Thursday, January 04, 2007

On Being (Relatively) Prolific

I recently had a conversation with an Irish writer, one whose work I admire a lot, and the subject of being prolific came up. This writer calculated that, at her current rate of progress, she might manage to get nine books written in her lifetime. She liked to take her time, to mull over her work, and couldn't imagine writing at a faster rate, however much she might like to. That was fine, I thought. She's a very fine writer, and if it takes three years to produce work of such quality, then that's how long it takes.

Mind you, I did feel a bit embarrassed. Even if I'm struck down by a bolt of lightning tomorrow, my ninth book will be published this year. Compared to her, I was knocking them out at quite a rate. I wondered if I should be writing at a slower pace. Then again, it wasn't like I was writing tens of thousands of words each day. As it happens, I do write quite slowly, but I write a little almost every day. I also do lots of other things, like drink coffee, read books, watch DVDs (I have, I must confess, watched an entire series of Battlestar Galactica this week. It was a gift, and I was a bit dubious about it when I received it but, frankly, I'm hooked. My bad.), annoy those dear to me, and generally live a full, if sometimes dull, life. If I were to write any more slowly, I wouldn't be doing anything at all.

The issue seems pertinent in light of Thomas Harris's Hannibal Rising. I had to review it for The Irish Times, and was rather looking forward to it. After all, it was Harris, it had taken years to write, and I was one of that rare breed who was willing to mount a fairly reasoned defence of the much maligned Hannibal.

Hannibal Rising is a very peculiar book, and appeared seven years after Hannibal. I suspect, from reading reviews, that it didn't live up to expectations, mine included. Had Harris really spent seven years writing this book, and did that, in some way, work against him? Were expectations too high? After all, it does seem to me that there is sometimes a tendency to judge a book by the length of time that it took to write, as if there were some direct correllation between time and quality. Had Hannibal Rising appeared a year after Hannibal, would the critical knives used upon it have been quite so sharp?

(Perhaps, too, such matters eventually reach a kind of critical mass in certain cases, so that the time spent on the production of a work actually mitigates against a favorable reception. Why would J.D. Salinger even bother to publish now even if he has, as some suggest, been writing away for all these years and locking the results in a safe. No matter what he produces, it will never be good enough to justify decades of non-publication.)

I recall reading Donna Tartt's The Secret History and, like most of those who read it, I loved it. A decade later came The Little Friend and, while it was impressive in parts, it didn't seem to me that there was a decade of progress in the writing. To be honest, I don't think it's as good a book as her debut, although there is much to admire in it. The same could be said about Hannibal, which is also separated from its predecessor, The Silence of the Lambs, by a decade or thereabouts. What, the reader might legitimately wonder, was Harris doing for that period? Was he slowly, painstakingly, creating Hannibal, and did he follow it with another seven years of toil on Hannibal Rising? Perhaps so, but the effort does not seem to me to have been matched by the quality of the finished book in either case. Hannibal has fewer flaws than Hannibal Rising, but after seventeen years such judgements seem rather relative.

Charles Dickens would have been appalled by such a workrate. Between 1837 and 1841, which included a period of two years during which he edited Bentley's Miscellany, he published Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, Barnaby Rudge, and The Old Curiosity Shop in monthly installments. These are not small books. He wrote to put bread on the table, to satisfy the demands of his readers and, one imagines, because he rather liked writing.

Dickens was unusually productive, even for his time, and I doubt that there will never be another writer like him, one capable of combining quantity with a quality touched by genius, but there is something to be said for taking his application to his craft as a model. I suspect that Dickens learned, not just from writing, but from the act of publishing, of writing with a publication deadline in mind that forced him not to lose sight of the forest for the trees. Human beings, after all, learn not just from the tasks that they carry out, but the tasks that they complete. Only then can success or failure be judged, and a lesson learned from the process.

Looking back, I spent the best part of five years working on my first book before it was published. In theory, I could still be working on it now, making changes and improvements to the manuscript, yet I doubt that the book would be significantly better for them. I took what I had learned, and applied it to the book that followed, and I think I have been doing that ever since. Whether readers notice or not is another matter, but I notice. With each book that I complete, I learn something new and so, slowly, I progress.

I suppose this is a mild attempt to defend the prolific, or the relatively prolific. In the end, what matters is that a writer produces his or her best work in whatever time it takes to write it, whether that is one year or ten years. We all work at different paces, and if, at the end, a book emerges with which the author can be content, then the pace has been appropriate. When I look at the little shelf of books that bear my name, I feel reasonably happy with what I have achieved. When each was handed over to my publishers, it represented the best that I could do at that time, and I don't think any of them would have been significantly better for another five or ten years of labor. I don't think that even one would have made much difference.

I guess, when it comes down to it, I'm just not a ten year kind of guy.

Recently John has read

Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett
Perfume by Patrick Suskind
A Spy by Nature by Charles Cumming
Next by Michael Crichton
The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke

and has listened to

Mend by De Rosa
Holy Heathens and The Old Green Man by Watterson-Carthy
Ys by Joanna Newsom
Coins & Crosses by Ryan Teague


alldewater said...

The same thing happened to me with Battlestar Galactica. Oh well.

On the topic, do you suppose some writers really only have one good book in them?

Mark said...

