Miles to go before I sleep

Write quickly, and you will never write well; write well and you will soon write quickly.

Marcus Fabius Quintilianus (1st century A.D.)

Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria contains a lot of tiresomely good advice for writers, and some that seems (to a gloomy fellow like myself) too pleasant to count as advice at all. He tells a little story about the perils of excessive rewriting, told to him by his friend Secundus:

I remember in this connexion a story that Julius Secundus… told me of the words once used to him by his uncle, Julius Florus, the leading orator of Gaul… a man eloquent as but few have ever been, and worthy of his nephew. He once noticed that Secundus, who was still a student, was looking depressed, and asked him the meaning of his frowns. The youth made no concealment of the reason: he had been working for three days, and had been unable, in spite of all his efforts, to devise an exordium for the theme which he had been given to write, with the result that he was not only vexed over his immediate difficulty, but had lost all hope of future success. Florus smiled and said, ‘Do you really want to speak better than you can?’

The purpose of editing and rewriting is to help us write as well as we can; nothing can make us write better than we can. Verbum sap.

Lately I have been trying to make myself mindful of this. I do not agree with the ‘Pulp Speed’ school, when they say that the sole and sufficient qualification for success is to put out a sufficiently large quantity of written product. It has to be well written, and it has to have something to say; every author whose work has endured has spent a great part of his working time coming up with good and original ideas for stories, and not so much on merely racking up wordage. Developing fluency with ideas is part of learning to write well; and nobody does it quickly except after long practice. ‘Pulp speed’ aims at nothing higher than recreating pulp fiction, which was sometimes good and occasionally brilliant (as with Edgar Rice Burroughs, or the best works of Robert E. Howard), but usually trite, derivative, formulaic, and dull. The best writers nearly always got out of the pulps the moment they found better-paying markets, and worried less about speed and more about quality thereafter.

However, there may come a point at which one has developed that fluency and, as Quintilian would say, learnt to write well; and then it is worth while to write quickly. William F. Buckley, Jr., for instance, so trained and disciplined his tongue that he could speak extempore with all the rhetorical skills and flourishes that characterized his best writing; and thereafter he could write good work almost as quickly as he could speak. He was reputed sometimes to have written his column in twenty minutes, and he responded with dudgeon to those who thought this speed unseemly:

The chronological criterion, you see, is without validity. Every few years, I bring out a collection of previously published work, and this of course requires me to reread everything I have done in order to make that season’s selections. It transpires that it is impossible to distinguish a column written very quickly from a column written very slowly. Perhaps that is because none is written very slowly. A column that requires two hours to write is one which was interrupted by phone calls or the need to check a fact. I write fast – but not, I’d maintain, remarkably fast. If Mr. Kondracke thinks it intellectually risky to write 750 words in 20 minutes, what must he think about people who speak 750 words in five minutes, as he often does on television?

I am not Bill Buckley, but I seem to have reached the point myself where writing as quickly as I can is not incompatible with writing as well as I can. My alpha readers, and above all my editorial adviser, the talented and formidable Wendy S. Delmater, have so often assured me this is the case that I am almost bound to believe them. Good news, especially about myself, is always the hardest news for me to believe; but there comes a point at which it seems futile to argue against it.

I find, these days, that I write my best stuff (such as it is) at a speed of about 500 or 600 words per hour for fiction, in which I have to invent interesting events for the story, and something over 1,000 words per hour for nonfiction, in which I can fall back on the facts. I rarely write 750 words in 20 minutes, but it has sometimes happened; I rarely take as long as two hours to write 750 words; and this, it would seem, puts me in the same class with Buckley in speed, though not, of course, in quality.

As I mentioned the other day, I have come to a difficult parting of the ways in my personal life, and find that there is nothing left for me to do but work as much as I can. On one point, at least, all the pundits of self-publishing agree: quantity of work multiplies the effects of quality. If you publish five books in a year, you will sell far more than five times as many copies as if you published one book of the same quality. Of course, one good book will outsell five bad ones, but both good books and bad benefit by travelling in convoy. Not many authors have had it in them to write five good books in a year; but sometimes one accumulates a backlog of unpublished stuff, as I have, and then the possibility of publishing five good books in a year presents itself.

For some years past, I have only been able to write intermittently, because my private life kept intruding; but now I seem to have reached a point at which I have no private life left. I am quite alone in the world. There is, it appears, no time like the present to apply myself to writing fast, and trust that I will also write well – or well enough. I hope I am right.

In any case, I have gone over matters with Wendy, and trotted out various ‘trunk stories’ and other manuscripts in progress, and calculated what quantity of work will be necessary to give me a fighting chance of paying my bills out of my sales. It seems that I will need to publish about 600,000 words of new stuff in the coming year or so. The great majority of that already exists in draft form, but will require a good redraft to bring it up to standard; the rest is plotted and outlined but not yet written. A little higher mathematics (such as long division) tells me that if I can write 2,000 words a day without fail, six days a week, I can meet that goal. For a little while now, I have been exceeding the pace; we shall see if that holds up.

For those of my 3.6 Loyal Readers who may wish to know, that 600,000 words includes the following projected works:

  • Books II through IV of The Eye of the Maker (a.k.a. ‘the Magnificent Octopus’).
  • Episodes 2 through 7 of Where Angels Die (a.k.a. ‘the Orchard of Dis-Pear’).
  • A collection of ‘essais’, The Tao of Fantasy. (Most of the pieces for this collection have already appeared on this blog; it only wants some connecting sections to tie them together into a book with a consistent argument.)
  • My long-projected monograph on The 7 Layers of Story, a kind of amateur excursion into literary theory. As with Writing Down the Dragon and other books of mine, I approach the subject from the point of view of the working writer, and from a mildly original angle; I hope that the result may not be too dull or obvious.
  • A slightly corrected second edition of Lord Talon’s Revenge, with new cover art which I am now in the process of commissioning. We shall see how that one goes. (Only the actual corrections are counted in the 600,000 words, not the previously published text.)
  • My little squib or ‘non-book’, Writer’s Block: An insider’s guide.

That makes a round baker’s dozen of titles, ranging in length from novelettes to full-grown novels; not counting material intended primarily for this blog, such as the ‘Impendices’ and a few one-off essais. If I can publish that quantity of stuff in the span of a year, with a suitable effort at promotion, and not attract the attention of any public worth having, I shall take that for a sufficient hint that my writing is not wanted, and look for some other way to occupy the residue of my days. Perhaps I shall become a tuna fisherman; but most probably not.

This is the plan at present; but probably life will interfere in unexpected ways. It usually does. Wish me luck, if you care to.


  1. Carlos Carrasco says

    Good Luck!

  2. Good luck, and please keep writing. I’m most interested in hearing the stories continue.

  3. Wendy S. Delmater says

    I do hope for regular updates, commonly called by other writers as “irons in the fire” posts. And as the listening post you bounce your ideas off of, I plant to stand as a monolith of sympathetic rubber.

  4. E. Crook says

    I’m looking forward to all those things you listed! I shall have to save up some money so that I can do my part in reassuring you that your writing is, indeed, wanted. Good luck!

  5. Andrew Nelson says

    Good luck!

  6. Mary Catelli says

    Good luck!

  7. Matthew Ess says

    Good luck, Mr. Simon. Let us know if you reach dire financial straits. I am not a rich man, but I can contribute some to help you out.

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