12Apr

Book Factories

I find some of this incredible, so I’ll highlight a big chunk:

In the heyday of pulp fiction, writers churned their books out at a great rate, usually to earn enough money to live on. Prentiss Ingraham wrote more than 600 books, 200 of them on Buffalo Bill. Occasionally, he wrote a 35,000-word book overnight. This was before the days of laptops and I hate to think of his writer’s cramp.

Writers whose progress is slow usually grind their teeth on hearing these statistics, but comfort themselves with the thought that the more prolific the writers, the more likely they are to produce rubbish.

Alas, this is cold comfort when they remember Joyce Carol Oates, considered one of the world’s finest writers. This brilliant and (to rival writers) perpetually infuriating woman has turned out more than 100 books in 45 years, many of them big, fat tomes. Other prolific literati include Georges Simenon (500 books in 70 years), John Updike (at least 60 books in 50 years) and P. G. Wodehouse (about 100 books in 75 years).

Apart from the truly manic fringe, what makes authors prolific? Sometimes the market demands it. Best-selling genre authors are expected to produce a new book at least every second year or so. Thriller writer James Patterson subcontracts other authors to compose first drafts from his outlines, which means he can produce several books a year.

And I thought I was doing well for my 1,000 words a day.

The first thing that comes to mind with all this is – quality. Is it possibly to write so much, so quickly, and for it to be of decent quality, knowing how thorough the rewriting and editorial feedback process can be when done properly? I guess most readers won’t even notice how the speed of a novel affects the final product, and I’m sure many writers’ minds work quicker than others. Also, there are market pressures for all of this, as the article states. Readers want more of the same thing and they want it now.

As an related aside, I do find it amusing when some reviewers say “the book could have done with more editing”. An editor (not mine) commented on this at Eastercon recently – it’s ridiculous for people to say that, because have they any idea just what work went into that manuscript in the first place? That an editor could have reduced a novel by half to have some clown still say it needs a good edit (when they might also mean, for example, that they didn’t agree with the pacing).

No. People are only ever presented with the end result, and just connect with that.

So no matter how slowly a novel may be written, no matter rigorous the editorial process can be, no matter how many years are spent working on it, most readers will only see it on an equal level with something that is churned out quickly. Few people see what goes on within the book factory.

P.S. As you can see, any of you struggling writers who take more than a year to finish the manuscript, you’ve got to be quicker than that…

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About Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

15 comments

  1. Interesting.

    I’ve told myself that I need to be able to write a novel inside 6 months. What with edits on previous books, publicity and the other work an author needs to do, taking a year on the actual book isn’t actually going to be possible.

    As a test (especially as current novel has taken years of refinement) I did NaNoWriMo last year, except I tasked myself with writing a proper novel (character arcs, start middle & end, themes, etc.) rather than just 50k words. 5 weeks later and I have a 90k word novel that having sat in the drawer for a couple of months is surprisingly good.

    I’m not sure I entirely agree with the comment on “the book could have done with more editing” but that may be naivety on my part. I think people mean “editing down” or refinement rather than lack of effort on the editor’s part and it has implications beyond just pacing. An editor might reduce a novel by half, but it may need reducing by three quarters. As I say though, I may just be wrong and a clown 😉

  2. I would suspect that much depends on the style of the individual writer and the genre of the book. To take a ready example, hard-boiled, gimlet-eyed detective fiction shouldn’t be groaning with thick pages and its prose weighted down with heavy description. Think Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, or Elmore Leonard for prime examples of the style. While I have no doubt that copious amounts of cutting and re-writing may have given the end product its angular thrust and perfect frugal geometry, I also suspect that this style can be churned out by a skilled writer faster than others. Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy come to mind in the sparseness of their prose and the tight structure of their narratives as well of course. Again, I mention this only to suggest the contrast between such authors and the likes of Poe, Lovecraft, or even Dickens (though if you want to site prolific authors, Dickens can’t be too far down the list). Different styles of writing need also I suspect, different approaches. They likely progress at diverse speeds due to factors such as the complexity of sentence structure, levels of description, plot, and pacing.

