by Anne R. Allen
I first blogged about the plight of slow writers back in 2014, at the height of the indie publishing boom. All the indie superstar gurus were telling writers to grind out ebooks as fast as they could type to take advantage of the “Kindle Gold Rush”.
Three years later, the Kindle Gold Rush is history, but there’s even more pressure to write fast–not only for authors who self-publish, but for traditionally published authors as well.
The New York Times reported recently: “The practice of spacing an author’s books at least one year apart is gradually being discarded as publishers appeal to the same “must-know-now” impulse that drives binge viewing.”
Confessions of a Slow Writer
I’m afraid I’m in the tortoise camp myself. My plots morph and change during the writing process and never bear much resemblance to my original outline. That means I spend a lot of time rewriting and reworking.
Maybe I could write faster if I kept to my outlines, but then I wouldn’t have nearly as much fun writing the books. If the writer isn’t having fun, I worry the reader won’t either.
I could also write more ebooks if I didn’t spend time recording audiobooks and getting everything into nicer print copies–and, of course, blogging and corresponding with readers here and on social media.
I realize I’m defying cultural norms. We live in a speed-obsessed civilization. Whatever it is we crave—cars, trains, electronics, food, dates—we want them ever-faster-and-furiouser. In fact, much of the developed world seems to be engaged some turbocharged drag race of the soul, hurtling our frenzied selves from cradle to grave, terrified of slowing for even a minute of rose-smelling.
So am I doomed to fail as I lag back here with only 10 books to my name?
Speed in the Gig Economy
Overworking ourselves is considered a good thing in the era of the “gig culture.” In an an economy where fewer people have steady jobs and many eke out a living with random piecemeal employment, working an absurd number of hours becomes something to be admired.
In fact, taking care of ourselves has become something of a taboo.
In the New Yorker last month, Jia Tolentino wrote a piece called “The Gig Economy Celebrates Working yourself to Death”. She talked about the praise heaped on a young pregnant Lyft driver who picked up a fare on the way to the hospital while she was having contractions.
She’s praised as a hero, with nobody mentioning what a dangerous message that sends. “Being in labor isn’t that big a deal, ladies. Go to work anyway.”
I’d much rather see an article praising somebody who took care of herself (and the people around her.) “WOMAN STAYS HOME WITH FLU! KEEPS GERMS AWAY FROM THOUSANDS!
Yeah, I know. Not likely.
On Medium this week, a blogger who calls himself “Son of Baldwin” laments the pressure young people feel to abuse their physical and mental health and hide all signs of stress. He says “we’re despised for showing any vulnerability, for having emotions, for displaying moments of weakness.”
Another Medium blogger, Mianya Ong wrote about her case of burnout after working 90 hr weeks for a start-up. “Sleep is for the weak. Failure is a choice. There is only success, and those too lazy to achieve it. That’s the kind of mantra I fed myself.”
But last week Ruth Harris wrote about the dangers of stress and burnout. Do we really want to go there?
The Pressure to Write Fast
Writers seem to get more than our share of pressure to overwork. I think that’s partly because so many non-writers think writing books is easy. I’ve met people who think writing books involves nothing but typing. “It took you a year to write a book? My grandmother can type 80 words a minute!”
Writers and artists have always worked a gig economy, so nothing’s new there. We know that if we don’t produce a saleable product in a reasonable amount of time, we don’t eat.
But the pressure is escalating, as “Son of Baldwin” said in his post. A writer who could turn out a book a year used to be considered “prolific.” But now everybody tells us that if we can’t produce books as fast as Mickey D’s grills burgers, we should choose another line of work.
What About the Reader?
What does the need for speed do for the quality of books that readers can choose from?
Humorist Tara Sparling wrote a post last month lamenting the sameness of bestsellers these days. She says, “books are being hammered into pre-existing trends, and nobody’s coming out with anything new.”
If we’re blogging, networking, sending out newsletters, and churning out books as fast as we can type, it’s easy to lose sight of the most important person in the publishing equation: the reader.
Like Tara, most readers would probably would like something new, rather than a copycat of what they just read.
But creating new stuff takes time. And with all this busy-work, we don’t have any to spare.
Self-Pub vs. Trad-Pub
One of the chief prophets of the speed-writing gospel is uber-prolific indie guru Dean Wesley Smith. Back in 2014, Mr. Smith got into a verbal contretemps on the subject with literary agent Donald Maass.
Donald Maass, author of the popular how-to-write-breakout-novels books, posted a controversial piece for Writer Unboxed, dividing all authors into three classes with the imperiousness of Caesar dividing Gaul.
He relegated self-publishers to “Freight” class, and the direct-to-paperback/ebook trad-pubbed midlist authors to “Coach”, while pronouncing the “First Class” artistic elite (like Snooki, Rush Limbaugh, and the Duck Dynasty guys, presumably) deserving of hardcovers, big bucks and the undying respect of the literati.
