Thursday, March 18, 2010

More, more, more...

by Michelle Gagnon images.jpg

So like Clare, I'm currently out of town on vacation (nowhere as exotic as Australia, but I'm still enjoying a bit of a break from the San Francisco fog).

Last week I attended Left Coast Crime in LA, where I was fortunate to have the opportunity to catch up with John Gilstrap and James, and to meet Kathryn for the first time. Which was kind of shocking-the funny thing about blogging like this is how well you get to know each other without ever meeting face to face. For instance, I feel like Basil is practically family at this point (albeit as that crazy cousin who kicks off the conga line at family events). The post 9/11 literature panel that John and I were on made episodes of the Jerry Springer show look dull in comparison. In the bar afterward, almost every passerby stopped to tell John that they'd heard about his performance. He's officially a legend now, and will probably start showing up late to our Denny's meetings, if he makes them at all.

I got the chance to talk to Lee Child briefly at the conference (I know, I'm a shameless name dropper), and we were discussing the fact that for the first time he's releasing not one but two books this year. This has become a trend with the recent industry downturn. It's easier for publishers to push more books written by their stable of well known authors than to build up a new name, so old faithfuls like James Rollins, John Sandford, and of course James Patterson are being offered nice bonuses for increased productivity.

Even authors who aren't household names are being urged to try to churn out multiple titles a year. Now, I'm not saying there aren't people who do this well. But when my agent and I were negotiating my last contract, and they pushed for an increase to two or three books a year, I said no.

It's a struggle for me to finish one book a year. It takes between 4-6 months for me to compose the initial draft, then I send it off to my editor and have a few weeks head start on the next book. Then the edits come back, and I have in general another month to polish it. At which point I mail it back, work a little bit more on the next book...just when I'm getting in the groove again, it's time for round three. Add in the months I need to coordinate marketing for that book before its release, and it's always about a year, start to finish. The thought of adding another book, never mind two, into the mix would be hive-inducing.

Yet many writers do manage to produce more than one book a year. Which raises a few questions for me. Firstly, does the quality suffer? Dennis Lehane claimed that the book a year grind made him feel like his work was deteriorating, so he took two full years off to write the next book- which turned out to be MYSTIC RIVER.

I also question whether or not having an author flood the market with books actually helps their sales if they're not James Patterson or Stephen King. Is it better to come out with three books a year, rather than one? What does everyone think?

Now, back to the sun...


24 comments:

  1. I used to agree with this Michelle, but last fall I was overcome by a burst of productivity. I drafted a book in 6 weeks. My beta readers say it's my best ever. This must be what happens to writers like Nora Roberts. I'm not sure it will ever happen to me again, but it was fun while it lasted.

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  2. It all depends on the writer, of course. I admire Lehane tremendously. He also went "off brand" for his last book, a historical. Good for him.

    I also look back with admiration at the old pulp writers, and paperback writers of the 50's. The best ones could write fast AND with quality.

    Why could they do it? Discipline and fewer distractions. John D. MacDonald, for example, worked it like a 9 - 5 job. No email and no Twitter.

    So I try to keep regular hours and produce a quota. I know when I reach the point of diminishing returns, but I also try to write a first draft as fast as I comfortably can. There's something to being "in" the story that comes from that. I usually do a first in 3-4 months (while "cooking" the next project).

    Good question, Michelle. I'll be interested in other views.

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  3. I've never found a correlation between how fast I write and the quality. In general I'm a fairly rapid writer, but when I give talks someone typically asks how long it takes to write a novel and my glib, well-practiced answer is "seven to fourteen months depending on how well it goes." True enough, although some have been written in three months (and some, of course, never get completed, dammit). There are problems to be solved in each novel and sometimes there's no solutions to be found. And certainly the so-called "real world" can get in the way of my productivity.

    I sometimes think one book a year is just fine unless you're writing under pseudonyms. Or, you know, Thomas Harris or JD Salinger.

