The Time It Takes

Sand passing through the glass bulbs of an hourglass measuring the passing time as it counts down to a deadline or closure on a yellow background with copyspace

Josh and I are approaching the end of the first draft of our fourth Warpworld novel. With each new installment, our process is refined and our efficiency improves. I anticipate a final draft, ready for publication, in early 2016. My guess is that we’ll come in around 200K words again.

Five years ago, a manuscript of this size and scope would have taken us two years or more to produce. Now, I feel confident that we can put out a polished, pro-quality, six-hundred page book in one year, every year.

Why? Where did the improvement come from?

Well, to quote my author friend Mark Nykanen’s words to me, “I’m not sure I’m a better writer but I’m definitely a better editor.”

(For the record, Mark’s average daily word count is mind boggling. I am no Mark Nykanen.)

Better editing may be an oversimplification, there are a number of factors that sped production after that first book hit the shelves, but, yes, I’m a better editor now. I’m correcting mistakes before I even type the words. I have a firmer grasp on the basics of story construction—pacing, POV, voice, character arcs, etc. I’ve learned to divorce myself from those infamous “darlings” and only consider what best serves the story.

I outline.

No, let me repeat that…

I OUTLINE. Pantsing is fine and well but when you’re writing with a partner it pays to have at least the roughest of road maps to direct you. Guaranteed, at least once per manuscript Josh and I will hit a point where we have drastically different ideas about a major plot point. Fixing this in the outlining stage is no biggie—a few hours of arguing each of our cases, followed by a compromise of some sort, followed by a lot of “I still love you!”s. Easy peasy. Fixing this while you are hip deep in a draft can be a nightmare, sometimes necessitating pages and pages of rewrites.

Outlines, contrary to what I once believed, do not stifle creativity. Josh and I still veer away from our outlined scenes on a regular basis. Outlines are merely markers in the fog, designed to keep you from losing your way and accidentally driving off a cliff.

Shameless plug: If you’re struggling with outlining or you’ve never done it, may I highly recommend Mark Teppo’s new book Jumpstart Your Novel. I did an outlining workshop with Mark and in 90 minutes I had an almost-complete outline for a new manuscript.

Faster? Yes, we are faster but this is not me bragging. I still consider myself a slow writer and compared to many in the indie publishing world my pace is positively glacial.

What I want to say is that I’m okay with this. I wasn’t always okay with this.

My long-suffering writing partner can tell you horror stories of me frantically demanding more! Faster! Now! Hurry!

I was late to professional writing and every day I was falling further behind the pack. All those brilliant twenty-somethings had a head start I couldn’t begin to catch up to and so I needed to compensate with speed and productivity.

And then…Cod help me…I started researching the world of the indie author. You need to publish two books a year! Three! Five! Six! And short stories! And blog! And tweet! And attend conferences! And cure cancer! And…

Falling further behind.

My nerves were frayed. How was I ever going to catch up?

Two things stopped my manic descent into writing hell.

1. Josh. He’s the yin to my yang. The goat to my thoroughbred. The speed limit on my Autobahn. Every hyper overachiever needs a Josh. As much as I know he appreciates my perkiness and enthusiasm (though he may never publicly admit to this), I also appreciate his ability to slow down, stop worrying, and just enjoy the ride

2. Pudding. As in, “the proof is in the”. In the spirit of unity, and research, I picked up a few books by some of the more well known and prolific indie authors. These were novels penned in a quarter of the time it takes Josh and I to complete a manuscript. Guess what? It showed. I’m not asserting that we are literary geniuses but what I read was mostly sizzle and very little steak. (This paragraph is making me hungry). In every case I had to put the book down less than a quarter of the way into the story because the plot was too predictable or lacked plausibility, the characters were flat or uninteresting, and/or the writing quality was rough enough to distract from the story.

I had a choice to make. I could write super fast, leave out all the tiny details that I love, concentrate on marketability over story, and lose my sanity (and perhaps my co-writer, friends, and husband), in the process or I could slow the hell down and take the time it takes to write the stories I want to write.

You can probably guess that I chose the latter.

There are times I love speed; writing stories is not one of those times.

Kristene Perron standing next to a race car

This is a place I like to go fast.

This is not me patting myself on the back, either. Those fast, prolific indie authors are making a hell of a lot more green than I am. They have a firmer grasp of the business of publishing than I do, without question. But I chose my path not so long ago, I chose love over money.

I wrote this post because maybe there’s a new writer out there feeling just as I did six years ago. Feeling slow, feeling inadequate, feeling as if they will never “catch up”. Listen carefully: Stop. Breathe. Think.

This is not a race. Ask yourself: “Why am I writing?”

If you want to make buckets of money as an indie author, then, yes, you will likely have to keep up the frantic pace and you will have to write marketable books. (Among many other things, but we’re talking about speed here). If you’re taking the trad publishing route, you’ll still need to meet deadlines but they likely won’t be as intense. In either case, honing your craft and learning to become a better self-editor takes time and practice. There is no magic pill, no webinar or book that will instantly drop that knowledge into your brain.

If you want to write damn good stories, the kind that feel like a dive in the ocean and not a jet boat ride across the surface of a lake, then those books take the time they take.

It’s that simple and that complex. A book every six years probably won’t make you much money these days (George RR Martin aside), but if the book you want and need to write takes six years, well, that’s the time it takes. If you can write a heartbreaking work of staggering genius (copyright Dave Eggers) in three months, more power to you.

And never forget that if money is your goal, there are easier ways to make it than as an author. Many, many, many, many easier ways. Presumably you choose to write because you enjoy it. Because even when you’re smashing your face against the keyboard in frustration, there is nothing else you would rather be doing than making stories. If it stops being fun, if your focus is no longer on plot and characters and metaphors and all the fun things writers get to play with, and is now directed solely on writing faster, faster, faster, then what’s the point?

If you love writing faster, faster, faster and you are reading this while sitting on stacks of hundred dollar bills, then there’s no point in reading any more of this blog.

Everyone’s process is unique and yours is not wrong if it is slower than what you think it should be. That doesn’t excuse you from sitting your ass in the chair, by the way. Butt goes in chair, end of story. Literally. You can’t finish a story if you don’t sit your ass in the chair and write it!

One final word on the time it takes to write a good story.

About a month ago I learned that I was a Writers of the Future finalist for a short story I’d submitted to the competition. This is a pretty big deal in the SF/F writing world and I was flattered and thrilled. (I still am). That story was about 6000 words. I spent months researching and even more months letting the story percolate before I even began to type. 6000 words, all told, took over a year to go from Idea Seed to Finished Story. That puts my average word count at .06 words per day. Pretty crappy, huh? While I didn’t hope to make it all the way to Finalist, I don’t think it’s an accident that my slowly written story ended up there. I took the time I needed to tell the story how it needed to be told.

Here’s your tl;dr: Slow down if you need to slow down. If you feel you need someone’s permission to do this, consider mine granted.

p.s. You don’t need anyone’s permission.

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3 Responses to The Time It Takes

  1. Josh says:

    “He’s the yin to my yang. The goat to my thoroughbred. The speed limit on my Autobahn. Every hyper overachiever needs a Josh. As much as I know he appreciates my perkiness and enthusiasm (though he may never publicly admit to this), I also appreciate his ability to slow down, stop worrying, and just enjoy the ride”

    Just to give you a sense of what it’s like to work with Kris, in my personal life with everyone else I’m regarded as a workaholic, mildly hyperactive and hyperenthusiastic.

    And yet I’m her parking brake or some other metaphor.

    Life is strange that way.

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