I don't give a damn what other people think. It's entirely their own business. I'm not writing for other people. – Harold Pinter, interview, Dec. 1971
I loved maths at school. I was in the top maths class and I should’ve got an A in my O-Level without batting an eye but I was cocky and rushed and ended up with a B which, to this day, embarrasses the hell out of me. I liked pure mathematics: If A=2 and B=3 then evaluate 2(A + B). 2 + 3 = 5 x 2 = 10. Lovely. And then came the problems: If it takes a man 13 minutes to run 5000m then how long will it take him to run 10000? Simple—26 minutes. Only that’s not the case. The world record for the 5000m is 12min 56.98sec whereas it’s 26min17.53sec for the 10000m because the guy who ran the second half of that 10000m race had already run 5000m and wasn’t fresh.
Here’s another one: If a guy writes a novel in ten days how long will it take him to finish five novels? Now this is a really tricky one. Many people have written a novel in a matter of a few weeks, even great novels:
Some of the greatest writers in literature wrote quickly—many of them in longhand. Alexandre Dumas, Jules Verne, and Charles Dickens were amazingly prolific, and their works have remained on bookshelves for more than a century and a half. Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, one of the best-loved novels of all time, in a feverish frenzy that lasted about six weeks. William Faulkner wrote his classic As I Lay Dying in the same amount of time and claimed to have published his first draft “without changing a word.” – ‘The Mathematics of Productivity’, Kevin J. Anderson
Michael Moorcock used to churn out his early sword-and-sorcery action-adventure in about "three to ten days" each. And in his case—because he a) was well-prepared and b) worked to a formula—he could say, hand on heart, “I’ll give you five novels within the next two months” but let’s face it (and he would be the first to admit it) this would not be great literature. (You can read his method here.) I don’t know if Amanda Hocking read Moorcock’s guidelines but she certainly has his mindset:
Each book takes between two and four weeks to write, and she sells them for between 99¢ and $2.99. In the past 18 months, she has grossed approximately $2 million.
"I've seen other authors doing the exact same thing as I have, similar genres and similar prices," she told The New York Times, "and they're selling reasonably well, but they're not selling nearly as well as I am." –Nick Duerden, ‘Want to be a Kindle millionaire? Write novels about trolls’, The Independent, 16 November 2011
There are loads of articles out there. Here’s a wee video that tell you How to Write a Book in 14 Days in 2 minutes and 12 seconds:
Every years thousands set aside the month of November for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) with the aim of writing a novel in thirty days. And many have. My wife has. I haven’t.
The numbers vary but there a lot of people out there regularly producing three, four, five or more novel-length manuscripts every year. Kevin J. Anderson, who I quote above, has published over 100 books over the last twenty years—about five a year on average. He doesn’t regard himself as exceptional—if you’re looking for the exceptions to the rule have a look at 20 Most Prolific Authors and Writers in Literary History—he’s just a jobbing writer. If he were a plumber and installed five bathroom suites in a year you’d wonder what he was doing with the rest of his time. Why is writing so different? It’s a craft after all, isn’t it? The same goes for Dean Wesley Smith:
I wrote my first published novel in 1986 and it came out in 1988 from Warner. But for the moment let’s forget about that one and just start from my second novel written and published in 1992 after I got done with Pulphouse.
That was 19 years ago!!! (I didn’t need to think about that.) I have published 104 traditional novels now since 1992 (none indie published yet…all through New York companies). All of them were between 70,000 and 100,000 words.
That’s a 5.4 novels-per-year pace FOR NINETEEN YEARS. – Dean Wesley Smith, 'Four Novels A Year: The Math of It. Again.'
Ray Bradbury said "Quantity eventually equals quality." It’s open to misinterpretation. What he’s saying is that practice makes perfect. And that is true. But churning out formulaic novels one after the other will not make you a great writer. The Prousts of this world come along once in every generation.
I transcribed the following a wee while back:
KG: The book took a huge amount of work—seven years in the writing—and in that time, yes, I asked myself if I was completely mad.
SP: Do you ever sort of think to yourself: I could have spend six months and written a bestseller?
KG: [laughs] I wish!