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  4. Great question and post, Michelle. Unlike most of the others here, I work with a co-author. Although we have four novels published, we are still hard-pressed to complete a manuscript in one year. So far we've met our deadlines, but our newest thriller, THE PHOENIX APOSTLES, took almost two years to complete mainly due to the complexity of the plot. We also complete at least two types of outlines before we start writing; one to cover character development and plot, and the other to cover scene-by-scene. Even with the outlining and daily conference calls, we need at least a year or more to finish the book. So asking us to write multiple books in 12 months would be tough.

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  5. BTW, John has assured me that he will be on time for the next Denny's breakfast meeting. The question is, will he remember which city.

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  6. I'll be watching the comments on this one as well. The late Robert B. Parker turned out several books a year, and I liked them all. Other excellent authors produce a book every two years and I anxiously await those as well. It's such an individual thing.

    Jim Bell brings up an excellent point about John D. MacDonald treating writing as a full-time job. For what Lawrence Block calls the "Sunday writer," a book may take two or three years. For those able to devote full time to it--Parker, MacDonald, Bell--the time frame can be shorter.

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  7. I had three books (INSIDE OUT, UPSIDE DOWN & SIDE BY SIDE) published the same year and I don't think it served me well. I understood the logic behind it and I was all for it, but I had three books in wide release with very similar covers but in different colors ended up doing a lot more harm than good. I think it works if you are already well known and have an established fan base (James Patterson and Lee Child would qualify). I wrote those books over two years. I applaud my publisher for the experiment, and I'd probably do it differently now, but it was fun and Disney Store had all three stocked on the shelves at the same time.

    But here's the thing to watch. Book retailers have computers that track sales. If the second book numbers fall, the computers order fewer, and if the trend continues they will order very few and it can dull the publisher's interest in your work.

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  8. Working a full-time job, it takes me about eighteen months to complete a book; I guess i could do it in nine if I wrote full time. I don't think I'd want to write more than one book a year. Sometimes it's hard enough to keep straight if I used something already.

    That being said, I have some books in the drawer, so to speak, and I'd be happy to do three-to-six month rewrites on them if a publisher wanted a quick follow-up on something. I don't think I could do it long-term though.

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  9. from a reader's standpoint, i must say that i think we buy books based on the name of the author...does it mean each book put out every 6 months is good?? personally, i don't think so...i feel they lack depth and richness in the paragraphs....say that of a laura lippman. i awaited grafton and kinsolver's new releases...but stay away from prolific authors....one such author...and his writing kemo sabe, killed a swimsuit model in the 3rd chapter by 'sawing off her head'....not chopping, which seems a little more humane..... but sawing!!!! eeeeuuuuu. i put the book down and that was the end. i don't even bother with the nyt best seller list....as that's all it indicates....what we are buying in large numbers....and that doesn't always equate quality. and this is all imho!!! kathy d.

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  10. I do think it would be hard to write more than one book a year on average and maintain quality. I think you see burnout even in writers who turn out series fiction every year--I often read complaints from readers that the quality in later books has suffered. I think that's because the writers are on a constant deadline and juggling multiple books in various phases--writing, edits, proofs, and promotion.

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  11. For me, time to write is like money. The more I have, the more I'll spend. Whether my deadline is four months off or a year off, I'll use it all. Right now my publisher has suggested a nine-month release schedule. Until I get out of my day job (not willing to let that go yet), I don't think I can write any faster than that.

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  12. Well, Michelle, it's like I always say, there's nothing mystery fans like more than to come to a panel and witness a political discussion. Not. My apologies to anyone who was there and offended. I NEVER do that; but sometimes you hear something that you just can't let stand . . .

    Anyway, I promise to restrain myself in the future.

    More to the point, I don't understand how people write more than one book a year. Even when I wrote full-time, I don't think I could have done that. If you only count time with pen in hand or fingers on keyboard, I typically pound out a book in seven or eight months (I wrote Nathan's Run in four months), but I need the mental break in between. It's nice to step out of the office and smell fresh air from time to time.

