Meet (again) Really Fast Writer Dean Wesley Smith

- by BlogMistress

deanwesleysmith

As a bestselling author of over ninety published novels, Dean Wesley Smith has written original, media, and ghost novels in every genre, including a Christian Thriller, Star Trek, Men in Black novels, Spider-Man novels, X-Men novels, mysteries and westerns.

Writing Fast Equals Writing Better

I received a number of responses about my last blog here about being a ghost writer. And almost every one of the letters to me mentioned an off-hand comment I made about being able to write a book under three weeks to be a good ghost writer. To be honest, that being odd just didn’t cross my mind.

So, the fine folks who run this blog thought it might be a good idea if I stuck my foot in it again and talked about how to write a book in under three weeks. Or under two weeks. Or even under one week.

Take a deep breath and stop laughing. You actually could do a full novel in a week if you needed to and I’ll show you how. And it just might turn out to be one of your best novels, and I’ll explain why also.

Now first off, I must warn you, this will take a little math. Just a little, so don’t run away just yet. I promise the math will be painless, since I know how writers hate math.

Backing up for a minute, I have to be clear that I see very little reason to write at top speed for every book. For me, a leisurely pace is two or three hours a day, doing ten to twelve pages a day, finishing a novel in four or five or six weeks, depending on how many days I take off along the way and how long I struggled over the opening of the book.

But as a professional writer, known for being able to turn in a quality book on time and on target, there have been times I’ve had to push that, even on my own original books. And, of course, getting hired to rescue a book by a publisher means something with another writer has gone wrong and they need a book, often from an idea I never would have thought of, very quickly.

When I get those calls I just shrug and say, “Sure, when do you need it?” I can do that because I have proven to myself that I can write a book very, very quickly.

Writing quickly has major advantages. First off, and the most important, is that you get your critical side out of the way and write purely from the creative side. This brings out more voice, depth in character, and a tension and reality in the writing that is not possible when writing from the critical side of your brain. History in our business has proven this. Simply go back and look how many major writers in the past worked fast.

Writing slow is an invention of those who know nothing about the creative process, for the most part. Teachers love to believe that writing slow means writing better (mostly because they have fewer papers to grade that way). And rewriting is a myth that has built up also from people who really don’t understand the creative process.

That said, every writer works differently. There is no right way, and if cranking out ten words a day and rewriting then over and over works for you and you are selling tons of novels, then for heaven’s sake, don’t change it. But if you are doing that and it’s not working very well, or you are listening to your agent about how to rewrite because you think your agent is a better writer than you are (And if so, why is the agent only earning 15% and not writing on their own?), you might want to step back and hit some basics.

So, how do you train yourself to write from that creative side, write faster, and maybe even write an entire novel in under three weeks? Answer: You have to get out of your own way and believe you can do it.

Math time. Most professional writers who I have talked to about this write about 3-5 manuscript pages per hour when going. And a manuscript page is about 250 words, so most professional writers can average about one thousand words an hour, when going on a novel. Not in the struggle of the beginnings, but once the novel is underway.

So, simple math says that to write a 90,000 word novel, you have about 90 hours of work.

Some of you who have worked 90 hour per week corporate jobs just slapped your forehead, right?

So, using that 90 hour number, divide by 3 (weeks) and you get 30 hours per week.

Divide that by 7 days and you get about 4 ½ hours per day, or converted to words, 4,500 words per day, which in 21 days will get you a 94,000 word novel.

If I’m doing a pace like this one, not hard, but a little faster than I’m comfortable with in my lazy writer mode, I will break the day into five segments, each one hour long.

My day goes like this: Write for one hour after breakfast, take a break, write for another hour, take a long lunch, write for another hour, take a nap, then dinner, then two more sessions with a break between them, the last one being short because I like playing around on eBay.

Now understand, I have a different writing computer and office from my internet and business area and computer, so when writing, I have no distractions. I can’t even hear a phone, I have no games on my computer, I have nothing to do but produce new words. I do e-mail and business before and after and on the breaks on my business computer. Combining writing and business on the same machine is a problem I’ve discovered many newer writers have a ton of trouble with. Creative writing is different from writing this blog or writing an e-mail. I keep that on its own computer and when I sit at that computer, I get focused on that only. Saves me a ton of time.

So, I need to write a book in two weeks? That means I have to work 45 hours a week and that math works out to about 6 ½ hours a day. (Notice, I am still not working an 8 hour day.) Those hours produce about 6,500 words a day and in 14 days I have a 91,000 word novel.

Where it gets really tough is when you get down into the area of the old pulp writer’s speeds. A book in a week. Of the 90 plus novels I have published, two were written in seven days each, and one was written in six days. To be honest, I don’t want to do that again any time soon. At that speed, writing is not only a skill, but an endurance test, a physical test that if you are not careful can really hurt your arms, shoulders, and back.

