I am a historian and writer of fiction. Either vocation could fill the hours of my days until I’m back to being star stuff. But I made the decision to commit to both. Recently, I noticed a tension between these two pillars of my life. A friction of processes. To understand and unpack it, I’ve written the following entries about speed, production, and craft. They are not as zippy as some of my other posts, but I think that’s necessary, and I hope folks find them useful, whatever their own vocation. These little essays are all part of a larger one I’m calling The Speed of Excellence: Your Mileage May Vary. Here’s the introduction.
PART I: FAST GUNS FOR SHORT STUFF
When I decided, after swearing I was done with school, to get a Ph.D., I received some advice from friends and colleagues who were either historians or soon-to-be post docs: stop writing fiction. Focus on your historical work. It’s too important to have competition for your attention. You can always go back, right?
I refused to even consider it. I’d been writing short stories for about three years. I’d sold maybe three tales, all in mags and places that don’t exist anymore. I’d even written two novels that stunk but I loved writing. In short, I had no meaningful success that could prove to the world I was fancy pants writing machine. Compare that to my training as a historian: I had an MA. I had become a course developer for my school and soon became a lecturer. I published in journals and did the conference circuit. And I was passionate about my subject. It would have been easy to just dive in and burn up as Ph.D. student.
But I knew that writing fiction was something I did not want to let slide in the wake of academics. It brought be too much joy, even with the cosmic ton of rejection slips. So, I decided I’d only work on short stories while I spent the next six years in archives in Canada and the UK, writing furiously in my apartment, and teaching and freelance writing to pay the bills.
With doctorate in hand in 2009, I committed to writing novels, but in that six years I was working on short stuff, I wrote a lot and became interested in the so-called “fast” writing school of fiction, writers who found that by writing fast, and lots, that they could sell more and improve quicker than if they focused on any single piece of work for a long time.
This was a tradition largely rooted in the pulps, though there were exceptions from the literary cannon as well. Ray Bradbury, who has bounced between both poles, always instructed young writers to do a “story a week” and in a year, with fifty two short stories done, you were bound to sell half of them, which was near double compared to those writing a story a month. In the process, you’d write out your bad stuff, and find your true voice quicker. Contemporary authors like Jay Lake and Jeffrey Thomson and others are also known as fast guns and have written short pieces about he value of writing lots and writing fast. Lake’s short guide was particularly insightful when I was considering this stuff, back in the day.
So, I did a lot of that stuff. Wrote a short story a week for a month. Then three months. Never did a whole year, something I’d like to try sometime. I did experiments and challenges with friends. I wrote for anthos. My gang of writer friends at the Homeless Moon started a chapbook of themed stories. I wrote fast, wrote a lot, and did a lot of revisions (I do not subscribe to the thinking that revisions are the enemy of fast writing or any first draft. Cultivating your inner editor is part of the job). “Fast writing” turned my enthusiasm into work, and over time, I got better and sold more as I got more and more stories out and into publication and, hopefully, improved my game. I took the same enthusiasm to the Odyssey Writing Workshop, which, more than anything, taught me how to write. I came home and applied those lessons to the fast writing I was trying, and good stuff came of it. Whatever little reputation in fiction I have accrued, it’s largely from busting my hump on short stories, writing very fast, over a long period of time.
And it was the exact reverse experience for my thesis . . .
NEXT TIME, PART II: A THESIS IS A WELL CONSIDERED THING.