SP: Is it not in… Is it not something you couldn’t…
KG: Just can’t do it. Either you’re going to write for entertainment (which has all kinds of wonderful things including a nice cheque at the end normally) or you’re an artist in which case you’re launching yourself on this extraordinary voyage into the unknown; we don’t know where we’re going to land; we don’t even know if we’re going to come home again. – Kirsty Gunn interviewed by Sue Perkins on The Culture Show: Edinburgh Festival, 22nd August 2012-09-12
Kirsty Gunn has recently published The Big Music, not her first book—I counted another six on her website—she published her first in 1994 so that’s an average of one book every three years. Needless to say she has to do other stuff to make sure all her bills get paid (e.g. she’s Professor of Writing Practice and Study at the University of Dundee).
Who’re the real writers then, Anderson and Smith or Gunn? There will be people who will opt for the jobbing writers and there will be those who’ll say the literary novelist. And both have a case. Will Gunn’s The Big Music win the Man Booker Prize? Who knows? But I bet more people will have read any one of Anderson’s many Dune spin-offs.
On Karen Ranny’s blog I read this:
I just read an author’s comment about having written five books a year, and I’m absolutely stunned. Not that she would write five books a year, but that she would admit it.
I’m prejudiced; I admit that. Here’s my prejudice: Humans aren’t writing machines. We’re people. We need to recharge. Unless we’re writing the same scenes over and over, or the same plots over and over, the mind needs to have time to re-imagine; the spirit needs to renew. – Karen Ranny, ‘5 Books a Year? Are You Nuts?’
Books aren’t made in the way that babies are made: they are made like pyramids. There’s some long pondered plan, and then great blocks of stone are placed one on top of the other, and it’s back-breaking, sweaty time-consuming work. And all to no purpose! It just stands like that in the desert! But it towers over it prodigiously. Jackals piss at the base of it and bourgeois clamber to the top of it, etc.
I watched a programme about waves recently. Not like me to save a science programme but the blurb in the TV paper intrigued me: waves are not made of water. Preposterous, of course. What else would they be made of? The answer's so blindingly obvious: energy. Waves are an illusion. Yes, the water moves but it never moves very far; it’s the energy that passes on to the next wave. So a wave is not an object, it is a process. And this raises a lot of interesting issues about what exactly an object is. It is energy frozen in time. And anything that can be frozen can be defrosted. A brick may not look as if it’s in a state of flux but it is. It will not stay a brick forever. And it’s the same with us. Humans are a process.
I don’t set out to write sonnets or sestinas. They’re not beyond me but I feel they’re artificial. And, of course, they are. There will be those who will argue that all art is artificial and they have a case. I do write novels or at least book length pieces of prose that most people would identify as a novel but I don’t plan my novels either. People divide writers into two categories—plotters and pantsers—and I identify more closely with pantsers than plotters but I don’t think about writing as flying by the seat of my pants. Or if it is it’s flying in slow motion. Writing for me is a natural process. I can begin with pretty much any line you throw at me. Some take me to more interesting places than others. If I get bored I stop and look for something else to write. I don’t understand those writers who when they’ve completed one novel jump straight into another—actually the best example I can think of is a filmmaker, Woody Allen—but I do relate strongly to what Kathleen Jamie had to say in her article in The Guardian. She says,
It seems to me that if you know precisely what you've done, or are going to do, then it's a project. Projects are not art. Art proceeds without a map.
Each book I write—and every story, poem and play—is an exploration. It is a process and I agree completely with what Paul Valéry had to say about poems (although I would apply it to all fiction): “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.” I continue until I have seen enough—not necessarily everything there might be to see—and then stop. If I didn’t do that people … would not be able to take my words and look beyond them … and continue the process. As Samuel Johnson says, “A writer only begins a book. A reader finishes it.” We are not builders; we are architects.
Procrastination is another one of those terms—like writer’s block and inspiration—that people often get the wrong idea about. I think of procrastination as a wilful putting off of something, deliberately dragging ones feet. As Jamie writes:
[B]eginning a new work is not a matter of finding a topic to write ‘about’. First of all but you've to spend time – years! – frequenting the scrap yard or the sewing box, cobbling together a new self, then letting it find its way.
I feel guilty that I’m not writing a book now—what I am writing is poetry and that’s fine because at least I’m writing—but really it’s not guilt, it’s that word I invented (or discovered a need for) when writing [my fifth novel] Left, guilst—as angst is to anguish to guilst is to guilt—and I have nothing really to feel bad about because natural processes take their own sweet time.
