I got a lot of feedback on my appearance with Joanna Penn on her blog, The Creative Penn. Mostly, from authors who were either unclear on my take on speed vs. quality, or who were defending a slow approach, saying that it took longer to generate literary fiction than commercial (with the inference being that literary fiction was more elevated, superior in some way, and thus worth it).
Which may be true, but misses the point. If you want to make a nice living writing, you probably shouldn’t be looking at the handful of authors who put out a Goldfinch every five years and get seven figure advances, because the chances of that being you are about the chances of the Olsen twins showing up at my door for a tequila-soaked pillow party.
But it does raise a question: why does literary fiction take so damned long to write, compared to genre, or commercial, fiction (in general)?
Alas, there’s no real answer. Many classic pieces of literary fiction were written fairly quickly, so it’s not that it’s impossible to do. It’s just that most take forever, and every word is agonized over, every comma second and third guessed. One particularly vociferous defender of that approach said, and I paraphrase, that literary fiction delves into the subtleties of why things happen, whereas commercial fiction sticks to the hows, so it’s more complex to write literary, thus requiring more time.
Which is right, unless, of course, it isn’t. I can think of plentiful examples where it’s just not so. I’m sure you can too. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner comes to mind, knocked out in six weeks. Or A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, in a month. Or Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Gambler. And on and on.
I think those who take a long time writing literary fiction probably spend weeks per chapter on rewrite, trying to polish every word like a diamond. Which is fine. If you have a nice day job, or a trust fund, I say good on you. Maybe it will get picked up by an agent after numerous submissions, and then maybe a publisher will recognize all the effort that went into it and reward you handsomely. And then an eager reading public will line up for the hard cover, and soon you’ll be telling Neil Gaimen to suck it and dismissing Faulkner as a hack.
Alternatively, you could spend years trying to transmute lead into gold. The odds aren’t that different.
Somewhere, there’s a balance between quality prose where something happens, and self-indulgent prose that takes forever to generate, often where nothing much happens at all. I think that’s one of the distinctions I make: literary fiction is certainly self-indulgent, and when it works, the reader shares the author’s indulgence and appreciation of the nuance in the prose and emotional buffet, assuming there is one. Good commercial fiction can’t be self-indulgent, because it’s consumed as entertainment, and you get too navel-gazing, you lose your reader.
Another way of saying it is that literary fiction requires the reader to work, to develop an appreciation for nuance and subtlety, to gasp at the breathtaking cleverness of the author and nod along with his/her command of the language, whereas commercial fiction strives to keep the reader turning pages.
I have no problem with either type of fiction as a reader. I enjoy literary when I want to engage my brain. I enjoy commercial when I want to pass time in a pleasant, if perhaps, vacant, manner.
They both have their place. But not really in earning a decent living on Amazon from writing. Because, like it or not, Amazon readers are largely commercial fiction readers, not scholarly types looking for the next Blood Meridian.
My counsel is not to write fast to generate dross, but rather to apply yourself many hours per day to generate the most polished possible example of what you’re trying to create. Fast does not necessarily equate to bad, just as slow doesn’t equate to good. As with all things, it depends.
I will note that the defenders of literary fiction are almost entirely folks who don’t earn their livings writing. Perhaps that says something about its commercial appeal. Or perhaps that’s just the folks who email me. Or both. I see no reason to defend either type of literature – they’re both valid, depending on the desired outcome. Perhaps if one feels the need to defend their approach, they’re more emotionally invested in their approach than they are satisfied with its outcome? I don’t defend outlining, as an example. I recommend it as a way to save time where you’re staring out the window trying to determine what comes next as the story progresses. Some love that part of the writing experience, and that’s fine – but it’s also self-indulgent, in that it’s because the author loves the sensation, rather than because it makes for a more efficient novel writing experience. I’ve seen no evidence that my plotted novels are any worse or better than my pantsed novels – but I know the pantsed novels took three times as long to draft.
