Writing fast, writing slow – and why one book a year suits hardly anyone

Some books take time to write. You know that already. Having recently flogged my way through two tricky narratives, I’ve been blogging about slow writing quite a lot.

But slow isn’t the only way to write decent books. There are a lot of authors who turn in perhaps two or more a year (I once did four). If you’re writing in a well defined genre, your craft is well established and you know what you’re going to do with the ideas, it’s perfectly possible to whip your novel out in six months or faster. Especially if you’re writing a series.

With genre fiction, I know where I’m going – and here’s my rough process:

  • 1 establish the characters, using genre expectations as a start point, and then twist as much as I dare to give my version a unique flavour
  • 2 establish who will cause the biggest problems, what they want to do and whether that will have enough mileage for a story
  • 3 take the tropes of the genre as a starting point, identify the reader must-haves and work out some spectacular set-pieces
  • 4 research where necessary
  • 5 decide my locations, arm myself with details to write plausible scenes there (travel photos on Flickr are brilliant for this)
  • 6 plot, write, revise, ferment, revise, send to publisher, get notes. Done. Bring on the next one.

[If you liked my potted guide here, you might like my book Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence, which I wrote in about 6 weeks (and 20 years of experience).]

A lot of writers work like this, especially genre writers. If you know where you’re going, know your audience, you can keep fans and editors well supplied. Perhaps too well supplied – the publishing industry usually likes a writer to produce one book a year. They don’t want to publish as fast as some writers are able to deliver.

What’s the problem?

You could say this does no harm; the books can be stockpiled and everyone sits pretty for years. Except they won’t. Because readers don’t want to wait. They are used to gobbling their entertainment in the grip of a craze – they want all of Lost, right now. And these kinds of writers get more leverage the more titles they can offer. Publishers may be losing something if they can’t feed those fans right now.

I know plenty of writers who find themselves hamstrung by this and turn to indie publishing in order to satisfy their fans and make the most of their productivity.

So does the book-a-year model suit the slow-maturing novel? Not remotely. When you’ve been hit by a bizarre idea where anything is possible, these books need many drafts of experimentation before you get near the steps in my plan above. This work cannot be done in a mere 12 months.

Obviously, the traditional book-a-year schedule exists because of publication practicalities. But there are a lot of writers it doesn’t suit. And it seems it doesn’t necessarily serve readers particularly well either.

Thanks for the pic Kio

Fast writers, slow-burn writers – we are publishing in interesting times…  What writing pace suits you and why?

 

 

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

  1. #1 by Katherine Roberts on May 19, 2012 - 6:00 pm

    Roz, interesting question! I have slowed down a lot since I was first publshed, mainly because I have become much more critical of my own writing and ideas, or perhaps because there are now all these distracting blogs to read…

    Bare survival for children’s fiction seems to require writing 2 books per year. I think my natural pace is one book every 9 months, which means one book every 6 months is pushing it and does not allow for life emergencies. Creative recovery time is also important. It’s hard to keep churning out books of quality one after the other.

    • #2 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on May 20, 2012 - 8:06 am

      hi Katherine! A book every six months – that’s steep. And that’s an excellent point you make about creative recovery time.

  2. #3 by Catana on May 19, 2012 - 6:23 pm

    My first novel, written two and a half years ago during NaNoWriMo is still waiting for final revisions and completion. Every time I get around to working on it, I realize how much I’ve learned in that time. My most recent novel, also written during NaNo, went from first word to edits and revisions, to publishing, in three months. I think I’ll eventually find the right pace somewhere inbetween. I agree that it does very much depend on genre and familiarity with the genre you’re writing in. Unfortunately, I’m finding it very hard to fit in any genre, and seem to be drifting toward literary fiction.

    • #4 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on May 20, 2012 - 8:08 am

      I always think the first novel doesn’t count, Catana, because you’re learning so much as you go.

      • #5 by Catana on May 20, 2012 - 12:30 pm

        That’s often true, Roz, but if the first novel has a good plot and characters, there’s no reason not to complete it, using what you’ve learned.

