A Tortoise and Hare Writing Allegory

Tortoise and Hare Pic

The bunny may be cute, but he’s not gonna win the race like that ;-).

Photo Credit: The tortoise and the hare with the hare resting by the side of the road while the tortoise passes him up. From Children’s Favorites and Fairy Stories by various authors, edited by Hamilton Wright Mabie, Edward Everett Hale, and William Byron Forbush, New York: The University Society, 1927, Project Gutenberg: Tagishsimon/Wikimedia Commons/PD Gutenberg

“The race is not always to the swift.” (Aesop, par. 7)

This year’s Camp NaNoWriMo in April was a turning point for me in many ways. Not only did it become a platform for the expanding directions I’ll be taking in my writing for the future (something I’ll be blogging about soon) but it also taught me a lot about the tortoise and the hare of the writing world.

Most of us know the gist of Aesop’s fable. A hare is teasing a poor tortoise about his lack of speed and the tortoise challenges the hare to a race, insisting he can beat him. The hare is off to a flying start and, confident  he can win the race easily, gets way ahead of the tortoise and stops to catch up on some Z’s at the side of the road. The tortoise goes at his slow and steady pace and passes the sleeping hare. Only when the tortoise is almost to the finish line does the hare wake up and, try as he might, his winged feet can do nothing to get him to the finish line before the tortoise crosses it.

Hence the “moral” above. The fable also spawned a lot of old-fashioned idioms, such as “slow and steady wins the race”.

When it comes to writing, there are hares and there are tortoises. The hares are the writers who can whip out thousands of words in an hour, entire first drafts in weeks, and, in the self-publishing world, churn out published books in months. I know of one self-published author who publishes more than twenty books a year! But it’s not just self-published authors. I’ve read that poet Sylvia Plath wrote many of her poems at “lightening speed”. Rumor has it that Jack Kerouac and Anthony Burgess both wrote their masterpieces (On the Road and A Clockwork Orange, respectively) in three weeks. While these numbers seem pretty amazing, keep in mind we’re talking here about first drafts. The first draft, as most writers know, is the “get it down” draft or, what author Anne Lamott in her inspirational book Bird by Bird calls the “sh*tty” draft. It’s where writers get their ideas down inside characters, storylines, settings, descriptions, etc., but it takes editing and revising (mercilessly) to really get the writing into the full form that most readers experience as the final product.

Then there are the tortoises of the writing world. These writers take a long time to finish the first draft and a long time to revise so it can take them years to get their work out there, sometimes a lifetime. One of the greatest (though not the easiest to read or even the most interesting at times) novels ever written, Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past began in the first decade of the 20th century and took Proust about thirteen years to write. Marguerite Young wrote her masterpiece Miss Mackintosh, My Darling, expecting it would take only a few years. She miscalculated slightly. The novel took more than fifteen years to write. A book I talked about, though didn’t exactly favor, was Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools, which took Porter twenty years to write.

There are many factors that go into a writer’s pace. Some of them are more on the pragmatic side. Length is sometimes, though not always, a factor. Plath’s lightening speed may have been partly due to the fact that she was writing poetry which is much shorter than Proust’s seven volume novel or Young’s two volume book. Genre may also play a role. One of the things I discovered with Camp Nano is that the first draft writing goes much quicker when you have a very substantial plot that has a definite direction as opposed to more character-based fiction which tends to follow the character and therefore is more unpredictable in terms of where the story is going to go. On the one hand, it’s more of a journey of discovery which can be fun and exciting but on the other, it is also more likely to be fraught with kinks and roadblocks and forks in the road that lead nowhere. All this can slow the writing process down.

But there are also more psychological barriers to the hare style of writing. There is no denying that the further away a story is from the characters’ or author’s psychological reality, the easer it is emotionally to write and therefore, the quicker it is to crank out the first draft. The writer has less of a personal emotional investment in the characters and story. This doesn’t mean that the writer doesn’t care about the characters or doesn’t want to know or discover what happens to them. But the way the characters affect the writer emotionally in terms of how deeply they hit upon the demons of the writer’s own life aren’t there so it’s naturally easier for the writer to get the words down. Think about how it is when we read a book. Books that deal with situations, characters, and emotions that mirror our lives directly in some way are more of a struggle for us to get through than, say, a fantasy novel or a whodoneit that has nothing to do with the real world and are meant to entertain us.

I have talked before in my blog about some of my writing struggles. I talk here about the novel I began twelve years ago that has metamorphosed into the Waxwood Series. I am by nature a tortoise when it comes to writing first drafts (and as for the editing and revising process, don’t ask!) However, for Camp NaNo last month, I tackled an entirely different kind of project. I created a very detailed outline, virtually scene-by-scene, but still with a lot of wiggle room for the process of discovery that naturally comes from creativity. While I didn’t finish the novel, the writing process went much smoother and much faster than I anticipated it would. I attribute this to the fact that the book I’m writing has a more determined storyline that doesn’t follow the whims of the characters (at least, most of the time) and the fact that I have a very detailed outline guiding me throughout the process.

The ultimate message here, though, if I can say this blog post has one, is that every writer has to find his or her own pace. Fast writers are no better or worse than slow writers and vice versa. And writing pace changes with each book for each writer. It’s all about finding what works for the individual writer.

Works Cited

Aesop. “The Hare & The Tortoise.” The Aesop for Children: With Pictures by Milo Winter, Rand, McNally & Co., 1919. Library of Congress. Web. 9 May 2018.

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