By Wendy Lawton
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. 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 a few years ago: “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.
- 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 may need to slow down. In the early years your income may need to come from another source, but successful authors will tell you that the investment is worth it.
We all know that first drafts come fast and furious– that’s good for creativity. But rewrites and the final draft? Time to slow down and reach high to craft a masterpiece.
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.
Illustration: ID 40051926 © Joyce Geleynse | Dreamstime.com
I know that tales should marinate,
that haste is tres untoward,
but heed the words of Me The Great;
write fast, or you’ll get bored.
I like the characters I write,
but their welcome’s soon worn thin,
and I’ll pitch ’em out into the night,
and let new blood begin.
It’s how I live this life of mine,
all out, and at full throttle;
hand me some rare vintage wine,
and I’ll chug-a-lug the bottle.
It’s maybe not the smartest path,
but it’s my own, and life’s to laugh.
This is encouraging to me! My first draft of my first-ever manuscript came quickly. But the marketing and building a platform have come very slowly. It’s so important to remember to keep putting in the hard work even when steps forward feel like you’re walking knee-deep through water! Thanks for this encouragement!
Wendy, I agree. Marinate. Love that word. The first draft was fast but I’m so glad I didn’t rush the rewrites. The novel has evolved, the characters’ personalities became richer, the scenes more enjoyable. That’s important when you are going over the same words many times. As for subsequent books, I would feel comfortable writing two to three per year.
My ideas marinate before they ever hit the paper (or screen). Then the words marinate for a bit, until I can read them like they’re new. Only then can I start to see which words fly and which ones fall flat. Rush the process, I suspect, and the flat words will weigh down the whole manuscript.
I often think I write too slowly. Thank you, Wendy, for this reminder about too fast.
This is so good!! Yes amen!
This is encouraging. My latest manuscript has taken me much longer than I anticipated to write, revise, rewrite, edit, and polish. But I also believe it’s much stronger than previous manuscripts because I took the time with it.
I am thinking there may be an amount of time that is too much time for a book to take . . . this might be based on if the author loses momentum and love for the story because they didn’t spend time with it for a while.
Thanks for the affirmation that it’s better to take more time than less to make a story great!
Amen! This lifted my spirits as I’m slogging through my current work-in-progress.
“The story or book needs to live in the author’s mind for a time.” Yes. My close friend writes one book a year. I think that’s perfect. She takes 6 months or so to write it and leaves room for re-writing, then revisions from the editor, etc. I believe if we “write and release” too fast, we’ll miss opportunities, and we’ll submit a skeleton. Time permits opportunity to make connections we didn’t see initially. The story needs time to grow richer and fuller.
There’s a number of self-published authors who push 4-6 releases a year. I even saw one post they were aiming for 9 releases in 2020. That is all wayyy to fast.
I’m not sure you can do more that 2 a year. That would be only after you fully understand your process, I think. Writing one book a year is an accomplishment!
Between working outside the home, taking care of a special needs child, church activities, and lots of hobbies, I’m doing pretty good getting three books written and revised over ten years. When it comes to producing great books, quality trumps quantity.
I tend to write slow compared to most authors I know. I can get the draft down faster but when it comes to editing, I slow down to a crawl.
Love this, Wendy. Had to deal with individual students (art) where they had personal issues; (ADD, perfectionists, problems outside of class etc.) and they all needed to work toward one assignment deadline. Letting things “marinate” is a great way to approach that planning, setting their personal rhythms and schedules. It really helped. Thank you!
Thanks for this! I agree. I write non-fiction and can usually finish a chapter a week for the first draft. But some chapters need more marinating thought. And revising takes time too because I usually end up changing the overall flow of each chapter about halfway through. The other problem with trying to rush too much is that it leaves no time for marketing. I had two books come out this year, and marketing while trying to write the next book has my mind spinning.