So when I recommend something, I’m doing so from experience, coming from the perspective of someone who is interested in efficiency of content creation, not how content creators feel about content creation. I could certainly argue I feel better writing 500 words a day than writing 5000, but nobody really cares when it comes time to cash the checks at the end of the month.
I approach content creation pragmatically. I want to generate the highest quality work I can within the commercial range, and do so with as little inefficiency as possible. So my advice is directed at those who wish to do the same. Not at those who wish to write To Kill a Mockingbird. For those whose hearts lie down the literary path, perhaps taking years on a draft is a worthwhile expenditure of their time. I have no truck with that. But it’s not a recipe for midlist authors to earn a good living. As long as one’s comfortable with that, no worries. But many aren’t, hence the frustration and the desire to defend.
You won’t find me writing any literary fiction authors defending my fast, commercial approach to genre fiction writing. It would be silly. I say write what you like, be realistic about the outcome you’re likely to achieve with your approach, and do it for the love of the work, because that’s likely all you’re going to get out of it besides carpal tunnel syndrome and a fat ass.
Or so I’ve heard.
Another way of looking at it from a pragmatic sense is to calculate what your time is worth, and ask yourself whether that extra 100 hours on fourth draft is likely to produce anything appreciably different than what you have on third. Perhaps it will, and perhaps, if your time is worth $50 an hour, you’ll see $5K extra in revenue for your effort. But at some point, there are diminishing returns, and only you know what those are.
Be nice to each other in the new year, and remember that it’s all good. There’s no one right way to write anything. Or if there is, nobody can agree on it, which is the same thing.
It’s Xmas, and today, JET volume X – Incarceration, releases, which is a sort of miracle in itself, in that I’d decided to end the series with installment nine. But readers guilt tripped me into continuing it, so you have nobody but yourselves to blame.
Having said that, it’s a barn burner of a book that follows Jet on another adventure, running from ruthless adversaries while seeking to turn the tables and bring the pain. Fans of the series should find everything they love about it in this volume, which is one of my faves, now that I’ve had a chance to reread it with fresh eyes.
To all my readers, thanks for supporting me yet another year. I have some pretty cool surprises in store for 2016, none of which I can talk about just yet, but all of which are as unexpected as a Kardashian doing charity work. Be nice to each other over the holidays, and remember that the liver is the most forgiving organ in the body, mostly.
Happy Holidays, one and all. Be nice to each other.
Actually, two days ago makes 54 months. But still.
*** NEWS *** I just did a podcast with Joanna Penn for The Creative Penn, wherein I was philosophical and pragmatic about this crazy writing business. Authors might find it of interest. Interview starts at about the 18 minute mark. ***
I published my first tome four and a half years ago. Little did I know that writing would become my full time gig. For which I’m enormously grateful to my readership, which seems willing to humor me and consume my books at the rate I produce them.
If it gets much better than that, I don’t know how.
I mean, sure, I can imagine better. Twins. A big boat paid for by a recently deceased uncle. More money than the Vatican. Eternal life. My enemies and detractors crushed beneath my boots as I mock their misfortune. I can dream pretty big.
But this ain’t half bad.
A lot’s changed for me over that four and a half years. I’ve appeared on The NY Times and USA Today lists at least a dozen times. I’ve penned close to 50 novels, a few of which are even readable, depending upon whom you ask. I still enjoy getting up in the morning and getting to work. All except the getting up part. Why lie?
A new year is coming up fast, and it’s sure to be filled with surprises. The business will probably get even tougher. New names will hit big and will spawn a host of imitators. Trads will release hundreds of thousands of books that do zip. Indies will do the same. Nobody will see the next big thing coming until it hits, and then will nod sagely and assure everyone they completely understand why it went parabolic. The world will keep turning, and much ado will be made about what, in retrospect, will turn out to be nothing.
In other words, not much different than usual.