I have a writing chair that form fits around me, holds my arms perfectly in position, and a keyboard and pads that do the same. I wouldn’t consider writing that fast and long in any other way, and I just can’t imagine how the old pulp writers did it on manual typewriters. I’m a wimp compared to most of them, but I really admire the pulp writers and what they managed to produce that we still read today.

Now understand, under deadline or not, I write at exactly the same pace. I just can’t seem to get past five pages an hour at best, and mostly stop at four or sometimes three.

So how did I manage to write a novel in six days? I just wrote for more hours is all.

First off, it was slightly shorter book, about 75,000 words, which helped. I took that word count and divided by 6 which got me about 12,500 words per day that I needed to do. Yikes, that’s a ton of words, but not impossible. I basically had to work 13 writing sessions and still try to get some sleep, which meant that dinner, lunch, and nap breaks were cut down to almost nothing.

My wonderful wife, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, cooked for me and brought food into my office for me, woke me up in the morning, and just basically did the support. Now understand, that’s not our normal life. I set this up ahead of time and asked for her help, not in the writing, but in the support. If you are going to try something like a book in two weeks, make sure your spouse and family are aware of the push. They can be wonderful help.

I got done with the book and turned it in and then fell down, did nothing for a few weeks. That kind of pace is burn-out pace, so caution, do it only when you must. I was hired to do it.

Okay, now to the elephant in the room. When did I have time to rewrite it?

I am a three-draft writer, like many other long-term professional writers. I trust my own writing ability, I trust my own voice, I trust what I put on the page, but yet I call myself a three-draft writer. How is that, and how can I do three drafts and write a book in six days?

Draft #1. Creative draft, pounding away as fast as I can. I am a fixer, or cycler as a writer. My wife and others are note takers. When I realize something needs to be fixed, I go back and fix it, and I outline the book as I go so that I know where I’ve been and what needs to come next. I tend not to outline ahead, instead considering each book a way to explore a story and character. Many writers need the outline. Do it your way. Again, no right way.

So when I get done with this creative draft, I’ve fixed everything I can think of to fix.

Draft #2. I spell-check it, running through it quickly, reading to find any weirdness my spellchecker missed. Notice, I do not have a spellchecker or grammar-checker on while writing. Too disruptive on the creative flow. This second draft takes about three hours and I always plan for it.

Draft #3. I have my first reader, my wife, read it to make sure I have not missed anything or done anything too stupid. When in a hurry, I give her chapters as I go along with instructions to not talk to me about the book until I am done. Last thing I need is feedback in the middle of a creative process. So when I finish, she only has to read the last chapter or two before she can give me her comments and corrections. I quickly add in the ones I agree with before firing off the book.

Again, I do not speed up my writing to write a book in three weeks or faster. I just work more hours. And I have learned to get out of my own way and trust my creative voice and skill.

It honestly is that simple.

And that hard.

Have fun.

Thanks to Pati Nagle for inviting Dean to blog for us again.

15 comments

  1. Thanks for returning to address this topic! (I was one of the peple who commented on your other post.)

    I’m surprised to realize we write fairly similarly. (Which is to say I also don’t outline beforehand and I produce the first draft fairly quickly, at about 1000-1500 words per hour). This “missing” time as far as I’m concerned is in research and revisions, which for me take longer than the initial draft.

    Selene

  2. You are 100% right. I tell myself all the time I just need to give myself permission to write more…to open the doors to my brain in a way. AND to spend less time on Twitter!
    Great post!
    Oh, and tell your wife, Fantasy Life completely and totally rocked! :)
    Lori

  3. Lori, Kris said “Thanks!”

    As for research, if you are forced into doing a book fast for one reason or another, pick a book topic that you know and doesn’t need research in any fashion.

    And oh, my, do I wish I could actually do 1,500 words in a session. My brain just shuts off at 750 to 1,000 words and I have to take a break and stand up. Not a long break, just a break. However, when playing on eBay or writing e-mails or other such fun on my business computer, I can sit straight for hours. Go figure.

    Cheers,
    Dean

  4. Yes, distractions are a problem, also a day job which cuts my writing time down significantly. On a good day, I’m looking at maybe 2 hours of writing time. I do need to remember to go with the flow and not try for perfection on the first draft. That’s my main downfall.

    Morgan Mandel
    http://morganmandel.blogspot.com

  5. Morgan, what’s fun is doing the math for your situation. Let’s say you solved the perfection problem on the first draft. Two hours a day (doing the math) gives you (at my pace of three pages (750 words) an hour) six pages a day. Do that 5 days a week and you have 30 pages a week. So in ten weeks you have a 300 page novel. Taking two weeks off, you finish five novels a year at that pace and are considered a very, very fast writer.