Thanks for this much-needed post, Wendy! I think each author must determine for himself how much time he needs to write a book. I also think the amount of time varies from book to book.
I give myself at least one year to write a novel. My last novel took me two years to write, but the seed for it was planted almost 20 years ago! Not only did I have much to learn during those 20 years, but God had much to do in me to prepare me to write this story of His heart.
As you wisely said, a story needs time to marinate. Without that time, a story will not acquire its full flavor but will be bland or, at worst, boring.
The first thing that comes to my mind is the Stephen King quote, “I believe the first draft of a book — even a long one — should take no more than three months…”
The issue is not how quickly you write your first draft, which I STRONGLY believe should be as quickly as possible – but what you do after that. Much of your first draft will be changed in the revision process anyway – which will take quite some time anyway. During that time, the story seeps and marinates in your brain, and this is where a story truly escapes the choppy feel of a first draft novel.
Nobody’s first draft is publish ready. Not even Stephen King’s. It takes a lot of revision, editing, and many passes of edits to make a book shine.
Proper planning prevents poor performance. If you properly plan, there’s no reason for a book to take longer than 90 days.
The real work occurs after that.
Depends on what kind of a book you’re talking about. I’m writing Great Lakes disasters right now, and I have a rhythm of a main story, but with chapters breaking off to tell side stories that support or refute claims or decisions that happened in the main story. So I’ll be writing my main story, then discover a side story I need to follow, spend a month or so researching and writing that side chapter, then come back to the main story, then discover another side chapter and spend another month researching and writing that chapter…
Bottom line, I spend close to a year writing the draft because I have to stop and research all these tangents (and check my citations, and make my bibliography, and my glossary…)
You said it: Everything in this world seems to move too fast.
In many ways, I would argue the exact opposite of what you say. The first book is slaved over–for years, many times–before finally getting published, but then there’s an expectation to build on that. If you’re lucky enough to bring in a few fans, they’re going to want more, and if you don’t bring it to them fast enough, they’ll be off to someone else instead of waiting for your next publication. So yes, there is definitely a “too slow” in writing subsequent books–at least if you want them to be your major breadwinners.
Yes, books need time to marinate. That’s why, if you’re in it as a profession, you start on the next one–you don’t have “one” book in progress at any given time (unless it’s a major, research-intensive project).
Burnout can happen–or not. Everything gets better with practice, and that can include your ability to generate stories. Personally, I’m always thinking, “I should write a book about that,” and then following it up with, “but I’ve already got six books in progress that I really need to finish first, both so they can start making money and so I’ve got room on my hard drive” (These past couple of years I’ve been researching Great Lakes disasters–several GB of video and saved webpages.) Authors are just as likely to suffer from TMIS (too many ideas syndrome) as the classic writer’s block.
As to how many wpm a writer can actually churn out? Stephen King created his “Richard Bachman” pen name because people back then didn’t expect authors to turn out more than one novel a year. On the other hand, Isaac Asimov consistently turned out 6-12 books a year in both fiction and non-fiction genres–back in the day when “book” usually meant over 100k and not the 50K NaNoWriMo counts. A mediocre typist can turn out around 40 wpm, experts can turn out 70-90 wpm, and folks comfortable with today’s speech-to-text software can dictate books at 100-130 wpm. So while how fast an author can write is highly variable, however fast your write your seventh book is probably quite a bit faster than how you wrote your first. And I’ll bet it needs less editing, too.
I find it’s about inspiration, and for me it usually goes in three day cycles – a lot of research, living, relaxing, sleeping and then… bam, three twelve hour days when all the answers come flooding out.
Sometimes it’s three hours, sometimes three minutes, but a very natural and organic process, a lot like plants waiting to flower or kids having a growth spurt… 80% preparation and then it’s like being on a rocket and hanging on!
I do set deadlines sometimes just to help me make time, but that has still resulted in an 8 hour first draft and a 10 month first draft – flowers bloom when they bloom!