        • #6 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on May 20, 2012 - 12:49 pm

          Ah, I didn’t mean it shouldn’t be finished – far from it! Simply that the writing time is also learning time, and so subsequent books won’t take as long.

          • #7 by Catana on May 20, 2012 - 1:10 pm

            Oh, I agree. But too often, the advice is to toss out that early work, without taking into consideration that the writer may have had an excellent story that they just didn’t know how to write yet.

  3. #8 by Dan Holloway on May 19, 2012 - 6:38 pm

    I’m definitely a fast writer. For a novel I’ll take a maximum of three months, for a short story two or three days and a poem one or two days. I’ll then tend to have a fallow period where I need to get my head straight. While I was busy trying to be a novelist this cycle used to drive me nuts – I’d get so frustrated by being able to do nothing for months on end. The last few months writing poetry, though, I’ve found it really suits this rhythm, giving me plenty of time to work on the performance aspect which uses a different part of my brain so although I’m writing only half of the time I’m never out of the writing mindset.

    • #9 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on May 20, 2012 - 8:11 am

      Hi Dan! You’re a fast writer – but you’re probably doing a lot of preparation in the fallow period. Even if it’s just a kind of creative resetting to get you out of the preoccupations of one world and its characters, so that you can come to the new ones afresh. It must be nice to have another creative outlet that still uses writing, though, because that lets you recharge while still writing.
      I’m writing another Nail Your Novel book for relaxation, and letting myself recharge that way.

  4. #10 by jonirodgers on May 19, 2012 - 7:17 pm

    I do both. I’ve done four novels that took 4-6 years each from idea to publication, but that’s because I make a pass through the ms, then set it aside for several months while I work on ghostwriting projects and magazine articles. As a ghostwriter I’m expected to deliver the goods on a tight schedule. Ideally, I have about nine months for a full scale memoir, but I’ve done shorter books (nonfiction and fiction) in as little as twelve weeks.

    I’m an orchard, not a factory. There’s a constant cycle of cultivation and harvest going on.

    • #11 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on May 20, 2012 - 8:12 am

      hi Joni – I remember you saying in your Undercover Soundtrack (coming soon, folks) that you carry ideas with you for a long time. ‘An orchard, not a factory…’ that’s a lovely way to put it.

  5. #12 by Inion N. Mathair on May 19, 2012 - 7:29 pm

    We are unpublished and have written two books in the last year. Both are the first in two different YA series which we are in the process of querying. Research, however took us six months, but once that was over, the manuscripts poured out of us. We couldn’t put it down quick enough. Of course, we were working eighteen hour days with little to no sleep. We’re just now finding a normal pace and schedule. Would a publishing company look down at writing a novel in that short amount of time?

    • #13 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on May 20, 2012 - 8:13 am

      Inion, how long it takes is irrelevant when querying. For one thing, a publisher will never ask. For another, the manuscript stands or falls by its own merits. Good luck!

  6. #14 by raynfall on May 20, 2012 - 12:29 am

    I think most writers just have a particular creative process. There’s no right or wrong length of time, just how long it takes for the author to be happy with it. For some, that’s a few months; for others, it’s a few years.

    To be honest, if someone can crank out a first draft in a single month – like during Nanowrimo – then anything is possible. I know of at least one author who managed a YA novel in a week, although I’m pretty sure he needed medical attention by the end of it…

    • #15 by Catana on May 20, 2012 - 1:14 am

      I’m sure I’d be in a state of collapse after a sprint like that. But there are writers who think nothing of churning out 100,000 words during NaNoWriMo. Of course, they’re very experienced and self-disciplined.

    • #16 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on May 20, 2012 - 8:14 am

      I’m pretty sure I’d need medical attention after a week like that too – interesting example, Raynfall!

  7. #17 by Teddi Deppner on May 20, 2012 - 2:12 am

    Only having finished one novel, I can’t say for sure which way I’d go. As a freelance professional and homeschool mom, my writing often takes last place. I write a bit, I let it sit for a while. I write a bit more. I abandon ideas a lot.

    Until recently. I’ve been more focused recently.

    The struggle I have now is this: Should I follow the known genre forms and classic novel structures? (The three-act structure, etc) Or should I follow my heart and explore non-traditional structures closer to what people experience watching TV episodes?

