The Speed of Excellence, Part I

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.

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About ridlerville

Jason S. Ridler is a historian, writer, and improv actor. He is the author of A TRIUMPH FOR SAKURA, BLOOD AND SAWDUST, the Spar Battersea thrillers and has published over sixty stories in such magazines and anthologies as The Big Click, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Out of the Gutter, and more. He also writes the column FXXK WRITING! for Flash Fiction Online. A former punk rock musician and cemetery groundskeeper, Mr. Ridler holds a Ph.D. in War Studies from the Royal Military College of Canada. He lives in Richmond, CA. Visit him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/jason.ridler.56
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5 Responses to The Speed of Excellence, Part I

  1. debs says:

    Very interesting, Jay. I reckon I’m slow. I spend 30-40 hours week and produce 5k of submittable fiction. Which in some ways is good, it’s 1-2 stories a week.

    But I would love to be faster.

    Things that slow me down are my high attrition rates, time for subbing, and general mucking about. I don’t finish everything I start, and I don’t work on one thing at a time.

    Maybe it’s time for another speed experiment.

    • ridlerville says:

      Hi Deb,

      Well, you’re busting your ass and that seems to be doing you very well. Huzzah! I think everyone would love to be faster, so long as their quality improved with the increase in the rate of production.

      If you’re really keen on a speed experiment, I’d recommend doing a story a week for a month, maybe try and cut your writing time down some. Maybe a quarter or a half. Lake made a good point that maybe half or a quarter of the stories won’t be good enough to sell, but could be improved with revision. Then, try a story a week for three months. I had good results in both instances, sold much of the stuff I wrote, and learned a lot from the stuff that didn’t sell. Whatever you do, I recommend doing it in atomized blips. Grow the skill over time. Don’t charge the mountain of Fifty Two Stories a Year without warming up!

      Glad you dug the post!

      JSR

  2. debs says:

    Thanks, Jay. I’m looking forward to part 2.

  3. dorothyanneb says:

    Ah, the joys of writing short – just threw in a slew of contest entries in the short and short-short categories. I think it works best for my brain-afraid-of-commitment, though the novel is coming along. How the heck are you, Jay?

    • ridlerville says:

      Hi Dorothy Anne! Hey, just remember to atomize: one page at a time, one word at a time. I’m doing well. Fighting a stupid cold, writing a biography, trying to finish my fourth novel of the year, taking care of the zoo at home and learning how to make turkey soup! So, traveling at my usual easy pace (heh). Best of luck with the contests and just keep pounding the keys!

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