Okay, I’m sure a lot of you have read this NYT article by now (or at least heard it mentioned here on Murderati) which tells us that the minimum output of books per year for a professional author is now two. Per year. Double what people are used to thinking.
In the E Reader Age, a Book a Year is Slacking
And the article links this new phenomenon to the e book revolution.
Well, I would strongly disagree. MOST of the authors I know who make a good living at just writing books have been writing AT LEAST, at the VERY least, two books a year for longer than I’ve been in the author business. There are very few I know who can afford the leisurely pace of a book per year. (I dream of being able to afford that luxury…)
It was one of the first things I noticed when I moved from screenwriting to the author business in 2006. Successful writers write a LOT of books. Tons. Staggering numbers. Plus stories and any number of other things. (I felt like a total slacker until I realized if I had been writing books instead of screenplays for the last 11 years I would have those kinds of numbers, too.)
Of course, there’s a catch that we all have to be wary of. How long does it take to write a GOOD book? When are you starting to risk, well, dreck?
I wanted to think and talk about that today.
From the beginning of my (still quite short, really) author career, one of the questions I have gotten most often at book signings and panels is, “How long does it take you to write a book?”
My feeling is what’s always being asked is not how long it takes me to write a book, but how long it would take the person asking to write a book. Which of course, I have no way of answering, unless it’s to cut to the chase and shout, “Save yourself! Don’t do it!” But that’s never the question, so I don’t say it.
What I started out answering instead was, “About nine months.” Which, from Chapter One to copyedits, used to be true enough. But I’m getting faster. And the paranormals I write take more like two months. And of course with e publishing, the whole process of publishing has changed, and the time frame has changed, too.
I wrote three and a half books last year. One YA thriller, THE SPACE BETWEEN, one non-fiction writing workbook, WRITING LOVE, one paranormal, TWIST OF FATE (coming out in 2013), and half of my latest crime thriller, HUNTRESS MOON, which will be out next month. (And technically I also outlined another paranormal, KEEPER OF THE SHADOWS, which will also be out in 2013. Outlining is writing, too!).
This year I will have written another four or possibly four and a half. Two paranormals, another thriler and a half, and – either a half or whole other SOMETHING yet to be determined.
So that’s a lot of books. How long did it take me to write any one of those? It’s really hard to say when those projects are constantly overlapping.
But the fact is, in almost every case, the real answer to the question of “How long?” is almost always: “Decades.”
Because honestly, where do you even start? I’m quite convinced I’m a professional writer today because my mother made me write a page a day from the time I could actually hold a pencil. At first a page was a sentence, and then a paragraph, and then a real page, but it was writing. Every day. It was an incredibly valuable lesson, which taught me a fundamental truth about writing: it didn’t have to be good, it just had to get written. Now I make myself write however many pages every day. And now, like then, it doesn’t have to be good, it just has to get written. Some days it’s good, some days it’s crap, but if you write every day, there are eventually enough good days to make a book.
Then there were all those years of theater, from writing and performing plays in my best friend’s garage, to school and community theater, to majoring in theater in college, to performing with an ensemble company after college. Acting, dancing, choreography, directing – that was all essential training for writing.
And then the reading. Again, like probably every writer on the planet, from the time I could hold a book. The constant, constant reading. Book after book – and film after film, too, and play after play – until the fundamentals of storytelling were permanently engraved in some template in my head.
Hey, you may be saying, that’s TRAINING. That wasn’t the question. How long does it take to WRITE A BOOK?
I still maintain, it takes decades. I think books emerge in layers. The process is a lot like a grain of sand slipping inside a clamshell that creates an irritation that causes the clam to secrete that substance, nacre, that covers the grain, one layer at a time, until eventually a pearl forms. (Actually it’s far more common that some parasite or organic substance, even tissue of the clam’s own body, is the irritant, which is an even better analogy if you ask me, ideas as parasites…)
Let’s take a look at Book of Shadows, the thriller I’ve just gotten back from my publisher and put out myself as an e book last week.
