NaNoWriMo 2020 Week 3: Quantity and Quality

I’ve cut back to around 2000 words a day on NaNoWriMo, mostly because of other stuff like this blog, YouTube, and my MFA classes.

With that in mind, my net output is still pretty high, probably around 3000 words a day with all things considered.

Something I’ve heard a few people ask is “If you’re writing a novel in a month, how do you know it’ll be good?”

There are a few answers regarding that. First, the quality may be a secondary goal compared to something like self-satisfaction or practice. Second, the novel at the end of November is not necessarily the novel at the end of December. The revision process is a powerful tool for writers.

However, I think there’s a false dichotomy between quality and quantity.

Quantity and Quality

The distinction between quantity and quality is modern or postmodern. There’s an idea that things that come from an assembly line are inferior to those produced by a master artisan.

This is a consequence of our association with mass production and low-quality products.

What it overlooks is that the master artisans survived in the age of mass production when the mediocre artisans are now the ones working on the assembly line.

The more dangerous mistaken presumption is that masters are those who have produced only masterful work.

Writers need to remember one thing:

Practice makes better.

This is a pre-requisite for any growth in skill. Mastery is a process, not a state. No amount of talent can make a writer produce constant hits.

Novices looking at prominent writers often presume that the greats have write nothing sub-par, or at least never published it.

The reality is quite different.

Every writer needs to develop. In Steven King’s autobiographical sketch at the beginning of his book on writing, he describes how much he wrote as a kid.

I can guarantee you that King wouldn’t look back on it as being of the same caliber as his current work.

However, that’s not important. Past failures lead to future success. As a writer, you need to fail a few times to get where you’re going.

The Value of Quantity

There’s another important lesson to be had from experts here.

Almost every great writer has been prolific, especially those who innovate and break ground in their genres. For every J. D. Salinger and Harper Lee there are a half-dozen Ursula K. LeGuins, Philip K. Dicks, Agatha Christies, Arthur Conan Doyles, Robert Ludlums, and Edgar Allan Poes. Moreover, while we may remember some authors for a single book, they often have written other less prominent works.

Perfection has a cost.

One cost of that is that focusing everything on a single magnum opus can fall foul of diminishing returns. There is a limit to human ability. Writing and rewriting the same text again and again doesn’t stretch one’s limits.

Shakespeare was not a high-art writer. He may have been the Quentin Tarantino of his day, but the fact remains that most people didn’t want their kids to grow up to be a playwright in Elizabethan England.

However, he’s got his own canon of work with at least a half-dozen making their way to any list of great books you can think of. Five hundred years later, Shakespeare is a model by which we judge others.

That’s not because he spent his entire life making a single sublime play.

It’s because he spent his entire life making a lot of sublime plays.

Economics and You, The Writer

Another consideration that many people consider low is money.

This stems from a misunderstanding of basic economics.

Economics is the study of how people act to satisfy wants. It doesn’t look at wants themselves, or the rightness or wrongness of actions.

The two parts of economics that most people are familiar with are supply and demand. This is the idea that there are a certain number of things needed, and a certain number of things available.

They meet at an equilibrium, where people get what they want at the price it’s available at.

This doesn’t apply well to writing. Not because the theory is wrong in any way, but because books are non-scarce in the digital era. I can pop open my phone and go through centuries of books for free. Arrangements like Kindle Unlimited provide me with even more reading for a nominal fee.

As a writer, your goal is to find demand and fill it with something valued by the reader.

If you only make one thing, and it’s perfect, there’s still an issue with that. People need to hear it, see it, and think about it.

One of the best ways to do this is simply volume. Put out content, shout about it, and get it to the world. Making good writing satisfies demands. If you see a demand you’re able to fill, fill it.

Approaching Mastery

There’s a corollary to something that I said earlier about practice.

Perfect practice makes perfect.

This is the last and perhaps best argument for writing as much as you can.

You don’t churn out stuff mindlessly. Writing is a creative process, and if you’re a person who needs to be reminded to write more, you probably care about your quality.

That’s good. Think about your writing every time you write. And take breaks. I work on multiple projects at once, not just because I have ideas that push me forward at a somewhat limited rate, but also because it forces me to learn new skills.

The cliche advice that you’ll get in a poetry class when they talk about free verse poetry is that you need to master your craft to break the rules.

However, you don’t master your craft without learning all the rules. Experimenting is the only way to do that. Don’t let yourself get bogged down in a single dogmatic approach, and don’t limit yourself to a single idea and work. Branch out, and you’ll find the way to better writing.

Wrapping Up

Key points:

  1. Write a lot.
  2. Think about that writing.
  3. Use that thought to improve your next writing.

You don’t want to limit yourself to a single piece of work, especially if it’s reducing your output. Move on and write extensively.

Masters aren’t the people who spend a lot of time on things. They’re the people who make a lot of that thing. They have to practice to get there, but the practice is corollary to the act of creation rather than distinct from it.

Check out my other NaNoWriMo updates here!

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