I wonder about this. I'm a rapid writer, which is good, because I make a living freelancing as well as writing novels. In 2006 in addition to publishing the first in the Derek Stillwater series, I wrote the third, as well as another novel that we're shopping around, and another 100 pages of a misguided novel proposal as well as invoiced 200 times for articles, book reviews and such.

When it comes to this topic, I often think of the late William Styron, who reportedly took 22 years to write "Sophie's Choice." Granted, "Sophie's Choice" was brilliant, but 22 years? I'm sure the clinical depression slowed him down, but it seems to me that comes to about half a word a day.

I'm unlikely, even if I took 22 (or even 44) years to write a novel, that it would be as close to the genius of "Sofie's Choice," but I'll just have to content myself with the stories I'm capable of writing in a relative matter of months.

Mark Terry

Tim said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Tim said...

I wonder if writers such as Tart and Harris had trouble following up on their success. I mean so much was expected out of their next novels. That can very daunting--I'm only guessing, since I'm not published--but to have such expections thrown at them...well, the pressure must have been tough.

I'm wondering if it changed how they wrote.

Debi said...

I think the danger for a writer, musician or indeed any artist who works in five to ten year cycles (sometimes longer) lies in letting go of your public.

Whilst waiting for further projects attention is diverted, people discover new interests and pursuits, tastes develop and sometimes change. When the creator returns the constant reader, listener pays heed out of loyalty, curiosity or simply because previous material resonated in some way. It can be disappointing if the new publication doesn't appear to have progressed much beyond work that preceeded it. Though we feel we have moved on it can seem as if the artist stuck in the garret has remained oblivious of all change. The connection is lost and emotional engagement becomes largely a thing of the past.

In striving for a kind of perfection it is entirely possible to over-think and overwork an idea so that it becomes flat and lifeless. Better to let each piece become what it will, take note of the lessons it teaches, go forward and apply what has been learnt to the next project. Keep things moving and there's less chance of stagnation.

I'm so glad you are 'not a ten year kind of guy', John. Yes, you are prolific, but quality is evident too. Nothing is lost in working at the pace that best suits you. Long may your writing continue to feed your expectations and give you what you require.

I'm wishing Thomas Harris would let go of Hannibal now. For me he was never his most interesting creation.

I'm rather likng Ms Newsom's 'Ys'.

May 2007 be kind to you and yours. Hope it brings some of life's nicer surprises your way.


Debi. x

Josh said...

I've been diving through BSG as well once my roommates brought season 1 and 2 home on DVD.

As for churning out books and other writerly activity on the richter scale...maybe a factor is also "why" that author is writing. Those wanting to make a feasible career out of it usually need to have a rather steady rate of bringing out new titles to keep their reputation and sales and audience growing. Or maybe those first books are just a single goal they wanted to achieve in their life...they never really wanted to make writing their sole focus, and so moved on to other pursuits until a new story percolated in their heads.

People enjoy those writers who are consistent and don't disappear for decades at a time. I also believe that the constant working the craft, audience interaction and so on keeps up the passion an author can have for their work, so, as the others have mentioned, the story doesn't tend to stagnate.

KayKay said...

The fact that Hannibal Rising the novel precedes the movie by a mere 3 months (Rottentomatoes gives a tentative release date of Feb 9th) is an indicator that this latest Lecter installment saw first light as a screenplay and was then fleshed out to novel length by Harris. So I doubt if this book had the lengthy gestation period that Hannibal had (it's unlikely that Harris spent 7 yrs banging away on a screen draft) and the results show. In his new foreword to Red Dragon, Harris writes about "letting Lecter and Clarice go" in Hannibal. With movie studios still seeing life in this lucrative Cash Cow, that may be easier said than done.

Ruby.Sparkle said...

I am just an average joe, I have been reading your books now I have some free time, I read The white Road first and then read Every dead thing and Dark Hollow.Juat about to atart The killing kind and decided to check the website to make sure I am reading in the right order!
I hope you continue to write at your current rate. I think your books are fantastic, Well done you!

Evel said...

Happy (Inter)National De-Lurking Week from Nova Scotia, Canada.

adrienne said...

And I too will step from the shadows in honour of national de-lurking week, thanks for the reminder evel (go Canada!).

I really love this post as this is something I often think about (though, um, obviously not about me personally). I don't think being prolific and being a great writer are necessarily mutually exclusive. But I really don't need to elaborate on why as you have done quite a lovely job at it already.

Anyway, thanks for the blog, I'm a big fan of it and visit a few times a week in the hopes you've written something new. You think before you write, and that is very very refreshing.

cs harris said...

I suspect books that stir deeper thoughts require time to gestate. Books that are plot-driven, action based "fun" reads can be written much faster. You are amazingly prolific for the fist type of writer, yes; but some writers in the second category turn out 10 or 12 books a year. They appeal to a different type of audience--or perhaps some of the same audience in a different mood.

Fiendish said...

I wonder about this.

Is it possible to be both tearingly prolific, so much so that you're producing a quantity of work that even your most loyal friends can't keep up with, and also go months without picking up the metaphorical pen?

I seem to do it all the time. It's like a sort of writing bipolarism.

Strange, that. I suspect that, while it doesn't bother me now, it would begin to should I ever hope to make a living from it.