Many big-name indies rebutted him, but none with more passion than Dean Wesley Smith. I agreed with much of what DWS had to say, until I read his remarks in the comment thread:
“He [Maass] thinks all writers need to rewrite and rewrite….He thinks that slowing down and writing less is a better way to become a better writer.”
And “I tell writers to write with passion and never rewrite.”
I think DWS did more harm to the self-publishing movement with those statements than any of Maass’s silly elitism.
In his rebuttal, Mr. Smith revived an old piece of advice from scifi great Robert Heinlein, excerpted from a 1947 essay, “On the Writing of Speculative Fiction”, which offered the following counsel to young writers:
1. You must write.
2. You must finish what you write.
3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
4. You must put the work on the market.
5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.
I’m sure those were excellent rules for writing science fiction for pulp magazines 70 years ago—when writers submitted work to actual editors who would later give those “editorial orders”.
But in the age of self-publishing, that advice is pretty awful. It could derail a promising career and stoke the fears of every reader already cowering in dread of the indie “tsunami of crap.”
Later in the thread, Donald Maass himself appeared, and I found myself agreeing with some of his points, like this one:
“What I advocate and teach is not any particular pace of output but the techniques that I’ve observed result in strong fiction. I do see that revision is pretty often part of getting that result.”
My problem with both men in this argument is they had lumped together completely separate issues:
- Writing Fast
- The need to edit
So Let’s Look at Them Separately:
1) Writing Fast:
Authors have been urged to write faster for decades. Writing fast has nothing to do with the self-publishing movement, or whether you’re in “Freight” or “First Class” (or “Coach” like me.)
As early as the 1970s, P.G. Wodehouse, prolific author of the “Jeeves” novels and many others, gave this advice to new writers in the Paris Review,“I always feel the thing to go for is speed.”
In 2011, the trad-pubbed Sci-Fi author Rachel Aaron wrote an article for SFWA outlining how she built from a meagre 2000 words a day to 10,000 words a day or more, when her publisher required it.
And as Elizabeth S. Craig told us in her guest post in February of this year, the writers who make the most money these days are writers who can write books quickly–preferably in a series.
So yeah, writing fast is great…if you can do it well.
I don’t want to get into a literary vs genre argument here, because it’s not relevant. Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in 6 weeks, and some terrible genre books took decades. Some writers can write 10K words a day and have no problem finding readers.
But if I wrote 10K words a day and didn’t edit them, I guarantee the whole thing would be gibberish. I would also end up in the hospital. And I don’t think I’m alone in this.
2) Self Publishing:
Many self-publishers are also traditionally published, and hybrid authors are the best paid in the business, so these “either/or” arguments should be long over.
Unfortunately they persist, as shown in this piece from the Guardian last month, where author Ros Barber said, “Now, I understand that “indie publishing” is all the rage, but you might as well be telling Luke Skywalker to go to the dark side. Despite royalty rates of 70%, I think self-publishing is a terrible idea for serious novelists. (by which I mean, novelists who take writing seriously, and love to write).”
Ros sweetie, 2009 called. They want their snark back. This is an old, dead issue.
Back in 2014, Donald Maass’s own hybrid client Delilah Marvelle wrote an eloquent rebuttal to this kind of arrogance (specifically Mr. Maass’s three-classes piece).
“I have to say, Freight Class is awesome. The seats are bouncy and let me swivel any way I want so I can write and deliver the books in any way I want. And the conductor isn’t sticking his nose in on my business telling me what I can and can’t write. It’s soooo nice. I guess what you’re not seeing is that I learned to appreciate the wonders and the joys of Freight Class after being stuck in Coach Class for so long. I’m loving it back here and I kinda wish you’d actually rename all the classes. Because the people in Freight Class deserve more respect.”
So it’s a non-issue. Some great authors self-publish and some lousy authors do too. Some great authors are trad-published but some lousy authors are too. Indies and Trad-Pubbers are both supposed to write fast.
The only constant is that slow writers are $&!# out of luck–or are they?
3) The Need to Edit:
When he told writers not to bother with revisions, Dean Wesley Smith sounded as elitist as Donald Maass. His statements reminded me of a quote sometimes attributed to Oscar Wilde:
“I never rewrite my own work. Who am I to tamper with genius?”
(Although Wilde actually edited his work meticulously.)
Maybe DWS himself can write a perfectly crafted novel in a weekend that doesn’t need a bit of editing. He’s had a lifetime of experience cranking out those puppies, so I can believe him when he says he does it.
Some people can jump off mountains with wooden planks strapped to their feet, do somersaults in the air and glide effortlessly to safety and Olympic glory.
