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


Ladyred56 said...

Don't you dare change a thing about the way you write! Your books are excellent and well worth the wait! I have been madly in love with Charlie Parker since I read your first book.

TomH said...

I learned a very long time ago that life is about quality. The whole of it has very little to do with 'quantity'. A factory style approach to art is nothing less than a turning away from the very nature of it.

normski-beat said...

I think you can tell when a writer has taken time, immersed themselves in the creative process and NOT rushed out conveyor belt style books. Such books, like your own, are a pleasure to read and re-read.

The problem comes when an author, of which you are NOT one, takes a lifetime to produce a novel and its still rubbish.

The waiting is frustrating, but well worth it.

TomH said...

I believe Dylan Thomas had it right when he said: Do not go gently into that good night.
There is time enough for 'that', and until then it is probably best that each of us 'rage against the dying of light'.
If obvious talent is there it is probably best that boundaries be extended. If 'two' of anything can be done in equal time and as well as 'one' of the same, then why not.

Anti-Room said...

This is my first time posting here although I'm a long-time lurker. Interesting post. Sounds like you have your hands full enough with writing one book a year, doing months of publicity and, oh yes, having a life too.

I think most readers would prefer to read one very good book by their favourite writer in a year, than two, three or four mediocre, unfinished and disappointing books by the same writer. Readers appreciate quality and don't mind waiting for it.

Have been listening to Fleet Foxes and Dennis Wilson all this week too (along with the Bon Ivor record) and they have been providing the perfect soundtrack to this weird bittersweet summer.

Fiona said...

It is a truly sad creature who reads books by only one author, or confines his or her reading to a single genre. I truly enjoy your books, John. I also smirk a little at the reported tedium of the publicity tour. Inbetween, I enjoy other writers, many of whom you also admit to reading. James Lee Burke, Deaver, etc. There are sufficient excellent novelists creating stories to keep me occupied and to divert me from writing myself. I'm too busy to put fingers to keys and bare my own soul to every person with ten euros. Thank you again for your bravery and chutzpah.

GingerZilla said...

Hi John,
Excellent and true words. I do read some writers who have a rather phenomenal output and their work tends to be read once and forgotten a quickly - a bit like watching a rom/com that‘s easy on the brain and unlikely to be viewed again. Those writers who take the time to put tlc into their work produce something which is far more long lasting and be read time and again. Every Dead Thing was one of those novels - a lesser writer would have finished it halfway whereas you took it to another level. My mum & I love your work and although we are always impatient for the next novel, they are worth the wait. In fact the only criticism she has is that there are not enough killings(?!), whereas I love the rich interplay between the characters and the way you bring Maine to life (even if the body count is low!).
Anyway all the best and I look forward to the next book - when it gets here!

Eamon said...

Hi John,

One book a year is great!! You are head and shoulders above most other writers anyway, so let them do what they want. Like you say, a lot of writers (e.g. Jeffrey Deaver, Coben) seem to be churning them out these days, and I think the quality has definitely suffered. There are a few great writers out there (yourself, Jim Burke, Pelecanos, Block, M.Connelly, P.Straub, S.King, Ellory, Ellroy) and that means we have a new book to look forward to every few months from someone (although I'm not sure what the story with Ellroy is these days!!). Anyway, a new John Connolly book is always a good excuse to revisit some of your previous books, so one new book a year seems great to me. Time isn't what it used to be anyway, as King says 'it has grown thin', and it seems to be speeding up like an out of control film projector. It seems like yesterday when I was having coffee with you in Galway for the Reapers tour, I have no doubt it will feel like tomorrow when you are back for The Lovers. So, all I'm trying to say is one book a year sounds good to most of us, I think.

cs harris said...

I've committed myself to two books a year (for the, ah, money--private colleges aren't cheap) and I'd like to slit my wrists. You're right, it isn't just the writing time, it's the thinking/feeling/mulling/now-I-understand-what's-wrong time that's so important, and that gets shorted.

Reader said...

"Always Leave Them Wanting More", "Don't Spread Yourself Too Thin", "Don't Overstay Your Welcome" and lastly "Quality NOT Quantity" These old sayings survive because they contain a great universal truths that do not change. I basically agree with previous comments.

John, I am glad to hear that there is no chance in hell that you are in any immediate danger of succumbing to the publishing or fan pressure to morph into a James Patterson. Early Patterson was excellent. Now that he's basically prostituting himself with this conveyor belt mentality, he is considered costume jewelry among the precious gems. I'm certain that my opinion or that of any other serious reader of mystery/thriller genre matter not one iota to him while he's cashing his huge checks. But, there are far too many good books and too little time to waste one's time on the mediocre formula pablum.

Josephine Damian said...

"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."

I too have noticed the two-books-a-year trend (three? four? God help us!). A certain agent I won't name (specializes in thrillers) seems to have all his scribes on a blistering two-book/yr. schedule.

I notice a lot of these scribes are cracking under the pressure, getting across-the-board bad reviews for having phoned-in/badly plotted-written books.

Also hear a lot more more about writers having heart attacks and strokes, and at a relatively young age (and usually in the middle of a promotional tour). Writers need to not be afraid to put their foot down, for what good are increased sales (assuming you have them from
writing quickly written, bad books), if you drop dead on a book tour.

Readers be damned, books are not M&Ms - I'd rather have a great book every few years from my favorite authors than some easily devoured piece of junk.

cc harrison said...

You and the manager at my local Verizon store are the only other people I know (of) who are familiar with Fleet Foxes!

Interesting blog especially because I, too, am a slow writer, but have set a goal of two books this year. So far, I'm on track. (New book out next year - PICTURE OF LIES.)