The Tortoise, the Hare, and the Author

by Mike Duran · 18 comments

My first novel took me maybe a year-and-a half from conception to completion, and the process, while grueling, was relatively smooth. One thing that aided that process, frankly, was having rotator cuff surgery about midway through. Three-and-a-half months off work sitting in front of the computer does wonders for one’s productivity. And pant size.

All that to say, my second novel has been considerably more difficult.

This weekend I will officially finish my second novel. Of course, edits are to follow. But for now, the bulk of the work is done. And let me tell you, book two was far more difficult than book one. I plotted it. Researched. Re-plotted. Re-researched. Added POV’s. Removed POV’s. Re-plotted. Wrote over 50,000 words. Scrapped about half of them. Shelved it for a couple months. Finished some short stories. Re-evaluated my writing goals. Un-shelved it. Re-plotted it. Tweaked some characters. And basically wracked my brain and doubted myself the whole time.

So it’s a huge accomplishment to finally wrap this project up. And I feel like I’ve learned some things along the way. Mainly about myself.

You see, I have a fondness for prose. Sometimes I allow prose to supersede productivity, which means I’m after better not more. This could be a problem, especially when your publisher just wants… more. In other words, niggling over nouns and verbs can really slow a project down. (Which makes me wonder if a career novelist who’s a nitpicker is inevitably a nutcase.) Writing, for me, can easily become tedium. Spending hours over a single page, pining for that ethereal, “just right” vibe. Only to realize the sun is setting on my near-perfect… half page.

Hey, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Building Romans takes even longer.

But between my schedule and my obsession with perfection, it would take me decades to pull off something that meets my perfectionist standards. Really. It’s a treadmill that never rests. However, I don’t have decades and I’m beginning to wonder if my self-imposed treadmill is getting me any closer to a finish line.

Okay. Maybe it’s possible to aim for more AND better. I dunno. All I know is that, at the moment, if I’m going to grow as a career novelist, I simply must sacrifice some of the better for the more. Or to put it another way, I need to lighten up on the perfectionism. Yes, the tortoise will cross the finish line. However, today’s publishing industry is looking for hares.

Ame April 7, 2011 at 7:23 AM

there is always a balance btw perfectionism and reality. however, i would guess that all the gruelling, hard work and study you’ve put into your craft over the years will allow you to keep the integrity of your “better” while you produce “more.”

Katherine Coble April 7, 2011 at 7:57 AM

It’s an age-old dilemma, and one that every published author I know seems to face.

But I have to be honest. Readers can tell a rushed product…at least some of us. And we no likey. I’m of the opinion that the deadline-scarred subsequent novels in a multibook contract sell fewer copies[*] for a reason.

I know you’re east of the rock and west of the hard place on this, and have to deliver as promised. I just wish most publishers would be more generous with deadlines. All except George RR Martin’s. Dude could use a little motivation.

* I know this is a valid statistic, because my publisher marketing buddy quotes it about ten times a week. I just don’t have a ready link.

Katherine Coble April 7, 2011 at 8:06 AM

Goodness…it was rather gauche of me to not say “congratulations” about finishing the book. Please accept my congrats, even though they’re late to the party.

Neil Larkins April 7, 2011 at 9:08 AM

Amanda Hocking would be a hare. On Speed. On steroids. (Don’t pile on me here. I’m only talking about her output. Never read anything she’s written…but it’s voluminous.) Yet even she has realized the need to improve her craft.

Kevin Lucia April 7, 2011 at 9:52 AM

“Sometimes I allow prose to supersede productivity, which means I’m after better not more.”

Best words ever spoken. I agree with Katherine. I’ve largely given up on the idea of being a career novelist, (of course, my teaching job goes well with the gig), because I’m just too slow.

But I’ve become happy being slow. I’d rather write five novels the rest of my life that I’m proud of, rather than 10 I could care less about. I’m with you on the prose thing as a reader, Mike, and it shows in your work. That guarantees future sales, because I know it’ll be quality writing.

Neil Larkins April 7, 2011 at 12:16 PM

I agree that’s a great thing to say. Quality writing is a must…even though I work hard at it and seldom achieve it. And we all share in your accomplishment, Mike.

Julie Musil April 7, 2011 at 10:40 AM

Congratulations on crossing that finish line! When writing the first draft, I can’t look back. If I did, I’d delete every word. I know the first draft will be crap, and I work on polish in later drafts. Someone else said, “First get it written, then get it right.” I remember that statement with each clunky page I write 😀

Carradee April 7, 2011 at 11:00 AM

Have you ever tried writing fast?

