Speed and Simenon

Enjoyment as a Productivity Strategy

I have been thinking about speed a lot. How can I write more, better and faster? And how can I make my stories move faster. As Jeff Bezos once said,

More speed is something you will never regret having.

And, as Ray Bradbury said, 

Quantity produces quality. If you only write a few things, you’re doomed.

There is a tendency to try to make a book (or any creative work) perfect. To both plan and rewrite beyond the point of diminishing returns. And I can see ways that I have been guilty of both. 

My process feels slow and often painful. And maybe some of that pain is unavoidable. But I wonder if it has to be slow. And if it went faster, would it hurt less? You know, like ripping off a band-aid? 

I suspect I can be much faster and much more prolific. And right now I am in search of how. So in addition to setting an ambitious daily word count goal, I have been reading about people who write a lot and how they do it. 

Dean Wesley Smith talks about a method for writing a clean first draft with no rewriting that he calls writing “Writing into the Dark”. While I’m skeptical about parts of the idea, I think the core of what he says is very useful. Because he argues that the most important thing in the process is the enthusiasm of the writer. If the writer is excited and having fun, he or she will naturally produce more. 

And that is part of his argument against outlines. If you outline, you have to write the story twice and the second time around (the first draft) becomes tedious and much harder to complete.

I don’t know that I’m abandoning outlines altogether, but his point is brilliant – because it leads me to ask the most productive question I’ve come up with, What is going to make this the most fun for me?

Quality from Quantity? Really?

The other question I have to ask is, do very fast writers produce inferior quality works? You’re not spending ask much time on the craft or the structure? Do things easily become derivative and formulaic? Not necessarily and perhaps not at all. I can think of many writers who wrote fast and well. Shakespeare might be a prime example. But off the top of my head – Asimov, Westlake, Block, King come to mind. And, Georges Simenon.

Simenon is a French writer of crime fiction noted for his detective Maigret. He wrote nearly 500 novels and 75 of those featured Maigret. If you haven’t read one. Do so immediately. They are brilliant.And he didn’t even consider them his good books.

His prose style is simple, direct, fast, and arresting. Which makes him great in translation. It’s the same economy and grounding in action and images that I love in writers like Richard Stark, Elmore Leonard, and, of course, Hemingway. 

And it’s interesting to note that it is very different than the wordplay style of writers like Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett and P.G. Wodehouse, who I also love. What can I say, perhaps there is no depth of personality without paradox?

So how’d he do it?

Here’s what his son had to say. 

While writing (5 books x 15 days max = 80 days a year): Wake up at 5:00 am, in his den at 6:00 am, writes a chapter longhand, out by 11:30 am, reads the newspapers, lunch with the family at 12:30, short siesta at 13:15, back in the den at 14:00, types the morning chapter, out of the office at 17:00, reads the newspapers, helps the kids with their homework, dinner at 18:30, in bed around 21:00

And was he a pantser or a plotter?

In general, the notes were not that detailed, as they usually fitted on the back of an A4 yellow envelope. They consisted mostly of lists of names, some biographical elements about the characters, rough sketches of a few locations, and that was about it. A typical novel, 10 chapters long, would take my father 10 days to write, one chapter a day. According to his diaries, he did interrupt a few novels for health reasons, but only for one or two days, and that was before returning to Europe in 1955. After that, I don’t recall any interruption.

Here’s what the man himself said in a Paris Review Interview. (He is talking about his pre-writing process )

SIMENON

Yes, a couple of days. Because as soon as I have the beginning I can’t bear it very long; so the next day I will take my envelope, take my telephone book for names, and take my town map — you know, to see exactly where things happen. And two days later I will begin. And the beginning will be always the same; it is almost a geometrical question: I have such a man, such a woman, in such surroundings. What can happen to them to oblige them to go to their limit? That’s the question. It will be sometimes a very simple incident, anything which will change their lives. Then I write my novel chapter by chapter.

