Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The Red Queen’s guide to writing

with 2 comments

One of the buried themes of this blog over the past year has been the ongoing, and not entirely intentional, acceleration of my writing process. The Icon Thief took about two years to write, revise, and sell. Its sequel, City of Exiles, was written in less than nine months, not counting a few extra weeks at the end for revision and copy-editing. And while I tried to negotiate a little more wriggle room for The Scythian, I’m still slated to deliver it about nine months from the day I signed the contract, which, when you take other projects into account, is even less time than it sounds. I don’t necessarily mind the compressed schedule: it’s forced me to be smarter and more efficient in how I plan these books, and as a result, I’ve learned a lot as a writer. I’ve even begun to take a certain pride in my productivity, and until recently, I held on to the hope that I’d eventually be able to scale back to the comfortable pace of a novel a year.

Or so I thought. These days, however, the consensus in publishing seems to be that a novel a year is far too slow, and even a novel every nine months is nothing special. A recent article by Julie Bosman in the New York Times points out that mainstream novelists are increasingly being compelled to publish two or more books every year, both because of competition with other kinds of content and in an attempt to keep a writer’s name in the public eye. The enormous popularity of series fiction has taught publishers the importance of building an audience with successive books, rather than betting everything on one big, self-contained novel every few years. This makes a lot of sense for individual writers—and it’s certainly had a surprising influence on my own career—but when everyone is doing it, the advantage disappears. As Lee Child observes, with a nod to Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen: “It seems like we’re all running faster to stay in the same place.”

Of course, mainstream novelists have always felt pressure to work at a fast pace. Agatha Christie referred to herself as “a perfect sausage machine,” and, at her peak, she produced two novels a year with clockwork regularity. In his book Writing Popular Fiction, published in 1972, Dean Koontz casually notes that a novelist who can produce “only” one or two category novels every year will never know real financial security, and that “half a dozen novels per annum” are the minimum for a comfortable lifestyle. Koontz, in his prime, was more than capable of writing a category novel in a week, and he was so prolific that he published under multiple pen names, out of his publisher’s concern that he would saturate the market—a fear that seems positively quaint in the days of the likes of James Patterson, who turns out something like twelve books a year with an army of co-writers, forcing the rest of us to struggle to catch up.

The trouble is that once a novelist, or any artist, has begun to produce at a certain rate, it’s all but impossible to pull back, at least not without alienating readers who have grown used to the ability to buy a new book by their favorite author (or brand name) multiple times every year. And it’s ultimately impossible for a writer to maintain that kind of pace forever, at least not without outside help. It isn’t hard to imagine a publishing landscape divided between a handful of big brands, often assisted by ghostwriters, and independent authors working vainly to keep up with the endless demand for content that this environment creates—if we aren’t there already. In the short term, it’s good for business, and I don’t blame publishers for trying to maintain their financial viability by any means possible. But as a writer, and reader, I can’t help worrying about where this all ends. As the Red Queen herself says: “If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

Written by nevalalee

May 14, 2012 at 10:21 am

2 Responses

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  1. hahaaha. novel a year? sounds fun, but for me it’s a no no no. i’m a slow-paced writer. more like a frustated writer actually! ahaha. i was just trying to write a novel. And it’s almost a year but i haven’t finished it yet.. tskk. hope i share your talent :)

    Cheers from the Philippines!
    -Gian Carlo

    theDreamCatcher ♥

    May 14, 2012 at 11:18 pm

  2. Writing any novel, no matter how long it takes, is a huge achievement—as long as you finish it. :) Good luck!

    nevalalee

    May 15, 2012 at 8:51 am


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