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.

Ahem.

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.

Done?

Excellent.

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

Indiebound | Amazon | B&N

 

60 comments

  • This penmonkey is thanking the twitter-gods that brought me to you. Right now my grand plan of ‘yep, I’m going to get something published and it will be awesome’ seems overwhelming. The internet is great but its an abyss of suggestions, advice, courses, conferences, social media and ‘this is how I did it’ and ‘don’t do this it’s bad’ and ‘if you don’t do this you are bad’ and general ‘holy shit I have no idea which way to go’ inducing loveliness. Then in a little corner of the trench there’s Chuck and his HAMFIST AND SHORNGOGGLE and his ‘write as much or as little as you jolly well fucking feel like it.’

  • Yup. If I wrote s.l.o.w.l.y just to masticate the words and spit them out reverently, then I couldn’t eat.

    And I like to eat.

    Um. Maybe I should have a cookie now.

  • September 15, 2015 at 10:30 PM // Reply

    I don’t know that she’s talking specifically about someone like you, a professional who’s been doing this for long enough to have the process honed. I think maybe this article is more for the benefit of people who are still figuring things out. I mean, I’ve read the same advice that the article points out in tons of places– that you should pop out several books as fast as possible if you’re self-publishing, because it boosts sales. And you know, maybe that’s true. But I also suspect that if someone without a well-developed process follows this advice to the exclusion of actually giving their plot time to marinate and cook up real nice, well, in the end, it’s not really helping anybody. Certainly not a reader who paid good money for someone’s crappy third draft.

    That said, I’m not a big fan of writing advice given in absolute terms of “never do this” or “always do that.” Still, as advice for a newer writer bent on achieving self-publishing glory, it’s not bad advice by any means. Quantity and quality are not mutually exclusive, but when you’re a newb, unless you’re the second coming of Terry Pratchett, you probably aren’t going to sit down at your computer and just dash out jaw-dropping works of genius, one after the other, in a matter of months.

    Just my two cents. :)

    • I think her article is probably getting hammered on more than it deserves, and at its heart is indeed a good message — “Don’t rush it,” which is to say, don’t write so fast you outpace your own process and quality. But her tack is different than mine on that one, a little.

      For me, new writers actually might get benefit out of writing fast and being prolific — again, not necessarily *publishing* what they write, but simply pursuing the act of writing it. Iterate quickly. Fail faster. Maximize your learning and upgrade your instincts.

      • September 16, 2015 at 9:11 AM // Reply

        That makes sense. Writing more makes you a better writer, but there’s no obligation to publish everything you write. My first four novels are hidden deep in the recesses of my hard drive, and I’ve threatened to haunt any family member who attempts to publish them after my death. But writing them helped me learn how to make number five (hopefully) a winner.

      • September 17, 2015 at 5:26 PM // Reply

        I totally agree with both of you on this one! I could also imagine writing and hoarding and then publishing rapidly, if that seems like it works from a marketing perspective.

  • Here’s a question: How many writers, especially those going down the self-publishing path, know that their works are of high quality? With today’s technology, it’s so easy to get impatient and publish a story when it’s just not ready yet. The temptation is even worse when bills are overdue.

    • How many writers are self-aware enough to ask that question?

      Its not just impatience – it’s getting swept up in one’s own story. It’s heady and exciting – finishing that first novel, holding the thing in your hands hot off the printer. I made this with my brain! It’s AMAZING. As a professional book buyer, I see so many self-published authors, especially self-published debut authors, who send me emails or just show up in my office, high on their own accomplishment – and they should be, it’s a tremendous accomplishment – but they just never stopped careening forward long enough to think that maybe the thing wasn’t done cooking, that getting the story down on paper is not the whole process.

      So when I finished my first first draft – in thirty-eight-days – I sat back and thought, “I have no idea what I’m doing and I need help.” I decided to try for the traditional publishing route to force that slow-down and self-awareness.

      Six months on, I’ve learned about writing query letters, I’ve learned about revision and beta reader feedback and so many things, I’ve gone through eight drafts, and oh, my god, the thing is so much better than when I started. So much better. But I can see how easy it could have been be seduced into jumping the other direction, not knowing any better. Do a fast-pass revision or two, make some cover art, get on CreateSpace and get that thing out in the world and move on to the next story, feel that high again, go go go. Absolutely.

  • I could get behind the HuffPo article if it was instead titled, “dear self-pub authors: don’t write four crappy books per year.” and then, it would have the subtitle: “because most of us trad pub authors have non-compete clauses in our contracts which means we can’t publish more than one and we’re super jelly.”

    • Plus, all those articles that criticize the quality of self pub books conveniently neglect the fact that most trad pub books also do not sell well and many of them are poorly written too.

