Thursday, April 22, 2004

Write Faster 

We?ve all heard the words before, whether we are writers, booksellers, fans, or whatnot. Hell, most of us have probably said them at some point. It's so easy, after all. You read a book by someone, love it, devour the writer's backlist. Then, to express your gratitude and appreciation, you email the writer, or see him or her at a booksigning. And chances are, you say something like this:

"Oh, I just love your books, but I wish you could write faster because I'm dying for more!"

To which I say: why?

Every time I hear some variant of "write faster," I cringe inside. I want to yell at people that writing is a long, lengthy process, that if people could write faster, they'd really be hiring ghostwriters a la James Patterson or create factories like 17th Street Productions does in "packaging books" for the likes of Francine Pascal's Sweet Valley books. And do we really need more of that? Every time I hear the phrase, I sigh inwardly, because are people that attached to a select few writers that they can't branch out and try a great many other ones?

In other words, I suppose I ought to have some kind of compassion for people who love a writer so much that they want more, more, more, but I just don't. Not anymore. But I am interested in what's fostered this kind of attitude, especially in mystery fiction.

I've blogged many times before about my distaste for the "book-a-year" culture that is prevalent in publishing. An author is signed to a multiyear deal for good reason==their career is an investment for the publisher, and producing only one book isn't a great return on said investment. And I'd say the vast majority of writers really want to write more than one book?even if they aren't admitting this publicly. But does the next book really have to follow the year after the first one, and so on and so forth? When did this expectation that publishers have about annual installments begin?

I'd reckon there's a sort of chicken-egg thing at work. At some predetermined point, publishers realized that mystery fans like series, while at the same time, some writers were able to produce books at a regular clip because if they didn't, they would starve. So it was in their best interests to write such that they had a book out at least once a year--and in some cases, more often (think of the early pulp days of folks like Lawrence Block or Donald Westlake. They wrote. A lot. They had to, because writing was their living, their profession.) So supply met demand, and all was well.

Except of course, that doesn't work with every writer, it cannot. One of the saddest things one can see in the publishing business is someone who's cranking out books at a regular clip when by rights, they really should have more time between books. Not everyone's natural rhythm is a book every year; the story goes that Dennis Lehane insisted that his last contract (the one that included MYSTIC RIVER) include the stipuation that he produce a book every two years. No wonder, considering that his last Kenzie/Gennaro book (and probably the last one) PRAYERS FOR RAIN, was written in record time after he chained himself to his hotel room. And it's a pretty good book, but definitely rushed, whereas MYSTIC RIVER was written with more care, more attention to detail. The extra time makes a difference, and I expect that not having to produce one a year will affect his next books. But then, Lehane's not really part of the crime fiction biz per se anymore, not the one I'm talking about, in any case.

But people like Stephen Booth or Val McDermid are, and I wonder--their books get longer and longer, more elaborate and detailed, and yet they are still able to meet their deadlines? The seams, unfortunately, are starting to show; the deadlines are met, but just barely, or they miss them altogether; the books seem to get more bloated, with passages that could stand to be excised or certainly pruned. Where's the care being taken by publishers in ensuring the best possible book? Sure, they are still fine novelists, but would they be better ones if they didn't have to be a slave to annual production?

And let's not even get into all of the peripheral activities that writers have to engage in that's related, but very separate, from writing the book: the publicity, the promotion, schmoozing with booksellers and sales reps and distributors and getting one's name out so that fans actually pick up and buy said books. Conventions and writing classes, speaking engagements and charity functions. When there are writers who muse that with all their commitments, it's amazing they actually even have time to write the book, this strikes me not as something to be proud of, but a serious problem. With fame comes time constraints, and maybe that?s a small price, but shouldn't it be small? Should a writer really spend more time doing publicity than actually writing the book? Should publishers really be making such demands on their authors?

And, to get back to the original point of the post, should fans? When did we (because I certainly include myself in this camp, just an overly knowledgeable one) get so impatient? When did we get so single-minded about who we like and dislike that we can't fill the gaps in our reading with other great and varying authors? Now, as I've said a few times here, I read fast and I read a lot. Lately, I?ve been trying to read more and more non-crime, branching out more into literary fiction and some non-fiction. So while there are some writers I wish, secretly, would write just a little bit faster, I can wait--because there are a whole host of favorites I've yet to try, yet to read, still looking forward to. There are so many books, and so many writers to read, why would I just sit around and mope that some favorite of mine isn't producing fast enough? Talk about counter-productive.

That isn't to say that writers should take their sweet time. Deadlines are good, and work for a reason. But production every year (or even faster) like clockwork seems to come with a lot more disadvantages than advantages, if as a writer, you're not naturally able to keep up.

So, write faster? No. I say write better. Improve, be true to yourself and take risks and try new things. And keep all those conflicting and crowding voices to the back of your mind--no matter how insistent or loud those voices happen to be.

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