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Writing for Maximum Efficiency or Aesthetic Ideal

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 tortoise-and-hare.jpginnocuous 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 runner_blur.jpgunearthed 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

+10……………+5……………0……………-5……………-10

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?

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{ 7 comments… add one }
  • Heather August 4, 2008, 7:26 PM

    I recently watched an interview with an author who took 11 yrs between books. Who was it? I wish I remembered!

  • Xdpaul August 4, 2008, 7:58 PM

    Mike,

    We are eternal.

    Take your time.

    I would have posted this earlier, but I had to take it through about six drafts.

  • Jeanne Damoff August 4, 2008, 7:59 PM

    Aesthetic ideal is way more important to me than efficiency. Like Barron, I edit as I go, and if the right word/metaphor/phrase/whatever decides to play hide and seek, I search until I find it before moving on. I’ve always wondered how much I’d be willing to change if I actually had to write for a living.

  • Xdpaul August 4, 2008, 8:00 PM

    By the way, I wonder if the 11 years between two books person was an interview with Donna Tartt? She had a span of about 11 years, if I recall. Maybe not that long, but close.

  • Mark H. August 5, 2008, 1:27 PM

    I wouldn’t feel guilty about it now. The pressure would come when you depend on writing to put food on the table.

    There was a filmmaker (I forget who) who said, “Films are never finished; they’re abandoned.”

  • Nicole August 6, 2008, 6:07 PM

    I think the motivation for crafting is the determiner if something is taking too long. Perfection is unattainable here on planet earth. If you’re doing this to satisfy your craving for making something absolutely impenetrable from criticism (your own or another’s), you’re wasting your time. If the story, novel is just not quite right to you, then the fussing and searching for better words must be accomplished to satisfy yourself.

    Make no mistake: we ultimately write for ourselves. It’s a call, but if we don’t like what we write, what good is it? There must come a time when we sit back and decide this is the best I can do. I like it. Matter of fact, I love it. And I think if you can’t say that, you’re pretending.

  • Michelle Pendergrass August 7, 2008, 6:55 PM

    I don’t feel guilty taking my time with my stories. But then, I’m not in it for the money or to get published. I’m in it because it’s who I am. If something in that dynamic ever changes, I’ll need to re-examine my motive and heart.

    My first published fiction piece was a flash and I gave it away. My first short story was for a contest and it’s posted on my blog. My first story in print was in an anthology that had less than 100 copies and I gave it away, too. And I edit for free. I’m not saying I’m better than anyone else or that I’ve got some ace in the hole. I’m saying that I’d keep doing this same thing for as long as God allows me the opportunity. I don’t “have to” write. I “get to” write. I don’t want fame. I don’t desire the money or the glory. And that’s why I don’t feel guilty taking my time.

    I had the chance to meet and listen to Nick Mamatas (editor or former editor of Clarkesworld) and learned a lot about stories. Do you read his blog? It’s great.

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