      • Ooof, yes! I get SO FLAMIN’ CRANKY when I spend $18-25 on a book, and then find out it’s trad-published rubbish. So much dreck out there in the traditionally published world, too.

      • It’s true to a point that you can get bad books in any space, though I’d argue because of the checks and balances inside the publishing system, you will get more technically sound books coming out of that space.

        • That’s quite true, but I’d also argue that a ‘technically sound’ book can also be horribly boring/ridiculously irritating. It can also be quite brilliant.

          I know a technically sound pianist who has no soul and is totally boring to listen to, and I know a self-taught pianist who does such wonderful improv.

          I guess my point (if you can find it in all the waffle) is that I’m more likely to buy a book because it’s entertaining/it has great characters than because it’s technically sound.

          And having said all that, there’s an awful lot of dreck out there in the self-publishing world too.

    • On most sites, editors (not writers) pick out headlines. So it’s not necessarily her fault the headline is so inflammatory.

    • YES!

      * sneaks up to Chnurk Mandog *

      * substitutes a fuckweasel for the lemur and sets the lemur free *

      Trust me, Devin. He’ll never notice. Well, not until we’re at a safe distance.

      RUN, LEMUR, RUN!

  • This might cause you to flinch in horror, but this piece of writing is the kind of writing we’re trying to get our students to write in high school. It’s what I would call “Common-Cored” I would seriously offer this up to my students as a good piece of argumentative writing if it weren’t for the fucks and monkey cat sex reference. Which sucks. I happen to think fucks are necessary to express. Anyway, just wanted to share, you know, in case you were thinking of going back to high school any time soon.

    • Haha, now I’m imagining Wendig as a high school teacher. It’d be so great.

      “Guys, I want to tell you that these papers were good. As in, they rocked my socks off, or they felt like the dictations from a Shakespeare-themed ouija board. But you need some tough love today, so…”

      *begins duct-taping lemur to head*

  • There’s plenty to take issue with in this woman’s article. It’s directed to self-published authors, and there is a problem in self-publishing that she is trying to address, but she addresses some other issue.

    The problem to which I refer is scads of poor writing (i.e., poor grammar, sentence structure, and story structure) and poor/no editing, and crappy covers. Okay, if you’re going to write to self-pblish, learn the craft and hire an editor and cover designer. You are, after all, not only a writer, but a publisher. That’s what she’s crying about.

    What she says, though, is at least partially wrong. Have your story edited and a professional cover designed, fine. That goes without saying, and has nothing to do with the speed with which one writes a book.

    It’s wrong, though, to expect every novel to take the reader’s breath away, or to cause them to read a line over and over because it’s so wonderful. Fiction is entertainment. That’s it. Yes, I like to make the reader think, but most don’t want to. They simply want to be entertained.

    Very few novels have taken my breath away. But they have to be entertaining. Writing fast (or not) has nothing to do with whether your story is entertaining or thought provoking.

    Another issue I have is with the word “perfect.” There is no such thing in any art. Picasso said that no work of art is ever finished, it’s simply abandoned. I can always find something in my work and in the work of others that could be improved. But time is against me. There comes a point when you have to pull the trigger.

    Yeah, you’ve got to have the craft, the structure, and the elements of a story. No plot holes, no discrepancies, and no typos. Again, that has nothing to with how fast you write. It’s all just part of finishing the job.

    • Michael, your observation is excellent. Like you I read fiction to be entertained. I do not expect every book I read to take my breath away – I’ve already read more than 200 novels this year, so if each one took my breath away I’d be dead!!

      Sadly this is just another literary snob dismissing things like genre fiction because it doesn’t meet her standard of ‘quality’.

  • Yeah, I saw this article too and had a similar reaction. Nothing wrong with putting out an opinionated post, but ‘quality’ is such a subjective thing that in the end it just boils down to – ‘to each their own’.

    With most authors works that I read (yourself included), its easy to see their novels get better and better with each release (and that’s not to say the first was bad), and often they start coming out faster and faster because, well, people improve when they do things again and again. They get better, master their craft, and get quicker. Also, the amount of time a person is able to commit to writing will impact their release rate, so such a sweeping statement as ‘do not release four books a year’ is a little misguided.

    Side notes: Is that right – Blackbirds is being developed for T.V??? Nice work! Assuming you have done a post on it but must have missed it. Keep us posted.

    And am just over halfway through Aftermath – yeah, its really good. Not sure what all the hate is for. The tense isn’t my preference, but you soon get into the groove with it and a chapter or two in you don’t notice it anymore. Looking forward to finishing it.

  • I actually thought the original article was VERY snobby in its tone. Having said that, I don’t rate Donna Tartt et al as being good authors, so I’m looking at a totally different spectrum of what I consider to be good. There are some authors I’d rather chew off my left leg than read, and yet they’re considered the best and brightest literary minds.