I’m slowing my production to 5 or 6 novels in 2016, taking more time to smell a few roses (code for problem drinking and helping women of loose morals see the error of their ways). Whether I manage to do so is unknown, but it would be a pretty frigging boring trip if we knew the outcome to anything in advance. Except the lottery. That would be totally metal.
So that’s the state of my union as we near egg nog season. I keep pounding the keys, and my joy at turning a phrase or plotting a twist has never been greater.
Which is one of the best rewards I can imagine.
Except, maybe, the twins. Or the lottery.
Somewhere, there are anonymous men gathered in a room, behind closed doors, figuring out how to keep people terrified so they can more easily fleece and control them.
Somewhere, there are big brains calculating how to convince people that they must kill aggressively to avoid danger, even as they must abdicate their rights in order to be safe, and that this time is different than all the other times when the identical dogma turned out to be false.
Somewhere, there are teams deciding what will get reported, and how, in order to achieve agendas that are 100% devoted to eliminating the population’s freedom in order to better profit.
Somewhere, there are people working to convince everyone that ignorance is strength, that war is peace, that entities designed to do nothing but be ruthlessly profitable and powerful, at the direct expense of the population, are acting in our best interests, and not their own.
Somewhere, there are men strategizing the best way to make everyone feel separate from everyone else, and to ignore the common material we are all made of lest it be harder for them to foment hate.
Somewhere, there are teams discussing how best to convince us that “they” don’t love their kids and want better lives for them, and that “they” hate us because we do.
Somewhere, there are bright fellows chartered with excusing our atrocities, because when we perform them, it’s good, but when others do the same it’s inexcusable.
Somewhere, someone is devoted to convincing zealots that their fairy tales are the truth, and everyone else’s fairy tales are ludicrous and hateful.
Somewhere, there is an active push to make questioning government narratives with any skepticism a kind of lunacy, which ignores the countless times government has lied in order to protect its power, manipulate the population, and protect the interests of rich elites.
Somewhere, there is a group whose sole function is to create a myth of a glorious past where we were virtuous and good and prosperous because of our natural superiority, and that all we need to do is return to that mythical past to become great again. This has always been a popular way to convince the masses to do the unthinkable and submit to a distorted vision that’s pure invention.
Somewhere, there are people who honestly believe that the answers to nuanced, complicated questions are simple, and can be explained in seconds, and that they, who struggle to work their TV remote, know the answers.
Somewhere, there are think tanks coming up with palatable excuses to kill millions while making the public feel their manipulated blood lust is justified and reasonable.
Somewhere, men are working to convince us that the rampant abuses of power documented in the past were an aberration, and that they can be trusted not to abuse their power yet again.
Somewhere, people are plotting to convince us that eating toxic food, living in deterministic wage slavery, and marching in lockstep behind the dictator du jour is patriotic and good, not craziness.
Somewhere, the idea that the police, military, and political apparatus work for us, and don’t dictate terms like masters to serfs, got badly mangled.
Somewhere, there is a group devoted to assuring us that our air, water, land, and property, really belong to them, and we’re lucky we’re allowed to use it at all.
Somewhere, there is a team that’s decided who is expendable, who must obey the laws they write but don’t themselves care about, and who must be silenced in order for them to prevail.
Somewhere, there is someone reading this whose vision is clouded with rage at the ideas expressed.
Somewhere, there is someone nodding their head in agreement.
Somewhere, there is a group devoted to convincing us that it’s best not to get involved, that change is impossible, and that striving to be better is pointless.
Somewhere along the way the idea that “we” are more important than “them” transitioned from madness to undisputed fact.
Somewhere, someone decided that it matters more how we appear, than how we behave.
Somewhere in the process we decided that being rich and powerful were more important than being compassionate and just.
Somewhere, someone is pretending to give a shit, but couldn’t care less.
Somewhere, a group of powerful men are laughing because they have convinced most that they don’t, that they can’t, exist, that none of this could never happen, and that the world is a benign place where evil men cannot do evil in the name of good – which requires us to ignore all history recorded since the dawn of time.