Killing Sacred Cows in Publishing: Speed
This is the first chapter, actually not the actual first chapter, but a chapter in a book I am putting together called Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing. Given time, this will all come together and be sold in New York somewhere.
A good alternate title for this book might be Killing the Myths of Publishing. Over the years in teaching young professional writers and talking with more experienced professional writers, it has become clear to me that there are some huge myths about the publishing industry and creative fiction writing in general.
Kris (Kristine Kathryn Rusch) and I have made it a mission to knock down some of these myths when we go to writer’s conferences and in our workshops here. And the reaction is always in a range between “Now I understand” to anger and name-calling when the myth we try to dislodge is a central belief of a writer.
That said, I don’t expect everyone to agree with my positions here, and I welcome comments, which on some of these posts is half the fun, and will help direct me and allow me to talk about other sacred cows (myths) as time goes on. But remember before you yell at me in anger, I have sold over 90 novels in just about every genre and been making a living writing fiction for over 20 years now. I have also been a publisher and an editor. So make your arguments reasonable.
With all that said, here we go after the first sacred cow.
Speed of writing.
Or said in myth fashion: WRITING SLOW EQUALS WRITING WELL.
Or the flip side: WRITING FAST EQUALS WRITING POORLY.
This comes out of everyone’s mouth at one point or another in a form of apology for our work. “Oh, I just cranked that off.”
Or the flip side… “This is some of my best work. I’ve been writing it for over a year.”
Now this silly idea that the writing process has anything at all to do with quality of the work has been around in publishing for just over 100 years now, pushed mostly by the literature side and the college professors and made worse by the pulp magazine era. It has no basis in any real fact when it comes to writers. None. If you don’t believe me, start researching how fast some of the classics of literature were written.
But don’t ask major professional writers out in public. Remember we know this myth and lie about how really hard we do work. (Yup, that’s right, someone who makes stuff up for a living will lie to you. Go figure.) So you have to get a long-term professional writer in a private setting. Then maybe with a few drinks under his belt the pro will tell you the truth about any project.
So, let me put out my position clearly right up front and then discuss this topic.
My position: NO WRITER IS THE SAME. NO PROJECT IS THE SAME.
And put simply: THE QUALITY OF THE FINAL PRODUCT HAS NO RELATIONSHIP TO THE SPEED, METHOD, OR FEELING OF THE WRITER WHILE WRITING.
That’s right, one day I could write some pages feeling sick, almost too tired to care, where every word is a pain, and the next day I write a few more pages feeling good and the words flowing freely and a week later I won’t be able to tell which day was which from the writing. How I feel when I write makes no difference to the quality of what I produce. None. Damn it, it should, but it just doesn’t.
And I just laugh when a myth like this one attempts to lump all writers into the same boat and make us all write exactly the same way book after book after book. No writer works the same, even from book to book or short story to short story. Talk to any writer, and I mean privately, getting them to tell you the truth, not the public line, and you will discover that one of the writer’s books was written quickly, maybe even in a few weeks, while another book took the writer a half year to finish and he was deathly ill during half the writing time. And you, as a reader, reading the two books, would never be able to tell the difference.
But yet, New York publishing, college professors, and just about anyone who even thinks about the writer behind the words has a belief system that words must be struggled over to be good. Well, yes, sometimes.
And sometimes not.
Sometimes a writer gets into a white-hot heat and a book flows faster than the writer can type, getting done in just a number of days or weeks. And sometimes it just doesn’t work that way.
Sometimes a writer has a deadline to hit and pushes to hit it, writing fast. Some writers think and research a book for a few months, then write it in a few weeks. Some writers spend a month or two on a detailed outline, then take a month to actually write the book. Some writers start with a title, some write chapters out of order and then put it all together like a puzzle. And on and on and on.
Every writer is different. Every writer’s method is different
There is no correct, mandated way to write a book.
For a moment let me talk about why the myth of writing slow to write better actually hurts writers.
There are two sides of our brains. The creative side and the critical side. The creative side has been taking in stories since the writer started reading, knowing how to put words together at a deep level. The critical side lags far, far behind the creative side, learning rules that some English teacher or parent forced into the critical mind. The creative side is always a much better writer than the critical side. Always. It never switches, no matter how long you write.
