Monday, October 26, 2009

The Tortoise and the Hare: What Velocity Is Your Writing?

(This day has been a crazy day of editing and marketing, and so I'm double-posting this post, which is also up today on my writing group's blog. If you don't get over to the 4 Corners blog much, you should pop in for Erin Halm's post this weekend on E-Books: the Future or Undoing of Publishing? It's an outstanding article on e-books. Also, some insightful views in the comment section from people who have experienced this when it happened the first time in music. Seriously - go check it out and get in on the discussion!)  

Lately I feel like I've been living and working in the middle of some childhood fable - one of those stories about one thing that really means something else and teaches some good life lesson - except I'm having trouble absorbing that lesson.

The story I'm living? The Tortoise and the Hare.

You know the one - where the turtle and the rabbit race, except the turtle can't really race well because he's slow, but the rabbit gets so cocky he stops off to nap and eat and enjoy the view, and before you know it the slow but steady turtle passes him and wins the race.

There are two problems to my story. One, I'm the turtle. And two, I don't think in life the turtle really always wins. It's a lovely story, don't get me wrong. But sometimes the fast aren't just fast. They're diligent, too, and disciplined. And I swear some of them never sleep.

All around me are writers who write at what seems to me to be warped speed. Six thousand - seven thousand words at a time... a book every month or two. Some of these are authors at the very start of their careers, and some are long, well-established authors.

I've felt the pressure especially lately because even though I have a great idea for a book, and even when I get a good chunk of time, even days of time, I'm slow at writing. The words don't come in a flurry - at least not for more than a few sentences at a time. I'm keeping at it, but I'll be lucky to be able to get one book a year out. Three or four? Are you kidding me?

So I was disproportionately relieved last week when Entertainment Weekly put out this review of Michael Connelly's new novel, Nine Dragons. The review was less than flattering, but this sentence was what caught my eye: James Patterson long ago proved that you can write three thrillers in a year, but even Michael Connelly can't write three good ones.

I love those words... even this great writer can't write three good ones...

Then, just today, The New Republic online had a great article called Writing and Velocity.  In it author Damon Linker quoted a post by another writer (is this getting confusing or merely complicated?) who wrote that writing books should no longer take as long, since authors no longer need to go to the library and hunt through microfiche and encyclopedias, or tromp down to the police station, or take day trips in order to interview and research. With the internet, it's now all at our fingertips. With a few clicks of a button, all that great research can be ours for the taking, in very little time.

The idea, I believe, is that the greater part of writing a novel is the research that goes behind it. As the writer said: Klein’s statement implies that the only thing that might keep a writer from producing a book in a couple of months is the time it takes to conduct research. As if writing were a process of compiling and arranging lists of facts and figures.

Of course, not all novels require heavy research. But there's a host of other things that can slow a writer down. Imagination. Creativity. Uniqueness. Voice. Character. Plot.  Language.

 In rushing a manuscript to press, are we putting the writing secondary to the typing?

Certainly a book can be written quickly and then scrubbed to a sparkling sheen in the editing process if the author and the publisher are able to put aside ego and flashing dollar signs. The problem, I think, comes when authors and publishers don't take the time to polish. Not just the happy-to-glad kind of editing but the digging into the real guts of the story kind of editing... the turning the typing into writing.

I'm convinced a good book takes time - if not at the beginning (research) or in the middle (the writing) then at the end (the editing). In that case, it's not really a matter of whether the rabbit or the turtle crosses first. In a really good race, they'd each have their moments of being fast, but they'd cross the finish line together.

So where do you spend most of your writing time: research, writing, or editing?

And do you think it's possible to write a stellar book in three weeks? Any authors you know of that turn out three books a year that are quality books?


  1. I recently started a new project and it flew out of me, 25 pages worth now. Now, it's slowing down and figuring the fine tuning, but I want to keep writing until I finish before I polish and fine tune. Those are actually some of my fave parts of writing *sick, I know*

  2. A-men. Sistah. James Patterson is really starting to get on my last nerve.

    I really feel like once your name is established you get all kinds of free passes to spit out mediocre stuff.

    Now having said that, I've never written a book but I aspire to it and I will be taking a stab at NaNo this year.

    I just wish Mr. P would slow down and start writing his own books without the "co-author."

    Now if this were a movie, we would fast forward ten years to me doing the same thing Patterson is doing.