    I love the TV episode structure, because it allows for a more leisurely pace in exploring characters while watching them live out their lives. Each episode or serial release is somewhat self-contained and should definitely be satisfying, but would still fit into a greater overall story arc. There’s a lot of leeway for variety: Some episodes are humorous, some very dramatic, etc. Some series are extremely intense and tightly-plotted (24? Babylon 5? I tend not to watch this type…). Some meander along but still manage to keep one’s interest (Doctor Who, Xena, Stargate).

    I enjoy reading Japanese manga series… but have no idea whether they generally follow some manga plotting structure known to that industry or if they’re completely random depending on the author/artist.

    Have you ever come across online resources for plot structures OTHER than the classic three-act one? Have you seen successful prose examples of this sort of non-traditional serialized approach? (I know there are some folks succeeding by churning out novel series’ that follow the classic structure…)

    • #18 by Catana on May 20, 2012 - 2:46 am

      Teddi, write in whatever way the story requires. There are no laws about writing. I never even heard of the “classic three-act structure” applied to novels until I’d already written several. Frankly, I haven’t bothered to analyze whether mine adhere to that structure. I doubt that they do. And I’m sure it doesn’t matter. Cross or mix genres as you please. Of course, if you’re writing specifically to make money, then following the most common advice is the best route to success.

      • #19 by Teddi Deppner on May 20, 2012 - 4:43 am

        Catana, that’s really freeing advice. I don’t know when I became such a slave to that 3-act thing. Comes of watching too many movies, aspiring to write screenplays, and reading too many “how to write” and “how to plot” books, no doubt. Ha!

        Honestly, it’s a huge wall in my mind, as if somehow I *must* adhere to this structure or people won’t like the story. Didn’t even realize it until you said that. What a concept. Just write the story. Ha! Thank you! You’re setting the prisoners free!🙂

        • #20 by Catana on May 20, 2012 - 12:27 pm

          Another way to look at it, Teddi. How many readers know anything about the rules for structure? Many of them do have specific genre preferences, but many are more interested in whether the story and its characters speak to something in them. Did the great novelists of the past know there were rules about writing? The most rigid rules come from academics and from novelists who produce at commercial levels in popular genres.

          • #21 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on May 20, 2012 - 12:54 pm

            Of course, readers don’t know anything about writing rules. And they’re not rules invented by academics who need us to fit a mould – or if they are, they are the rules that should be disregarded. Writing rules that are worth taking notice of are general principles of what works and why. A lot of them are derived from good writers experimenting and making discoveries – a fairly elementary one being, for instance, ‘make us care’. If you then choose not to make us care about the characters and story, you have to work out what you are going to do instead to keep the reader glued to the pages.

    • #22 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on May 20, 2012 - 8:18 am

      Teddi, that’s not such an unusual structure. It sounds like the structure of a ‘life of’ – type story, like John Irving’s The World According to Garp, which follows a character and therefore his important people for his whole life. Or there’s Geoff Ryman’s novel about all the people on a London Tube train, and their little stories – which adds up to a bigger one. Or David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas – six narratives which are loosely connected and told in halves – a bit like Scheherazade. What matters is how you glue them together and give a sense of unity. Good luck!

  8. #23 by Teddi Deppner on May 20, 2012 - 2:19 am

    P.S. I’m planning to e-publish independently, since that’s my professional background (web design, etc). That’s why I’m considering non-traditional structures…

  9. #24 by dragonmis on May 20, 2012 - 9:51 am

    I write my first draft fast. The ideas come pouring out, but that is because the story has taken time to develop in my imagination before I start. Once I’ve finished then I edit and edit and edit and that can take a long, long time. The more times my work has been sent back, the more I hone and polish. The trouble is that when I’m not creating something new I get withdrawal symptoms and sometimes, like now I have about three or four ideas that I could work on and I can’t get my head round which one to try. While I’m thinking about it, then I get snappy and snarly like an addict without her fix.

