Blogger: Wendy Lawton
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I keep revealing these potentially career killing comments I’ve recently heard from editors. To put them into perspective, ninety-nine out of a hundred comments I hear from editors are positive, but these warning comments are so instructive that I’m sharing them as cautionary tales.
Anyone who is trying to build a career as a writer knows that making a living in the early years is an almost impossible challenge. I addressed it when I blogged the following advice: Don’t Quit Your Day Job. But when a writer has sold a couple of books and had a little success, it’s natural to get out the calculator and try to figure out how fast a book could be written if all things were perfect. After all, there’s NaNoWriMo. If a writer could log in 50,000 words in one month, why couldn’t he do that every month? With taking a month off for the holidays and another month in case emergencies cropped up. . . why, that’s five books a year! Even with his modest advances, he could live on that, right? He could quit his day job!
Not so fast.
Here’s what I heard from an editor about a writer just last month: “He needs to stop trying to write so fast. The deadlines that he proposes for each project don’t make sense. Are you telling me that he can write three complete manuscripts by December? Highly unlikely…”
Hmm. Sounds like this editor is anticipating the kind of problems that come with writing too fast. Let’s consider just a few.
When writing too fast:
- The author runs the risk of turning in a sloppy manuscript. If you read my blog on Tuesday, you know that can be a career killer.
- There is no time to let the book or the story marinate. There’s more to writing a world-class book than mechanically getting the words on paper. The story or book needs to live in the author’s mind for a time.
- It doesn’t take long for the author to burn out.
- If the author doesn’t have time to experience things, to be with people or to travel, pretty soon the well runs dry. It’s one of the upsides to having a day job–you’re collecting material all day long.
Everything in this world seems to move too fast. If you want a career that will last–one that will grow–you need to slow down. In the early years your money may need to come from another source, but successful authors will tell you that the investment is worth it.
So let me ask: How fast is too fast? Can you be too slow with writing subsequent books? Is there a perfect balance? I’d love to hear you weigh in.
It’s so funny you mentioned NaNoWriMo. I’ve done that four times. I just made the final revisions to my 2008 NaNoNovel last week — over 1 1/2 years later. The manuscript bears little resemblance to the initial 50,000 words.
Yesterday I printed out 2009’s novel and skimmed it over. A few shiny specks glisten among the dross, but it’s definitely for my eyes only.
I suppose each writer needs to find the rhythm that works best in light of abilities and aspirations. And the wise advice of agents and editors.
Hmm. Tough question because of the different makeups of writers. Some work better under pressure because when there’s no reason to discipline oneself, some of us flit around whimsically on our projects. Others’ extreme discipline demand a number of words a day (good or bad) and keep to a rigid schedule which some believe is the only way to be a true writer. Others sweat and labor over one sentence even if it takes the entire day. Probably the majority of people fit somewhere in between those examples.
Too soon? Not letting go of it for a time after The End and coming back to reread and revise or rework or rejoice. Too long? Some people will tweak a story on into eternity. Tough to answer other than at some point the story must end. And another must begin.
I think it’s a rare writer who’s ready after only writing one book, but that’s just my opinion.
This subject has been on my mind, Wendy. I’m about to deliver the final of my first novel to my editor next month and will have the better part of a year to deliver the second of my two-book contract. A year seems very manageable to me–but maybe it is because I already have a good deal of book 2 already written (though I know that editing and revising can take a great deal of time).
The point I have heard other agents make–and I think it’s a potent one–is that debut authors have essentially all the time in the world to produce that first book, so when it comes time for book two, three, four, etc. and the concept of a deadline comes into play, it can be a shocking switch in terms of work/writing habits. But as I said, I think a year is a good amount of time to produce a strong, well-edited manuscript, and a window that I always adhered to even before I got a contract. (But that said, if the contract had requested 6 mos between books, well, I would have gladly met that deadline too!)