    John Gilstrap
    www.johngilstrap.com

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  13. John, I've heard of fresh air. What's it like?

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  14. Erin, thanks for stopping by. A great editor turned novelist. Sometimes those who teach can, too.

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  15. I can't imagine putting out more than one book a year. I also don't think it helps a writer's reputation. I can't help suspecting anyone who can write more than a book a year of being a hack. Although there are notable exceptions, like Anthony Trollope, who published over 70 books in his lifetime; but I don't think every single one of those books was a classic. As a rule, good books are like bread: they take time if you don't want them to come out half-baked.

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  16. Interesting range of opinions- I guess it largely varies author to author.
    And John, you were great. I think memorable is always the way to be on a panel. It's rare that you start drawing a crowd halfway through.
    Which city is the next Denny's in, anyway?

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  18. I agree with Jim Bell's observation that it depends on the individual writer. As he pointed out, the pulp and paperback writers of the 1950s could really crank them out. Harry Whittington wrote 85 novels in twelve years, including seven in one month!!!

    But if a writer wants to take a year, or two, to complete a novel, that's his/her business. If he/she feels that much time is needed, then that's the end of the discussion.

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  19. The problem for me is that I have more ideas than just in my series. Of course, publishers like to have your series book come out at the same time every year, so if I want to write other books, I either have to delay the series (which is risky if you have fans expecting that series every year) or I have to try to squeeze in another book in between. As I start up on this publishing machine, I'll have to figure out what I can handle.

    My two standalones are coming out in the six months between my first two series books, but I already had those in the can (although revisions are extensive).

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  20. Awww Michelle, I'm flattered to be considered family. At the next reunion I'll be the chubby guy in the bright Hawaiian print shirt with the cocktail umbrella stuck above my ear.

    Regarding multiple books per year, it depends on the size/ quality/ topic. If we're talking novella length series characters (The Destroyer, The Executioner, etc). Feasible.

    But 300-400 page novels with deep plot and fresh characters? Well, if it was the only thing I did every day I think I could probably put out two or three a year.

    Problem is I'd most likely go crazy(-ier) after a year of putting twelve hours a day into writing and end up in the woods joining a colony of squirrels. So the question is whether potential output it is worth the mental stability exchange.
    On the other hand, squirrels are kind of cool to hang out with...once you learn their language.

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  21. I think another aspect of the problem is that some writers are expected to push out 2-3 novels a year from the get-go -- before they've even achieved that rare solvancy required to write full-time. In other words, Nora Roberts and James Patterson can churn out multiple titles a year because for them writing *is* their day job.

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  22. I expect no less of you, Basil.
    And Josh, that's a good point. Also, if the marketing aspect was completely out of my hands, that would free up a few months a year.

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  23. I'm sure there is a point at which quality suffers by trying to produce too much and we can't ignore the other stuff a writer is doing, such as speaking engagements, family obligations or the day job if writing isn't the day job, but there is also a point at which the requirement to cram the work into a shorter timespan improves the quality of the work. Some authors will take ten years to finish a work and by the time they are done their attitude has changed about the subject matter many times. Even in the space of six months, a writer may lose sight of what he had planned to do when he started out. While it may seem like the next six months are spent improving the quality, most of it may be spent correcting mistakes that wouldn't have even been in there is he had finished the work while the story was hot.

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  24. Like Dana and Boyd, I've got manuscripts with great premises "in the drawer" that I could polish up in no time. But John's point gave me pause. Would hate to have the law of diminishing returns hit my books! I'm already on a book a year schedule, but if I want to write off brand I have no choice but to create a second and sell it. Will quality suffer? Probably not. In my "day" job (lawyer) I was expected to turn out a tremendous amount of product at high quality day in and out. This seems like fun compared!

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