  10. #26 by Sally - aka Saleena on May 20, 2012 - 10:56 am

    Hi Roz,
    To me, a series of novels don’t really count as ‘more than one novel every year’. They count as parts of one story line cut into pieces. That of course is much easier than producing one complete novel with no planned sequel. And if a writer is producing one or more unique stories a year, I can’t help but wonder about quality. Even Nanowrimo authors wouldn’t try to publish their works as is, because they know (hopefully) that Nanowrimo works are just first drafts. I’ve never encountered a good novel that didn’t take at least two years to write to a publishable standard. I could never see myself writing a complete novel in just a year (at least not one I’d be satisfied with). But of course, that’s just me and I’m not saying this is true for everyone.

  11. #28 by mrdisvan on May 20, 2012 - 11:31 am

    Because of indie publishing, we are likely to see a lot more genre fiction, written swiftly and to a formula. There’s nothing wrong with that, and nothing new either – that’s what happened in the pulp era of the 1920s and 1930s. Walter Gibson would bang out his Shadow novels, 70,000 words each, in four or five days.

    Of course, you can’t write a genuinely original novel anything like that quickly. Gibson acknowledged that he relied on the formulae of the genre to get his plots laid out so fast. A non-formula, non-genre novel could easily take a couple of years to write because the author is forging into unmapped territory.

    As we’re likely to see hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of quickly written genre novels being released every year, I suspect readers will begin to tire of the formulae: the TV-minted three-act structure, the staple genre conventions, and so on. At that point, those tortoises who decided to spend a couple of years working on original ideas might actually win the race.

    • #29 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on May 20, 2012 - 1:01 pm

      The pulp writers were amazing. No idea how they did that. I agree that readers may get tired of ‘formula’ and the ingredients of each genre, I don’t think the three-act structure is going to go away because it’s not as overt for the reader. They might be aware of genre tropes but not of the way the story crescendoes build.

      • #30 by mrdisvan on May 20, 2012 - 1:09 pm

        I guess if you want a novel to look like a movie (and most indie authors do) then sticking to 3-act is the way to go, and genre too. But it’s interesting how the real successes even within genre are the ones that defy the formulae. It’s no accident that George R R Martin takes several years to write each of his books.

  12. #31 by Tim Kane (Blog Editor) on May 20, 2012 - 1:41 pm

    Ive had both: quick writes and now painfully slow. Some is learning curve, but mostly is how fast I gel with a character.

    • #32 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on May 21, 2012 - 1:02 pm

      Tim, they say every book is different. I agree about the characters, though. Until I know them I can’t do anything much.

  13. #33 by DRMarvello on May 20, 2012 - 11:26 pm

    I’ve now run into authors at the extremes of the speed spectrum and at every position between the extremes. I can no longer tell what “fast” or “slow” means any more.

    What’s more, I find the conversations about how fast one writes to be largely meaningless. Knowing how long it took you to write a book tells me nothing without also knowing how many hours per week you put into your writing and how long your book is. If it took you a year to write a 100,000-word novel writing 50 hours a week, that’s a very different thing from doing the same thing while writing only 5 hours a week. Some writers take months off from writing and then say stuff like, “It took me four years to write my book.” Well, of course it did!

    As for my own pace, I wrote my first book in a year. It is a 75,000 word novel and it took me about 250 hours to complete. I went through 4 major end-to-end drafts with several additional scene-focused revisions. I naively thought that writing the first draft would be the hard part. Well, it wasn’t for me. Revision seemed more difficult and it took about three times as long as the original writing. Fortunately, I discovered that I enjoy the revision process.

    I wish I could agree that learning more about writing has increased my writing speed. I think the opposite has happened. I’m spending a lot more time on character development, world-building, and backstory on my second book, which is slowing down my weekly word count. I’m starting to recycle my backstory info onto my blog, which makes me feel better about the words I’ve written that can’t be included in my weekly progress on the novel itself.

    My hope is that the extra effort I’m putting into the first draft will result in a less intense revision cycle. Time will tell!

    • #34 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on May 21, 2012 - 1:07 pm

      Hi Daniel! Good points as always. But even if we logged the number of hours of keyboard time, that doesn’t take into account the dreaming time, mulling, reading (or watching) other stories that might be nudging us to try something different. Even conversations with colleagues or friends might change something in our book. What counts and what doesn’t?