    Math, the friend of writers trying to kill myths.

    Cheers
    Dean

  6. Thanks for this post. I did a similar math exercise when I was writing in a group about 4 years ago. We needed to get the project done and stop dilly-dallying, so I set each person to time how many words they could generate in an hour. Each was different, with one about 900, one about 1000, and me about 1300. [It helps if you can type really fast]. We put those together and figured we could as a group knock out 3200 words easy in an hour/week — just ONE HOUR. It gave each person a commitment target. We needed about 30,000 words to finish the book, so set our goal to finish in 2 1/2 months. I know this sounds goofy, but everyone had other lives. We met weekly to work the pages and put them together. We finished the book — MUCH too long as it turns out, but we did finish.

    Math is your friend. :-) If you can measure it, you can know what you’re doing. Doesn’t mean quality, but it certainly means quantity, which is a start.

    Jan

  7. Then there are those of us who, instead of dutifully writing 750 words per hour, realize that in the next scene, our wounded, hungry, dehydrated protagonists have to escape from locked cell, inside a padlocked building, in a heavily guarded fortress, full or armed guards, in a society where the protags look different from everyone else and don’t speak the language… And so we spend the next three days pacing around the room trying to figure out how the HELL to do that. In my case, the solution usually occurs to me while trying to turn left on a six-lane road in heavy traffic. This causes problems. But I digress.

    I can -type- 750 words/hour, every hour, for “x” number of hours per day. But writing? That’s a whole ‘nuther thing for me.

    In addition to which, I’m not a writer so much as I am a RE-writer. After I get a scene down on paper, I spend the next few months realizing what I left out or shouldn’t have put in, and going back to rewrite the scene AGAIN. Not because I’m a perfectionist, but because I’m not very bright.

    Laura,
    who says “hi!” to Kris and Dean

  8. Hi Dean!

    So I have the worst time just forcing myself to write quickly (and I see the purpose) and this next book I’m going to try very hard to let it happen and open the creative gates.

    Thanks for the pep talk!

  9. Hi, back, Laura. (Kris waves from her business computer across the room.)

    Laura, your method would just kill me, since I bore so easily. I love the next story I’m going to write much more than trying to fix the story I just finished. But again, no right way, thankfully. I just suggest people try other ways if the way they are doing it isn’t working.

    And what really drives me crazy is when a young writer comes up to me and describes what he is doing, which is not selling, so I ask him why, and he says, “Because so-and-so told me I had to do it that way. That’s the way all writers do it.” I want to go kill so-and-so. No right way to do this business, just the way that works for each of us. And those that should not be rewriting have the worst fights on their hands because the entire world these days tells people that rewriting makes good writing. For some, yes. For others, it just dulls the edges, kills voice, and makes everything seem like it was written by a computer programmer. You’re in the rewriting produces good fiction camp, I’m in the power through camp. Both clearly work.

    My biggest thrill is writing myself into a corner like you described, because things then get really exciting, especially if there’s a tight deadline. Really, really exciting. Drives Kris nuts, but I enjoy it. I love the thrill and the panic. Like I said, I bore easily.

    Cheers
    Dean

  10. Dean,

    Agreed! Different strokes for different folks.

    When I was in college, I worked for a year for an upscale deli/caterer in Georgetown. The thing I liked best–and that I was good at, so I was the one they usually assigned it to–was when they’d plop down a slab industrial-looking food on my worktable, and my job was to portion it, arrange it, and decorate it for serving to customers (at outrageous prices).

    I feel the same way about writing. Getting text onto the worktable is the part of the job that has to be done. Most of the time, I find it backbreaking rather than creative. But then cutting it up, rearranging it, decorating it, and making it ready to serve to the public is the part I enjoy and like doing. :)

    LauraR

  11. Great article. You say you outline as you go, not beforehand. But how much do you know about your characters and plot before you begin? And how much time do you spend in prep? Thanks

  12. Very inspiring–and practical.

    I, too, have written novels in about a month, though it takes me longer to edit. (I not only go through it forward, but backward, and I read it out loud.) My family is very understanding about things going to pot when I get like that. However, I can only afford that pace about once a year, right now. Or perhaps I should say I’m only willing to put that pace in once a year or so. When the kids are older, I plan to increase that.

    Karina Fabian
    MAGIC, MENSA and MAYHEM: When the Faerie folk invade a Florida convention, one dragon detective’s headaches are your laughs. http://www.dragoneyepi.net

  13. Got to your site via a Yahoo link while searching for supercars! Glad I stumbled upon it.

  14. When I first read what the article was about, I thought it was crazy talk. By the end of the article it was very much the slapping the forehead moment. Thank you so much for this article!

    For those that do like to plan their books out in advance, have you tried the course at http://zero2novel.com?

  15. i love your writing style and blog ;)