I have never considered myself a fast reader. My reading rate has increased since I finished my Master’s degree—probably because I was doing so much of it—but I still rarely polish off a book in an afternoon unless it’s as short as Stardust. I’m not a very fast writer either. My secret in grad school to finishing my essays early was that I started them very early. Once I deemed my research complete (that is, when all my secondary sources started referring to each other) I would draft an outline and start as soon as I could. Fiction has rarely come easy to me. A story is a long and twisty process entailing multiple drafts, rewrites, starts and stops. A good short story requires months of work, but not continuous; I think of the process as interrupted islands of devotion in-between the rest of life.
It came as some surprise that some people didn’t pay attention to every word in a novel. That they could finish books quickly through a calculated set of skips and skims, not seeming to miss any element of story or character or theme, just leaving out phrases and words. I admit the idea almost shocks me. That a writer can invest so much in every sentence, only for those sentences to be unread.
Of course, that’s not true. A good many writers aren’t so attentive; actually, few writers are—a missed stumble in revision, a clunky configuration here and there. Certain writing styles just read easier, I find, because they lull you in their wordiness: you don’t need to pay attention to every word in A Song of Ice and Fire, so the pages just melt away. I still don’t skip anything, but nothing would be lost if I did, and my brain doesn’t retain anything beyond what’s actually important to reconfiguring the narrative in my brain. I can read a book by John Scalzi in a day, mainly because his prose doesn’t warrant paying much attention to and there’s so much white space because he leaves most of the story to the dialogue. It also explains how he writes a book in the space of a month or two, why Brandon Sanderson can produce enormous and tediously repetitive fantasy epics in such a short space of time (and stretch a story over ten enormous volumes that doesn’t seem to warrant even one)—because I can up my production too if I would just forget about crafting every sentence and let my fingers fly. I kind of wish I could think this way. It doesn’t stop some people from writing well. Charles de Lint is insanely prolific and still writes beautifully, making me think it might just come naturally to him. But while his prose his lovely he re-uses characters, settings, stories and motifs to such a degree that I feel no desire to keep up with his output and save my selections for the books that stand out.
Everyone writes at a different pace. Reads at a different pace, too. If I weren’t trying to break apart every book when I read it, considering one thing after another, I’d probably get through my backlog a lot quicker. If I could just sit down and write a rough draft in a white heat ready for revisions later on, I’d probably finish a lot more things and learn a lot more about writing and publishing than I have. Having unfinished works strewn and scattered over my hard drive isn’t very heartening.
I guess it’s the above aspect that’s finally making me warm towards National Novel Writing Month—the idea of trying to produce 50,000 words in a month. I doubt I’ll join in for November, but I’ve been contemplating trying the challenge a different month to train myself into finishing a substantial work in a short period of time, no matter how shitty the result might be. To at least experience what it’s like to write in a white heat, write without weighing each sentence, and instead having a rough lump of story left over at the end, for salvaging and shaping should I see fit.