Sunday, June 24, 2012

It takes time to create art

By: Joelle Charbonneau

This week our very own Steve Weddle started a discussion about the trend in publishing where authors are being asked to produce more than one work in a year.  Sometimes they are asked to create a short story to help promote a book.  Often they are requested to up their production to two books or more.  Steve did a great job of laying out the possible reasons for this in his post – here– even if he did tweak me a bit by saying I have 17 books hitting shelves in the next 2 years.  (6 is more than enough!)

During the ensuing discussion, I saw more than on person comment that creating more than one book a year lowers the quality of an authors work.  I have to admit that the certainty in which those comments were made gave me pause for a minute.  I mean, I have 4 novels due to my publishers in the next year.  The comments on Steve’s blog post made it sound as if I am selling out by writing that much or that my writing will suffer mightily from the commitment.  Um…yikes. 

Then I thought about the arguments and I went from feeling scared to being annoyed – not just at those comments, but the discussion on this issue I have seen across the internet.  People say that writing fast means lowering the quality of the writing. 

Screw that.  

Just because something is created quickly doesn’t lower the value of the work.  You know how I know this?  Because some of the greatest art in history was created quickly and has not only lasted throughout the generations, but with each passing year is more revered. 

Let’s look at music. 

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is considered to be one of the greatest composers that ever put pen to paper.  He was 35 when he died.  During his time on this earth he wrote over 600 works that are still being preformed today.  In 1791 alone – the last year of his life – Mozart created over 60 works which included 2 operas, one of which was Die Zauberflote (The Magic Flute), symphonies, choral music, concertos etc.  I don’t think that anyone would claim his work suffered from speed. 

And if you think Mozart was prolific, take a look at another luminary composer - J.S. Bach who lived to be 65.  Part of his job as a church composer was to write a new cantata every week.  He wrote 1126 works during his lifetime – that we know of.  Who knows what works were lost to the passage of time and poor documentation.  I guarantee you won’t hear people say they wish he’d written less.

The visual arts also have their share of prolific artists.  Raphael Sanzio – who was better known by just his first name of Raphael – was only 37 years old when he died.  During his short life, he completed at least 100 works that we know of.  And as impressive as that sounds, Pablo Picasso has him beat by a mile.  The total number of artworks created by Picasso is estimated to be around 50,000. 

Am I saying that all writers should be prolific?  NO!  Am I saying that all the artwork that was created by Picasso or the music produced by Bach are at the very highest standard?  Probably not. 

But blanket statements saying that “all writing done quickly is crap” and that “those who take years to craft a book are geniuses” really tick me off.  Each of us as writers—as readers—as people move at our own pace.  Associating the time it takes to create something to its value is just plain wrong. 

Read the book. 

Look at the painting. 

Listen to the opera or concerto and determine based on the work alone if it speaks to you.

If it does, why does the time frame it takes to create it matter? 


Declan Burke said...

Joelle - I that time invested in a writing a book does not automatically guarantee quality; it's also true that books written quickly can be very, very good, and even brilliant - Jim Thompson being a name that springs to mind.

The trouble with your examples, though, is that Mozart and Bach were bona fide geniuses, and very few writers publishing multiple books per year can claim the same.

Cheers, Declan

Ellen Clair Lamb said...

I don't doubt that some authors are perfectly capable of writing a decent book in three months, but a four-book-a-year publication schedule leaves almost no time for editing, which makes a big difference to the quality of most books.

Pulp fiction by its nature is ephemeral, written quickly for people who plan to read it quickly. And yes, some pulp fiction has stood the test of time and turned out to be art, but that's rare enough that we know most of those books by name.

That said, there's absolutely nothing wrong with quality entertainment written to BE entertainment. Shakespeare wasn't always striving for art, he was just looking to fill the theater. Art is a judgment made by others, after the fact.

Diana said...

I know this blog is for writers of crime fiction, but take a moment to look outside of it.

Nora Roberts is a prolific author of Romantic suspense and general romance novels. She also writes a series of suspense under the pseudonym J. D. Robb. She's very popular and very successful. Her two hundreth (200) novel is being published this year. In a year, she can write one trilogy for mass market paperback, one stand alone romantic suspense for hardback, and two novels for her In Death series. That's six books a year and they are high quality fiction. They are not crap. I don't read crap.

Janet Evanovich is also productive. She writes two a year, a Stephanie Plum novel and her new series with Diesel. She also collaborates with other authors putting out one collaboration a year.

Clive Cussler has shifted into collaborating with several authors so that he has four series that he works on.

And several years ago, a writer friend had a goal to write a total of one million words in one year. That works out to about ten or twelve books in a year depending on word count. She met that goal and has since relaxed a bit on the word count goals. But it is doable. However, the stories she writes do not require a ton of research as other genres do.

Every writer works at their own pace. Some take longer than others. Some write lightning fast.