INTERVIEWER

What has gone on the planning envelope? Not an outline of the action?

SIMENON

No, no. I know nothing about the events when I begin the novel. On the envelope, I put only the names of the characters, their ages, their family. I know nothing whatever about the events which will occur later. Otherwise, it would not be interesting to me.

What I take from this

Creating something out of nothing is painful. Well, maybe painful isn’t the right word, it’s scary in a way that is not easy to describe. Disquieting, perhaps. And writers will avoid that uncomfortable moment of disquiet however they can.

Let me draw an analogy. Let’s say you are going to dump a bucket of very cold water over your head. (I highly recommend it. Dousing, as it’s called is a very healthful practice.) But, it’s sucks. Especially the first time. But even when you are (more or less) comfortable with it. It sucks. 

So you want to do it, but you don’t. And you find ways to put it off or weasel out of it. And there’s always a moment. Long or short, where you stand there, naked (literally, metaphorically or both) looking at the bucket, saying to yourself, “Am I really going to do this?” And then you dump the bucket over your head, you’re experience of being alive is expanded, you get great surge blood flow, a good kickstart to your day, and your immune system and metabolism get a boost. Plus you get to feel like a badass because you’ve just done something that most people can’t do. Whatever other challenge you have that day, it just got a little smaller.

Writing is like that. And one of the ways a writer can weasel out of doing the real work is by doing research or plotting. Another great way is by writing newsletter posts instead of books. Or making videos. Or futzing with KDP ads. Or ‘social media-ing’. Some of this is necessary, sure. But some of it is just me fooling myself. 

So, like Simenon, I think it would be best to get all the ‘research’ out of the way upfront. So I have one less excuse

But there is a secondary problem I can solve. One that I’m running into with the final ‘How to Succeed in Evil’ book. This entire series of books was plotted like a season of television, so there are lots of interlinking arcs and, at the time, I didn’t see how I could do it without a detailed outline. 

But the real problem is that as I sit down to write the book, a lot of the juice I had to write it went away because I “knew” where it was going. But at the same time, when I came to a part of my ‘detailed’ outline that was now wrong, or turned out to be a dud of a scene, instead of feeling freedom, I felt like someone took the handrails away from me. That I was lost, because somehow I couldn’t make up a new scene. 

This is distraction and weakness masquerading as useful work. 

What will make it more fun?

So back to my original, useful question, what will make the process of writing more enjoyable? What will make writing the most fun for me? I don’t think the answer should be the same for every writer, but for sure the question should be. Because the more fun it is, the less willpower you will need to expend to get it done. 

Right now, for me, that looks like outlining less. And more fundamentally, not caring about being lost at the beginning of a chapter or a scene or book. Refusing to be disquieted by it. Because I won’t have the answer at the beginning, because I haven’t written it yet. And to get the answer, to really get the answer, you simply have to write it. 

And if I experiment I have to throw some out or realize that something is an extraneous dead end, so what? It wasn’t wasted time. It helped me get to the rest. It helped me get to the answer. 

I don’t know if this will make sense to anyone else, but it gives me a real sense of peace and enthusiasm. I haven’t completely figured this out yet, but I’m making progress. I write this update to help me make sense of what I’m learning. 

And I put it out in the world in the hope that this way of thinking will help you too. Have faith in the process. You’re almost certainly more of a badass than you realize. And even if you’re not, what will make you a badass is charging forward with naive enthusiasm, not getting the result you expected, but learning from your “mistake.” Or, to use a more accurate term, experiment.

That’s the way Simenon did it. That’s the way Bach did it. They became good by being working hard and being incredibly prolific. 

One last quote from Simenon about getting better at his craft:

I consider my novels about all on the same level, yet there are steps. After a group of five or six novels, I have a kind of — I don’t like the word “progress” — but there seems to be a progress. There is a jump in quality, I think. So every five or six novels there is one I prefer to the others.