Monday, February 19, 2007

Quality vs. Quantity

Whenever I'm in a bookstore, usually a few times a week, I wander over to the "Writing/Publishing" section. The usual suspects are there: Writing for Dummies, Get Published Now!, Writing the Bestseller, etc. It takes a while to sift through the garbage and find a few quality books on the craft of writing and the publishing industry. Over the years, I have collected numerous writing books, some better than others, many contradicting each other. Some say write fast, that the more you write, the better you get. Others say take your time, let the story marinate. Some say write numerous drafts, others say take your time and write better first-drafts. It's enough to make the newbie writer throw in the towel and choose a new career.

There is no one way to write, only the way that works for you. Whether your Nora Roberts who seems to write a book by lunch time or Dennis Lehane who takes a few years to unveil his masterpiece, as long as you make your contracted deadline, there are no rules about how long you should take to write the actual manuscript. It seems that most genre authors are on a book-a-year contract, but what they do in that year varies greatly. Lee Child spends 6-8 months on the manuscript, 2 months promoting his latest book, and whatever is left he takes for himself. J.A. Konrath, to my understanding, sequesters himself for a month to write his book and spends the rest of the year marketing and promoting. Other authors take almost the entire year completing their next book, writing and editing while doing book tours.

For me, I write fast and I write a lot. I finished Thou Shall Not in about 5 months and Street Walk, after 4 months, is in its final stages. Does that make me better than those who take a year? Obviously not. It's just the way I write best, gluing myself to my chair and purging the words onto the paper. People have asked me, "What's the rush? You're not on a deadline." And it's true. I could take years if I wanted. But I don't. When a a story is pulling me, I can't help but write it. If I take too long, the story loses its freshness, its excitement, and it will show in the writing.

I truly believe that writing, like any sport or craft requires practice. The more you do it the better you get. Last summer, I joined a swim team, practicing 1-2 hours a day five days a week. Intense and a little insane, I know. But the more I swim, the faster and better I get. If I miss a week, it shows. Writing is the same way. I meet a lot of writers who say they can't help it, they must write everyday, like breathing. I commend them. For most of us, it's easy to succumb to television or books or bars or any other activity we enjoy. But we have to keep practicing, improving our craft, and that includes writing something, anything, every day. If you're in between books, try your hand at a short story or essay. If you're blocked, journal a bit. Blog. Write your grandma a letter. Something. Anything. Every day.

Whether you write slowly or fast, a lot or a little, the important thing is that you write. A book written in 3 months can be just as good as a book written in 3 years. Ultimately, we all strive to write quality fiction, but most of the time, the quality of our work is proportional to the quantity that we produce. Read the writing books, take from them what you wish, but you have to find your own way, not someone else's.

I'd love to hear feedback from everyone regarding their writing frequency. How many words per day? How many hours per day? Maybe we can compile our own "How To Write" book.


Darwyn Jones said...

Ok... Having all of one (unagented, unpublished, unpolished) novel under my belt, I'll weigh in.

I began FIRST MURDERS on May 12, 2006 and, with a goal of 1,000 words a day, I finished on October 7, 2006. So, just less than 5 months. Then I began the 2nd draft edit on November 27 and finished on February 6th. Just over 3 months.**

Would I do it all the same? No.

Yes, I believe 1,000 words a day was a goal I could work with, but I don't feel like I had quality words. So, on my next novel (which is clamoring around in my head as I type) I'm shooting for 1,000 QUALITY words per day. I think this is the reason I wasn't too pleased with my first draft and why my 2nd draft has a first draft feel.

Did you get all that?

(** I know you didn't want this level of detail, but it is the accountant in me. Nicole would be proud.)

Viki said...


I found you through Richard's blog!

Too many exclamation points!

Anyway, I've been working on my novel for ever and a day, and it certainly has lost its freshness. I try to trick myself back into that fresh feeling through various, silly means. I have to finish it soon, because it's my thesis.

