About fifteen years ago, I was deep into writing my first mystery novel. Or should it be “deeply”? “Desperately” is probably better. No matter, it was a very serious endeavor, requiring deep/desperate scrutiny of every word as it appeared on my computer monitor. It was a very slow endeavor. But it was coming along, I convinced myself, every perfect word a bridge to every other perfect word.
Then a Hollywood—yes, that’s right, HOLLYWOOD!—screenwriter brought his traveling workshop show to my area and I signed up for a weekend of learning how to write screenplays. Not that I had any intention of writing a screen play, but does any writer know what she/he might write tomorrow, if the money were right? In my career, I’ve written a lot of stuff I never thought I would write, including a comic book. But I digress.
I signed up for the Hollywood screenwriter’s workshop because it occurred to me that the one thing a screenwriter ought to be an expert on was writing dialogue. Yes, getting those perfect dialogue words in place had been giving me, shall we say, a little trouble.
So I sat through two-and-one-half days of the screenwriting workshop. Along with a few good hints about writing dialogue, this was what I learned—this was the gold: Write Fast. Because, the screenwriter said, when you write fast this is what happens: you submerge yourself in the writing zone. You are carried away by the story. You are living the story. And the story becomes infused with your energy and excitement.
As opposed to stepping out of the zone, stopping the story and allowing the energy to leak out every time you edit what you’ve just written, ponder over some technical aspect, check the dictionary and the thesaurus. Oh, yes, check your e-mail, and as long as you’re now taking a break from the actual writing, go get another cup of coffee.
I went home, turned on my computer and went back to writing my novel. I was on chapter ten, and I wrote the rest of the novel. In many sittings, of course, but as I wrote the story, I never stopped to edit or make changes. I just wrote as fast as I could, and I lost myself in the story. It was an exhilarating experience, like turning the pages of a really good book that you can’t bear to put down. I was so caught up in my story, I felt sad when I finally wrote “The End.”
But I had a whole novel. Then—and only then—did I start the rewriting and the editing, all that left brain stuff that forces writers to step away and turn a jaundiced and very critical eye on what we’ve written. But here’s the thing: I found that as I rewrote and rearranged paragraphs and sometimes chapters, sharpened dialogue, polished prose and cut out all the stuff, as Elmore Leonard says, that the reader skips over, the energy and excitement that had come in the writing itself stayed with the story, like a fresh wind blowing through.
Recently I read an obit on Phyllis Whitney that said she had slowed down in the last years of her life. From age 85 on, she wrote only one book a year. Obviously Phyllis Whitney believed in writing fast.
When asked how he had written the screenplay for Rocky in only 18 days, Sylvester Stallone said that was all the time that was necessary. It took Gustave Flaubert eighteen years to write Madame Bovary, he said, and “it was a lousy book.”
When my novel, The Eagle Catcher, came out, several critics said that the novel got off to a rather slow start, but turned into a page-turner once it took off. I got a good laugh out of that because I knew exactly when the novel took off. Chapter ten, when I had started writing fast.
I’ve been writing fast ever since. In every workshop that I teach, I give my students those two golden words of advice: Write Fast. It does not mean that you never have to rewrite, or that when you finish the first draft, it will be ready for publication. It will still be what it is—a first draft. But it does mean you will have a complete novel, a story bursting with creative energy, a diamond in the rough waiting to be chiseled, shaped and polished. And that is the time to put on your editor’s cap, not before.