Tuesday, December 04, 2007


No, not the movie.

No, not the drug.

I'm talking about writing speed. I mean, how fast we all write.

I feel sure we've broached this topic at least once before at DWT, but like with most writing topics, opinions change, lightbulbs go on (or off), bold statements made in the past are retracted, and therefore, some topics bear repeating.

I was talking about being a Nanoloser over on my other blog this week and some commenters wondered if speed might not make an interesting topic for broader discussion. So here goes my speed ramble.

To me, there are at least two sides to this speed question. First, how fast can a writer write without sacrificing quality for quantity (each writer is different) (possibly each story for each writer is different), and second, how fast MUST a writer write if they want a career in commercial fiction? Is it possible to have a career if you're one of the slow ones? Can a slow writer train themselves to be faster?

I guess another way to phrase the latter question is how fast do publishers expect you to write?

There's no clear answer here, either.

If one writes category romance for Harlequin, the prevailing wisdom seems to be that to build a readerwhip you want at least two books a year, preferably three. And the same (based on my observations) seems to be true at houses like Elora's Cave. Single title romance publishers never used to put out more than one book a year for most authors, (creating the reputed inventory backlog of Nora books), but this too is changing. Rapid, tightly packed release schedules, like Ballantine did for Allison's Brennan's debut series, have proven the old marketing mold of releasing a new book for each author every 9-12 months has been broken very successfully.

So, how fast? I've heard you need to write a book in 9 months or less several times (Madeline Hunter says this in her amazing "Surviving Almost There" talk, as does Cherry Adair. And that sounds about right to me. (Surely a book shouldn't take longer than a baby?)

Problem is, I can't seem to do it. Well, maybe if I added up the time I actually spend writing a book, it is less than 9 months, but for me it seems, all-too-often, to be maybe 6 months of actual writing spread over 18 months on the calendar.

On the other hand, I have a writer friend whose first novel will be released next year. (Because I'm mentioning some details, I'm going to keep in anonymous.) She wrote this book around the same time I wrote my April Hillson book. That is to say, in 2004-2005 (gosh, that seems like a long time ago). And she's working on her second now.

Her book's being published by an "accessible literary" imprint of a major NY house, and they don't seem to be that surprised that she doesn't have her second book ready for press yet. In fact, I don't think there was even talk of two book contract when she sold the first. And her agent doesn't think she can sell the second book on proposal, either. I've heard similar stories from other writer friends and acquaintances who write women's fiction -- even the more commercial kind -- and this is what seems to be typical in that little slice of the publishing world:
One book deals.
No second contract until the publisher sees how the first one sells.
Each book sold 100% complete and quite separately from the others.

I'm sure this changes at some point. I'm sure Jodi Picoult can sell her "next Jodi Picoult title" sight unseen or on a vague idea, but this career transition happens so much more slowly in mainstream fiction than it seems to in the romance genre where relatively new authors seem to routinely sell their second books on proposal, and many authors get multi-book deals right out of the gate.

So, the above-mentioned friend's agent recently rejected a book of another of my friends and told her she'd be happy to look at her next project when it's ready. This woman replied to the agent that it would be at least six to seven months. To which the agent replied. Take your time. It takes at least a year to write a book.

So, is there a right answer here that's based on what type of book you're writing? Is there a difference in mainstream women's fiction vs romance? I'm not so sure. To go back to my Jodi Picoult example, she seems to release a new book every year, and they're pretty complicated and original stories and at least 120,000 words. So obviously it's possible.

And while I guess some people might read between the lines of this post that I'm implying it's faster to write a romance, I don't think that's necessarily true. I do think, however, speed does vary somewhat on the complexity of the book. The structure, the themes, the relative subtlety.

I just deleted a whack of this post that was talking about whether it's faster to write romances than woman's fiction... I deleted it because I feel like I was going off topic and also because I feel like I was trying to give myself excuses for writing more slowly. But I feel like when I write too quickly. When I don't let my stories percolate. What I come up with is trite, boring, derivative, predictable crap.

But even as I get ready to post this... I feel like I'm just making excuses. That on those days when it's not working to push forward in the story, I don't try hard enough to get something onto paper, even if it's just ideas for upcoming scenes.

What do you think? Is my relative pokiness because of who I am as writer, pure laziness, or a function of what I'm trying to write?

How about you? Can you write fast? Do you wish you could? How fast do you think you NEED to write to reach your particular career goals? Do you feel pressure to write faster than you can?


Anonymous said...

There are different expectations for different genres.
But the expectation for romance I think is at least one book a year for single title, and the breakout authors seem to be able to write much faster than that.

Literary is whole other different ball of wax.

I know for me, I'd be happy with writing two single titles a year. Hell, I'd be estatic and then if someone actually bought them...