Long term (20 years and up) professional writers have learned to trust that creative side and we tend to not mess much with what it creates for us. Of course, this lesson for most of us was learned the hard way, but that’s another long post.
A new writer who believes the myth that all good fiction must be written slowly and labor-intensive (called work) suddenly one day finds that they have written a thousand words in 25 minutes. The new writer automatically thinks, “Oh, my, that has to be crap. I had better rewrite it.”
What has just happened is that the top writing the creative side of the mind had just produced is then killed by the critical side, dumbed down, voice taken out, anything good and interesting removed. All caused by this myth.
And professional agents and editors in New York are no better, sadly. I once got a rewrite request on a major book. I agreed with about 9/10’s of the suggestions so spent the next day rewriting the book, fixing the problems, and was about to send the manuscript back when Kris stopped me. The conversation went something like this:
“Don’t send it, sit on it a few weeks,” Kris said, looking firm and intense, as only Kris can look.
“Why not?” I asked, not remembering at that moment that the myth was a major part of New York publishing.
“The editor will think you didn’t work on it and that it is crap,” Kris said.
“But I agreed and fixed everything,” I said, starting to catch a clue, but not yet willing to admit defeat.
Kris just gave me that “stare” and I wilted, knowing she was completely correct.
I held the rewrite for three weeks, sent it back with a letter praising the rewrite comments and a slight side comment about how hard I had worked on them. Story ended happily because Kris remembered the myth and how it functions.
Now, let me do something that just annoys people, especially in the master classes we teach. I’m going to do the math. (Stop laughing, former students.)
This chapter when finished is going to be around 1,750 words. That is about 7 manuscript pages with each page averaging 250 words per page.
So say I wrote only 250 words, one page per day on a new novel. It takes me about 15 minutes, give-or-take (depending on the book and the day and how I’m feeling) to write 250 words of fiction. So if I spent that 15 minutes per day writing on a novel, every day for one year, I would finish a 90,000 word plus novel, about a normal paperback book, in 365 days.
I would be a one-book-per-year writer, pretty standard in science fiction and a few other genres.
Oh, my, if I worked really, really hard and managed to get 30 minutes of writing in per day, I could finish two novels in a year. And at that speed I would be considered fast. God forbid I actually write four pages a day, spend an entire hour per day, and finish four novels a year. At that point I would be praised in the romance genre and called a hack in other genres.
See why I laugh to myself when some writer tells me they have been working really, really hard on a book and it took them a year to write? What did they do for 23 hours and 45 minutes every day?
The problem is they are lost in the myth. Deep into the myth that writing must be work, that it must be hard, that you must “suffer for your art” and write slowly.
Bull-puckey. Writing is fun, easy, and enjoyable. If you want hard work, go dig a ditch for a water pipe on a golf course in a steady rain on a cold day. That’s work. Sitting at a computer and making stuff up just isn’t work. It’s a dream job.
So, the idea that Writing Slow Equals Writing Better is a complete myth, a nasty sacred cow of publishing that hurts and stops writers who believe it.
The truth is that no two writers work the same and no book is the same as the previous book or the next book. There should be no rule about speed relating to quality at all.
Sadly, this myth is firm in the business, so writers have to learn to work around it, to play the game that teachers, editors, book reviewers, and fans want us to play. On the public front, with every book we write, we must play the game of the myth.
Just don’t do the math about my age. I sold my first novel when I was 38 and have published over 90 novels. At one book per year, I must be at least 128 years old. After my hard page of writing every day, I sometimes feel that way.
Yeah, right. But I stand by that story.
Notice below that I have added onto this series of chapters a donate button where you can donate if you feel these chapters of this upcoming book helped you in some way and you want to keep me writing them. And if you can’t afford to donate, please feel free to pass this article along to others who might get some help from it. Every week I will be adding a new chapter on the myths and sacred cows of publishing. Stay tuned. Upcoming are chapters on rewriting, agents, bestsellers, and so much more. This business has a lot of myths. An entire book full.