Saturday 20 April 2013

Fast versus Slow Writers (my $0.02, adjusted for inflation)

When we talk about fast authors versus slow authors, we sometimes might be tempted to think of one as a "hack" and the other the "auteur". The hack vomits up 20k a day, every day, and "floods the market" all by him/herself. The auteur hand-rears the goose that will eventually produce the sacred quill which which he'll write the perfect book.

Truth, I'm finding, is more complex than that. Every author has the same allotted time to work: hopefully about 70-80 years of lifespan, about 3-10 years of learning how to write. Everything else is individual.

Let's take two authors of the same age, who start at the same time. They roughly have the same amount of willpower and health. All "internal" factors are the same.

One of them has small children. Three actually. S/he might have to hold down a day job. Maybe a second one because the economy sucks. Maybe writing is their third job. Income is fickle from that. At least with the other jobs, s/he gets the same amount of money and can budget with that. Weekends are spent with ailing parents to help them stay on top of their house/garden.

The other one has bought a house pre-crash and suddenly finds her/himself in "negative equity" (owing more on the house than it's worth). The only way to fill in the gap is by writing and publishing fast and hard. Nothing says "Sit down and write, bitch" like a car payment or a mortgage or simply needing the money. Maybe essentials are taken care of by a partner who makes more money anyway and is A-OK with playing "breadwinner" while that writing gamble takes off or not. Both are childless and parents are in good health.

Both these authors will have vastly different productivity levels. Unless they share details about their personal lives (and many authors don't), we might not even know why writer A) has consistently delivered one book every year and writer B) publishes one every three weeks.

None of these factors are "their fault", some aren't even their choice, and yet they have a huge impact on how many words get put on the page.

In my case, I'm middling productive. I do more than a novel a year, and this year I'm doing 3-4 novels, and that's just the start. Among mainstream authors, I'm VERY productive. Among m/m writers or romance authors, I'm consistent, but not special by any means.

Factors that support my productivity:

- I'm young-ish and healthy. There are many authors who labour under physical and mental issues that I simply don't have, and I'm not yet feeling age. I'm born with a minor deformity in my lower spine, but considering many authors I know who have terrible back and joint issues, I'm robust and sound. If you spent almost every waking hour typing in some fashion, that's a huge bonus. I wrote not a word when my back was acting up.

- I'm childless. There are authors who have made a different decision and rearing children is Hard Work that screws with pretty much everything else (such as sleep, which has a huge impact on how well you concentrate). I've never had any desire to have children and am not missing a thing. It's a lucky accident.

- My partner is overall supportive and happy to entertain himself most days. Other partners are more demanding. Some can be needy and jealous, even aggressive.

- I have no financial anxiety. Nothing kills my writing faster than worrying if I can pay my part of the mortgage and whether I'll be poor in old age. I've been in that place and it's a place from where I cannot bring books. There are no books here, just black, horrible, soul-eating dread.

- My job is largely a low-intensity no-brainer. A more intense job (running a team, running a news desk or being a high-flying journalist, or joining a financial company in anything but a support role) kills my writing. I could do all that; in terms of brainpower and talent, it's all there, but I chose to work in a job that's only using 25% of my brain capacity at any given time, because 150% of my brain is taken over by writing and I'm essentially running my day job when I have a moment and overall CPU usage is down. This is common--I know highly talented, very smart, educated authors who work in jobs that are way beneath their capacity because their writing is more important. Their ambition is solely directed at writing, not at making the next rung of the ladder. It's the "bread job" and the "author biding their time". I'm definitely biding my time.

Factors that impede my productivity:

-  I'm full-time employed (40-hour week, 2.5-3hr commute three times a week, 2 days working remotely). This means work commitments can get in the way of writing (Christmas part, leaving drinks, work-related social events). Some days do get so intense that the only thing I want to do when I get home is sleep. Sometimes I do. While I might be able to live off what I'm making writing currently, it would mean placing  the vast majority of "breadwinning" on my partner's shoulder, which I simply cannot do; my self-respect is based on me paying my own way and being independent enough to walk away from any arrangement I've made. What I make currently is enough to pay my mortgage (unless interest rates rise, at which point I'm screwed), but nothing else much. No nice research books, no meals out with friends, no travel, and most definitely no US or overseas conventions costing thousands of dollars. Most months, I'd have to beg my partner for things like new clothes, and gym membership and phone contract would have to go.

- My partner (at times, I am spending an evening/morning/afternoon with him, because, damn, I like that guy and it's nice spending time with real MeatSpace people).

- Healthy diet. I've taken up cooking to feed myself better. That does mean some extra work in terms of cooking and cleaning up, but it's a matter of wellness for me now. Pottering around in the kitchen for an hour is a way to de-stress.

- Exercise. Some days, I go to the gym, lift weights or run, and come home and am mellow and tired and just have a shower and do email. This takes time away from writing. Exercise and diet take a significant chunk of my time, actually. I get home at 18:20, and cooking and housework can be up to 19:20ish, which is when my partner comes home. I might go to the gym (another 60-90 minutes) and return home and then be showered and changed at 21:00. At this point, I have 2-3 hours, tops, to write, and ideally I want to be in bed before midnight (though, Muse allowing, that doesn't always work).

- Social life. I like people and I like meeting them and hanging out. Especially book people. They keep my brain awake and focused on the outside rather than the inside. Then some people having birthdays, there are conventions, and some people ask for responses to their emails.

- Other duties. Sometimes, all writing gets choked off by something that might be more urgent. A round (or 15) of edits. Proofing my stuff. A battle with an asshole publisher over my rights (one of them has cost me some very good writing days with their bullshit). Me having promised to help somebody with their book (checking for German, an editing run between friends, a beta read).

I do get a LOT of mileage out of my 2-3 free hours a day, all things considered, and I'm certainly in a lucky and privileged position.

But all writing I do has to fit into the rest of my life, and the truth is, there's a limit to what even a disciplined author can achieve under his/her individual circumstances. Productivity is a balance of a hundred factors, and these are getting constantly re-arranged. My worst enemy might be my insistence on a "cushy" lifestyle, with pension, savings, a mortgage and far-distance travel to see friends, recharge my batteries and attend conferences.

Holding down a day job enables me to keep my dignity and pay my own way, because I don't believe people owe me a living--not even my partner or the state. I'm playing with the hand I've been dealt, and right now, that's the best I can play. I'm a slow author because I only have 5-10% of my time for writing--and I'm a fast author because boy do I get a good wordcount out of a relatively short period of "free" time. Not because I'm a hack or artiste--it's simply how my life is.

1 comment:

  1. Such an interesting post Aleks.

    I guess I'm author A although with fewer children but there's nothing like having limits on the time available to make you get on with the writing.

    I'd add the distractions of the internet to factors impeding productivity.