    This brings me to my final suggestion: the skill and experience of the writer must affect how quickly one can produce quality writing. If you write 10,000+ words each day, for five, ten, or even fifty or more years, I can only imagine that you can, if possessed of such native talent as do all the authors I’ve named above and haven’t drowned your creative talents in drink or too much easy living, produce good work potentially far faster than a less experienced or naturally talented author. Not that writing becomes inherently easier with experience, but you’d expect a skilled writer at the very least to become able to physically put down words to paper more quickly than a more novitiate scribbler. I could be wrong, but it seems like what you’d expect to happen as you would in most crafts. Certainly, as a beginning writer, I’m often struggling just to find my tone, my own voice, and I spend it feels an inordinate amount of time mired down in overly cumbersome sentences and meandering, Gormenghastian descriptions. But already I notice that now almost ten chapters into the first book I’ve ever written, in the span of a little over two weeks it’s getting easier already.

    Finally, I suppose that along with the style of the writer, the genre of the novel, and the native skill and the years of writing an individual writer might possess, there is the subtle notion of pacing to consider. Some stories are intended (and I suppose this is closely connected to all of the above) to move at a set pace as the story unfolds. I can see that a book written at breakneck speed by a skilled author might even add to the urgency that comes across in the reading, and to good effect.

    Eric

  3. Editors are constantly blamed for problems with pacing, as though an author has no role to play in that area. But when did you ever see someone say, “this book was really well edited” or, “the book was perfectly paced and never dragged, great work by the editor.” I will answer my own question. Never ever ever. As you point out, the editor’s (very important) contribution is totally inextricable from the rest of the work. To think that an editor’s job is solely to somehow control the pace and size of a book is somewhat naive…

  4. As for speed, I’m trying (and succeeding so far) at producing 49 chapters + a prelude of an original fantasy novel in 10-12 weeks. As I have a very limited time each day to write, and not every day at that, it is challenging to say the least.

    However, the pressure of producing a minimum of 6,000 to 7,000 words every other day, it is a goad that I need. All my other attempts over the past four or five months since I decided to try my hand at writing have simply sputtered out, bogged down in slow writing, long considerations of setting and plot, and too much damned re-writing and all that lies in between those hellish gates.

    My rationale is that the story moves faster in my mind than I can type. So what I really need to do is to write faster and let the story that is impatiently tapping its foot in my feverish brain, set the pace and call the shots.

    Oh, and no doubt ruthlessly re-write and chop the damn monster into shape once it’s all down in digital ink and on virtual paper.

    Eric

  5. I’m sure I’ve been guilty of occasional use of the “could have done with more editing” comment in reviews, but never quite in the way you describe, Mark. When I say something like that, it’s not meant to imply that a book hasn’t had a whole load of editing already, and it’s not shorthand for saying that the pacing is all wrong – it’s just, well, in my view the work is still rough and could do with some more work (whether that “editing” comes from the author, an editor, another editor, or whatever).

  6. I came into work this morning, our entire network was down. I got everyone back up and running in 20 mins. Nobody commented on how quickly I got the network back up, just moaned about how crap the IT is. Such is life whether you are an editor, an IT worker, or virtually any job, but Joe makes a very fair point. How is it possible to identify good editing?

    Do we see perceived issues with editing as being the Editor’s problem? It’s an interesting question. I think the blame always ultimately lays with the author (at least for me). I’ve always really strived to make the life of whatever editor I’ve worked for as easy as possible (although they’ve only been small scale projects). But maybe in my naivety I see them as the last guardians of sanity in a chain of edits and proofreads – far enough removed to view any piece of text with impartiality. I read as a reader then mull as a writer, but when (on very rare occasions) I see something that forces me to turn on my crit-switch, I find myself wondering “Did no-one spot this? Was it identified by the editor and the writer not act on it?”

    But I also think that the reader (reviewer or not) has the right to question the editing. Maybe they lack the vocabulary to accurately describe their point (i.e. that the issue is pacing rather than the actual edit) but that doesn’t mean they don’t ultimately have a point.

  7. Joe, I totally agree. Editors have always worked as invisible agents, so to start criticising them is odd, and for others who are curious, here’s why:

    Firstly, I think it’s impossible to comment on the quality of an edit without knowing what was there before. To do so is a bit silly when you consider this deeply. An editor could have reduced a novel by tens of thousands of words, culled characters and so on. Secondly, an author can always – and often does – refuse certain changes, with plot or character, or sometimes on the sentence level. You might be critising something the editor wanted to change. Again, you can never know. Thirdly, there are deadlines. And last of all – sometimes something you think is wrong isn’t actually wrong. Sometimes. Language is incredibly flexible in fiction – we’re not in the business of corporate writing. Some of the greatest writers don’t adhere to technically correct sentence structure (DeLillo is one such writer.)

