It Takes The Time It Takes
Writing. Finishing. Editing. Publishing. Selling.
We want everything fast but sometimes it’s slow because it needs to be slow.
I write fast. I can churn out a book that doesn’t suck in a month or two. I also write a lot. In just over two years I’ve published ten books — one of which was self-published. Some of these books seem well-regarded, though I can’t speak to their actual quality, only to their quantity. I had a short film show at Sundance. I had a script go through the Sundance Labs. Worked on games and transmedia stuff and now comics and somewhere north of 115,000 tweets. I’ll probably write diner menus and the product description on the back of a bag of donkey chow next.
It’s a strong quantity of words. Quality, I dunno. But definitely quantity.
And to that quantity I have been referred to at times as an overnight success, which is true as long as you define “overnight” as “a pube’s width shy of 20 years.”
Because that’s how long I’ve been writing.
Here are some other numbers for you:
I’m about to turn 38.
I sold my first short story when I was 18.
I made nine bucks.
I started working freelance when I was 21 — writing for the roleplaying game industry, for White Wolf Game Studios. First book I worked on was, I think, the Hunter Storytellers Guide, and then Hunter Book: Wayward after that.
I made, I think, $0.025 cents per word to start. Two-and-a-half cents per word.
Over time and with work I ended up making $0.05 per word, except when I was doing developing and editing work, which was $0.02 per word.
I contributed to around 100 books in the game industry, either as writer or developer.
In those books I wrote around two million words.
I worked various other jobs in the middle of this writing career: I was a “reporter” for the ICRDA (the Independent Cash Register Dealer’s Association, which is about as soul-killing an organization as you can imagine) and what that means was they hired me as a reporter but used me as a mule. (I crashed a tour van and got it stuck in a parking garage and that was my last day working for those assholes.) I worked one day shredding EPA documents for a pigment company. I worked a day in an advertising agency where for some reason they had sex toys everywhere and the ad execs looked like porn stars (to this day I still don’t know what was really going on there). I was a coffee-monkey for Caribou (one week), Borders (one week), and a cool little coffeehouse called Dillworth (one year). I worked behind the counter of one bargain bookstore. I worked as a manager for another bargain bookstore along with Pete, an old man who showed me scars from a time he got two bullets to the chest (at a bookstore). I did time at Gateway Computers as a help desk dude and a sales guy. I worked at a fashion merchandising company as a systems manager. I updated a website for an almost-kinda-sorta payola-based online music magazine meant to stir up radio plays when radio still mattered. I worked for the library in marketing.
But I was always a writer even when I was doing other things.
(Don’t tell my employers, but I used a whole lotta company time to write.)
I wrote six novels before I published my seventh, Blackbirds. And I wrote God-Only-Knows how many unfinished novels before that — leaving behind me a trail of broken story-corpses like furniture that fell off a truck because somebody forgot to tie all the shit down.
Those six novels were somewhere between bad to really bad with the occasional punctuation of oh that’s pretty good. It’s a good thing self-publishing did not exist back then because I’d have been shellacking the walls of the Kindle Marketplace with my stenchy word-grease.
The novel right before Blackbirds — a book called Dog Days — took me maybe a year to finish. It wasn’t really me or my voice, it was me trying to think I knew what I should write to get published, and I almost did. A few agents nibbled. I’m glad they didn’t. We can say what we want about gatekeepers, but truth is, I’m glad the bouncers kept me out of the club that night, because holy shit were my dance moves so not ready. All that flailing. Very inelegance. Such clumsy. Wow.
Blackbirds took me four or five years to write.
A month or two to get an agent.
A year or more to get published.
The sequel, Mockingbird, took me 30 days.
The third book, Cormorant, 45 days. Each with equal time to edit them, too.
Under the Empyrean Sky took a month for the first draft, but a year to get right through various successive drafts — and by the end over half the book was gone twice over. Then: more editing once the publisher picked it up — editing for content, for copy, for style, whatever.
Lots of books. Each a different hunk of time carved out of my life.
My point in telling you this is that I get a lot of emails or tweets or folks talking to me at conferences and they want to know how long this takes or why it doesn’t go faster and should they just self-publish. And I don’t have any good answers for that.
Because it takes as long as it takes.
And generally, I suspect it takes a lot longer than you want. Like most things in life, you want it now but now is often how you get it wrong, not how you get it right. A pot roast sits a long time in the oven. Brisket takes a long time for the smoke to get into the meat, for all the connective tissue to break down. You don’t paint a masterpiece the first time you pick up a brush. It took me 20 years to figure out how to brew my favorite cup of coffee. A sapling takes a long time to become a tree. A human takes a long time to become a person.
And a writer takes a long time to become a writer.
It’s easy to see these last couple years of my career as a flurry of activity out of nowhere. But you’re seeing the trunk of the elephant poking out of the tent (IT’S A TRUNK SHUT UP GET YOUR MINDS OUT OF THE GUTTER); you’re not seeing the whole beast. But those books I wrote — the ones that were bad? — mattered. You’ll never see them; they’re part of the foundation of this metaphorical house. It’s all under the earth, just rocks and packed dirt, but part of what holds the structure up. The freelance writing, too, that put me out there with editors and developers who helped me learn the craft — their input like hard stones whetting a blade.
Some books are fast, and some books are slow. Some books suck — though the suck can be fixed. Some books are good but can be made great. And some rare books are great the moment they land, as if they were handed down to the readers by one of the gods. (Though one should never be so presumptive to assume it’s his book that’s great — an ego that big and that brash could mean a book that’s very small, very broken.) You don’t just self-publish something because you’re tired of looking at it. You don’t just send things off to an agent or an editor because you need it now. As I am wont to say to the toddler: “Patience, little monkey.”
This shit takes time. It takes input. It takes other people. It takes self-evaluation. It takes knowing when a book is wrong and when to dust off your hands because it’s right. It’s about not worrying about getting to perfect because no such thing exists.
Your writing career will be long. Lots of peaks and valleys. Lots of digging in dirt, lots of learning “wax-on, wax-off,” not sure how waxing a fucking car will teach you goddamn karate. Lots of living to do, lots of reading to do. A world of of thinking, what feels like literal tons of doubt pushing down on your neck and shoulders. And, obvious to some but not obvious to all:
It’ll take a lot of writing.
Every writer is her own creature, and every book a monster child different from the last.
A writing career isn’t a short game — it’s a long con.
You should always be writing, but never be hurrying.
It takes the time that it takes.