  3. I think it's find to write slow... I can't see myself putting out one book a year. HOnestly I think three books a year is ridiculous. I'm sure some authors can do it, and do it pretty well, but that is not me.

    Mind you, nobody should write as slow as I do. I'd like to say the lack of speed is made up for by the incredible meticulous quality. Yep, I am really looking forward to saying that out loud and to many people!

    All three stages take time for me. Notes and development, then writing it, then editing. I could edit forever and have to make myself stop obsessing over it at some point.

    I think your example of crossing the finish line at the same time is a good one. I doubt any of us are consistent in the speed we finish a book at.

  4. Kristi - I'm with you. I LOVE editing!! I am much faster at it, too. Just yesterday I did four chapters with some major overhaul in them, and I was so excited when I was done because it took care of most of the stuff I felt was weak in the book.

    Every now and then, a few pages happen fast for me, too. But never the whole book!

    Cardio - I heard Patterson talk last month about why he has co-authors, which is mainly because he has all these great ideas for books but not the time to write them all. Sheesh! I have that same problem! Isn't it the execution that makes the book good or not? The idea is not the hard's the writing!

  5. Heidi - your writing IS meticulous! And beautiful, right out of the gate. (Look! I just compared writing and horses for you!)

    Yes - some authors can do it. I suppose I'm still a little jealous of that. But Dan Brown took three years to write his newest book, and since everyone seems to think it's going to single-handedly save the entire publishing world economics this year, maybe I should be looking at him instead of people like Patterson!

  6. I’m of two minds about this. I think it really doesn’t matter how quickly or how slowly you write. W

    My thinking is, why compare myself to others? It’ll only hurt just me in the end. And it did, and I learned.

    As for myself, I am normally a fast writer. Sometimes I have a book that comes slow (FS). Do I kick myself when it comes out slower? No.

    Am I happy when it comes out fast? Not necessarily. I am pleased with that book’s process of being written, 'cause that's all I can do. Try and enjoy the process.

    I do think it’s bollocks to assume that because someone writes fast they churn out crap. It's also quite likely that someone can take 20 years to write a book you can't get past the first page with.

    It’s all in the editing, in which I definitely agree with you. Editing is *key*.

    When the ego gets in the way is when you start to have a problem.

  7. Jen - I totally agree!!

    Fast or slow does not necessarily equal quality.

    But still - have you read someone who puts out lots of books in a year and is still great? I'm sure there are some out there (who are not, say, MG writers who write very short books).

    Is it the editing that takes the time?

  8. Kiersten White ( wrote her to-be-published book in 3 weeks. But she also seems uncommonly talented. I wrote my book in 2 months, and it's horrible. I think for me, though, it was just getting out that I wanted. I wanted to say I finished something. Of course, it will take months and months of work to make it better. I imagine your rough drafts are much less rough than mine.

  9. In a similar vein, the whole process from idea to publication seems to have jumped to warp speed (for publishing!!) with the Internet. It is so much easier to query and hear back from agents and editors on-line. Nice.

    Writing, though, is not something that is efficient. I've written certain manuscripts over and over for years. Will anything ever happen with them? I don't know, but that time and that writing weren't a waste of time. Not every writer feels this way. What's your take?

  10. I think Jen is right that we cannot compare our processes with the processes of others because we are all different. Some write fast. Some write slow. Me? SLOW! I am past the 1 year mark of working on my current WIP. I'd like to say taking my time is going to make a stronger book, but I'm not sure. And I don't think it is a waste of time, even if I end up changing what I wrote - the process of writing and being creative is never a bad thing.

  11. Speaking as another hare, I'll admit to sometimes feeling inadequate when I read about how fast other authors write.
    You just have to find your own rhythm and forget about comparisons Easier said than done, right? ;-).
    Bottom line: no one else can write the book you're writing. Give it all the time and nurturing it needs.

  12. jessie - I would have to say there are some uncommonly talented people who write well and fast. I have envy for them!

    Caroline and Brit - It took nearly three years of on and off writing to complete my first book. It will never see the public, but it was invaluable for me. I learned so much in writing it, and most of all, I learned I could write a story of 300 pages. I can't even believe how much better my second one was! And through it, I also found my voice. Definitely not a waste of time!!

    kathryn - you are so wise!!