Let’s Not Be Obsessed with Speed, Okay?
Jun 20 ● BY Ciera Horton McElroy
There are lots of books about writing books. And these books often seem obsessed with timelines. Just how quickly can you yank a novel out from your brain?
This Year You Write Your Novel
90 Days To Your Novel
Write Your Novel in a Month
The Ten Day Outline
Now, I am a self-proclaimed fast writer, but this is light-speed even for me. A novel in a year? Three months? One month? Ten days? The implication here is that creation must be quick, must fit into our calendar, must have a definitive end date. Sarah Domet’s 90 Days to Your Novel was, in particular, a book we discussed in depth during my MFA. Her introduction states the book’s goals plainly:
“1. If you do not write on a daily basis, or a near-daily basis, you are not a writer.
2. Outlining is an essential component of novel writing.
3. Novels are written scene by scene, not character by character or action by action.
4. It’s possible to write a book in months, not years.”
I’ll tell you right now that I fail all four of these criteria, and I damn sure still call myself a writer. Because I am one. And in fact, I am that kind of writer who can pass for writing “a book in months”—except, that’s not the whole story. And in most cases, those writers who claim to churn out a masterpiece in one fell swoop are either exaggerating or misunderstood. Take Joyce Carol Oates, for instance. Notoriously prolific and disciplined but also heralded as a speed-icon. Yet Oates has said: “People think that I write quickly, but I actually don’t. I remember thinking to myself, ‘Am I still working on this novel?’ It’s such a slow evolution. The point of anxiety is lost in all that. You can’t be anxious every minute of every day for eight months.”
In essence, just because you’re disciplined doesn’t mean you don’t need time.
Friends from my MFA program at the University of Central Florida probably got the wrong idea when they saw me bring in a “new novel” for workshop in the fall of my second year. Brenda Peynado, author of THE ROCK EATERS, was (finally) hosting a novel workshop, something the fiction writers had clamored for. All of us liked to write short stories, but we loved to read novels. That’s an important difference. Brenda’s syllabus was clear: we had the option to workshop a portion of a novel, plus our outline, or we could bring in an entire manuscript. The class would then have one week to read our shitty drafts and tear the plot apart.
I dedicated the summer of 2018 to churning out my manuscript, ATOMIC FAMILY. I wrote like I had never written before and may never write again. I could feel the deadline of the fall, the urgency. This was my one chance to have a full novel workshopped for a three-hour period during my MFA, and by God, it was going to count. My days, quite literally, looked like this
7:00 am: wake up, make coffee, read five pages of a book, and then get the “itch”
7:30 am: adjust the seat of the fraying Office Depot chair I got for 50% off and turn on my writing playlist and light a candle and GO
10:00 am: realize I’m hungry, eat whatever I can find in my five-minute break
11:00 am: stop to read the research I’d printed at the public library and fact check something
1:00 pm: realize I’m really hungry now, stop for lunch, read what I just wrote
2:00 pm: take a break, take a bath
4:00 pm: go again
I lived and ate and slept and breathed and read ATOMIC FAMILY. I only watched Cold War documentaries. I only listened to my writing playlist, a collection of cinematic theme songs that got me into the right headspace. In the span of about two months, I had just under 300 pages of what would become, after two serious rewrites, my debut novel. I think it’s possible that some of my cohort hated me when I went back to grad school that fall with this thing I’d created over the summer: like I’d gone away thin and come back with a secret baby. Surprise!
It was the first time ATOMIC FAMILY had existed in its novel iteration, but definitely not its genesis. Let me be clear: this was not a NaNoWriMo-type frenzy. This was more akin to Jack Kerouac’s typing of ON THE ROAD in a maddened three-week streak when really, it was not a burst of impromptu genius as he led readers to think. That book had been brewing for a long, long time. It’s surprisingly easy to make something look more impressive than it actually is.
The truth is that ATOMIC FAMILY began as a collection of short stories that I started as a sophomore in college. I was nineteen years old and taking Intro to Creative Writing. The fiction story I turned in for workshop was about a young boy (based on my father) and his alcoholic mother (my grandmother) whose relationship was made extra tense by the father’s work at a secretive bomb plant in town. My father had told me countless stories about growing up during the Cold War: about duck and cover drills and fallout shelters. But most of his stories returned to the mother figure that haunted his childhood. That’s what I couldn’t shake. And so I found myself writing about it…and writing about it. What developed in college was a short story collection that I eventually used to get into my MFA. Only two stories from the collection were ever published, and I spent four years writing it.
But here’s the thing: the emotional labor of writing my novel began there years ago. In my dorm, in Chicago winter, trying to untangle fact from fiction and build a world around this young boy and his troubled mother. Every book I read, every craft essay I studied, every time I revised and rewrote scenes from that earliest of drafts—everything prepared me for the marathon of draft-creation that happened in 2018.
So, did I write fast? Yes. Did I write a novel in two months? Hell no.
For years, I bought into the “write fast in a blast of energy”/ “follow the muse” myth. I believed in the promise of NaNoWriMo: if I could just write faster, produce more material, finish that damn book in 90 days, I’d finally make it as a writer. Didn’t write today? Failure! Didn’t draft a new novel outline in 10 days? Well, maybe I didn’t need an outline after all. Maybe that was my problem: it was impeding the spontaneity, the jazz. I’d fallen down the rabbit hole of Kerouac-obsession as a high schooler, like so many others. So when I watched those old interviews of Kerouac saying he wrote his monolithic magnum opus in three weeks, I believed him. I envied the gift of un-interruption.
It wasn’t until this year, as I started researching Kerouac for a new project, that I realized this was a grandiose PR stunt and a very blaring white lie. Yes, he really did type the notorious road scroll in that spectacularly short amount of time in April 1951. But no, he did not invent the world and the characters and the “plot” (loosely held) for ON THE ROAD in one coffee-fueled session. Instead, Kerouac had been trying to write his road novel for years. He started and stopped. He took notes and reworked passages. He was very open about this search for the story. In 1948, one year after his own cross-country trip, he journaled: “I have another novel in mind —‘On the Road’—which I keep thinking about: —about two guys hitch-hiking to California in search of something they don’t really find, and losing themselves on the road, and coming all the way back hopeful of something else. Also, I’m finding a new principle of writing.”
Honestly, I wish I would have known this back in college. Perhaps I would have not felt such pressure to write a novel so quickly. Perhaps I wouldn’t have felt guilty every November when my Instagram friends took to National Novel Writing Month to earn their 50,000 words badge while I was taking finals. I have no doubt that some artists really do create spontaneously. That is not me. And that is not most writers I know. And it is absolutely okay amid the rush of New Years’ Resolutions to not give yourself the pressure of making this the “year you write a fucking bestseller out of the blue.”
This realization has caused me to relax a good bit. Because now in 2022, my writing days cannot possibly look like what they looked like during my MFA. Now I have a full-time business and a baby, and six hours of pure novel-time every single day is simply not possible at my current stage of life. And I’m alright with that. I have no qualms with the fact that I will not be writing a novel in 90 days or one month or three weeks. I do hope, however, that I will write another novel in a year or two or maybe three. Who knows? It took me a collective seven for the last book, and I’m only twenty-six. I’ve got loads of time. And so do you.
Note: ATOMIC FAMILY is forthcoming from Blair Publishers in February 2023.