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30 December 2015 by Published in: Uncategorized 25 comments

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.

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Comments

  1. Wed 30th Dec 2015 at 2:23 pm

    I agree completely. Have fun writing, become obsessed with how and why and where, if that’s important. Do the work. Finish. Write “The End” and move forward. Dive into the next story. I’ve heard there are still over a million tales left untold. Happy new year, R!

    Reply
  2. Wed 30th Dec 2015 at 2:40 pm

    I hope you write a literary fiction novel someday. It would be a classic.

    Happy New Year!

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Wed 30th Dec 2015 at 4:11 pm

      You too! Not sure I can afford to produce a classic right now, but I’ll keep it in mind should I win the lottery at some point!

      Reply
  3. Zarayna
    Wed 30th Dec 2015 at 2:47 pm

    Thank you for your considered advice.
    When I got to ‘carpal tunnel syndrome’ and ‘fat ass’ I felt more at home but did wonder one thing. (And if you have answered this elsewhere please forgive me).
    Have you considered using speech recognition software for dictation and transcription? As with most things, I know little of it other than the marketing. I imagine it is still being developed but for someone who is as productive as you, I wonder if it might allow you to either create even more or break up the routine without reducing your literary output.
    On second thoughts, maybe you’d dictate so fast, the software would melt?
    I often have to have my wrists supported and I am a tortoise compared with you but any advice gratefully received.
    Kindest.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Wed 30th Dec 2015 at 2:52 pm

      I can’t dictate. It’s important to me to see how the words flow on the page – gives me a sense of the cadence, and any lyricism I’m able to muster, to visualize how the sentence lay out, and then, the paragraphs. Just the way my brain works.

      Reply
      • Zarayna  –  Wed 30th Dec 2015 at 3:00 pm

        Thanks very much.

        Cadence and lyricism – you’re turning towards the dark, literary side!

        Kindest

        Reply
  4. Wed 30th Dec 2015 at 4:06 pm

    Huh. I always thought literary fiction took a long time because one had to write it with a quill. Shows what I know…

    Happy New Year, mon ami.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Wed 30th Dec 2015 at 4:10 pm

      And to you as well. It will be eventful – of that we can be sure!

      Reply
  5. Albert Benson
    Wed 30th Dec 2015 at 6:03 pm

    I write literary fiction. I didn’t realize it was literary fiction until everyone told me it was crap.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Wed 30th Dec 2015 at 6:45 pm

      Well, then I’ve written my share of it, too! Glass half full…

      Reply
  6. Wed 30th Dec 2015 at 6:59 pm

    Haha! Literary fiction is self-indulgent? As if!
    I mean, the guy who took 20 years to write his novel, and 2 years (or 5 or 10, I can’t remember) just to write the first chapter, well, that must be such an awesome novel. The words aren’t just words – they’re pieces of literary jewellery, hewn from the rock with stone-age tools and polished with sand and grass stems.
    I’m glad Commercial Fiction has a name. It kind of legitimises it, makes it valued, as it should be.

    Reply
  7. Thu 31st Dec 2015 at 3:46 am

    You always say these things so well. I actually slogged through all 800 pages of The Goldfinch and was spellbound by about 500 of them- the test was self indulgent word play in my impatient opinion… Now that I’ve got 20 workerbee novels out there earning for me, I’m tackling my memoir. Because it’s a damn good story. But I’ve been working on it 3 years now, off and on after the first blitzkrieg of getting the bones down. And I have to say, commercial fiction is a breeze compared to crafting 120,000 words, polished, unique and hopefully memorable, about your own life. Talk about self indulgent. And good thing I’m not planning on it being a moneymaker. It’s life. It’s art. We can do both. ? And I’d still love to read yours.

    Reply
    • Zarayna  –  Thu 31st Dec 2015 at 12:35 pm

      Hi Toby,

      Please accept my admiration for even attempting to write a memoir. I sincerely look forward to reading yours. I’m sure it will be interesting and insightful.

      I have awful memories of when I dallied with the idea of writing my own – I ended up wanting to roast my own head.

      Please accept my best wishes and, at this odd time of year with Janus looking both ways, my hopes that you have a very Happy New Year.

      Reply
      • Russell Blake  –  Thu 31st Dec 2015 at 1:18 pm

        I’d write a memoir if I could remember anything but the bad bits. Sigh…

        Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Thu 31st Dec 2015 at 1:17 pm

      You’ll be waiting a long time for mine, I suspect. Each word a glittering diamond, you can be sure. Like staring directly at the sun, only it stares back into you and doesn’t like what it sees.