The way to be that productive is to have the stories in different stages of the creation process: researching for one, writing first draft for another, editing a third, and so on.

Some people can switch gears like that in one day. Some can't.

I agree completely writing fast does not equal lower quality of writing. I'm sure I can find stories that took years to write and aren't worth the paper they are printed on.

Anonymous said...

I think the key is the individual nature of this. I know you can turn out good stuff quickly & that your methods lend themselves to it. If you can maintain quality & work that fast, your fans will be thrilled. If you (or another favorite author) couldn't pull it off, I think most fans would rather get one great book a year than several okay books. I think part of the backlash is attempt to start a dialogue so not everyone feels pressured to be the same or do the same. For some, six books a year is doable. For others, one is his/her best effort. (And I suspect writers with day jobs add a lot of variables to this equation, too, since all jobs are hardly equal.)

I think mostly those of us who think you're a pretty cool lady in addition to great writer, also hope your work-life balanced stays, well, balanced. It would be awful if Hubby and Tot started wondering who that redheaded lady is at the coffee pot. ;-)

Joelle Charbonneau said...

Declan - funny enough, it took a very long time before anyone considered JS Bach a genius. He was considered very middle of the road for his time. In the past, the nature of a court musician or artist was to create and create on demand. It was their job. They did their job.

Answer Girl - Yep - the quality of editing makes all the difference. I'm fortunate that not only do I have a wonderful agent who does an edit of my work, my editors at my publishers are quite good and one is very demanding and, I'd dare say, spectacular. It is because of my agents and editors that I dare attempt this writing schedule. If I didn't think quality would be the result, I wouldn't do it.

Diana - Nora Roberts is a fabulous example of prolific writing that hasn't suffered. I for one am amazed at her ability to crank out work day in and day out. I am more astonished as I make my own attempt.

Drew - Yes, I would prefer to get one book a year from an author if getting two means that both books aren't good. I made this choice to write these books this year knowing it was going to take a bit of extra work. And don't worry, Andy and the tot see me a lot. I work when everyone is at work, camp or unconcious. And for the record, this is a one time adventure for me. While I plan on writing at least 2 books a year, I don't think I'll be doing the 4 ever again. That was just a strange twist of fate.

Sarah M. Anderson said...

I kind of hate this reductive thinking, because it always pits an 'us' against a 'them,' whether it's 'literature' vs. 'genre,' 'fast' vs 'slow,' or 'traditional' vs 'self-pubbed.' What all of these arguments boil down to is, My Way is the Only Way--because I cannot comprehend someone else doing something differently than the way I do it.

So saying I must write crap because I write four category romances for Harlequin plus 1-2 single-title romances for Samhain every year--because no one can write or have their work edited that fast and all romance is crap anyway--says nothing about me as an author, but tells me volumes about the person(s) who said it.

I don't know if such blanket statements come from ignorance (how can you judge my work or Joelle's work without reading it? How can you expand from one rushed, crappy book to all quickly written books?) or from fear (we are all cogs in the publishing machine that must turn faster or be replaced, but this is my top speed!), but I know they divide us as authors.

And I will not be made so easy to conquer. Write what you want, how you want, when you want and--most importantly--WHY you want. That's the only thing that matters to any of us.

Anonymous said...

It's a purely case-by-case issue. There is no direct correlation between speed and quality, other than as they relate to the particular author's work. Some authors in some genres with some subjects within certain parameters, etc.... I personally know an author who is able to write two large, well-written books each year, but there's a catch: they had to be in two different series. Two in the same series would burn him out; two in different series meant that each would give him something of a rest from the other. Some people, at the same time, need much longer to write THEIR quality work. It's an individual thing.

Blythe Gifford said...

There's an article in the Chicago Tribune today examining exactly this issue: the relationship between being prolific and being artistic. As with the rest of life, there's a balance. The more words you write, the better you are likely to become. Still, art needs pauses. Time to ponder. Time to return with a fresh eye. Hours to find the RIGHT word. The balance is different for each artist and sometimes different at different times in a artists's career.

John McFetridge said...

It works if the writer is willing to admit, when necessary, that the book isn't ready and take whatever penalty is in the contract - The Sopranos was delayed many times by David Chase working to get the scripts right, but that's very rare.

But I do think the "classic literature" writers have the advantage that only a few of the books they wrote are remembered so it looks like they only wrote a few books.

STRINGER! said...

My favourite film -RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK- got a lot of it's immediacy and fun from the fact that it was being made fast. Spielberg had wanted to prove to himself and to studios that he could do a film on time and under budget, because his films so far had gone way over on both. Many scenes were filmed in as few takes as possible, and whole sequences were cut from the film during filming in order to keep to the schedule.

What that doesn't really show is that they had spent a long time working on the script until it was almost idiot-proof.

