Dear Any-Kind-Of-Published Author: Write As Much As You Want
I GOT MY RANTIN’ HAT ON.
*rantin’ hat is actually just a frightened shrieking lemur duct-taped to my skull*
I write a lot. Because I write fast. This is known.
I developed this skill working freelance because, as the saying goes, you have to be two out of three things: FAST, FRIENDLY, or GOOD. I was definitely friendly, and I knew I could be fast. No telling if I was any good or not, but I like to think I don’t suck, despite what that passel of one-star reviews might say on that book we won’t talk about right now.
Lately, though, there’s been some chatter about writers who are prolific and if that’s somehow problematic — Stephen King wrote a fine piece asking if a writer can be too prolific (his answer as a somewhat prolific author is both yes and no), and then came that Huffington Post piece, “Dear Self-Published Authors, Do Not Write Four Books A Year.”
This is the part of the meeting, I think, where I’m supposed to stand up and announce:
HI, MY NAME IS CHNURK MANDOG, AND I WRITE FOUR NOVELS A YEAR.
Now, before anybody thinks we need to take this woman’s article and flay it to pieces — at the end of the day, she’s making a reasonable point that you should be focused on quality over quantity.
The author, Lorraine Devon Wilke, says:
…take your time, work your craft; look for the best possible ways to tell your story and allow yourself time to change your mind, sometimes often, until you know it’s right. Allow your editors time to help you mold your narrative into peak condition. Give your formatters and copy editors time to comb through your manuscript, again and again, to make sure everything is perfect. Work carefully with your cover artist to create the most gorgeous, most professional book cover you can.
Nothing at all unreasonable about that. And it’d be hard to disagree. I mean, what are you gonna say as a retort? “You should rush hastily through your draft, speeding by it so fast you miss all chances to refine the thing into something meaningful, and by the way, editors are just going to slow you down and if you need a book cover here’s a picture of a monkey sexing up a cat so just slap a title on it and you are ready to reap the rewards.”
But before that, she says:
…if your point and purpose as a writer is to take someone’s breath away, capture a riveting story, translate an idea — whether fantasy, love story, science fiction, human interaction, tragedy, thriller, family saga, memoir, non-fiction — in a way that raises hairs or gets someone shouting “YES!”; if you’re compelled to tell that story so beautifully, so irreverently, with such power and prose as to make a reader stop to read a line over just to have the opportunity to roll those words around one more time, then don’t listen to that advice.
When she says “that advice” (the bold part is on her), she’s referring to that which is referenced in the article’s title: do not write four books a year.
So, again, she’s not saying anything patently wrong — I mean, yes, your goals could very well be to rob readers of their breath, or tell an amazing story, or hold court on big ideas. I always say the two biggest and most important goals of fiction is first to make people feel and second to make them think. (A third one, less necessary but still vital, is perhaps to make them laugh, but that’s a discussion for a different time.)
The problem is based in the assumption that quality is separate from quantity.
As in, to write a lot, you must sacrifice skill.
To churn out books, art is lost beneath the whirlpool of your effort.
If you write a lot, she is suggesting, then you cannot be as effective as you want to be — you can’t raise hairs, get readers shouting. You can’t be beautiful and irreverent at four books a year.
To which I cry, HAMFIST AND SHORNGOGGLE.
Neither of those things are actually words, but trust me when I say: they sound good when you yell them aloud. I will allow you some time to practice this now. Shake your fist and yell those words at something that frustrates you. Go on, I’ll wait.
So, let’s talk about this a little bit.
First up, quality and quantity are not exclusive. You do not sacrifice one to get to the other. Some authors do. Some don’t. Sometimes a book is like baking brownies, which means it takes a certain amount of time to keep baking. Sometimes it’s a smoothie — frothily frapping away in the blender for a quick pulse, pour and guzzle. Blackbirds took me five years to write. All three sequels took me under two months to finish apiece (and I’d argue Cormorant is the best book of the bunch — jury’s out yet on Thunderbird.)
Second, to build off of that, you’re the kind of writer that you are. You have a process. Maybe that process is slowly and painstakingly crafting a novel over many years — a dedication like that of a watchmaker’s artifice. Or maybe instead you prefer write like a squirrel covered in fire ants. And like I said, every book demands its own thing. It takes the time that it takes.
Third, writing a lot does not preclude publishing a lot. You can write a lot with the intent to just flail around and see what coming squirting out of your fingertips. Sometimes, you just write to write. You have to. You write to practice, to fail, to fuck around, to iterate and ideate and have fun with whatever it is that’s driving you batty on any given day. That said, it might mean publishing, too. (I’ve had three new books out this year, plus the rebirth of Blackbirds with a new publisher.)
Fourth and finally, and I’m mighty sorry to report this, but a full-time writing career is not easily maintained by writing slowly. That’s a reality of this business, and it’s true whether you’re publishing traditionally or whether you act as your own author-publisher. No matter the means of production, writing slow offers you less chance to make money than writing fast. Writing money isn’t the only goal, no, and crafting great stories should be paramount. Just the same, you also might wanna pay bills. I know my mortgage is pretty assertive when it comes time to get paid. The bank’ll break my knees if I miss a payment.
So, that’s it.
In short: write as much or as little as you jolly well fucking feel like it.
You do you, penmonkey. YOU DO YOU.
* * *
Miriam Black Is Back (In Print)
Miriam Black knows how you’re going to die. This makes her daily life a living hell, especially when you can’t do anything about it, or stop trying to. She’s foreseen hundreds of car crashes, heart attacks, strokes, and suicides. She merely needs to touch you—skin to skin contact—and she knows how and when your final moments will occur. Miriam has given up trying to save people; that only makes their deaths happen. But then she hitches a ride with Louis Darling and shakes his hand, and she sees in thirty days that Louis will be murdered while he calls her name. Louis will die because he met her, and Miriam will be the next victim. No matter what she does she can’t save Louis. But if she wants to stay alive, she’ll have to try.
“Fast, ferocious, sharp as a switchblade and fucking fantastic.” — Lauren Beukes