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?
After two completed novels and a novella, the query has now become: How long does it take you to write a novel? It’s 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.
We can bemoan this all we want, but the truth is that novelists 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
- Write Quickly and
- Write Well, in that order.
In some cases, the gap between those two might be considerable.
So I’m knee-deep in writing my third full-length novel and thinking a lot about my tendency toward tedium. You see, I am a slow writer. I am slow not because of laziness, procrastination, or poor time management, as much as because of perfectionism. In a way, I cut myself slack because I’m not a full-time author in that I have 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 have had my novels published at all. Nevertheless, I am constantly feeling guilty about being such a slow writer and suffering a deficit of efficiency.
Apparently, other authors experience such guilt. In How to Write Faster, Michael Agger, culture editor for the New Yorker and Slate contributor, breaks it down to a scientific level:
“Professional Writing Expertise,” by Ronald Kellogg, contains enough writerly insight to fuel a thousand Iowa workshops. And the opening words could not be more comforting: “Writing extended texts for publication is a major cognitive challenge, even for professionals who compose for a living.” See, Dad! This is hard work. Kellogg, a psychologist at Saint Louis University, tours the research in the field, where many of the landmarks are his own. Some writers are “Beethovians” who disdain outlines and notes and instead “compose rough drafts immediately to discover what they have to say.” Others are “Mozartians”—cough, cough—who have been known to “delay drafting for lengthy periods of time in order to allow for extensive reflection and planning.” According to Kellogg, perfect-first-drafters and full-steam-aheaders report the same amount of productivity.
There it is — I am Mozartian. The comforting part, however, is in knowing that “perfect-first-drafters and full-steam-aheaders report the same amount of productivity.”
Problem is, knowing this doesn’t help me meet my deadline.
Nevertheless, at some point an author is faced with a decision to, as sci-fi, horror author Laird Barron suggested, sacrifice “…maximum efficiency in favor of indulging an aesthetic ideal.”
But do these values exist at opposite poles? In other words, must 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, if those opposites were to exist on a scale, it might look 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.
All that to say, maybe I shouldn’t feel guilty about taking so long to write. But I do.
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QUESTION: If you had to choose between writing faster or writing better, which would it be? And, in the long run, do you think an author benefits MORE from achieving MAXIMUM EFFICIENCY or AESTHETIC IDEAL?