When did I start Book of Shadows? Well, technically in the fall of 2008, I guess. But really, the seed was planted long ago, when I was a child growing up in Berkeley. (The Berkeley thing pretty much explains why I write supernatural to begin with, but that’s another post.) Those of you who have visited this town know that Telegraph Avenue, the famous drag ending at the U.C. campus, is a gauntlet of fortune tellers (as well as clothing and craft vendors and political activists and, well, drug dealers.).
Having daily exposure to Tarot readers and psychics and palm readers as one of my very first memories has been influential to my writing in ways I never realized until I started seeing similarities in Book of Shadows and my paranormal The Shifters, and discovered I could trace the visuals and some of those scenes back to those walks on Telegraph Ave.
Without mentioning an actual number, I can tell you, that’s a lot of years for a book to be in the making.
Over the years, that initial grain of sand picked up more and more layers. Book of Shadows is about a Boston homicide detective who reluctantly teams up with a beautiful, enigmatic practicing witch from Salem to solve what looks like a Satanic murder. Well, back in sixth grade, like a lot of sixth graders I got hooked on the Salem witch trials, and that fascination extended to an interest in the real-life modern practice of witchcraft, which if you live in California – Berkeley, San Francisco, L.A. – is thriving, and has nothing at all to do with the devil or black magic. Hanging out at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire (more Tarot readers!), I became acquainted with a lot of practicing witches, and have been privileged to attend ceremonies. So basically I’ve been doing research for this book since before I was in high school.
And my early love of film noir, and the darkest thrillers of Hitchcock, especially Notorious, started a thirst in me for stories with dark romantic plots that pit the extremes of male and female behavior against each other; it’s one of my personal themes. Book of Shadows is not my first story to pit a very psychic, very irrational woman against a very rational, very logic-driven man; I love the dynamics – and explosive sexual chemistry – of that polarity.
So to completely switch analogies on everyone, this book has been on the back burner, picking up ingredients for a long, long time.
Now, what pulls all those ideas and layers and ingredients into a storyline that takes precedence over all the other random storylines cooking on all those hundreds of back burners in my head (because that’s about how many there are, at any given time), is a little more mysterious. Or maybe it’s not. Maybe storylines leap into the forefront of your imagination mostly because your agent or editor or a producer or executive or director comes up with an opportunity for a paycheck or a gentle reminder that you need to be thinking of the next book or script if you ever want a paycheck again. I know that’s a powerful motivator for me. So speed in writing comes partly out of practical necessity.
But the reason a professional writer is able to perform relatively on demand like that is that we have all those stories cooking on all those back burners. All the time. For years and years, or decades and decades. And if a book takes nine months, or six months, or a year to write, that’s only because a whole lot of stuff about it has been cooking for a very, very, very long time.
A long time.
And I’m wondering, lately, if one of the keys to writing faster without killng yourself doing it is to check those pots bubbling back there on the mental back burners more often. Taking the time every few months to just sit quietly and free-form brainstorm on paper or on the screen… and see what ideas might be more done than not. Sometimes random and seemingly separate ideas can suddenly combine to create a full story line. Because I’m quite sure that we ALL have books that have been cooking back there for decades now. Maybe it’s time to take them out.
So writers, how long does it take YOU to write a book? Or your latest? How many stories do you figure you have on the back burner at any one time?
And readers, do you ever notice certain themes – or recurring scenes or visuals – in your favorite authors’ books that make you suspect that story seed was planted long ago?
And here’s one worth discussing: is anything MORE than a book a year cheating the book?
All right, Nook people, you keep asking, and for a limited time I’m putting The Unseen, The Harrowing and The Price up at B&N.com for Nook: $2.99 each.
Right now I'm contracted for a Nicholas Colt book every six months. It can be tricky sometimes, because you're trying to promote book #2 while editing book #3 while writing the first draft of book #4. So it's not like you can really dedicate six whole months to the work in progress.
And I'm also trying to self-publish some things along the way.
As for book #1, it went through several incarnations over several years before it finally found a home. But, if we're lucky, we're only allowed that luxury once.
I LOVE the image of a big old kitchen with a cozy chair and an industrial sized Viking range with Le Creuset pots of every color bubbling away with all my now and future novels in them.
