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The View From Here: Sprinting

As part of Project: Re-Brand, the early-week post here at rlsyme.com will be called “The View From Here” and will mostly be about my writing life and what’s going on at my desk.

This week, because I’ve just completed a particularly interesting project, I’m going to talk about sprinting.

Not running.

Sprinting, to writers, means something very different than it does to runners. I know this because my sister is a runner, and if you say “sprinting” to her, she has memories of high school track or her morning 10K. (Have I mentioned lately how much I wish I was a runner? I think running is cool. I just don’t do it.)

Writing sprints are a similar concept. You want to go as fast as you possibly can. Writing, all-out, no stopping. There are many versions of these sprints on Facebook, Twitter, and yahoo loops or MyRWA or critique groups worldwide. My favorites are the #1k1hr and the 15-minute sprints.

The purpose of timed sprints is both to write a certain word count, and write for a certain period of time. So the #1k1hr sprint is designed to get you to write for an hour and to try to write 1000 words in that hour. (As Guy Bergstrom pointed out, wisely, a true fast-drafter should be able to write many more words than that, but sometimes, you have to stop and think or do some research or check your notes for a particular thing and yes, I almost always write much more than 1K in 1hr, but the point is to aim for writing a certain amount of time and accomplishing an accomplishable goal in that time. The particular hashtag we use was Patrick Alan’s brainchild, but now we’ve also moved on to 15-minute wind sprints. Mostly because as Nora famously said, you can’t edit a blank page.

Well, we all certainly have words to edit.

At the height of the #1k1hr craze, Roxanne St. Claire wrote a pretty controversial post about how she didn’t like the idea of fast-drafting, or sprinting. She has, since, recanted that view in part due to a particularly brilliant analogy her husband gave. And now that sprinting’s most famous (or infamous?) critic has reversed her position, it seems to be all the rage again.

In fact, so much the rage, that the #1k1hr group on Facebook sometimes gets new members every day, and you can always meet someone new on the #1k1hr hashtag on Twitter, ready to try out their sprinting chops.

Why do I bring up sprinting? Because I’ve been doing it, on some level, for many years now, but I’ve never considered fast-drafting before. Before, I always had a day job, so I would maybe get in one or two sprints a week. I averaged about 5K in writing per week, which is typically about three sprints. But now that I’m writing full-time, I started wondering how it would work for me to try fast-drafting.

One of my RWA chapters does something called BIAW, or “Book in a Week”. It’s become (outside of NaNo) mostly a place for us to sprint and encourage, sprint and encourage, but you have to set your goals at the beginning and then check in every day with your word counts, so I decided last week would be a good one to try out this fast drafting.

So I tried it. For one week, all I did was write. No researching, no plotting, no researching, very little email, almost no blog posting, no editing, and no censoring. Just writing.

I ended up writing just over 45K in one week. And then not wanting to write another word for the rest of my life. No, I’m kidding. But I definitely took a day off when I was done. It was an intense week.

But now, I’ll have to go back and edit that book I wrote. I haven’t opened it again, and I’m a little afraid to do so. Like Roxanne St. Claire said, now that the “frame” is up, you have to go in and add an awful lot. It’s not just prettying the place up. There are still structural pieces missing. And there are still a couple of floors that need to be squeezed in. There’s also probably a floor or two that will be completely destroyed from the current version. Or maybe edited beyond recognition.

Part of the reason I wanted to write about this experience was because when I was sprinting a little bit at a time, I was able to do a little more editing as I go, so I had a little better of a product when I finished. But the product I have today is really little more than a structure. It just went too fast for me to think too much about how to make it pretty while I was building. I hit the major W plots and some of the major character development arc points, but if I’m honest, that’s all I really did. Most of the rest of it may or may not stay. And I think I’m okay with that. The big deal is having the structure up.

Turns out Nora was right.

Now that I have the structure up, my brain is bursting with ways to change it, add to it, tear parts of it down, and restructures other parts. Of course, I’ll still send it to readers and an editor, but at least I feel like I have more than a blank slate to work with.

I think the helpful part of the fast draft process is the not thinking too much. I did a bit of plotting and character work before I started, but I mostly let the story go where it would after I got through the first chapter (which I’d plotted out a bit at least). I hope that this will make the character’s actions seem more realistic in the long run.

Here’s how this is different from my former process.

First of all, until I realized that everyone needs to edit (extensively), I was happy with what has commonly come to be known as “clean drafting.” It’s the process of editing yourself as you go. When you’re finished, for the most part, you have a clean draft. What most people would turn in to their editor.

I completely understand that editing-as-you-go produces clean drafts, and for some people (I used to consider myself in this group… now I’m not sure this group should exist at all), because we plot as we go, also, “clean drafting” can produce a workable draft. However, after going through some of Margie Lawson’s editing workshops, I’ve realized that even my best “clean drafts” need some serious editing, and not just for word choice. I’m convinced, after having read published books by friends who also are “clean drafters”, that we all suffer from the same problem.

When we “clean draft”, our writing is good enough. We have strong enough voices that our editors will enjoy the story, and even get caught up in it. But the bottom line is, everyone needs to edit, and taking a “clean draft” into the editing process can produce a great draft. I say this to say, I think everyone would benefit from deep editing. Even those whose first drafts are good and whose edited first drafts are pretty good.

Second of all, I often have a difficult time finishing drafts because I get a better idea a week into the process. Well, if I were to be able to finish a draft in a week, that wouldn’t be an issue. I’d simply start researching for a new draft. I think this might be possible, if I continue to only need to work part-time at the theatre, and not need to find an 8-5 somewhere. Fingers crossed.

All in all, the week of sprinting was good for me. I’ve gone back to my normal pace of writing 1K or so a day, and spending most of my time editing. But we’ll see how it goes. I may keep up this practice of fast drafting. If I do, I will certainly take Roxanne St. Claire’s advice and take Candace Havens’ workshop on fast drafting. While I enjoyed the process, I want to make sure to find out if there are ways I could be more efficient or effective during the process, and I find workshops can often help with that.

We shall see.

What about you? Do you sprint regularly? Do you fast draft? What are your tips if you do? As a reader, can you tell when someone has “clean draft”ed? Have you ever walked away from a book wishing the author had done more editing?

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