East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

More writing advice: don’t let them know


When I was young and reckless, I received a piece of advice about writing that later I forgot.
The advice was

Never never never let them know how fast you can write.

It is an excellent piece of advice, but I was stupid, and I forgot about it. And they found out how fast I can write.
Up to 2000 words per hour on a decent first draft – it is a necessity, yu see: when you pay your bills by writing, you have to write a lot to make sure you’ll have enough when the guys from the bank come a-callin’.
So yes, you are fast.
And you were foolish enough to let them know.
And this, as the man that gave me that piece of advice so many years ago well knew, is a problem.

It is a problem, first and foremost, because in the mind of many non writers – a class that includes many editors and publishers, and quite a thick stack of critics and reviewers – fast equals bad.
Come on, but nobody ever wrote a good story fast.
Novels, in particular, require years-long suffering and frustration, and rewrites, a plethora of rewrites, a mountain of rewrites.
Who ever heard about a good novel having been written in less than ages?


Except of course for A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess; The Gambler by Fyodor Dostoevsky; On The Road by Jack Kerouac; As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner; Casino Royale by Ian Fleming; A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; The Confidential Agent by Graham Greene; I, the Jury by Mickey Spillane; A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens; The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark and a few dozen others.

But the fast = bad is a big problem, and therefore our readers should not know if we wrote that story in one night, one week or six months. They can’t tell on their own, so let’s not tell them ourselves. The consequences could be dire…

Yeah, it’s fun, I sort of liked it, but come on, it was written in a weekend… it’s rubbish, right? Can’t be anything else.

The other side of the matter is, if possible, quite the opposite. It’s those people – once again, mostly non-writers – that will go…

Come on, it’s 40.000 words! As fast as you write it’s what…?

And they will do the math for you, back-of-an-envelope style: you do 2000 words per hour, so a 40K-words novel is 20 hours of work. Working 8 hours a day, that’s, what, two days and a half? So why all these problems, this talking about time, outlines, research… even at half your cruising speed, you can write a novel in one week!

These guys don’t know how it’s done. They don’t know that sustaining a 2K-words speed for three/four hours to write a 6/7000-words story is not at all like working on a 40.000 or 100.000 words novel.
They don’t know about the cramps at the hands, about the need for a long walk, about aching backs and headaches.
They don’t know about the ebb and flow of the creative process – and no, it’s not a matter of muses or demons or divine inspiration. It’s a matter of remaining perfectly focused for hours on end, juggling a huge number of pieces at the same time. Because we are not talking a short story here – two characters, a place and a problem. We are talking a big job.
But they don’t know, and they don’t care.
They just know that you are fast.
Because you were foolish, and let them found out.
Don’t let them find out.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

2 thoughts on “More writing advice: don’t let them know

  1. I copy and paste. You probably know this story.
    Legend has it that Pablo Picasso was sketching in the park when a bold woman approached him.
    “It’s you — Picasso, the great artist! Oh, you must sketch my portrait! I insist.”
    So Picasso agreed to sketch her. After studying her for a moment, he used a single pencil stroke to create her portrait. He handed the women his work of art.
    “It’s perfect!” she gushed. “You managed to capture my essence with one stroke, in one moment. Thank you! How much do I owe you?”
    “Five thousand dollars,” the artist replied.
    “But, what?” the woman sputtered. “How could you want so much money for this picture? It only took you a second to draw it!”
    To which Picasso responded, “Madame, it took me my entire life.”


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