But it’s ridiculous to say that everybody can.
Especially newbies. Newbies need editors. And time.
Expertise: The Thing Nobody Talks About
Here’s the thing: a beginner can’t do the same thing–at the same speed–as a seasoned professional, no matter what skill set you’re talking about.
I’m pretty sure Dale Earnhardt Jr. didn’t vroom into a NASCAR race the day he got his learner’s permit. Any music lover can tell you the notes produced by a first-year cello student won’t fall as delightfully upon the ear as those of Yo-Yo Ma. And nobody wants to wear a pair of socks created by a first-time knitter.
Why do people think it’s different with writing? Telling beginning writers they should be able to do the same thing as seasoned professionals is not helpful. It can hurt the fledgling writer as well as the reader (who should factor into the equation somewhere, I think.)
And as to the argument that writing lots of pages makes you a better writer—that’s only true if you get feedback. And learn from it.
Making the same mistake two hundred times is not an improvement over making it once.
Getting Back to the Speed Question:
In spite of my undying admiration for Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, I think it’s important to remind ourselves that not all bestselling authors write fast. Not even in the e-age.
Donna Tartt, whose brilliant novel The Goldfinch topped everybody’s lists for the best book of 2013, had only written three novels since her first in 1992.
Lots of professional writers create slowly and edit as they go.
Okay, I’ve learned to compose a little faster than I could a few years ago. I’ve moved from a snail’s pace to that of an arthritic penguin, but I still can’t write much more than 2000 words a day on a WIP, combined with an average of maybe 500-1000 words of nonfic for blogs and social media, another 1000-3000 on email and replying to requests, comments, and questions, plus a few hours editing or proofreading.
Am I a failure? I don’t feel like one. I’m mostly published by small presses, which makes me one of Maass’s pathetic mid-listers in “Coach” class.
I’m certainly not keeping the publishing industry afloat like those Duck Dynasty guys or the adult coloring book craze, but I have 10 published books, several of which have made bestseller lists. I’ve got several books in translation and audiobooks, and I’m being read all over the world.
Hey, I even have haters, which might be the real mark of success in today’s snarky Internet culture.
The Power of SLOW:
I remain a believer in doing things slowly.
- This “slow blog” continues to earn major awards usually reserved for the dailies.
- I read slowly, too—I hate to barrel through a book reading only for plot–and missing the wit, nuances of character, and moments of insight that might expand my own mind.
- I eat slow food: I cook everything from scratch, buy from the local farmer’s market, and never eat fast food unless I’m on the road (and it’s an In-N-Out burger. 🙂 )
- Hey, I even live in a place called SLO-town, which Oprah named the “happiest town in America.”
And I’m going to tell you it’s okay to be a slow writer.
Especially if you’re a beginner. Write a little each day. Get joy from it. Feel pride when you get a really good scene finished.
Because a writing career is not a race or a contest.
Writing has to be a source of joy; it doesn’t pay well enough to be anything else.
I’m not saying you can’t be successful popping out a first draft at NaNoWriMo speed. In fact I encourage new writers to try NaNo at least once. It can help you overcome inhibitions and let your muse loose on the page.
But afterward, you’ll need to put in a lot of time editing, especially if you’re a new writer.
No matter what Robert Heinlein said, I’m pretty sure no reader wants to pay money for your “sh***y first draft.” As an editor, I had to read a lot of them, and I can tell you I wouldn’t have finished 90% if I hadn’t been paid.
If you properly edit your NaNo book, the bottom line of time spent is probably going to be about the same as if you wrote it slowly.
It’s Also Wise to Consider:
1) Many editors dislike working with people who write to a high daily word count.
Speed writers tend to fall in love with the very bulkiness of their own product. That high number of words feels valuable, so they can’t let go.
2) Your mental health.
It’s also important to be aware that for some people, writing more than a certain number of hours a day can be dangerous to your mental health.
The New York Times reported a few years ago that scientists have discovered the part of the brain stimulated by deep thought is the same part activated in clinical depression. The reason so many writers suffer from depression isn’t because we all started out miserable.
Writing for long periods without a break can actually trigger the illness in some people. It can also cause stress and burnout, as Ruth Harris told us last week.
3) Your physical health.
Sitting too long at a desk can be hazardous to your health. A Canadian study in 2015 proved that too much sitting can lead to diabetes, heart disease, and premature death.
4) The ever-changing marketplace.
Back in the heady days of the Kindle Gold Rush, I was selling 1000s of ebooks a week on Amazon. I even had some days when I sold 1000 in a day. If I’d been able to write faster, no doubt I’d have sold a whole lot more.
But Amazon is no longer the indie’s playground. Unless you’re with an Amazon imprint, you’ll get no sales help from the Zon. (Data collectors still call Amazon imprints “indie” publishing, but they are traditional publishing in everything but name.)
