Sunday, June 5, 2011

Tortoise Speed

Using your brain to write is like using a specific muscle; it must be exercised at least somewhat regularly if it is ever to be built up, and once built up, it must not be allowed to atrophy.

But what if every time you sit down to write the words don’t come. Or worse, what if everything sounds like something an insidious hack drunk on hack-writing potion would write at a hack-writing festival for hack lovers? I can assure the gentle reader that I know just what this feels like. The last thing you want to do is write, and writing is what you’ve set yourself to do everyday.

The dilemma can kill a writer completely.

I have a solution, but it will seem, well, wrong somehow. If you can’t write your own stuff, then don’t write your own stuff.

I am advocating a simple solution. Find a book that you love, take it down from the shelf, or rip it off the computer if need be, weight it open on your desk and begin copying it, word for word. If it is book you love, this should be easy ... so long as you can keep your eyes from just drifting forward, until you’re in your cumfiest chair reading. Seriously, write it out, just as the author wrote it out before you. At least one of two things should happen.

In the first place, you will, after spending enough time at it (twenty or thirty pages, perhaps spread out over several days), you’ll become more aware of the sentence structure and the pacing than you ever were before. One of the problems with equating your writing to someone else’s writing is that you’re familiar with their writing at rabbit speed compared to your own efforts, which you’re used to viewing at tortoise speed. If you slow someone else’s work down to a familiar speed, you’ll have a real comparison between your writing and someone else’s. You may start to notice that your writing only seems hackneyed because of the speed you’re reading it at. Readers won’t read it at your speed.

The other thing you may start to notice (and this may take longer, sixty or ninety pages, or never, depending on the author) is that not every word written on the page really belongs there. You may notice certain words get used more often that you’d have thought normal. And you may notice certain passages are, well, pretty worthless. You’ll notice this because you have to spend an hour or so writing it out, thinking, jeez, I wish this conversation-slash-descriptive passage were over.

DON’T allow yourself to jump ahead and only write out the good bits. Write everything out, as long as you can stand it. If you’ve got it in you, write out at least two hundred pages, no matter how long that takes. If you ever write a book, you’ll have to get used to writing two hundred pages or more. For the moment, I’m only asking that you write out someone else’s pages, someone who is supposedly already proven to be a good and respected writer.

If, after that’s done, you want to enlighten yourself still further, start copying out a BAD book. Something that is just awful, something that you would never, ever read in a million years. Find out how a book editor feels. And after you get to the point where you’re ready to kill kittens, start rewriting that book with impunity. Change the character’s names, change who kills who in scene three, change the story line and the writing completely. Just go with it.

Now, go back to your own writing. Tell me how different it feels.


  1. That sounds like one hell of an exercise. Gonna try that this week. My job shifted me to nights for the next several days, so when my body adjusts I'll get back to it. In the mean time I have been "forcing" myself to "free write" about a page every day. Usually something in line with your post for the day. Today I tried to "drown the reader" in a description of my fictional world based on how I perceive the world today. It may not be good, but I am regurgitating some resentments out. It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times kind of thing.

    I'm also seeing alot of similarities in writing literature and writing music (being a lifelong hobby guitarist).

  2. Holy crap! This is something that I will definitely try.

    It also makes me wonder if Borges was onto the same thing with "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote." :-)