19 September 2013

Writing Efficiency in Its Myriad Forms

by Brian Thornton

In his excellent piece This Year You Write Your Novel, Walter Moseley gives the following advice: “The first thing you have to know about writing is that it is something you must do every day–every morning or every night, whatever time it is that you have. Ideally, the time you decide on is also the time when you do your best work.”

In his defense, Walter apparently has the luxury to plan out his schedule to quite a specific degree.

Along with “Write every day,” “Write fast” seems to be the mantra of this generation. “Writing fast and producing copious amounts of word product is the key to success,” so many “how to” books seem to say.


I’ll tell ya, I have had my share of 2,000 word-count days. Not a one of them came independent of either a hell of a lot of time spent thinking about what I wanted to write that day, or by a whole lot of later tweaking, editing, or outright re-writing.

Put simply, I can write fast, or I can write well. I cannot do both.

This is not to say that such a thing isn’t possible. It is! Just not for me.

I once wrote a pair of 40,000 word books (80,000 words total) in eight weeks. Tight deadline. Unreasonable (and unprofessional, and unhelpful) development editor didn’t make it any easier.

I was an unmarried, kidless apartment dweller at the time. I had (and still have) a day gig that required a fair amount of headspace. So it was work, home to write, bed, rinse and repeat.

Talk about a miserable couple of months!

Astonishingly these two books are still in print.

We spent longer on reworking what I’d written into something passable than it took to write the initial drafts, or, for that matter, for me to have written them well in the first place. But that was a different time in my career, and in my life.

If I were to find myself in that sort of situation today, I’d have to give the advance back. Seriously. I’ve got a marriage and a house and a wonderful one year-old son, all of whom require my time and attention.

More to the point, they command my time and attention. I enjoy the hell out of being married, being a father, and owning a home. I suspect the fact that I was in my mid-forties by the time I experienced any of these pleasures does nothing to lessen them.

Couple these aspects of my daily life with the fact that my day gig still requires a lot of my energy and attention, and I find myself left with the question, “How do I get anything written at all, let alone sold?”

The answer is that for I published my most recent book in 2011. That was also the year in which I collected and edited an anthology of crime fiction called West Coast Crime Wave. I got married and bought my house in 2010. My son was born in 2012.

So there was some adjustment involved in taking on these new responsibilities, adjustment time during which my publishing slowed to a stand-still.

This is not to say that I stopped writing during this time. Far from it. I figure that during the second half of 2011 and all of 2012, I easily wrote 50,000 words on my work-in-progress historical mystery.

I just won’t be publishing any of those words. They were intended to keep my hand in it, if you will, not to be part of the final equation.

And it worked.

You heard it here first: I’m just wrapping the sale of my first short story in years. I’m also nearly 2/3 of the way through the final draft of my current WIP, a historical thriller set in antebellum Washington, D.C. By this time next year, I’ll have this and another novel wrapped, in addition to writing three more new short stories, and publishing them along with some of my previously published canon in a collection.

And I won’t do it be “writing every day” or “writing fast.” With my schedule that’s just not feasible. So I do the next best thing.

I write when I can where I can as much as I can and as often as I can. Sometimes it’s 2,000 words a day. Sometimes it’s 2,000 words a week.

It takes a while longer to get my head back into the story once I’ve been away from it for a while, but I think that’s a small price to pay for making time to play with my son every day, spend quality time with my wife, and keep the house from falling down around our ears.

For example, I wrote the ending to “Paper Son,” my short story featured in Akashic Books’ Seattle Noir anthology, while sitting in Seattle Mystery Bookshop, waiting for my friend Simon Wood to finish up a signing there. What’s more, I wrote it on my Blackberry smartphone and emailed it to myself.

I’ve also been known to record story ideas while driving. My commute contributes to some terrific “alone and pondering” time.

Plus, I don’t tend to let story ideas fall by the wayside. This is especially true of short stories. I will get an idea, do some research (remember, I write historical mystery/crime fiction, after all), then begin working on it.

This has stood me in good stead. So far I’ve published five short stories (soon to be six), all with paying venues, out of a total of seven shorts actually completed.

In fact, the second story I sold to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, “Suicide Blonde,” was initially rejected. I reworked it, submitted it to the annual MWA anthology contest. They also rejected it.

But I believed in the story enough to resubmit it to Linda Landrigan AHMM, and this time she bought it. What a great feeling!

By the way, I almost never finish a short by working on it straight through. Usually the ones I’ve published have come from months or years of on and off development. Take the story I am about to sell. I first began work on it in 2007.

I guess in the end I don’t really disagree with Mr. Mosley’s excellent advice, at least in spirit. After all, while I can’t really generate new fiction every single day, I definitely do write every day (in various forms), and I believe I’m in complete agreement with the spirit of his advice, which seems to emphasize the importance of establishing a routine in order to help make you more efficient as a writer.

In that regard, I’m doing the best I can. And life is good!


  1. Thanks Brian! And keep up the good work!

  2. I agree--how much and how often we write (and especially how we write fiction) is highly individual. Besides Mosley, I've heard Sue Grafton and James Lee Burke say they write every day. None of these authors have day jobs, and all of them know with a lot more certainty than I that their writing will be paid for and published. And having young children at home is a game-changer: you can't leave kids in the sink for two days. :)

  3. Congratulations on your recent sales.
    When our son was young I found a play pen and Sesame Street the key to some writing time.

  4. I hear you, Brian--it has only been retirement that has freed me to write everyday, and mostly when I want. Prior to that, for over twenty-five years, my situation was compounded by rotating shifts between night and day; with days off interrupted by mandatory court appearances. Did I mention a growing family who seemed to have gotten the idea that I was supposed to be 'there' for them? Durn kids. Looking back on it I don't know how I got anything written. Though it's blindingly obvious why I concentrated on short stories.

    Great article!

  5. Amen, Brian. I'm retired, and I still find my time eaten away, by husband/children/grandchildren/friends and life in general - but how awful it would be to have complete control over all my time, but without any of that...

    I do write something every day - not necessarily fiction, but something. And I write on anything anywhere - restaurant napkins, order blanks, discarded envelopes if nothing else is available. You find ways...

    And I can hardly wait for the book!

  6. The ability to write fast is often tied to how much your brain is engaged with a story.

    I can usually get a 500 word day in, 1000 is not unusual, though beyond that is a strain.

    The problem is how much of that brain power is being diverted from other tasks that require my attention. There's always a trade off, and we want quality over quantity.

  7. Brian, you've got a nice family, some good short stories and several non-fiction books published. I'd say you're doing a fine juggling act.

  8. Man, I have to put in days of thinking before beginning hours of writing and then the amount of editing and rewriting quintuples the load… Nothing fast about it.

  9. Thanks for the great comments, guys!

    Elizabeth- thanks for reminding me, I've got dishes to do tonight!

    Janice- my son has no interest in "Sesame Street." The only things on TV that hold his attention are the theme music to "The Big Bang Theory" and "SuperWhy." Go figure.

    David- I hear ya on short stories. Less time commitment (unless you're Mark Twain, or me...).

    Eve- You're absolutely right! And thanks! I can't wait to SEND it to you! I'll be really interested in getting your impression of my take on Our Man Elliot.;)

    EvilJ- you're right, of course. As usual.

    RT- Thanks man. My family is pretty damned fond of you, too.:)

    Leigh- Wow, I got tired just reading your post! Talk about preparing and prewriting!


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