by Alex KeeganToday is November 18th, 2002. On October 13th, I made a bet that I would write fourteen stories in six weeks and that at least ten of them would be placed in decent outlets. So far, I have written nine short stories, three new articles and one piece of creative non-fiction, thirteen pieces. This is at the same time as running two Boot Camp writing schools with approximately one hundred posts a day.
I have six days to write my fourteenth piece (and I'm writing it now!)
So the work is rushed, yes? Rubbish, yes? You can't write quality at ninety miles an hour! Wrong!
William Saroyan shot to fame with his story "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze", published in Story Magazine. Saroyan then told the editors he would write thirty short stories, one a day for thirty days, which he would send to them to illustrate the problems of the short-story writer. On one of the thirty days Saroyan wrote three shorts and in the month he wrote thirty-six stories. All rubbish? No!
Bennet Cerf of Random House took twenty-six of the thirty-six stories and published them as a book to critical acclaim. (Saroyan was annoyed they didn't take all thirty-six!)
It's by the letting go, by rushing past the psychic guards that we best access the raw and bloody, the deep inside stuff, the true meat of writing, the soul.
Matthew Arnold said "Produce, produce, produce, for I tell you, the night is coming!" Georges Simenon must have taken that advice! Allegedly he lost count of the number of lovers he had, but in ten years as a young man he wrote 200 pulp novels and countless short stories before settling down to write the Inspector Maigret series. It seems Simenon was slowing up by then. In the period 1931-1972 he averaged a mere two-and-a-half novels a year. Perhaps those lovers were keeping him busy.
The beat writers like Jack Kerouac wrote quickly, unplanned, spontaneously. Sometimes it was raw, some critics thought too raw, but works like Visions of Cody; Doctor Sax; Maggie Cassidy; Pic, and The Subterraneans still grace our bookshelves alongside Kerouac's classic On the Road. Allen Ginsberg's HOWL, utterly honest, rushed from the gut, was so stunning it exploded on to the market and still sells steadily today.
John Creasey wrote a dizzy 562 books under 28 pseudonyms. Were they classy literature? Well, no, but most of us would die to produce such slick, readable, interesting stories. With such an output, Creasey barely took breath writing 10,000 words a day, and it has been said, he wrote formulaically and often riddled his work with clichés. Awful, yes? Well, he sold eighty million books worldwide and has books on HRF Keating's list of the 100 best-ever crime novels. Some failure! And by the way, before selling his first book, Creasey had 743, yes seven HUNDRED and forty-three rejection slips.
Prolificity doesn't mean lack of quality, nor need writing fast preclude art.
Joyce Carol Oates, doyenne of the short-story in the United State, has written 45 novels, 9 non-fiction books, 8 books of poetry and 26 collections of shorts in a career only just about to reach its fortieth year. J.G. Ballard wrote 26 novels, as well as over a hundred superb short stories; in twenty years Harlan Ellison wrote forty-two books, three dozen scripts, and eleven hundred short works.
Boot Campers are required to produce a short-story every two weeks. When we first started, an incredible six years ago, one writer argued that it was impossible to produce a decent story in six months. Her most prolific year had produced three unsold stories. A year later she won a first prize in the UK of £1,000 ($1,500 U.S.) for a two-week Boot Camp story.
It can be done. Working hard and under pressure, can, in and of itself, produce a special kind of mental energy, a stirring of the deep juices, a buzz, a rush to make more words appear. No, not every story is destined for The New Yorker, but then how many are when you plod out two or three a year?
When we set goals, tough, almost impossible goals, the goal itself can be a motivator, the mere finishing of a draft a reward in itself. Simply doing can bring its own rewards and doing it intensely changes the way we think and see the world. Writing intensely we become fired up, magnetic, eager, and it's as if the world knows we are a vessel. Stories come to us. Ideas fly in the window. It's tiring but it's exhilarating, and the words just keep coming!
