

No, seriously.

TansyRR said...

Havock21 - thanks for commenting! Obviously we are going to keep at it, because we are far too insane not to (this goes for parenthood as well as writing, I have to say)

Rowena - you know, that explains a LOT about how things weren't getting done as fast as I thought they should.

[I haz PhD, it is not in mathematics...]

Satima Flavell said...

Amazing, as well as all the things Havock21 said, Tansi. How you have any of those wonderful "easy" writing days at all with so much else to occupy your mind I really don't know. I could no more have written fiction than done brain surgery when my kids were little.

Like I said - amazing!

TansyRR said...

Hey Satima

I find that daycare helps a LOT :D Also, it's amazing how much you can get done when you ignore the housework...


Anonymous said...

I feel kind of intruding-ish when I comment here, how weird is that? I have to say that I had full faith in French Vanilla, even if I shipped the wrong people, fell in love with the entirely wrong character and - yes, missed the meringue porn baking Nanna from the first book...

Personally I write the best when I write insanely for 15-20 minutes and then let myself take a break to knit. I would never get anything done if I had a partner or kids.


the Swedish Writing Fairy