Can you tell the difference between real pearls and artificial ones? I couldn’t. Is the difference worth all the extra effort involved?
In the same 1971 interview I quoted from at the start of this article Harold Pinter also said this:
I sometimes wish desperately that I could write like someone else, be someone else. No one particularly. Just if I could put the pen down on paper and suddenly come out in a totally different way.
I get that. I keep imagining that every other writer out there has it easier than me. When I read about how disciplined many writers are it depresses me no end. I finished my fifth novel almost two years ago and have yet to start a new book-length project. I wrote some 4000 a while back but felt that I was doing it for all the wrong reasons, so I could say to everyone that I was working on my sixth novel, but really that’s not the case. I’m nowhere at the moment. And so I related strongly to how Kathleen Jamie ended this interview:
No, this interview with you is the last thing I’m going to do around this book. I’ll draw a line under it and try and enter a place of emptiness again, out of which a new piece of work may or may not come in the next decade. – Rosemary Goring, 'Kathleen Jamie: The SRB Interview', Scottish Review of Books, Volume Eight, Issue Two
A decade! There’s something quite terrifying about something that might take ten years—an eighth of one’s life if one is strong—to complete. Just imagine devoting ten years to something and it’s a dud. It took Adam Levin nine years to write The Instructions working on average six hours a day, seven days a week whilst holding down a teaching post (he took one week’s vacation a year), during the middle of which his back gave out and so he had to write for two years standing up. Okay it is a big book but still, can you just imagine having lived with a host of characters for nine years and then find yourself faced with scrapping all of that and beginning afresh? In her article Kathleen Jamie puts it this way:
If the self that made the work is demobbed when the work is done, then it follows that to begin a new work—impossible thought!—you have first to construct a new self. That's the tricky bit.
A new self. Surely she’s exaggerating. A tweet from Linda Aragoni:
Finished writing a book yesterday. Had a burger to celebrate. Began writing next book.
That’s not me. And I’m not alone. Here’s part of an interview with Virginia Euwer Wolff:
Don Gallo: Most writers of books for teenagers publish a book every year, some even more frequently. You average more than three years between books—with Bat 6 coming five years after Make Lemonade. Why such a long time?
Virginia Euwer Wolff: I'm a very slow writer, and evidently I like it that way. I take a long time to think things through; I'm just not a speedy thinker. (Eight months to find a name for the narrator of Make Lemonade is a really, really long time. I knew one would come to me, and one did. Verna LaVaughn got two names, my attempt at recompense to her for having to wait so long.) I have to go through a lot of wrong drafts before the right one arrives.
YA has been flavour of the month for a while now and writers are just chucking books out hoping, I suppose, to be the next Hunger Games. And that’s fine if that’s why you write. The reasonable-prolific author John Scalzi talks on his site about George R.R. Martin though:
George Martin’s … novel, A Feast for Crows, came out in 2005, the same year as my novel Old Man’s War. Since OMW, I have written The Ghost Brigades, The Last Colony, Zoe’s Tale, Fuzzy Nation, and my upcoming 2012 novel (Agent to the Stars and The Android’s Dream were written prior to 2005). Martin’s written A Dance with Dragons. So I get credited with being reasonably prolific whilst Martin gets slammed by the more poorly socialized members of his fan base for slacking about.
Why did it take six years for A Dance With Dragons to come out? Because that’s how long it took. – John Scalzi, 'A Small Observation Regarding Words and Releases'
He opens this short article by saying, “I’ve noted before that comparing one author’s process and career with another’s is a situation fraught with difficulty (and often, some stupidity)…” and I have to agree with him because writing is not plumbing. I wish it was. You have no idea how much I wish that writing was just a craft that one could study, practice and pass exams to say that you’re a certified writer.
Times are a-changing. And we have those pesky ebooks to blame for that. Julie Bosman wrote an interesting article in The New York Times about just exactly how things are changing. She cites the author Lisa Scottoline as an example:
“It used to be that once a year was a big deal,” said Lisa Scottoline, a best-selling author of thrillers. “You could saturate the market. But today the culture is a great big hungry maw, and you have to feed it.”