By the same token, the scripting stage of CHINATOWN took a long time, and many arguments between all involved. Even then, they started filming without knowing what ending they were going to go with. The director hated the scripted ending, the writer hated the directors version. Ultimately during filming the writer handed in a nihilistic and brief ending that he'd written in a fit of pique, assuming it would prove that his original ending was better, and the Director loved the new one. Audiences have also loved it, for almost 40 years.

Film and novels don;t really work as comparison points in this conversation because of the massive differences, other than to say this; I think those two examples show that there is not 'one way.'

Necessity is the mother of invention. Obligation is a killer. I think as long as a writer can stick with the former and be honest with themselves, then the latter doesn't become an issue.

But this is the internet, and the internet feels the need to reduce all things to yes/no right/wrong.

I also think the more examples we try and throw in of people who've done it a particular way, the more we're simply throwing plates up in the air. We don't know what motivates all these writers any more than we can say objectively whether any of them are good.

Some writers can write fast, some need a lot of time and brooding-space. And sometimes the same writer can be both, depending on time, motivation and mood.

Next week it'll be something else that people want to judge other people over- this week it's the speed at which we write.

Dana King said...

I'm with Declan Burke on this one. Using Mozart and Bach as examples of how qualify need not be proportional to the speed of the work is pretty heady stuff. Saying Bach was not recognized as a genius in his time is an arguable point, as the end of the Baroque period closely corresponds to his death, largely because no one wanted to be compared with him anymore. Either way, the fact remains he WAS a genius, and not a good comparison when arguing a general point. Bach can no more be used as a point of reference for working writers than the Rockies can be used to describe the hill I live on.

Joelle Charbonneau said...

Dana - I'm using the famous examples because most people wouldn't recognize names like Domenico Scarlatti who wrote 555 keyboard sonatas. He, too, was a court composer which meant he had to produce and produce quickly and his work is still known today.

However, I think perhaps you and Declan are wrong in saying that those names are improper comparisons. Steve Weddle's blog post talked about some of the biggest name genre writers of today being asked to write more than one book a year. Those are the authors whose books are the most widely read and perhaps have the chance (due to the fact they are the most well known and have the most books in print) of having some of their work survive past this generation.

I'm not saying that Lee Child is the mozart of modern crime fiction, but some people might. Only time will tell.

Bryon Quertermous said...

Let's look at this a different way for a second. Many people seem to assume that the book a year pace was something publishers put in place to speed writers up. In fact, it was actually put in place to slow writers down.

A good chunk of popular writers have always written fast but publishers, fearing the dilluting of the brand, made them publish other works under pen names. Long before ebooks gained their current popularity, one of the most common complaints I heard about the publishing industry was that talented and prolific writers were being held back from publishing more than one book in a year.

If we're being REALLY honest with ourselves, the creation of a book is not an exhausting task when compared to other large scale tasks. Writing quickly does not have to diminish the quality of the work, what it does is forces the writer, editor, publisher, etc. to use time productively and plan and execute the project well.

If the Amish can build a barn in a day that lasts generations, we can publish more than one book a year of high quality.

And anyone who doesn't consider Nora Roberts a genius has their head up their ass.

Dana King said...

One thing has lingered between the lines of many of these comments, without being addressed directly: writers work at different speeds. That's great. What I don't understand is why best selling authors who have been asked to be more prolific they they feel comfortable don;t tell their publishers, "no." Are they going to fire Lee Child? Not likely. Someone else will snatch him up in a heartbeat and be happy to get a book a year out of him. Or he can self-publish; his platform is surely big enough.

The longer I'm engaged with writers, i think the reason writers get treated like bitches is, no matter how much complaining goes on, they're okay with it. People generally have to put up with as much bullshit as they are willing to put up with.

Thomas Pluck said...

It depends. Is the idea developed, or can it be developed on the fly?
I think a lot of stories suffer from third acts lacking thought or originality. It's the general weak spot in a story. It doesn't mean taking longer would necessarily fix it, either. The story was just not ready to be written.
I think more books from writers I admire is a good thing, especially if it's going to earn them more money. I think we saw the same complaint with the book-a-year standard, with series especially. It wasn't that the writer was rushed, it was that they couldn't spread their wings. I think we'll see more series characters staying sharp, when writers are allowed and encouraged to write outside their main series and explore new ideas.

Neil Nyren said...

Dana --

Sometimes the writer does say "no." Sometimes we don't ask. Sometimes once a year, or longer, is all a writer wants to do, or can manage. Sometimes -- in fact, more often than not -- the idea for the additional books comes from the writer himself, because he has a great idea, or he wants a bigger presence in the market, or he wants to make more money, or...just because he can.

We work with them all. As several of the comments above have said, it all depends on the writer and how he or she works best -- and that's the same for every aspect of this business.

Anonymous said...

John Steinbeck wrote his 619-page masterpiece THE GRAPES OF WRATH in five months. Norman Mailer wrote TOUGH GUYS DON'T DANCE in ninety days. It took me fourteen months to write OZARK BANSHEE. And there you have it.