Heidi the Hick said...

I can't really say personally because it took me about 7 years to write my first whole book. I took some time off to, you know, have my second baby and go through a wicked, largely undiagnosed case of PPD, but hey, I got to The End before my 30th birthday.

I'm already nervous about how long it'll take me to write another one, and I haven't even got an agent yet.

Maureen McGowan said...


That first one is always the hardest. But now you know you're capable or writing a whole book, and know what you learned doing it, the next one will come more quickly, I expect. Go for it!

Maureen McGowan said...

Sorry about the dccHeidi thing.

Blogger was being annoying.

Molly O'Keefe said...

my instinct yesterday while reading your post was to say -- write fast revise slow. But as you're writing every scene or plot point is like a fork in the woods and the choices you make while writing fast can change everything. And it's hard to go back and revise all that stuff. But -- I do think the more you write the more you hone your instincts for that kind of thing -- you internalize some of the storytelling magic and things go quicker - because you know what kind of choices to make instinctively. I think Jodi Piccoult probably has that going for her.

I'm lucky not just because I know the ending -- hea --(but yours would be that way too in a sense since you're going commercial) but I also know I have 305 manuscript pages. I have a pretty good sense of what has to happen by page 150. Page 200 - etc... that helps me write fast too.

So - in the end I still think write fast and edit slow -- but fast is relative to what you can do. I think you have to be working towards getting faster - towards writing with assurity and keeping the middle of the book blues out of the equation (speaking of which - have I told you I hate my book right now?) and just keep going.

Kimber Chin said...

Molly, is that the Billionaire's Organic Farmer that you're hating?

Great discussion, Maureen.
I'm glad you tackled it.

The challenge with small press is justifying the marketing spend on that single book. Difficult to do so there's a rush to get a backlist. The same money spread over a few books.

Then you have to contend with shelf life. Writing contemporary and technology based (business people use computers and blackberries and...), my shelf life is a lot shorter than historical authors. That means that my backlist has to continually update.

So I'm kind of stuck.
I should really be writing 2 novels a year.
Too much for me
so I write a novel and a novella.

'Course the problem with that
(and this might be a post for another day)
is that what happens when I get a novel that doesn't work?

Anonymous said...

Great topic, Maureen!
I used to think I wrote fast just because I wrote fast. Now, I think writing fast for me has everything to do with whether I really love my characters.

I began by writing fast - two books a year. But as I got to know more about writing, I started to recognize faults that I used to ignore but now slow me down. It usually has to do with plot or pacing issues. In my last couple of WIP's I hit the middle of the book wall and I began to think, what am I doing? Where am I going with this? This is dragging, this is going too fast.
Beginnings are easy for me, and I usually know where I'm going to end up. But those questioning middles ... man, they're a killer and they're what slow me down now.

I still think I can write a first draft in six months. The difference for me on whether I finish that WIP has to be that I love my characters -I mean being really into them and their problems - that level of interest and wanting to know what happens to them will make me ignore the middle of the book doubt demons and the technical issues (plot and pacing I can fix in revision - characters are much harder to revise for me) which then means I write faster. For me, if I don't love my characters and their problems it is sooo easy to let things slow down or slam to a stop.

Margaret Moore said...

I write relatively quickly because, quite frankly, I get bored if I work too long on a story.

My first book took me two years to write (because I was also noodling around in contemp romance, too); the second six months. I asked for a year for the second, felt I was done in six months and sent it in.

The three books I wrote the fastest (I'm talking six weeks - two months for a historical) just poured off my fingers because the heroes were so vivid to me. Most characters don't come so fully formed in my mind, but I could hear those guys right from the get-go.

I once did four books a year, but that was a big mistake. I had to learn that hard way that if I push the imagination too much, it sort of seizes up and I got nuthin' -- which was really disturbing. So if some authors can write a gazillion books a year, or a book in a few weeks, more power to 'em. My brain just doesn't accommodate that sort of schedule.

K J Gillenwater said...

Hmmm, as I learn more about my own writing process (in the middle of my 5th novel right now...and have written about 4 novellas/short stories), I seem to be able to write faster.

My problem is the middle-of-the-book freak out I have every single time. I wrote the first 125 pages of my newest book in 2 weeks. I took a break to edit another book...which was a HUGE mistake. I lost my momentum and have been struggling to get back into a writing rhythm again.

The longer I let the book sit, the more freaked out I become that I can't finish it, don't know where it's going, etc. I don't do a lot of pre-planning when I write, so maybe that is part of the problem.

I think it is definitely possible to write 3 to 4 books a year...it's just a matter of letting go and not letting your brain think about it too much.