    • #35 by DRMarvello on May 21, 2012 - 3:50 pm

      I know exactly what you mean, and I think you just helped me make my point.😉

      While doing dishes, taking a shower, and eating breakfast this morning, I mulled over how spirituality will manifest in my story world. Real food for thought, so to speak. Does that time count?

      I only track my hours while I’m actually working at my computer. But I spend a lot of other time drawing maps, thinking about plot lines and story world, and making notes at various times when the muse smacks me in the head and I’m away from my writing program. (I once wrote an article titled “If you don’t write it down, it’s gone,” so I take those head smacks very seriously).

      I believe I could manage to publish two books a year if I were able to dedicate my mornings to writing. I don’t know that having more time to write would actually do me any good, honestly. I need the percolation time that “not writing” gives me.

      • #36 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on May 22, 2012 - 8:01 am

        Ho ho, Daniel. The other day I was making food for guests who would be descending later. I had an idea and started to make notes, and soon I had a blog post.

  14. #37 by Tracy on May 21, 2012 - 1:14 pm

    Discussing “fast” and “slow” in calendar terms is largely meaningless. I can complete the first draft of an 80,000 word manuscript in four weeks, IF I’m writing full time, 9-5, five days a week without interruption. That includes plotting.

    But I have a day job and an extremely busy blog, plus other demands on my life, including having to edit, format and all the other activities involved in publishing said manuscript so really, shouldn’t one be better off measuring “published” or “submitted” as opposed to merely “written” manuscripts, or to be completely accurate and compare oranges to oranges, speak of a writer’s words-per-hour rate when discussing how fast a writer writes?

    Despite my day job I have published five novels this year, including a 400 pager. One of them has been nominated for book of the year, all of them have aggregate 4-star or better ratings, so I don’t consider myself to be anywhere close to a hack just because I’m a quick writer.

    Yes, I write genre novels.

    No, I don’t write to formula, except for the iron-cast happy ending.

    If you think writing genre novels is somehow easier and faster, write a genre novel. Just one. I challenge you.

    Cheers,

    Tracy

    • #38 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on May 21, 2012 - 3:48 pm

      Hi Tracy – this is so interesting, how different everyone’s patterns are. Certainly I found the 11 genre novels I’ve written to be easier and faster than the more complex literary novels – although the genre novels were hard graft as well.

      Has anyone else done both?

  15. #39 by Roni Loren on May 23, 2012 - 9:33 pm

    I think this definitely depends on your genre. I write romance for Berkley and my publisher has me on a two book plus one novella a year schedule. I’m a slower writer, so this is a push for me and has me honing my process. But from everything I’ve heard, the book a year schedule is no longer the standard (except in literary and sometimes YA). Most genre writers I know are being asked to produce at least two a year. Like you said, readers are hungry and in the digital, I-want-it-now world, one a year is often too slow.

    • #40 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on May 23, 2012 - 10:46 pm

      Hi Roni! Yes, I’ve heard from elsewhere that some publishers are hoping for a book every six months. And a novella as well! No wonder your writing posts are so good and I retweet them all the time…

  16. #41 by David C. Cassidy on June 2, 2012 - 9:28 pm

    Great post, Roz. For me, I don’t feel any pressure to create stories with the “book a day” mentality. A story takes as long as it takes. As a photographer as well, I don’t rush creating images just to get it done. Crafting good stories takes time and I wouldn’t be doing anyone a favor by churning out words just for the sake of getting it out there. I see lots of authors writing book after book after book, but that doesn’t mean the books are good, or as good as they could be. I’d rather write less, so long as it’s the best it can be.🙂

    • #42 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on June 3, 2012 - 12:25 am

      Thanks, David. Excellent to know another writer who lets a book take as long as it needs. A book is out for ever once it’s published, even if you take it off sale.

  1. The Week in Writing and Publishing 20th May 2012 | A Writer's Quest
  2. Summer Chill: Let It Be « Think Write, not Wong, Alison
  3. WRITING ON THE ETHER: Faster, Authors, Faster!
  4. A Hodgepodge of Useful Bits & Pieces – July 2013 |

Your turn!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: