When I rode Arabians in Texas, we sometimes galloped them. The “hand gallop,” it was called–a gallop “in hand,” under control but just barely. I came in off the bridle path from such a gallop once, exhilarated, my face flushed and my heart beating fast. The stable owner, who rarely spoke to students, smiled at me and said I rode the gallop beautifully–was it my favorite gait? “No,” I said candidly, “it feels so out of control.”
I’ve regretted that response ever since, because while it was honest, it was incomplete. The gallop terrified me, but I also loved it. I knew that at that speed, the tiniest misstep could spell disaster. I wouldn’t have wanted to gallop every day, but I could never have done without those frightening and invigorating bouts of dizzying speed.
And now we come to writing. 90% of what I do is not storytelling. It is craft. It is wordsmithing and research and making sure I’ve dropped the right number of hints in all the right places. It’s making sure every word means exactly what I think it means, that I’m using all five senses, that my metaphors evoke the right images, that the dialogue is indirect, allowing the reader to read between the lines.
It’s detail work, and I love detail work because by training and temperament I’m an engineer. I don’t mind analyzing each and every line of the manuscript to make sure it’s pulling its weight. And it’s all safe work–not easy, necessarily, but I know my craft, and I can always make a sentence or a piece of dialogue turn out right if I work hard enough at it.
But storytelling? That’s the gallop. That’s the headlong rush into the unknown where with one misstep I could break my neck. And I really do put my stories together at a gallop, because I fast-draft.
Fast-drafting is the most important, the most frightening, the most exhilarating writing work I do. I lay down anywhere from 1000 to 3000 words per day, every day, until the draft is done. (For me, that is fast. Some fast-drafters are faster.) No time off, no vacation days. It’s run, run, run for the finish line, and to write that many words per day means that any time I’m not actually writing the words, I have to be thinking about them, planning the scene I’m going to write when I next sit down. When I’m fast-drafting, I live and breathe story. I’m writing a book faster than some people read.
The hurry is motivated partly by fear. Get this story down on paper before something goes wrong. Before it all spins out of control. Have you ever had a book fail? I have, and more than once. It’s always a possibility, and if a book’s going to fail, it will fail during fast-drafting. I’d rather know sooner than later. Run, run, run!
It’s okay if I get to the end and the book is a bit of a mess. If I get to the finish line, I have a book! There’s a lot more work to do yet–the majority of the work, in fact. But it’s craft work, detail work. Story engineering. That part, I always know I can do.
That day I came in off the bridle path, I think the stable owner saw something in me I did not yet see in myself. Yes, I’m an engineer–I like details. I like processes to be under my control. But there will always be one corner of my heart that craves the unpredictable headlong gallop of the fast-draft, the awareness of danger, the knowledge that failure is just one tiny misstep away. It’s that corner of my heart that makes me a writer.