    I’m obviously the poor little plebian type author that the writer was talking about :D

    Having said that, I’m not quite up to speed yet: I can only write two fully edited and fully proof-read, beta-read books per year. I’ll have to up my game…

  • The great thing is I have yet to read a book that has an imprint on the cover that says “This book was written in X days/weeks/months.”

    Who cares? You could’ve slaved over it for years and I’ll know by page 2 if it’s shit.

    I might turn every page and scream when there are no more for the book written in a month.

    It is completely irrelevant.

    So yeah — you do you. That’s good advice.

  • I can write four novels a year. I can publish four novels in a year. I can promote a lot more than that in a year – but I can’t do them all at once because I’m an author-publisher and there really are only 24 hours in a day, and my editor and cover illustrator don’t work full-time on editing and illustrating my covers either.

    I can probably bring out three books in a year, though. Er, yes, that’s the tally for this year, since I’ve pushed the fourth to next January, and I’ve been writing them over the last three years and have two more on the go ;)

    The promotion is the killer.

  • I could write all day long, every hour happily at my keyboard. Its only life and kids and wine (and the damn publisher) that slow me down. And I worry that people get tired of my near-constant drivel. Still, this rant encourages me.

  • Thank you for writing this one. Stephen King and Chuck Wendig were the two names that popped into my head when I started reading the aforementioned article on the Huffington Post. Yes, writing shoukd be good before it’s released into the wild. How much good writing an author can produce in a year is very much an individual thing. Thanks again, and I’ll be sharing this on my own FaceSpace.

  • Boom! Yes. Allofthe yes. I wrote like five books last year (and got an awesome agent with number two yay!) and this year things have sllloowwweddddddd because we are about to go on submission and edits and stuff. But the ideas didn’t stop coming. Now I’ve just got four fifteen page plans gnawing at my subconscious! I just think I write a lot, and that’s my style. Of course I now have someone to consult and strategise with so I can’t just gogogogogo anymore, but I am sooo excited to get started on something new

  • I think it’s also important to note that to different authors (especially self-published authors, which her title targets), a year’s worth of writing time can vary wildly.

    A self-published author with a full time day job probably – probably! – can’t finish 4 quality novels per year. An author who can dedicate 8 or more hours per day to the craft, however, can definitely get the job done.

    • Exactly! Her article didn’t at all take into count how much time is being out into each book daily. If I spend the same amount of time writing on one month that someone else spends in one year, is their writing better because it took a year? Writing full time allows more writing time in less calendar space. The number of days don’t equate to quality. Two separate issues.

  • Thank you for recognizing that not only is every writer different but also every writing project is different.

    No one wants to read assembly-line fiction. No one wants to think that success means, “I am book mill!” So maybe the mantra “Write! Write! Write! (psst, and you’ll be rich and famous)” is a way of soothing the egos of those who put quantity ahead of quality.

    Then again, the 11-years-to-write-a-novel school of thought is just another way of soothing the ego. “It’s okay that you have taken six weeks on the first paragraph of your story. You’re not a dilettante; you’re careful. Now, go watch all the Harry Potter movies and come back when you are fresher.” That’s right! Take that baker’s decade to get the words just right . . . and if you’re polishing a turd, well, there’s always the next book.

    Is it story or is it product? Whichever we choose is what we will write–regardless of speed.

    • I mean, if you write 1000 words a day — and with practice you can manage that in 1-2 hours — then in 90 days you’ve got a novel. And that means a novel every three months and four novels a year. Now, that doesn’t mean those novels don’t need editing (sometimes epic edits, sometimes light little nipple-tweaks), but it does mean you can iterate quickly and without DESTROYING ART IN ITS ENTIRETY. *thunder rumbles*

  • True, true, true, Mr. Chuck. And you proved your point by hitting number 4 on NY Times Best Seller list with “Star Wars: Aftermath”. Congratulations!

  • Yeah, if you’re writing for a living you have to make your deliverables. Back in the 90’s I got a job as a tech writer, and having a pile of docs to write that lots of people are waiting for and being paid to write them–well, you have to write or fail and get a different job. I stuck with it and have been writing professionally ever since. I’ve gotten very fast on the nonfiction side. I write some fiction, but my learning curve was a lot slower. Though I write some fiction, I still like tech writing and I give my established, paying gigs first priority. Writing fiction is different because it’s more subjective and more personal, but in a professional context, it’s also the same. To make a living, you have to be productive and deliver the work.

  • I used to be a newspaper reporter, back when newspapers were literally news and paper. You wrote fast or you went into PR. You learn how to do quality quickly. Now, novels and short stories are different creatures but if you think fast and your hands fly over those keyboards, don’t lollygag! Write!

