Fast-drafting: writing at a gallop

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.

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12 Responses to Fast-drafting: writing at a gallop

  1. Great metaphor. Great entry. I feel it right there with you. I recently got off the storytelling gallop and am in the detail work. It isn’t as thrilling, but I know the end result will be so much better for it.

    • Amy Raby says:

      Glad you liked! Yeah, the detail work may not be the most exciting part, but it’s really 90% of the job–what makes a good story a great one, and in a crowded marketplace there’s no room for anything less than great.

  2. Jessi Gage says:

    “90% of what I do is not storytelling. It is craft.”
    So true, Amy, and that paragraph sums it up so wonderfully. While I’m not a fast-drafter, your post today reminds me of the things I love about writing. I’ll have to think about what in my writing is like that exhillerating gallop…maybe nothing…and maybe that needs to change…but regardless, I’m a writer and love what I do.
    Thanks for the inspiration and beautiful analogy!

    • Amy Raby says:

      Glad you liked! Everyone’s process is different, and if you don’t have an “exhilarating gallop,” I’m sure there is something about your process that sets your heart on fire. We’ve all got something driving us.

  3. Loved the analogy! Thank you for also saying that 1-3k is fast for you. I always feel overwhelmed and inadequate when others talk about fast drafting 20 pages a day. I think I need to loosen my grip on the reins a bit and let my story run.

    • Amy Raby says:

      Glad you liked! Yeah, there are writers much faster than me. I hear of people writing a draft in two weeks, and the fastest I’ve ever written one is two months. But I think the key is just to stifle the inner editor for a while and let the story flow unfettered, whether that’s 1k per day or something else.

  4. Jill Archer says:

    Another terrific post, Amy. I loved reading this, especially since I just finished drafting a post detailing my arduous process for first drafts. Everyone has their own method. It’s always neat to hear how others go about it.

    • Amy Raby says:

      Glad you liked! I love process posts, so I look forward to reading about your drafting method. It really is interesting how different drafting methods can be, and yet we all get to the same place in the end.

  5. Another great post that just inspirited me to go get back into editing a WIP. I draft at a gallop (when life allows) but I’m very slow and not very good at the editing stages. (I’m learning to become a better self editor, and I think that’s allowing me to create better first drafts. Oh, they are still a mess, but structure-wise the stories are starting to grow stronger.)

    Thanks for sharing another great blog post with us!

    • Amy Raby says:

      Thank you! The good news is, you get faster the more you do it. It used to take me 18 months to write and edit a book, then 12 months, now 9 months, without any reduction in quality. I’m hoping I can eventually speed up to 6 months per book.

  6. What a great story. I don’t ride but I can almost feel it from your description. I would love to fast draft. It makes so much sense to me, yet I have such a problem with it. Not to worry. I’ll keep trying and until I master it, I’ll plod along at my snails pace. Very nice blog.

    • Amy Raby says:

      Glad you enjoyed the post! Whatever process works for you, stick with it. Although I’ll say there are advantages to fast-drafting when writing contracted novels, because the publisher requires a synopsis early on. If I have a complete early draft, it’s much easier to write a synopsis than if I have only a few chapters finished.

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