The minute I think too much, I start to believe my writing sucks. When I just let my creativity guide me, I end up writing wonderful stuff. Plus, a first draft may not be perfect, but it's finished. That's the hard part...getting down the beginning, middle, and end.

Molly O'Keefe said...

Ha Kimber - no The Billionaire's Organic Farmer is done -- the one I am currently hating is His Secret Baby: Ten Years Later.

As a side note -- I rented some DVD's the other day. Battlestar Gallactica?? Have you heard of this? Fracking Awesome!!

Anonymous said...

How quickly I write a book does sometimes depend on how into the book I am as well. Some books are gifts, and write so quickly, others not so much.

Molly, Battlestar Galactica you say. Might have to check that out.. I've been hearing good things

Thanks for getting the BSG reference into this post, otherwise it might have BSG free and who wants that

Maureen McGowan said...

Molly and Sinead, LOL about BSG. So glad you're finally becoming a convert, Molly.

Margaret... I had one book almost pour out of me, too... But even then, although it all happened in two 6 week spirts (one of the first draft and one for revisions) if I count from the day I started the book until the day I sent off the first full to an agent... It was over a year. I need to get better at not having those big stalling points.

Kimber, I was going to tell you that the Billionaire's Organic Farmer is done -- and great -- but Molly beat me to it. BUT PLEASE MOLLY, please tell me that's not the title they're using. :-)

BTW Meg Tilly is blogging over on The Debutante Ball today. Check it out. She talks about how, no matter how carefully she plans a book, things go in other directions. That's not exactly what she said, but sort of. She said something great about imagine you're planning on breaking up with someone and you have all the lines planned out, and then they say something you don't expect so you propose instead... That's what writing's like for her. I've had days like that too..

I think I need to learn to trust myself more. I think the times I slow down are when "the plan" is turning out to be a boring book. I can't be afraid to veer off the path. Or rather, I should know that I've got the skills to edit the s**T out of something that goes in ten different directions in the first draft... but my experience on my last ms knocked me back a few tiers on the confidence ladder. Still struggling to climb back up.

Maureen McGowan said...

Meg's comments about her writing process I was referring to, are actually in the comments. In her answer to someone named Dustin.

Deborah Beckers said...

I have a very bad habit of a) not letting anyone read what I've written until it's perfect; and b) stalling smack dab in the middle of the book.

They might be realated - I don't know *whistles*...

This means I have one book done and four half done.

And I just started another one.

*sigh* It's time to sit back, take stock and figure out what I really want to do with my writing.

I need a plan, it's good to have a plan right?

And back on topic - I write the first half pretty quickly, it's the back half that troubles me.

Abby said...

"It takes at least a year to write a book."

As the only sane person in the publishing business, that agent must be lonely.

Kimber Chin said...

Not letting anyone see your book til it is perfect?
Has anyone ever seen your book?

'Cause I don't have a snowball's chance in h*** of writing a perfect book.

I actually like the Billionaire's Organic Farmer. I'm not normally a Presents Billionaire series reader ('cause I hang with that crowd and so am hyper sensitive about how they're portrayed) but the combo of billionaire and organic gets my interest.

Sure, there are some wealthy folks in that industry but they usually have serious guilt complexes. They want to give back yet they're taking. Should they invest the money themselves (where it would grow faster) or donate it? Lots of great conflict.

Wylie Kinson said...

Interesting post & f/u discussions.
I'm a slow writer and yes, it's frustrating, but I agonize over every fork in the road that Molly mentioned. I don't like MAJOR revisions/rewrites, and I can't seem to turn off my Evil Internal Editor, so although it's a slower process, I think in the end I'm saving myself some steps.
And I'm a big believer in quality over quantity (although you'd never tell by some of the crap I produce LOL!)

I guess it boils down to whatever works for you.

lynneconnolly said...

I write about 1000 words an hour, but it took me some time to work up to that.
Since I don't do that every day, that adds up to around 4 or 5 full-length books a year.
Don't sweat it. If they want you, they'll go for it however fast or slow you write.
And don't force it. That way lies madness.

Unknown said...

I don't think there is an expectation from my editor at Ellora's Cave to write fast...I just happen to do so. I think she'd be happy if I gave her three books a year, but she hasn't said no to more. Now, I'm not sure what would happen if I slowed down.

I'm a crazy writer though. I can produce a 70k novel in 6 weeks if necessary.

Bonnie Staring said...

Thanks for doing this post Maureen! Unfortunately, I think my brain just exploded. ;)

bevrosenbaum said...

Hey, Maureen, I have an article in this month's RWR about this! As you know, the speed thing is something I've been struggling with, too. I've learned that writing quickly just doesn't work for me. In order to put out the best book I can, I need to go through numerous rewrites, and to let the book 'sit' for a while between rewrites. I'm sure some people are able to do their best work faster--to each her own!

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