In fact, more of my income came from audiobooks and print than ebooks in the last quarter of 2016. The hours it took to record those audiobooks kept me from my WIP, but that investment is paying off. As is the time spent putting out better print books with my new publisher.
There is a Role for Slow Writers in Today’s Publishing World.
In fact, I believe working slowly and mindfully is the best way to build a career. It’s worked for me. And I’m not the only one.
Most writers who become “overnight successes” have actually been at it for years, maybe decades.
My friend and mentor Catherine Ryan Hyde, who became a publishing star with Pay it Forward in 2000,has become an even bigger success (#1 seller on Amazon) since she went hybrid a couple of years ago. But she collected 1000s of rejections before her first novel, Funerals for Horses was accepted by a small press.
She had a decade to hone her craft and create a body of work at her own pace before she needed to start producing books on a regular schedule. That is how most writers build their careers: Cut your teeth on short fiction, get it published and work on the novels. Don’t rush to publish the novels until you’ve got inventory. Then you can be an “overnight success.” 🙂
And these days, they usually generate multiple income streams from the same titles by producing audio, paper, and ebooks as well as speaking engagements and courses.
Successful “Slow Writers”
My friend Jay Asher, a fellow member of Nightwriters here in San Luis Obispo, CA has only published three books over the last ten years.
So he must be a complete failure, right?
Not exactly. His first novel Thirteen Reasons Why was on the NYT bestseller list for over three years. His second novel, The Future of Us, which he co-wrote with Carolyn Mackler, didn’t make as big a splash, but his third novel What Light, which came out recently is doing very well. And he is working on a graphic novel, Piper, which is already generating buzz.
Besides those, he has a major Netflix series based on his book Thirteen Reasons Why, which debuted on Friday, with a huge red-carpet opening night in LA. (It’s brilliant! Watch it.)
So here’s a guy who has NOT spent every waking minute churning out copy-cat versions of his big hit.
Instead, he’s gone all over the world speaking to schools about bullying (the subject of Thirteen Reasons Why.) He’s been helping people and doing a lot of good in the world instead of simply grinding out more books.
And yet it would be hard to say the guy isn’t a success, wouldn’t it?
I’ve also loved watching the career of sci-fi author Alex J. Cavanaugh. He’s not a particularly fast writer either. He’s a prolific blogger, but he only puts out one book a year. His career started out slow and he’s still in “Coach class” with a small press. But his books are bestsellers.
Here’s what he says:
“I am a slow writer. (Slow typist as well. Thirty words per minute if I’m lucky.) Since I also play in a band, I have to devote time to practicing my guitar every night. Plus spend time with my wife. I’m also juggling a busy blog schedule, not only with my own, but with the IWSG site and the A to Z Challenge. And yes, I work full time. So, cranking out a book or two a year just isn’t going to happen. Despite the fact my books aren’t very long. I know authors who can turn out quality books quickly, but I just don’t have that kind of time. I’d spend all my time writing and I don’t want to do that.”
OMG, the man has a life. And he doesn’t sound doomed to me.
These wonderful authors are producing art at their own pace, and giving something to their communities. (Something more than mass-produced, speed-written novels.)
Do you need to write fast to be a success in this business? I say learn to write at your own pace, then if you’re unhappy about your speed, work at getting faster. Here’s a post from Ruth Harris on learning to write faster without going bonkers.
If you can do that and keep your quality up–fantastic. But remember there are other ways to make money from your books that don’t involve churning out 12 books a year. Go wide, get translations and audiobooks (You can find translators and narrators for no money up front at Bablecube and Audible.) And most of all–live a healthy, balanced life, remembering that you are part of a community, not simply a book-generating machine.
The truth is there are as many roads to becoming a successful writer as there are successful writers. And if you’re a slow writer, don’t despair. Some day you may be walking the red carpet when a film or TV series is made of your slow-written book, like Jay Asher.
posted by Anne R. Allen (@annerallen) April 2, 2017
What about you, scriveners? Are any of you slow writers? Have you been feeling pressure to write faster? Have you attempted NaNoWriMo? Did it improve your writing? How do you feel about being advised not to edit your work?
This week on her book blog, Anne takes a detour from her poison series to talk about poisonous relationships.
A Tech Problem Note
This blog used to be on Blogger, which I loved, but we had a hacker problem, so I had a friend move us to WordPress in December 2015. He cleverly installed a redirect that automatically directed any link for annerallen.blogspot.com to annerallen.com. But apparently Blogger doesn’t like redirects and they just discovered ours. Now it’s blocked with a “403 Forbidden” notice. So if you’ve got one of our posts bookmarked at blogspot.com, just go to annerallen.com and put the title of the post into the search window. Tech sure can make our lives complicated!
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