I was convinced for some years that I would never write fast. ever. I took years to write a single novel. Writing fast would just drop my writing quality. I was positive.

But I tried NaNoWriMo anyway.

You know what? There were typos, yes. There were wrong words, yes. But… compared the the first draft I produced over my long period, it was very close in quality. It even exacerbated certain weaknesses of mine so I could identify them more clearly for repair.

I’m now certain I could write several novels a year. (Which is good. I have ideas enough.) I just have to practice to get up to that.

Carradee April 7, 2011 at 11:02 AM

P.S. Congrats on the finishing and on the contract, though. That’s an achievement! ^_^

Merrie Destefano April 7, 2011 at 11:59 AM

Congrats on finishing your awesome book two! Yay!!

I had a LOT of problems with my second novel too. Ugh. I wrote and rewrote, ending up throwing out the half of the novel (150 page), then rewrote some more. I’m really happy with it now–thank God, since it’s coming out soon–but I learned a lot about that process and vowed never to do it again. I ended up with a lot of pretty writing and almost no story.

I agree with Carradee. For me, sometimes writing faster gives me a better story. My third book (recently finished) has a good story/plot, but it is much leaner in the flowery prose department. I just decided that I was never going to rip up a book again, not until I had completed my first draft.

That book that I ripped up and threw away the first half was actually pretty good. I never should have started over.

Morgan Busse April 7, 2011 at 12:54 PM

When you find the balance between the two, please share with the rest of us 🙂 (I think it would be called a hartortiose).

Jenna St. Hilaire April 7, 2011 at 1:38 PM

Can totally sympathize with this.

The problem with the second novel, for me, is that I want it to be as good as the first. And it’s just hard to remember that my first NaNoWriMo draft is a piece of embarrassment that I don’t intend to ever show anyone. I wrote that first novel three times through, start to finish, before it got to solid structure and quality prose.

Perfectionism can return in all its raging glory for revisions, if it’ll just pipe down for the first draft….

Congratulations on reaching completion!

R. L. Copple April 7, 2011 at 3:08 PM

First, congrats on getting that second book done!

Second, I think you’re encountering what a lot of novelist find, that you can’t take years writing a novel AND make a living off of writing.

But it is not a given either that writing “fast” is bad either. Indeed, it gives you more practice writing, and you should improve over time. The slower you write, the longer it will take to really get professionally good at what you’re doing.

If it’s not bad form (delete if so), here’s a link from Dean Wesley Smith on “Daring to be Bad,” at which point he started really sellling, so he says:

http://www.deanwesleysmith.com/?p=2494

I think we all would desire perfection in our novels, but somewhere there is that balance between getting it done and making it better. I think we could improve a novel for years. I aways see something more to tweak no matter how many times I look at my stories. At some point you have to call it “done.” And if you have a mortgage payment looming, it gives you a lot more motivation to get it out if you’re earning your living writing.

So it also depends on each authors circumstances and goals, not to mention the publisher’s desires on the matter.

Jessica Thomas April 7, 2011 at 6:52 PM

I learned this lesson from my computer programming career…sometimes you just have to get it done. Getting it done is a success in itself, and when you look back, you’ll most likely say, “Wow, I did that?” If you’d spent all the time nitpicking, there would have been lots of stress and less success. I’ve applied the same “just do it, stop thinking about it so much” approach to my writing, and I feel I am writing both more and better. 🙂

Joel April 7, 2011 at 7:41 PM

Today’s publishers may be looking for hares, but I’m willing to bet it will be the tortoises who are remembered longest. 😉

Keli Gwyn April 7, 2011 at 11:16 PM

Mike, did you perform a Vulcan mind meld on me? As a fellow perfectionist slogging her way through Second Book Syndrome I felt like you were in my head as I read your excellent post. I’m taking these words to heart: ” . . . if I’m going to grow as a career novelist, I simply must sacrifice some of the better for the more.” Thanks for a great post.

Congratulations on completing your second book! To rephrase Spock’s famous saying, “Write on and prosper.”

Jill April 8, 2011 at 8:42 AM

“A careless shoestring, in whose tie
I see a wild civility:
Do more bewitch me than when art
Is too precise in every part.”

That is from Delight in Disorder, by the 17th C English poet, Robert Herrick, a Christian minister who was persecuted by the nasty Cromwellian regime. My best advice to you is going to sound really trite (well, I hope not, actually): Don’t seek to be a perfectionist, but a truth-teller.

Jessica Thomas April 8, 2011 at 8:54 AM

“Don’t seek to be a perfectionist, but a truth-teller.” Excellent! I should tattoo this on my arm or something.

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