First off, lest you think I’m going to divulge some Ultimate Secret of Writing, a pair of caveats. They are: your mileage may vary and this is just my experience.
If you’re still with me, carry on.
After writing three books, I discovered that my writing speed averaged 500 words an hour when slogging through that dreaded first draft. Not too shabby. But watching LeighAnn Kopans post Write Or Die counts of 1,500 words in 30 minutes or listening to Johnny B. Truant talk about 10K days made my competitive perfectionist side squirm.
The silly part of my envy is that I knew what their secret was: Timed runs. But, like most people, I hate being penned in. The idea of cramming my creative process into a tiny segment of time gave me the willies. It took me an hour to write 500 words because I crafted sentences and mulled over wording, trying to produce the best possible first draft. This is art, motherfucker. Putting an artificial limit on my writing would ruin the whole process, right?
I hit a major wall about 15K into the first draft of The Sword of Souls and simply hated every moment, every word of the process. I knew the story and the characters well enough, but I couldn’t find the flow I had with Cora Riley. Whatever came out felt forced and stilted. I was thisfreakingclose to chucking it all in.
I had to do something. So I figured “what the hell?” and gave the timed run – called a word sprint – a shot. No editing, no backspacing, no researching, no mulling. Just fucking go.
I wrote 850 words in 30 minutes.
For those of you not so hot with the arithmetic, that’s 3.4 times my usual rate.
Holy shit, right? I was shocked in the best possible way.
Giving myself a very specific, very short period of time to work encouraged me to write something, anything to progress the story. Whatever I had to do in order to keep moving. It gave my perfectionist voice something else (time) to focus on rather than obsessing over the exact right synonym for “look,” which gave me the freedom to just gogogo. It let me find flow.
So, I kept going – not just that day, but every day I wrote. And I got better.
Some sprints saw me crank out as many as 1,600 words in 30 minutes. I even found I could write at night, a feat I thought I’d never accomplish, being a morning person. By the time I reached the end of the draft, I’d raised the bar for personal best from 3,500 words in six hours to 6,000 in three.
Double holy shit.
The obvious tradeoff here is quality for quantity. When you’re not obsessing over phrasing, you write faster, but you also write shittier. It makes for a draft that’s complete but lacks finesse, which requires a lot more editing. While I made my wordcount goal and the broad strokes of the story are all there, the second version of Sword of Souls will likely take two rounds of revision rather than just one; it’s nowhere near fit to be seen even by beta readers at this juncture.
But! There are things you can do to help avoid wandering randomly and thus to limit the amount of dreck-cutting later. Despite the speed at which I wrote, I sketched out chapters and stuck to the larger novel outline, studying both just before I dove into a sprint, much like cramming for a test minutes before it starts. It helped me stay on track by keeping the plot at the top of my mind.
We’ll see how things go when it comes time to edit Sword of Souls – if I can stand to look at it will be the real test – but for now, it seems like word sprinting is my new process. Like Terry Pratchett said, “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.” If I can tell it fast and passingly well the first time, then polish it up so it’s fit for others, then we’ve got a winner.