Thursday 7 June 2012

Quality versus Quantity

Read a fascinating post by Vacuous Minx yesterday and had some time to mull it over. Just gathering my thoughts here, possibly not completely coherently or convincingly, but I'm mostly thinking out loud, with audience.

Lack of quantity does not equal skill

There's a curious argument that all quickly-written things are necessarily crap. I've seen a great many authors who can't write worth a damn and who labour over their fantasy trilogy for fifteen years. It's still crap, even with the hand-drawn cover, and even though mum said she loved it. Honest.

So, skill level. A hack can slave away for ten years to write their debut, and it's still crap.

An accomplished, skilled author can write a quick book and it's a solid-to-good book. I've seen amazingly talented people crank out a novella in a week. (Personally, if I write a novella in a week, I'm dead for the three weeks after and the Muse sits in the corner and is only good for playing Gears of War, but there are authors who can do this and you won't notice the difference).

Self-editing is even more important for fast authors

Even if some people manage to write a novella in a week (hey, I've done it), self-editing is as vital a skill as editing. In the rush of excitement, things get mixed up - it's almost impossible to stay completely internally consistent if you're doing 10k a day. Worse if you have a co-writer. Then you have two minds that can get muddled in the rush. Pacing is one of those things that are hard to keep track of - at that speed, everything is kind of a blur. There are people that just pile up words and scenes with no regards to whether the story needs it. That "flab" or "fatty tissue", as I call it, needs cutting before the book hits an unsuspecting reader in the brain. But self-editing is a skill. It's hard-won, and many authors never get there at all. Even if you're a decent self-editor, getting a good outside editor on this is extremely important (a good editor can tell you when a chapter stinks, and will).

Publishing fifty shitty stories a year is not a career plan

I could amend this into "publishing twenty mediocre stories a year is not a career plan". Editing takes time. Even brainstorming takes time. I have more ideas than I can ever hope long enough to turn into books. How do I know a story is worth writing at all? I sit on it for a week. (Yes, the time it would take some authors to WRITE the damn thing). If it's still compelling after a week, wakes me up at night, and my life would be poorer without it, I'm likely to have hit gold. Something that speaks to me beyond the flash of "oh, awesome, wouldn't it be cool if..." But usually, I examine the idea for a few days at least. Ideally, I'm examining the idea while I'm wrapping up the current project, so that gives me a few weeks, even months.

So far, my best ideas (just talking of solo published stuff here) were those with staying power. Counterpunch robbed me of my sleep for two months before I did it. Scorpion had a good start (I was on holidays and bored and should have written the other book, the one I've been mulling for more than two years now), after twenty thousand words, it stalled, I was about to give up. Several months later, the idea hit me again, HARDER this time, and I finished. The WWII novel I'm writing? Six months. The OTHER WWII novel? Two years and counting. Dark Soul? Twenty years. These are ideas that electrify me and keep me going. And they take as long as they take. And I think they were worth the wait and didn't actually weaken while my mind wrestled with them. If you fight with an angel, the harder you fight, the stronger they become.

Yes, there is pressure to publish more

I have readers clamouring for sequels/prequels/spin-offs to, in no particular order: The Gorgon Series, Special Forces, Dark Edge of Honor, Lion of Kent, unnamed WIP of 2008 I shared in a forum, Risky Maneuvers, Dark Soul, Scorpion, Counterpunch, Country Mouse. I can write sequels and prequels to all of them, and I might, but I can only write so much, so working through the list may take ten years. Or five.

I used to feel the pressure (I like to keep my readers happy, I do, you guys allow me to overpay my mortgage, too!) - it's moral pressure, and it's fun to be wanted and to have people jump up and down on the internet and swoon all over the writing - but I can't allow it to dictate how many words I write a day.

I can use this to be more disciplined ("people are waiting, so get off your arse and sit down and write!"), but I can't use it to write more per session or not write when I really can't and have no clue. Writing when I'm "written out" or when I really don't feel like it is torture, and writing's supposed to be fun (at least when it's not torture by itself). There's a difference between "motivated to write more often" and "churning out shit so you hit 10k/day". I'm trying very hard to stay on the former side of this. Because I want to give my readers what they want, but I want to give them good quality rather than badly-composed shit I wrote because I felt I had to. The expectation creates a huge obligation - I know they want a good book when they want what they want. They don't just want any book. And my readers? Are a discerning lot. They can tell the difference when (if) I try to pull a quickie. Nothing will do but me at the top of my game, because they will call me out on it. They are keeping me honest. And I'm grateful for it - many authors don't have that kind of back-up and quality control.

(I love you, guys/gals!)

Good writing, like good wine and cheese, takes time

A good parmesan takes time to mature. There are lots of people who are happy with just the fresh milk. And all power to them. There are many readers who can't tell the difference between a first draft that's been comma-checked (and with many publishers in our tiny cottage industry, not even that!) and a well-edited book that's been thought through by the author and then edited to a high standard.

