Six impossible things

Pavement conditions (More Driving Metaphors)

A while back, I had a discussion with a fellow professional writer whose stated goal was rapid production. Since he was the sort of writer who writes in huge bursts, focusing on speed above all else had been working well for him. My objection was that he was proselytizing – trying to convince both beginners and seasoned professionals (me) that fast was the best way to write, that it produced more good words than the more common, traditional methods like planning, drafting, and revising.

Obviously, his method worked for him. But having spent a good many years as a professional writer, and having in fact produced one-and-a-half novels by the no-planning-just-write-fast method, I knew for a fact that this rarely works at all for me. Which meant that I spent a lot of the discussion feeling as if someone who lived all his life in Phoenix, Arizona was trying to explain to me how to drive up a hill after a January blizzard in Minneapolis. When you’re in your own car, driving on straight-as-an-arrow fresh asphalt on a warm, sunny day, you can floor the gas pedal without fear. When you’re driving an unfamiliar rental car on an icy road with unexpected turns and heavy snow coming down on top of it… not so much.

In other words, before you decide how fast to drive, you need to assess the driving conditions. Is the road straight or winding? Slippery with ice or rain, or dry? Solid, or gravel, or mud? Is it sunny, cloudy, raining, or snowy? Also, you need to look at the car – is it an unreliable junker with iffy brakes, or a high-performance race car, or an off-road 4×4? How much gas in the tank? And finally, you need to assess your own driving – are you nervous or confident? Have you done a lot of driving, or did you just pass the test yesterday? Are you feeling well, or do you have a migraine coming on? Then you know how hard to punch the gas.

Similarly, how fast a writer writes depends on a lot of different factors: what the writer’s process is, how much experience they have in general, whether they’ve written this particular type of story before, whether it’s long or short (on the most simplistic level, 100,000 words takes longer to type than 10,000 words…and then there’s the whole question of whether one is a natural short story writer or a natural novelist), whether this story requires new writing skills or old familiar ones, whether it’s as ready to write as the author thinks it is, whether it’s under-planned or over-planned by that particular writer’s standards, and so on.

The thing is, it is really, really easy to ignore all that when one is evaluating one’s own production. When I have a plot point that’s been incubating for months, and suddenly it all comes together and I sit down and produce 10,000 words in a day, I don’t think “Gosh, that was like driving a race car on the straightaway on a gorgeous sunny day; I hope I get to do that again soon.” No, I think, “Wow, if I do that again tomorrow, I’ll have this whole book finished in two weeks!” And when tomorrow turns out to be driving a junker on a winding road in the freezing rain, and I only manage 50 or 100 words, I get frustrated and/or depressed.

Experience tells me that one of the worst things to do under certain driving conditions is to stomp on the gas pedal. If I’m stuck in a snow bank, the wheels will spin and create a smooth, icy shield around the tires that makes it impossible to get any traction. If I’m on a gravel road, the wheels will spin and spray gravel all over before making the car lurch forward. If I’m driving my light subcompact through a puddle on a rainy day, it’ll hydroplane if I try to go too fast, and I’ll lose control of the car. If it’s a bitter January morning in Minnesota, there’s a good chance that the freeway ramps will be covered in black ice from frozen exhaust, and the car will go into a spin. And if one is accustomed to driving in Arizona, and is suddenly faced with a Minnesota road under six inches of snow, the odds of a spin-out drastically increase.

It’s a lot harder to judge writing conditions than driving conditions, because they’re so subjective, but the principle is the same. There are times when the only way to make progress is to creep steadily forward fifty or a hundred words at a time, day after day, because forcing oneself to produce 2,000 or even 500 words is the equivalent of spinning the tires and turning the snow they’re stuck in into ice. There are times when you have to rock the car to get out of a snowbank, and times when you have to rewrite the same half-page over and over in order to get a half-sentence farther each time. There are tricks you can use if the car is stuck, like carrying sand or something else gritty to provide traction, but they don’t always work, and neither do the tricks for speeding up one’s production.

As with driving, it is a lot easier to pick the right method for the conditions once one has had some experience with different roads and weather, but common sense helps regardless. Also as with driving, sometimes one knows that gunning the engine will just dig one farther into the snowbank…and one does it anyway, out of frustration or just because one remembered a touch too late. And then you end up needing a tow truck.

  1. I think that it’s very easy to get stuck on metrics (especially with word counts right there in the word processor): I did my 2,000 words today! But were they the right 2,000 words? That’s harder to evaluate, even for an experienced writer and especially for a novice.

    • And even if they are the right words, is the 2000 words of “local color” or whatever comes easily to you actually worth ten times as much as the 200 words that nail down a slithery plot element you’ve been struggling with for weeks?

      Metrics are useful tools, but like any tool they’re best when put to the right application. A hammer is great for driving a nail, but not much use for turning a screw and a really poor choice for testing an electrical circuit.

  2. Well, I never learned to drive (long story), but one part of your metaphor hit home. “How much gas in the tank?”

    Once upon a time I had a larger tank, and could get up at five every morning and write for an hour or so before going off to work. But that was twenty-five years ago. Now, I think my tank holds about a quart, and I have to stop every couple of miles and let it fill up again. So a couple of pages a week … which is better than no pages, I guess.

  3. I had just such a conversation with another writer recently. Lovely person, genuinely trying to be helpful, and her method worked wonders for her — but almost every element of her fabulous system would be like stabbing myself in the eye for me. And that’s before we get to the fact that the solution she was proposing didn’t actually address the problem I have; it worked for her, therefore it was The Solution for every problem.

    “Wow, if I do that again tomorrow, I’ll have this whole book finished in two weeks!”

    Hmm, that doesn’t sound familiar at all! I’ve never thought that, not even once. (Or twice. A minute.) 😉

  4. *sigh* My driving conditions are beyond crappy right now. Going on nearly THREE years of chronic pain from sequential “temporary” medical conditions. (Did I break a mirror or something?) Seriously tempted just to park the car in the garage and forget about writing altogether.

    But… don’t wanna!

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