And it really, really can be art. Ginsberg said, "Ageless art has always been spontaneous. "Ozymandias", Shelley's poem about time and eternity, was written in ten minutes as an exercise to show that he could do it right. The idea that spontaneity is something that's new-fangled, or the abstract expression of strange modern ideas is ridiculous. It's the oldest thing in poetics, just like vocalisation is older than print."
So, I argue, writing quickly, can unleash energies and power you didn't know you had. But on top of this, fast, spontaneous writing unleashes an original, unfettered, closer-to-the-truth you, the magical, the surprising, the special, the art that's in us all.
Saroyan said that when he was seized by a story he needed to write it quickly. If he didn't do it there and then, it might leave him. He took less than a week to write each of his plays. In an interview he smiled when describing a play, The Paris Comedy, he wrote for Darryl Zanuck. "I took thirteen days because there was so much partying going on at that time."
Boot Campers are put under pressure, not merely to write, but to read and critique other stories. It's an impossible job and some fall away. So why volunteer for such pressure? Saroyan: "Sometimes, without pressure, work doesn't get done at all. You abandon most readily those works which have no destination other than your own wishes. There's no editor or producer standing there waiting to make you see a job through. In fact many writers are held back by setting themselves too-high standards. They get a novel one-third done and give up because they think it's not good enough."
We should welcome pressure, set ourselves goals, achieve those goals. We should write every day in a fervour, a fever, and grow that self-awareness, that comes from writing all the time. We don't write all the time? Yes we do. When we are not writing we are still writers, looking, thinking, smelling, sucking in the world, and in the lesser moments (between those glorious hard-working, passionate spurts) we should live off the glorious, inspired, near-ecstatic times when we are typing.
To access the demons, the angels, the truth, the real core of being we must have lust, utter, racing passion. Quicker, quicker, deeper, hotter.
Tom Robbins said, "Get yourself into that extreme state of being next to madness. You should always write with an erection, even if you are a woman."
A good story, a great story, when it comes, is an outpouring of the soul. The connection is made, the dam is breached. Stop and the connection will be broken, the dam repaired. James Dickey the poet and also author of the superb Deliverance talked of his seventeen hour stretches at the typewriter.
"I want to go full blast towards the light at the end of the tunnel. I want to get there. Sure, when I've got there I may sit on what I've got or fiddle with it, but if the essential of it is out, all is down on paper, wow is that a great feeling. When you're writing like that you know the work has the potential of being good right the way through.
"With luck and all that work, you can get the thing to where no word can be changed without diminishing the piece. When you sense this opening, this situation, you have to push. You want to get there because you know it, smell it. It can be done."
Dylan Thomas may have spent days, weeks, worrying over the placement of a comma, but great songs have been conceived and written in ten minutes, just like "Ozymandias". Wonderful stories have not existed at breakfast and been part of our literary history by tea-time. Try it. Let rip, change. Lock the doors, turn up the music, rock the house and write, write, write! Unleash!
Two hours ago, this article didn't exist. My target of fourteen pieces in forty-two days was still to be achieved. I have six more days to go and this, my fourteenth piece is done. Now tell me dear, reader, what are you reading?
British Crime and Literary Fiction Author Alex Keegan is publisher and editor of the British literary magazine, Seventh Quark. He is
creator of the five Caz Flood novels: Cuckoo (Headline Books, St. Martin's Press), Vulture,
Kingfisher, Razorbill (Headline Books) and A Wild Justice (Piatkus Books)
which all feature feisty female private investigator Catherine "Caz" Flood. Cuckoo was published in the U.S. by St Martin's Press, and
was nominated for an Anthony Award as best first novel.
His prize-winning short stories have been featured in numerous publications including Mystery and Manners, BBC Radio 4, Blue Moon Review, Southern Ocean Review, and The Atlantic. He is a Contributing Editor for The Internet Writing Journal. His blog can be found here.