    Keith – yes, I see what you mean about that. The thing is, could the same be said for all books? With more work, they could be improved? I guess there’s a certain threshold where it’s painfully apparent, though?

  8. I’ve been working on the first novel in my Epic Fantasy trilogy and since the end of Feb I’ve reached 20000 words, a big chunk of that (at least 15-16000 words) in the space of a week, and I it’s damn difficult to keep the quality up while keeping the wordcount ticking over. Sometimes I write absolutely awesome stuff, but most of the time I ask myself just why the hell I’m writing when I can only seem to churn out major crap – thank goodness I’ve decided to edit when I’m done!

    I partly agree with the fact that some novels aren’t edited properly – wait, hear me out! 🙂 I’ve read quite a lot of novels that were edited by the author him- / herself, and it doesn’t matter if the author does ten edits, there are always some things that escape his/her notice (speaking from embarrassing experiences here), and even some of the independent publishers employ editors that miss a couple of things. I do also agree, though, that what one person thinks is wrong, or could have been written better, is what another person will love.

    It’s something I try to keep in mind when reviewing a book – and is the same reason why I’ll only lift out absolutely glaring errors. One of the books I reviewed, The Uprising, could use a proper edit (lot’s of spelling and grammar mistakes) but it really didn’t impact on my reading experience because it was such an awesome book.

    So I guess that editing, done well and ruthlessly, is completely invisible – that’s when we think that the book seemed effortless. 🙂

  9. I have ever increasing respect for both writers and other professionals in the publishing industry, the more I see of it the more difficult it looks.

  10. This post could have used a bit more editing – a tightening of a sentence or two here, further elaborations of a point or two there. The pacing may not be what you fully desired, either.

    Oh, wait, you didn’t want an off-hand critique like that? 😛

    Diff’rent strokes for diff’rent folks on the writing speed/quality. I remember spending a couple of 20 hour day/nights writing the first draft of my undergraduate thesis for review. Thank God there was a record snowfall that February (1996) that gave me an extra day to work on it, as I was contemplating skipping classes then. A little over 7,000 words then. Probably could have used a bit more editing there, come and think of it 😛 But I also know of several who spent weeks writing their papers and the quality was not as high when the papers were critiqued, so I guess it is, as some say above, all down to what skills each individual writer has developed over time.

  11. Books can be too long and books can be too short (even at 500 pages if the intended depth needs 800), same with threads in books, so many times it’s a matter of how one connects with the book – if you love the characters, you will love those extra 100 pages in which they dust the floors and move the furniture from A to B and back, if not you will scream “I want action”

    Regarding writing on the band, it’s all supply and demand for writers who live by the pen; if you still have a day job where you make most your money, I do not think you can criticize since mortgages do not pay on their own, kids’ tuition same and so on…

    A pro writer is after all someone who makes a living by selling words/books and literary quality has nothing to do with that imho

  12. Sorry for the double comment but I realized I missed something – I deeply admire most pro writers, where by a pro writer I mean someone who makes all his/her “working” living from writing irrespective of how much I like their work for the simple reason that it is not easy to do that, the same way it is not easy to make your living independently in pretty much any job as opposed to staying within the corporate/government/academic umbrella where you have much more protection and acceptance so to speak

  13. Books can be too long and books can be too short (even at 500 pages if the intended depth needs 800), same with threads in books, so many times it’s a matter of how one connects with the book – if you love the characters, you will love those extra 100 pages in which they dust the floors and move the furniture from A to B and back, if not you will scream “I want action”

    Regarding writing on the band, it’s all supply and demand for writers who live by the pen; if you still have a day job where you make most your money, I do not think you can criticize since mortgages do not pay on their own, kids’ tuition same and so on…

    A pro writer is after all someone who makes a living by selling words/books and literary quality has nothing to do with that imho

  14. Editing isn’t a matter of what there was to begin with, it’s a matter of what you end up with. If the final manuscript is riddled with fixable errors, of course the quality of the editing should, and can, be commented upon. At the end of the day, who cares how much work was already put into it? If a novel can be better, it can be better, despite however much time and energy was already put into the improvement.