Ms. Scottoline has increased her output from one book a year to two, which she accomplishes with a brutal writing schedule: 2,000 words a day, seven days a week, usually “starting at 9 a.m. and going until Colbert,” she said. – Julie Bosman, ‘Writer’s Cramp: In the E-Reader Era, a Book a Year Is Slacking’, The New York Times, 12 May 2012
Bosman does, however, add the following proviso:
(The new expectations do not apply to literary novelists like Jeffrey Eugenides and Jonathan Franzen, who can publish a new novel approximately every decade and still count on plenty of high-profile book reviews to promote it.)
So why does it take so long to write a literary novel? It’s not like they’re reinventing the wheel. Actually I think that’s exactly it. This quote is talking about Virginia Woolf:
The Voyage Out was begun during the summer of 1907 and submitted for publication in March 1913. No one knows exactly how many times it was rewritten. Virginia's husband, Leonard Woolf, recalled that 'she once opened a cupboard and found in it (and burnt) a whole mountain of MSS; it was The Voyage Out which she had rewritten (I think) five times from beginning to end'. But why did it take so long to write? For its author, everything seemed to hang on it. Virginia had always known that she would become a writer, perhaps even an important writer. [...] She had embarked upon it, her first novel had to justify her commitment, not just to others, but to herself. She was a perfectionist, and each new draft disappointed her high hopes and increased her fear of failing. – Julia Briggs, Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life, p.4
For several years prior to attempting this she’d been reading popular novels which she found predictable, both plots and characters. So she really was sitting down to write something new, not just a novel in name. Surely it’s only someone like Woolf who would do something like that. Oh, no. Here’s Kirsty Gunn talking about the “pibroch structure” of The Big Music:
Like Woolf, Gunn wanted to write something new. In an Edinburgh International Book festival podcast she said: “I think on the whole I’m kind of bored rigid by narrative lines and I certainly go rushing from the room when I hear that ghastly phrase ‘the narrative arc.’ Oh my lord, when you feel the cavalry riding over the hill that carries with it the entire plot, the back story and, yes, the inevitable conclusion. These kinds of thing make my blood run cold.” She says, going back to the video, “I often think—and I’m not alone in this—I think I have more in common with artists, with painters and sculptors that I do with writers. I often think I have more in common with musicians. This sense of… There’s a wonderful line by Rauschenberg where he talks about ‘the function of art is to remove the image from that other thing’.” I get that because when I read about these writers who churn out books I don’t feel any affinity; they’re something else, not me. I hasten to add here that I do not mean they are less than me although I’m sure there will be those snobs amongst the literati who think that they are. I admire them. But I’m not one of them.
Could I write 500 words of flash fiction on any given subject at the drop of a hat. Yes. I’m enough of a writer to be able to do that. And with a bit of reworking it might even be publishable. If you gave me a plot and asked me to fill in the blanks could I do it? Again, I’m sure I could. I’m fairly confident in my abilities. The real issue is why I write. I don’t write to sell books. There have been those who have asked about a third instalment to the ‘Truth’ novels and it’s perfectly doable. The second book ends on a cliff-hanger; everything set up and ready. But the thought of going back into that universe just makes me ache. I did a wee Q+A a while ago where the Jonathan and Truth were interviewed rather than me. Now that was fun, to put on those characters for an hour, but that was enough. And a sequel to Milligan and Murphy would be easy. But I never wrote any of those books to tell a story and that’s where the real distinction comes as far as I’m concerned. I’m not a storyteller. I use writing to work out problems. Like Pinter put it in an early essay:
I have usually begun a play in quite a simple manner; found a couple of characters in a particular context, thrown them together and listened to what they said, keeping my nose to the ground. – Harold Pinter, ‘The Echoing Silence’, The Guardian, 31 December 2008
That’s me. In Living with the Truth I have a bloke answer his door to find the personification of truth standing there. I had no idea what was going to happen but at the time of writing the book I was having to face up to some not entirely pleasant truths about myself and this was the way I ended up examining them without being all clichéd about it and writing autobiography.
How long should it take to write a novel? The answer—which we all knew all along—is: It depends. There is a need for entertainment and there is a need for art and all points in between. There is a reader for every book. If you’re lucky, more than one.