I don’t have an answer, but I think I’ve guessed between 1-3 (and probably only 1-2) is possible. And I think that’s how many books I think one can FINISH in a year, not start and finish. I’m still building an inventory, still working on getting ready, so maybe I don’t have the perspective yet to idealize on this question, but to me getting the first draft out in 30 days isn’t a problem. But after a first draft I like to let it sit untouched and forgotten before I edit. Then there’s re-writing, editing, editing, more sitting and then editing again. I don’t know how this time table changes once you have an agent or editor looking over your shoulder during the process but I am thinking a book could still take 8 months to a year but one wouldn’t be working on just that one book all the time.
I think the answer to the question how fast is too fast is that it’s writer dependent. I don’t do anything slow, why would I write slow? I don’t read slowly, work slowly. I’m always looking for ways to improve effeciency whether it’s at home or work. Writing is no different.
To force myself to slow down would be counterproductive to me.
I too have done Nano, but I shot for the 50k works and threw away the novel. Then again, I’ve written a complete 100k novel 52 days because the story flowed from my fingertips.
I totally agree on experiencing the world too … from within it the ideas come and then the stories flow …. whether that is quickly (for me and some) or over the course of years (for some and others). 🙂
Teri Dawn Smith
I can write a first draft of about 80,000 words in about 6-8 weeks but only after I’ve done lots of preliminary brainstorming, planning, and outlining. Even so the revisions take longer than the first draft.
But I think it’s pretty subjective since all writers work differently and whether or not you include the pre-writing time and revision time.
Thanks for making us think through these topics!
Over the last several years, I’ve averaged a novel a year. My current project, however, is one I started nearly four years ago. I’m editing and expect I will remain at that stage for a couple more months now.
I have another novel in my mind and charted out with different journeys on paper. I thought I would be spending my summer writing it, but when I started to play with the plot points I found that none of the potential journeys I sketched out engaged my passion enough to empower me to write it well. So I’ve set it on the back burner to simmer until it has a good flavor. 🙂
I think each story sets its own pace. The actual writing might be done in a month, but the infusion of flavor that makes it a great story takes months and even years for me.
I wrote a speculative fiction short story and sent it to a paying magazine. The magazine rejected it, and when I asked for details, he replied with those details. The problem with writing fast and not letting the story marinate is not seeing the holes in the story.
I am rewriting the short story, even changing the tense, and adding more details. Then, I am going to send it back to that editor. It doesn’t pay much, but then, I am not writing for the money. I’m writing because it’s my life.
Nanowrimo gave me a good two-book series, but I only got as far as 8,000 words in book one because I was writing my other novel at the same time. Burn out is right! I quit half way. Speed writing does not benefit me.
Oh this post is so timely. Thank you!
Dean Wesley Smith disagrees with you. He’s published 90 novels. http://www.deanwesleysmith.com/?p=310
According to him, and my own experience shows this as well,you can write 250 words in about 15 minutes. If you only write 15 mins a day it will take you a year, roughly to get 90,000 words. 30 minutes a day is two novels a year … and so on. Then again Smith isn’t much for major edits. Read his series it’s just great.
I think we’re ignoring that each writer has their own speed in which they write. Some writers might need longer planning periods, writing periods, or/and rewriting periods. But I know and know of plenty of excellent writers that could easily write books at the speed you mentioned and turn in a stellar product. Slower does not necessarily mean better.
You make so many wonderful and insightful comments. You are SO right, it is difficult for newbie writers to write quickly. Yet they all try to do so, much to their own peril. I will send some of my writing buddies over here to read this all important post.
Thanks so much!
Many of you disagree with me and I respect that. If you reread my post however you’ll see I was not just talking about writing fast. I acknowledge that sometimes, the faster we write that first draft the more creative it will be. It helps us get ahead of that pesky internal editor. (But note, I said first draft.)
I was talking about speed writing out of financial need. Trying to push books out fast to keep the stream of money flowing. The reason this is a career killer is that the next contract is never guaranteed. An author has to write a better book and build his readership with each release. A book released in haste is way too costly to your career. A dip in the number of readers is difficult to turn around. Readers remember if you disappointed them and it’s very hard to woo them back.