      Happy NY. Viva self-indulgence!

      Reply
  8. John L. Monk
    Thu 31st Dec 2015 at 9:43 am

    Great read. Curious: did you enjoy Blood Meridian? It’s one of my favorite books.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Thu 31st Dec 2015 at 10:44 am

      Loved some of the language and the cynicism of the frontier. But not an easy read by any stretch. Get your thesaurus ready, and I don’t say that lightly. My hunch is much lit fiction is written by MFAs trying to show other MFAs how smart they are. BM was better than most.

      Reply
  9. Thu 31st Dec 2015 at 11:29 am

    Nicely said. But I think “commercial fiction” can sometimes offer much more than a vacant, entertaining read. Such writers as James Lee Burke, Tony Hillerman, Michael Connelly, Elmore Leonard, and many more offer both subtlety and grace in their prose along with psychological and philosophical insights and reflections on human nature, culture, and our flawed nature as most literary writers. I think it’s what most of us strive to add to our fictions no matter how entertaining we want them to be…

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Thu 31st Dec 2015 at 12:43 pm

      No question they do. JLB is one of my faves. He straddles a line between I aspire to, between literary and commercial. Another is Le Carre. It can be done, but it’s rare, because it often goes over the commercial reader’s head, or worse yet, annoys them at the pretensions of the author. But for the purposes of a clear discussion, literary is more doorstoppers whose primary appeal is the prose, philosophical insights, and characterization, without much, or any, plot getting in the way. Think Joyce, Faulkner, DFW, etc.

      Reply
  10. T
    Fri 01st Jan 2016 at 4:08 pm

    An interesting perspective on writing and a bit scary for a now would have been writer. Luckily, the expectations to become a great writer are sounding very similar to a football enthusiast becoming an NFL quarterback for a super bowl team. Not to mention, the part about carpal tunnel syndrome or gaining a widen posterity. I will stick with my chances of being just an ordinary reader hoping for an ending that’s not predictable. Here’s hoping to all a New Year and many blissful happy endings.

    Reply
  11. Fri 01st Jan 2016 at 10:17 pm

    Writing under 1000 WPH isn’t any fun.
    Also, I must confess I have no idea what literary fiction is. I really don’t. Is it true that any ebook that sells for over $10 is literary fiction? I’ve heard for hardcovers you can buy a special sticker that turns a book into literary fiction. Do you know if we can buy an equivalent logo online for our ebooks? Frankly, I’d call my books literary fiction if it help sales, but the only mailing list for literary fiction readers I could find only contained a couple hundred readers and they all lived in Manhattan, with the exception of a guy named Ralph who lived in Boise. Hard to understand – this literary fiction shit.

    Happy New Years RB! Keep at it.

    Reply
  12. Charlie E.
    Wed 06th Jan 2016 at 11:51 am

    I don’t know if I’m missing the point of this conversation but, why do we have to label everything? I’m as entertained when I read a Russell Blake book as when I read a Stephen King novel or the latest hit by Jo Nesbo. Is it commercial or literary fiction? Did it take a couple of months or five years to write? I really don’t care. As long as the book presents an interesting well-written story, I will enjoy it. I don’t know, maybe when it comes to literature, my taste isn’t as refined or as demanding. I just love to read. So, to all writers out there my suggestion would be to work at your own pace and enjoy it. I truly believe that if one has the talent and puts out a top-quality product in the market, sooner or later it will get the attention it deserves.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Wed 06th Jan 2016 at 1:59 pm

      It’s not about labeling. It’s about having expectations that are in line with whatever genre you’re writing in, and more importantly, questioning how those expectations came about in the first place. Someone hoping to write the next Ulysses is probably not going to see a lot of sales on Amazon, so when they spend 5 years doing it, if that’s their expectation, they’ve got a rude awakening coming.

      Reply
    • Zarayna  –  Wed 06th Jan 2016 at 2:29 pm

      Hello Charlie,
      Thought I would interrupt reading my “Where’s Waldo (Wally) book and lower the tone here.
      I so agree with you – my reading is eclectic – but bow to Mr Blake’s obvious wisdom.
      Nevertheless, it reminded me of something I heard and I thought I would share it with you.
      Many years ago the Australian Government banned a book entitled “Games to Play in Bed.” They had strange expectations – the book was aimed at children recovering from diseases such as scarlet fever and confined to their beds which so bored them.
      Hope you continue to enjoy your reading and also have a happy New Year.
      Kindest regards,

      Reply
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