Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Value of Writing Fast by Malcolm R. Campbell

You begin your new novel with gusto: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times on that dark and stormy night when Eliza Doolittle Smith tripped over the bloody body of one of her lovers and fell down the basement steps into the cold arms of another dead lover. “Yikes,” she shouted fearfully.

Before Eliza sees the demon hovering behind the neat rows of canned peaches, your inner editor proclaims: “This is crap.”

You know what happens next. You ponder. You stare at that first paragraph until, crap or not, all the life drains out of the story.

When you write fast, you don’t have time to listen to your inner editor or worry about what your parents will say when they read your novel later. Writing fast is scary. We can’t help but notice words and phrases flying by that make us cringe.

Writing fast is also empowering because the story is happening right now, evolving and unfolding before your eyes. Characters are doing things you never expected them to do. The plot is twisting down unexpected streets. You suddenly learn the butler didn’t do it and that the demon behind the canned peaches used to be your protagonist’s sweet grandmother Emmy. What a flowing river of words your story can be when you take a deep breath and just step out of the way.

I signed up for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) this year because I was stuck. I was pondering things too much! No, I didn’t make it to the 50,000-word level. But since I told everyone I was signing up, I had to do something. Staring at each paragraph for an hour just wouldn’t cut it. So, I wrote the opening chapters as fast as I could. Now I’m over 21,000 words into a story I was beginning to worry about writing at all.

NaNoWriMo forced me to turn off my inner editor and just write. No, I’m not happy with every word and phrase on my screen. But frankly, I’m surprised by some of the things that have happened between the characters. I feel empowered because I now know I can finish this book and ultimately be proud of it.

Some writers do their own versions of NaNoWriMo day in and day out by writing for a set number of hours at a specific time every day. Others have a daily word-count goal of, say, 2,500 rough draft words. Whether it’s the satisfaction of a disciplined approach or the pep talks we get through NaNoWriMo, writing buddies and critique groups, each of us needs to find a viable incentive for turning off the inner editor and writing fast.

Writing fast doesn’t necessarily mean writing sloppy. To some extent, it means zoning out and getting into a pure storytelling state of mind in which you more or less learn what’s going to happen as the words appear on your screen. Like your prospective readers, you’ll be spellbound about what might happen next.

You can edit and polish later.

Just write:

She turned on her flash light. There stood her canned peaches in neat rows. Something moved behind the Mason jars. “Oh, Mark,” she cried, is it you? I’m sorry about our silly little argument. Forgive me?” But the thing that moved was thinner than Mark, and its eyes glowed pale yellow, brighter than the peaches, and with an intensity that made Eliza’s skin feel like she was covered with snakes Her late Grandmother Emmy, bless her heart, had always been kind to snakes. Kind to a fault, some said.

For now, hang on and enjoy the ride!

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of three novels. Look for “The Sun Singer” and “Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire” on Amazon and Smashwords. His most recent novel, “Garden of Heaven: an Odyssey” is available on Amazon and OmniLit.


  1. Wonderful, Malcolm! And congrats on your 21,000 words. It usually takes me at least three months to write that many (usually carefully edited, I admit) words! I cannot wait for the story of Sarabande--I know a good editor when you're ready for that stage!

  2. I can always use a good editor, Smoky. Thanks.


  3. Wonderful post and absolutely great advice. Whenever I give a class I always tell my students to "just write". Even if you throw out a third of what you've written, think how much further ahead you are than just staring at a blank page. (PS - looking forward to hearing more about Eliza, her granny and all of her lovers)

  4. It's amazing how hard people try just to get some words down on paper. Just thinking about writing more than are needed and then throwing some of them away is often a hard concept to grasp.

  5. What a delightful post... and snakes. Why do I keep reading about snakes...?

  6. Thank you, Sheila. As for snakes, they're fun, especially in fiction.


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