Okay, so you didn't quite go THAT far with your metaphor, but clearly it suits me as I took it and ran with it. 🙂
Now I have to go with my wooden spoon and have a taste from each to see what's cooking!
Jude, exactly – you're always working on four books at once, pretty much, in one stage or another.
Billie, I like your enhanced image better! So friendly. Who doesn't like sampling from cooking pots?
I don't know, but I've fallen into some strange slump wherein it is taking me three years to write a book. First book took 3 1/2 years, after hours and on weekends. Second book took nine months – on contract, still after hours and weekends. Third book…it's been 2 1/2 years or so…so far. And one of those years was full-time writing. And I'm at least eight months away from finishing it.
What the fuck, right? What the fuck.
I'm fortunate enough to dedicate about 6 hours a day to writing, so for me, if I produce three novels worth of finished work (250-300k) per year, I'm happy.
Steve, don't be too hard on yourself. I really believe the recession slowed everyone down. But remember you were writing a script (seven million times), too. I don't think I could write novels and do the Hollywood thing at the same time, those endless rewrites. I'm so glad I took those few years to be OUT of L.A. and the whole scene. It made me able to find my chops as a novelist.
David, that's a good fast pace and doable, I think!
I have a day-job, so it definitely takes me a few years…But then, when I was work-free for a year, I completed a first draft. Given the chance, I know I'm at least a book a year….and two a year? I'd need more practice at writing fast, but, more importantly, more practice at solidifying my ideas faster. My thing isn't so much the writing as the pre-work. But, I'm pretty sure that's it's own skill that gets faster and better with practice, hopefully like our fiction writing.
You're right, Lisa, the pre-work is a skill and you DO get faster at it. And better!
It's fun seeing all these different posts about writing and how many books a year authors should write. I've also seen the posts that sure, self publishers, write 2-3 books a year BUT it's probably at the sacrifice of quality. Which might be true for some people but I think it depends on the author, their experience, their speed of the entire writing process.
Laura, I do think the speed issue varies WILDLY with authors. But ultimately, if readers are buying books that are lesser quality, they're rewarding that lesser quality. With sampling, no one HAS to buy a book to determine if it's worth reading – you can sample and make the decision without spending a dime. So buying a book is essentially a vote for that book.
Great post, Alex! I love your analogy of ideas bubbling away on the back burner. And I think you're right – every author has that feeling to some extent. It's my excuse for how vague and forgetful I am–there's always at least part of my brain thinking about plots and characters.
I personally think one book a year if you're in the traditional publishing is good. Even with one a year you tend to get the overlap Jude mentioned with publicising one book, while the next is being edited and you're at least starting/planning the next.
But as you say, Alex, you do get faster with more experience 🙂
Stephen, you should try a 10k day…just to see what happens!
I think this post is spot on regarding how long ideas are actually in development for. If we take my first three books, set in World War One, then those have been brewing since the early nineties when I first read Wilfred Owen in high school. One of the novellas I am working on is a skewed look at life as it has been for me in London, so that's been almost ten years in the making and I've just finished drafting a collection of vignettes that contains a number of stories referencing my childhood, one way and another. I think the reason I tend to write fast myself though is that when I started out I modelled a lot of my working approach after pulp writers I admired who cranked out as much as they could to meet deadlines. Even though I've yet to have any 'real' ones as such having been poorly served by an agent and now self-publishing, I still cultivated the habit to keep my focus. The quality vs quantity debate is always a tricky one, I think, as every writer is different. As I have said, I write fast and because of years of frustration I have many ideas that are all near to boiling over, to use Alex's analogy, so it doesn't take much for me to get in tune with what I'm writing and then just let it pour out of me onto the page or screen.
I suspect two books a year is doable only if you already have an editor on speed-dial, which means you're already published.
For the rest of us…I wrote my current WIP in about six months, but it's been going through my critique group for the past year and a half. The writing isn't the big problem; it's the catch-as-catch-can crit/beta-reader/revision problem, which isn't very straightforward or efficient when you don't have an editor cranking out revision letters for you.