BUT - producing anything "vintage" or "artisan" takes time. Personally, I'd rather read one Erastes book a year that's been painstakingly put together than fifty books by Effluvia Writesalot that are all crap. Yes, there are people who can't tell the difference between the gooey plastic on their pizza and an artisan cheese. There are people who think the gooey plastic stuff IS cheese and they eat so much of it that they wouldn't recognize a good Manchego or Parmesan or Cheddar as cheese if it jumped on their bagel screaming "eat me! I'm cheese, too!" But I don't think they are the majority. And if they are, the people who know their stuff are still enough to make it worthwhile, financially and critically.

Personally, bad prose and a badly edited book feel to me like a cheese-grater on my exposed brain. I can't read it. I can't finish it. And I'll never, ever, buy it (I read samples, a lot of samples, thanks to my Kindle). To me, a badly-made book is like a do-it-yourself lobotomy. Thanks, but no thanks. So to everybody who makes artisan prose - please do not stop, because my sanity needs you. I need you so bad and I will buy everything you do and tell all my friends about you. Please do not throw away your Manchegos and Parmesans to make plastic cheese. Please.

Authors have the right to slow the fuck down

I'm productive. I also like to think that, even if I write fast, I'm a decent writer on the technical level. One of my friends describes me, in the context of our genre, as a critically acclaimed mid-list author (and she's right, which means my reviews are strong, but my sales do not reflect that), but I can't live off writing. I likely never will. I could likely produce (note the word choice) twice as much as I currently do. I've written 500k in 2.5 years, that's 200k a year, or three full-sized novels. Right now, I'd say I'm at about half that, or maybe 60% (I did write Dark Soul in about six months, and change). In the last months, I've slowed down. I'm writing a historical novel, which for me is slow work. I'm weighing options. Scenes. Individual sentences. I'm checking my facts. I'm aiming for 500 words a day - that's about two pages. The WWII novel is 1/3 done, and I'm expecting to finish this in the next 2-3 months. We're talking another 50k here. And editing. Lots of editing and fact-checking and testing, and then query-writing, which is an art that will likely mean a few weeks of work (just writing a half-page letter).

From being incredibly prolific for a few years, I've realized the toll it takes on my life (I did nothing else for years), on my partnership, my health, my sanity. I've written books that I literally cannot remember writing, as I was so desperate to "make my mark". It's led to lazy writing habits, low standards for self-editing, and frankly, I wish I hadn't done it, and I've spent the last 8-10 months just repairing the damage I've done to my craft with that. I've stopped being lazy. I'm working really damned hard on everything I do now. There are books I'm not proud to have written, because I could have done a much better job if I'd thought them through, if I'd actually thought about them while I wrote them. I wish I had. I feel guilty for them. Mortified, even.

Writing more slowly (disciplined and hopefully every day, but slowly), I'm finding the prose I write is more intense, like I'm focusing that "energy" or that "voice" much better. What I write is better. I like to savour a book while I write it. I want to remember to have written it, too. I want to ruminate on it. Let it resonate in my soul. Believe in it. Make it totally real for me - and that just takes time, and growth, and internal and emotional work that cannot be rushed.

I'm at my best when I'm laser-focused, but that focus is tough like hell to maintain, and some days I write a thousand words and am mentally and emotionally exhausted afterwards. Maybe I'm a delicate little flower who's simply not tough enough to write 10k a day. I know authors who can write 5-10k a day and write beautifully and cleanly, or authors who produce the same amount in first draft and then self-edit themselves within an inch of their sanity - nothing I write here is meant to diss you guys, and you know who you are.

I, for one (and I'm just speaking for myself), am better when I'm slow-ish. And "slow-ish" means - two novels a year, which is 0.5 novels more than Stephen King says you should write, if I remember him correctly. I'm more sane, more healthy, more intense, more focused, I have time for my partner and my house and my full-time job and my publisher and for exercise and good food and movies. Small price to pay for being "slow". I am trying to do a short story or novella "in between" to show people I'm alive and working, but I'm never going to rush a piece of writing again. Writing them - really feeling them - is too much fun, and I'm simply a better writer that way.


  1. I much prefer you sane and healthy! We get to keep you longer ;)

  2. Yup, slow-ish is good. The readers that will jump up and down "demanding" (notice my choice of word?) your next novel, can and will wait for you to finish, when you finish. After all you do have fans for the quality you provide. The fact that you are also productive is a major plus but it doesn't mean that you should be putting numbers above your life/quality.

  3. Word.

    (Plus, you on slow gives people like me, who take about three weeks to write those 10.000 words, time to catch up. Maybe. ;)

  4. Well said all around.

    I'd rather have you write an inspired book than a pre-/sequel that your fans want. Do I want you to play more in the Belongingverse? Hell yes. But I also want you to feel confident with your story and produce things you're proud of, like Counterpunch. Something I can read again and again.

    I'd rather have a happy author that feeds me what's good for me than an author that just feeds me sweets because that's what I begged for...even if it's just rotting out my teeth.

  5. Justine Anderson8 June 2012 at 23:05

    Sane and happy keeps you enjoying your writing and in turn keeps the muse happy, it means this reader is happy.

    It also makes the anticipation of a new book that much sweeter.