The Dark Matter of Writing

I just did an on-line typing speed test, and it turns out I managed 54 words per minute. Which made me wonder — at that speed, how much time would it take me to get a novel written? If I could operate at that rate while writing fiction, what could I get done?

Turns out 24 hours of typing at that speed gets 78,000 words down on paper. That’s a good sized novel, in 24 hours.

Now, if you can actually type out the contents of a novel in 24 hours, what does it mean when someone says they spent 6 months writing a novel? Because it certainly doesn’t mean they spent six months typing. (Butt on seat for two hours a day, that’d be about a million words.)

In fact, it makes you wonder why we call it ‘writing’ in the first place. There may have been a time, I suppose, back when we pressed styluses into clay, when the content we were writing was simple and the process of making marks was laborious. Back then it was reasonable to say we were spending our time writing. But that’s not so any more. With a comfortable word processor, getting words down is trivial. So calling ourselves ‘writers’ is perhaps disingenuous. What we’re doing isn’t writing — can’t be, or we’d be finished much sooner. People would comfortably knock out a novel in a weekend. The bulk of the activity has to be something else; imagining, maybe? daydreaming?

This is one of those posts where I don’t have the answers, but I hope an interesting question. Like dark matter, the real activities of writing fiction are somewhat invisible to us, but constitute the vast majority of the whole. Because from the outside we just look like we’re typing, what we do is called writing. But I feel that might be like calling the act of driving ‘seatbelt-wearing.’ Sure, you wear your seatbelt throughout the whole process, but that’s not where your attention is. It’s not what you’re doing.

So there are some consequences. If writing time is trivial, then any idea which uses the word ‘writing’ to describe fiction-creation is literally incorrect.

For example, a piece of advice handed down with great regularity is this; ‘write every day.’ Is it because the act of committing words is important _per se_? No . The other ‘dark matter’ fiction-making activities must be engaged on a regular basis. ‘Write every day’ gets us sitting down and our heads running the processes that create scenes and characters and drama.

What’s worth considering, then — what constitutes story-making and literature-creation — is a series of processes, mostly mental, mostly transitory, the _final_ process being the mechanical typing of words. I can think of three main processes;

1. Imagine a scene in your story-world.
2. Convert the scene to language in your mind’s ear.
3. Transcribe the language onto paper or computer.

But note how step 3, the writing, is the thing we’re urged to do. It’s backwards. We should be advised to daydream every day. We should be told to babble about what we see in our minds every day. I suppose it’s not surprising that we don’t hear this advice, but these things are the core processes of fiction.

I suppose what I’m looking for, after all this, is an understanding of the mental processes that make up fiction writing. And I don’t what it described in terms of the end results. ‘writing’ creates written words. ‘characterisation’ creates characters. ‘plotting’ creates plot. But words, character, and plot are all artefacts, the output of something, and it doesn’t much help to just make nouns into verbs and talk about writing and characterisation and plotting. I want to talk, and think, about causes, the things that cause plot and cause character and cause language.

PS: It took me exactly 1 hour to write this post of 662 words. Which means only 20% of the time was taken by writing — 80% of the time taken was taken by these other processes.

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2 thoughts on “The Dark Matter of Writing

  1. We’ve talked before about the idea of writing as engineering but perhaps writing as an equation is more accurate. So it would become something like this:

    Problem+Themes multiplied by character and drama=story

    How’s that?

  2. So how do you, personally, go about inventing these pieces? How do you create problem, theme, character, or drama?

    I’ve always suffered with these early-stage processes, although the later processes of rendering them into words is easier for me.

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