  • The parameters of what would be considered prolificity have changed drastically since the days of Capote. Four novels in the lone year of, say, 1967 would seem to be three novels too many, maybe four if there had been one in 1966. Or ’65. Nowadays, we fiend on words. I texted with a friend yesterday, and during those six seconds I had to wait for a response, I read e-mails on my tablet.

    I agree with Chuck: Four books in one year by one author in today’s Snarffest of words is what it may take to stay afloat and hold readers’ interest. And earn your mortgage. Readers may give Book 1 just eight nanoseconds of interest before they move on. Seems Another Book and Another Another Book should be waiting if you want to make a living. (I only have a Book 1 out there, thus my writing this from an “other pursuits” job full of non-fiction writing. Well, hopefully it’s a lack of Bookage that keeps me from earning some of my living as a writer and it’s not that I suck. I like to think it’s just that I need to have more to offer before I can begin to count on any kind of steady trickle. Fortunately, I’m experiencing what Chuck did, which is that Another Book is flowing much faster than Book 1 did. Time–and more books–will answer the question of suckage.)

    All of that said, everybody can be right here because 27 books in one year is probably too many. So, “writing too many books” may still be an accurate warning, but we have to adjust what “too many” actually is to fit today’s reading patterns. To me, four books in one year in 2015 is akin to one book every three years in 1972. And since writing is a prerequisite to better writing, I’d rather write too much than too little.

  • Thank you Chuck. I’ll be passing this on to my WriMos this year big time. Process is so important to learn about yourself, and to challenge. Process takes practice. One of the most liberating things I’ve learned about myself as a writer is that I personally don’t write a lot worse writing fast than I do writing slow. Which is to say, the percentage of “hey, you’re actually kind of clever” to “dear god why did you write that sentence” remains about the same. So when I can see the bottom, I can pump out a lot of material very quickly, and hold it together. Flexin that 110+ WPM. But if I’m adrift in murky waters, I have to stop and regroup and figure out where I’m going. It’s rare I can just keep writing until I find the current again. That’s just me. I’m a firm believer that trying out different things makes you get better, one way or another.

  • There’s a yin/yang thing to the new ease of self-publishing. Along with being able to get your book out there, it also created a tsunami of that can overwhelm writers with how-to write and market what they create. Some of it is great advice, from people who actually do the things they’re advising on. The bulk of it seems ot be people who’ve found a new business to be in – the separating of self-publishers fomr whatever they earn.

    This is in the ‘some” category, and thanks for it

  • Old Man Torguson, who’s trying to sell the land all around me to high-density developers, got an earful of HAMFIST AND SHORNGOGGLE. That felt good. I read the “don’t write four books a year” article. My reaction was simple, “Don’t tell me what to do.” Now back to writing.

  • “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.”

    I have seen that — or something with the same meaning anyway — on a self-publishing advice blog. I followed pretty much that advice for all the stuff I’ve published so far. The results? Horrible to mediocre sales; me re-writing a short story completely and republishing it — at the plot level it’s the same, but everything else is different in the new version; and me considering taking my first published book down because it was intended to be the first part of a series but has so many issues that I’m fairly certain the series can’t be finished. I try to think of those books as “learning experiences” instead of failures, so I don’t want to build a time machine just to go smack myself. (I also followed some bad marketing advice, which didn’t help matters any.)

  • “Squirrel covered in fire ants” is definitely my writing pace most of the time, and when it’s not, it’s not. My methods have worked well for me so far, even when people come down on me. Not about to change now.

  • Thank you so much for writing this. Her post made me see red because it assumed that anyone who writes/publishes quickly doesn’t care about quality or can’t produce quality. Writers have different paces, and so do books. Different genres too have to be taken into consideration, I think. Because I write quickly doesn’t mean I don’t take my time to edit or to have a professional editor, proofreader and cover artist work their magic. Another point she disregards is the amount of time each day dedicated to writing. If someone is squeezing in words around other job and life commitments, that would naturally extend the amount of time required to produce quality novels. Because writing is my full time job, I put in all my work hours towards writing and revising. So I can make more progress in a week than someone hitting one or two hours a day. It doesn’t mean I don’t care about quality. Like you, I have bills to pay and the sooner I finish a piece and publish it, the sooner I can pay my bills. But it won’t sell if it’s not good. So the quality has to be there even when I produce swiftly. Thank you for putting out there the other side of the coin.

    • It made me see red too. Like you, I am currently writing full-time, so I can produce 4-5 novels a year if I set my mind to it. The fact that I can comfortably write thousands of words a day, every day, does not mean that my work is automatically of lower quality than if I spent a year or more on each book.

  • Well, I am pretty sure I only ever did anything for just my own ego, and if one male stranger says”crazy good read” about one of my pulpy love stories, I can’t ever stop, or wouldn’t want to, but they changed my meds. So four in a year is now 80% of one in 2 years. I wish I was kidding.

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