I'm trying to learn to write quickly for NaNoWriMo.
I’ve always written very slowly. For NaNoWriMo, I’ll need to write 50,000 words in November. That’s an average of 1667 words per day. To me, that’s a lot of words.
Since I’ve started studying fiction (a month or two ago)*, I’ve become convinced that no matter how much theory I pack into my head, I’m not going to see much improvement until I’ve written a bunch. I don’t think this because of the standard writing advice, which claims competence in writing happens after a million words. I don’t buy that claim.**
But efficient practice requires fast feedback loops. One way or another, feedback loops in writing will consist of words. So to get fast feedback loops, I need to write words quickly. That’s not the same as writing a bunch of words, but it does result in a bunch of words.
I’ve tried to practice writing quickly in three ways: Daily free writing, one exercise a day from Story Starters, and one kata cycle a day from Writer Kata. I did free writing for about three months, Story Starters for about three weeks, and I’ve so far done Writers Kata for about a week.
The first two methods didn’t do much for my speed, but Writer Kata is working.
Every day, or almost every day, I perform one “kata cycle”. A kata cycle is a total of ten writing prompts.
- The first four prompts ask you to write a sentence: “Write a sentence containing a metaphor describing a walk through a snow storm.”
- The next three prompts ask you to write a paragraph: “Write a paragraph where an argument breaks out in an inappropriate place.”
- Then there are two prompts for “sketches”, essentially tiny fictions with little or no plot that are all about description. “Write a sketch, containing dialogue, describing two women who find a baby in a basket next to the river.”
- Finally, there’s a story prompt: “Write a story, containing mono no aware, where a Roman boy walks through a bloody battlefield somewhere in the middle East.”
You gain experience points for completing kata, and you can spend experience points to skip prompts you don’t like. The prompts change every day - they’re user-generated and then curated, and you can gain XP by creating prompts that get accepted - but the form is always the same. Four sentences, three paragraphs, two sketches, and a story. You can also gain XP by making your writing public.
A week ago, it took me three hours to complete a kata cycle. Three days ago, it took me one hour. Today, it took me twenty-eight minutes.
Why is this working?
First of all, there’s a warm up. By the time I’m actually writing a story, my mind’s already worked itself into a creative mode, and I’m not paralyzed by a blank sheet of paper. It’s a lot easier to write the first sentence when it’s the only sentence. So I start with pressure almost as low as in free writing, and only increase the pressure after establishing momentum.
Secondly, the existence of a constant form allows me to time myself meaningfully, and therefore to know whether I’m progressing and by how much.
I’ve tried timing simple word count while free writing or doing other writing exercises, but that doesn’t seem to work as well. By timing free writing, the thing I’m actually practicing is putting any kind of word whatsoever on the page. I have written whole paragraphs that say “dog dog dog…” just to keep my pen moving. Yes, it teaches me to get words on paper - and that’s proved somewhat useful - but the skill fails to transfer the moment it matters at all what the words are.
By timing other kinds of writing exercises, the thing I’m actually practicing is filling the paper with words related to that specific prompt. That sounds good at first, but there are two problems. One, I’m not practicing completing the prompt. In fact, I might be practicing blabbering on well past where the end of the story should have been, which may be actively counterproductive. Also, if I try to solve this by “completing as many exercises as possible in an hour” and my exercises vary a lot in form, then my exercise counts by day aren’t comparable.
Maybe on Monday I completed five exercises that were about as difficult as “describe ten different ways of killing someone with a helium balloon”, while on Tuesday I completed only one exercise, but the exercise was “write five sketches, each depicting a different character learning to ice skate for the first time”. Did I write faster on Monday, or on Tuesday? Writing speed isn't as straightforward as it may seem at first.
Timing simple word count isn’t the only way of measuring “how fast I write”, and I suspect it’s not the best way. I don’t know how many words I wrote in my last kata cycle, and I don’t care very much. I’m not exactly practicing writing words. I’m practicing writing sentences, paragraphs, sketches, and stories. I’m practicing imagining and then immediately articulating ten completely unrelated fictional circumstances as quickly as possible, with increasing amounts of story content as I progress through the cycle.
Timing simple word count trains brute speed, while kata cycles train both brute speed and creative agility. The thing that slows me down is something like, “I hold onto my current thought too tightly, and use my attention to perfect it instead of to capture it on paper and flow forward to the next thought.” When I’m fixated on one thought, quickly writing it down results in a few words, followed by a lot of staring at the page and thinking of other ways to arrange the words, or other ways to express the same thought. When I can have a fluid stream of thoughts, quickly writing each down as it happens results in a lot of words.
The third reason Writers Kata works is that there are fast feedback loops within individual kata. This is why I’ve been able to develop a specific mental motion that lets me write quickly. There’s a feeling of searching for exactly the right word to use, or exactly the right idea to have. If I realize I’ve just spent thirty seconds searching for exactly the right word to use in Sentence One, then if I feel the same pausing, searching, weighing sensation while writing Sentences Two, Three, or Four, I’ll match it up immediately with the mistake still hanging in short term memory.
So now I have a speed-writing Cognitive Trigger-Action Plan: If I notice a pausing, searching, weighing sensation while trying to write quickly, then I’ll write down whatever thought I’m having and run with it.
I've needed to add an extra CTAP to support the last that goes, “If I feel worried that the thing I wrote down doesn’t make sense, I’ll move on anyway.” Today I wrote the sentence, “My toes tingled with cold, and my boots bit the snow.” My boots bit the snow? I thought. What the hell is that? And then I noticed I was worrying that the thing I wrote made no sense, so I moved on.
I’ll need further speed-writing skills to complete a 50,000 word novel in a month, which I expect will involve running with ideas at the level of large story arc and character. Developing those is much of why I want to do NaNoWriMo in the first place. With any luck, the relevant mental motions will prove similar to the ones I’m learning from the kata cycles.
*I haven't been blogging a lot because I've been studying fiction, because I'm tired of trying to teach things in the form of non-fiction, because the things I want to teach involve imagined experiences, which are best conveyed through fiction.
**It seems that how you practice matters at least as much as how much you practice, and I don’t expect that the people experiencing the “competence after a million words” phenomenon were practicing very well, since people practice poorly by default. It’s not going to take me a million words to become a competent fiction writer. Furthermore, given that I think more than ten percent of published novelists have written greater than ten novels worth of words in their lives, and I consider less than one in ten randomly selected novels to include “competent” writing, writing a million words is not sufficient for competence. So I’d be focused on more than just “writing a bunch of words”, even if a million words were my goal.