When I was shopping for an agent, a question came up with such frequency that I began to ponder its import. It was: How long did it take you to write your first novel? A fairly innocuous question, until you start to appreciate the nature of the business and the author / agent relationship. The swiftness and efficiency in which an author is able to ply their craft greatly increases their marketability.
Writers who take a long time to write typically don’t make a lot of money. Or perhaps I should put it this way — their potential for making money is greatly diminished. Of course, the longer one spends on a story the more chance that story will shine. However, in today’s market, authors that write well don’t seem nearly as attractive as authors that write quickly. Sure, writing slowly is not necessarily an indication of good writing. It could be evidence of laziness, poor time management, or crippling nit-pickiness. But publishers appear to wink at mediocre craft far more easily than they do plodding perfectionism. Ideally, the publishing industry wants authors who (1) Write Quickly and (2) Write Well, in that order.
So I’ve been laboring for several months over a 5,000 word sci-fi style short story (yeah, several MONTHS!) and thinking a lot about my tendency toward tedium. In a way, I cut myself slack because I’m not a professional author. I work a 40-hour a week job outside the home and, like many authors in my situation, must cram writing into an already busy schedule. It’s an accomplishment, I guess, to get two or three small pieces published a year. Nevertheless, I am constantly feeling guilty about being such a slow writer and (apparently) suffering a deficit of efficiency.
So the following interview was a bit of an encouragement…
I first encountered Laird Barron in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror: Seventeenth Annual Collection anthology. I’ve really grown to love his stuff. Mainly short stories, Barron’s prose is dense, his subject matter is a blend of science, arcana, abstract, Lovecraftian horror. Anyway, I went to tracking down more of his work. (In fact, one of my favorites is a piece entitled “Bulldozer” which you can read online free at SciFi.com.) Along the way, I found the following interview with the author interesting.
Clarkesworld asked Laird Barron, among other things, how much revision he typically does for a short story, and when he knows a story is finished. This was his answer:
Revision constitutes most of my writing effort; it’s an obsession. I’ve written and sold fourteen stories over a seven year span, which doubtless says something about how much time I invest in a given project. Generally speaking, getting a story from the initial concept to final draft is a battle. The novella “The Imago Sequence” came in at roughly 20k. To get the 20k I wrote approximately sixty thousand words, and that’s typical of my experience. I tend to write non-sequentially and revise sentence by sentence as I go. It’s a fairly tortuous process, and certainly inefficient compared to the methodology of many pros. Fortunately, I’m in a position to eschew maximum efficiency in favor of indulging an aesthetic ideal.
In my case, the creative process is significantly external; it’s analogous to adjusting a radio dial to apprehend whatever frequency carries the transmission, the particular narrative that I’ve latched onto. Once begun, a great percentage of time involves sifting through the static, searching for that original signal among a hundred other ghost broadcasts. As for when it’s done, I’ll keep adjusting and tweaking details until the story is pried from my fingers by an editor, until it’s published and safely out of my reach.
This idea of finding your “original signal” among “ghost broadcasts” reminds me of Stephen King’s suggestion that stories are pre-existent, like fossils that must be unearthed by an author. But I’ll save that idea for another day. It’s this idea about eschewing “…maximum efficiency in favor of indulging an aesthetic ideal” that got me thinking.
Do these values exist at opposite poles? In other words, do artists constantly struggle to balance “maximum efficiency” against an “aesthetic ideal”? Granted, that tension may be a direct result of the current industry climate. (Did Poe or Austin or Dostoevsky worry about maximum efficiency?) But at some point even the most perfectionistic of writers still wants to actually finish something and move on to something else.
Anyway, Barron’s statement brought to my mind a scale something like this:
MAXIMUM EFFICIENCY………………………………….. AESTHETIC IDEAL
The negative signs are not meant to indicate that an aesthetic ideal is necessarily bad, but that the higher our ideals, the more tedious and time-consuming the process takes to actualize them. Again, that distinction may be artificial. After all, it’s possible to produce a well-written story in a minimal amount of time. It’s just, I haven’t discovered how to do that! That’s why on a scale like the one above, I am definitely in the deep, deep minuses.
Anyway, Barron’s answer gave me a bit of a respite from my incessant guilt. Maybe I shouldn’t feel guilty about taking so long to write. But it begs the question: Should I?