Monday, July 28, 2008

When One Is Not Enough

It's good to be home. I had almost forgotten what my desk looks like after being away from it for so long, and now I can get back into some kind of routine and complete work on The Lovers. The demands of touring and publicity seem to take increasing amounts of writing time away from me, and already I'm being asked about my plans for next March, which tends to bring out the Irish fatalist in me. ("March? I might be dead by March . . .")

Perhaps it's because I'm so aware of time, and the relative lack of it, that I was struck by comments made recently by a fellow writer, one whom I like and admire a great deal but with whom I differ occasionally, as writers will, on our approaches to what we do. Since his readers were asking for two books a year, he said, this was what he was going to give them. Ask, it seems, and thou shalt receive.

(By contrast, Terry Pratchett was interviewed in the latest issue of the quarterly magazine of the book chain Waterstones, and he commented that the worst thing an author can do is give his readers what they want, since a lot of readers, like a lot of people, generally want the same thing that they got last time. That's fine if you're McDonald's, or Starbucks, but doing the same thing over and over, even with slight variations, tends to result in the slow death of genuine creativity. Anyway, that threatens to move us into slightly different territory, and doesn't apply anyway in this case since we're not talking about repetition but responding to the demands of readers, yet since I read both statements in the same week the sound they made as they collided is still ringing in my ears as I write.)

What interested me about the 'two books in one year' approach was that it seems to be a growing trend in mystery fiction, and a worrying one. Then again, it may simply be the case that because I can't do it, I wonder how anyone else can do it, which may be a fallacious approach to an argument. After all, I can't juggle either, or not terribly well, but I can appreciate a juggler's skill, even if I still don't quite understand how he or she manages not to drop the balls on the ground.

But this isn't juggling: this is writing. As things stand, I can just about manage to write a book annually, in between touring, additional publicity, and the not unimportant pastime of simply having a life. I do write relatively slowly, I suppose. I'm happy with 1000 words each day, although I sometimes write more, but let's call it 5-6000 words each week, just for the sake of argument. My first draft will probably clock in at somewhere between 80 - 100,000 words, and then I write up, rather than down, elaborating on scenes, characters, and dialogue. Resting on the belief that there are no great writers, just great rewriters (or even no adequate writers, just committed rewriters) I keep going over the manuscript from start to finish until I'm reasonably happy to show it to another human being. That process of editing and rewriting is the difference between a book and a draft. I believe that the more rewriting that is done, the better the book will be. And I don't just believe that about my books. I think it's true of every book.

It doesn't take a genius in mathematics to figure out that, if two books a year are being written by the same person, then the time available for each is considerably less than it would be if the writer were simply writing one book annually. It's not halved, exactly, since most writers probably do spend a certain amount of time pfaffing about, and can probably find a little more time to write by cutting down on the hours spent not actually writing. And yet I don't believe that's a good thing either. A lot of writing, or at least the preparation for writing, is done when the writer is not at a desk. Crucial elements of a book, in my experience, often come together in the spaces between the actual physical act of typing it out. It's that time that will be sacrificed in the writing of additional books.

More to the point, there will be less time to edit, fewer days to leave the latest draft to stew on the back burner. I think it was Hemingway who suggested that a writer should place a manuscript in a box when it was completed and not look at it for a year. Increasingly, though, there are barely enough hours to put the manuscript in a box and leave it overnight before mailing it to the publisher. There will also be less time for the editor to consider the version of the book that is finally delivered. The pressure on the publisher - even if it's a welcome pressure, since a second book in a year by a successful writer will do wonders for the publisher's bank balance - increases. The whole process accelerates, to the detriment, I can't help but feel, of the finished novel.

Those who seek to defend such profligacy might point to Dickens, or Trollope, or even, if they're really without shame, Shakespeare, who were no shirkers when it came to churning out manuscripts. The simple answer, as in most such situations where their names are mentioned, is that most of us are not in that league. In fact, when it comes to Dickens and Shakespeare in particular, nobody is, and it's unlikely that anyone will ever be again.

At the other end of the scale, the prolific in our genre might point to the pulp writers of the twenties and thirties, who produced huge amounts of work on a weekly basis. Fine. Name them. More particularly, name the ones who are still in print, whose books and stories have survived, whose tales are regarded as significant or valuable, who are, not to put too fine a point on it, still widely read. In general, when it comes to writing, quantity is inversely proportionate both to quality and longevity. The exceptions are precisely that: exceptions. There is no rule to be proved by them, because they tend to be exceptional in many other ways too. That's not to say that a writer will not, occasionally, be able to produce two works of quality in a short period of time. We may, if we're lucky, be struck by flashes of inspiration. We will sometimes have burst of energy and creativity that astonish even ourselves, but that's all they are: bursts. By their nature, they can't be sustained.

Mystery writers in particular are already regarded as prolific, given the widespread expectation of a book a year among readers and publishers, and a certain element of peer pressure; after all, if one's fellow writers are producing a book a year, then one's instinct is to keep up with the pack. The prolific nature of the genre's practitioners is probably one of the reasons why it has always struggled to achieve the kind of critical approval given to literary fiction whose practitioners tend, by their nature, to produce fewer books.

Increasingly, though, there does seem to be an additional subtle pressure on mystery writers to increase output. It comes from readers, to a degree, as is clear from the response of the writer mentioned in the first paragraph. There is the historical precedent, based on those early writers who were paid, in many cases, by the word or by the story, and were paid poorly. One might also point to the example of, say, James Patterson - although there arises in his case the distinction between someone who is intimately involved in the process of producing a book, and the physical act of writing every word of it - or a writer like Tom Clancy, who effectively licenses his name so that others can do the manual labour. The question of authorship becomes blurred in such cases, and deliberately so, sometimes to an absurd extreme. How many readers, one wonders, still believe that Virginia Andrews is alive and writing in an attic somewhere? What is the connection, apart from the Bourne brand, between the late Robert Ludlum and the books now being produced with Ludlum's name rendered conspicuously large upon the cover?

Financial issues also arise. After all, most writers don't make a great deal of money from their work, and many support themselves with a regular job. Two books means twice the income. Then again, if someone is holding down a regular job, the task of writing even one book a year, and editing it properly, is likely to be difficult. The natural conclusion, then, is that one needs to be a full-time writer to produce more than a book each year, if one is to do it even reasonably well, and if you're a full-time writer then you probably don't need the money that much. Don't get me wrong: everybody needs money, and everybody would like a little more than they have. Some people just need it more than others, that's all.

But, as I've said already, it may be that, because I really do have to put a great effort into sticking to that target of a book each year and meeting the other demands on my time, I expect others to struggle too. Every writer is different, and I may just be among the slower, or more painstaking, of the pack when it comes to creating a book. For someone with more discipline than I have, or with greater talent or tenacity - and all three qualities apply to the author who made the statement that sparked this column - two books a year may not be such a great burden.

But three books a year? Four? It's being done by some, but at what price in terms of quality? Can a writer producing three or four books each year really be delivering little more than a first draft? Questions, questions. Which reminds me: I have a book to write.


This week John read

Phantom Prey by John Sandford
Night by Elie Wiesel
The Last Hero by Terry Pratchett

and listened to

Pacific Ocean Blue by Dennis Wilson
Fleet Foxes by Fleet Foxes