As far as shorter stuff, I just whip it out. I try to get a draft done all at once, quickly, and then I usually have to sit on it a day or two (unless I am on a deadline, and then I just send it the hell on). Revising/editing is usually done in bursts.

I do write every day, although not necessarily on the projects I'm supposed to be working on. I journal every day, although sometimes I'm just writing ten pages about the merits of my pen, or my notebook, or my new computer. I keep telling myself it's all practice, and it is, but sometimes it's nothing more than handwriting or typing practice. I usually slap myself the hell out of that after a few days.

I blog in spurts, I write on Newsvine. But it's rare that a day goes by when I don't do some writing.

I hope things are well with you!

Rob said...

I know a lot of writers do the word-goal thingy. And I've done that. But I find I work better if I set aside a certain amount of time each day. If I set a goal of, say, 1000 words, I'll hit 1000 and quit no matter how long it took me, even on a good day when the words flow. I'm lazy that way. But if I set aside a couple of hours a day, and it's a good day, I could produce twice that. If it's a bad day, I'm still likely to get at least that much. Basically, if I'm giving myself the time to write, I'm more productive than if I demand some arbitrary quota. And I think this works better for a busy life, because you always can squeak a certain amount of time out of a day, but if the writing isn't coming, who knows how long 1000 (or whatever amount you set) words will take you. If you have to run to work and you still haven't gotten your quota, you might feel guilty and miserable all day.

Of course, as with all advice that is writing related, your mileage may vary.

Quinn said...

I'm still only one draft into my novel, but it took me exactly 80 days to finish. Once NaNoWriMo was over my daily word count dropped a lot. Revising has been a struggle, and I'm finding myself very easily distracted. This kind of burst of enthusiasm and ensuing loss of interest is pretty typical of me, so I have to fight it constantly. As such I really don't have a consistent daily output.

I'm the opposite of Rob, I think, because I need a word count to keep myself writing, and I'll go past it if it's a good day and I'm on a roll. If I were to budget time instead, I'd end up writing about half as much.

harrietcat said...

Hi Dana,
Thanks for this post! Btw, you don't know me at all - I think there was a link to you on Miss Snark? Anyway, as an aspiring mystery writer, I like your blog.

Anyway. I belong to the unbelievably lazy contingent. If I set myself a word goal every day, I'll seriously end up writing drivel just to get it done! I set myself a time goal - generally between 2-4 hours, depending on the day - AND a word goal, usually 750-1000. If I reach that word limit before the time's up, I have to keep going. If I sit there for four hours and don't achieve the word goal, I have to keep going til I do (well, not if it makes me late for work, but otherwise...)

What I really appreciate about this post is this: "I meet a lot of writers who say they can't help it, they must write everyday, like breathing. I commend them. For most of us, it's easy to succumb to television or books or bars or any other activity we enjoy" Good to know I'm not alone in having to practically nail my butt to the seat in order to get anything done...

Rob said...

"Good to know I'm not alone in having to practically nail my butt to the seat in order to get anything done..."

The way I see it, writing is like any other job out there. If given a choice, most people would rather play video games or read a book than go to work. Even if it's a job you love. Work is work. It's harder than play. That's why we call it work. :) The trick with writing is, the only person there to tell you to get the job done is yourself, unless you have a contract and a deadline. It also makes it hard when the device you work on (the computer) is also a device you use for play (i.e. games, internet, e-mail, porn, whatever).

I tend to distrust writers who say writing is nothing but rapture. Anything that takes effort to do well will involve some sweat and discomfort. Hell, sometimes even sex gets put off in favor of a new episode of Lost.

mj said...

I write every day. I used to have a hard time writing, but I made myself do it so often and got so used to it, that I now go through withdrawal if I don't write. I used to think that I'm not "worth" anything unless I get published, and when a novel I wrote kept getting rejected, it just solidified that belief. But I couldn't help but write another one, and the more I wrote the more I realized that I love doing it, it's a part of me, and my worth isn't tied to being published. I've even started writing bad poetry, started a second blog, and have written in other contexts too. I'd like to get the second novel published, and if I do succeed, then it'll be icing on the cake.