I don’t usually blog about writing because, yanno, I’m trying to avoid creating Yet Another Writer’s Blog. But a number of things have happened this week that got me thinking, and I felt I had to share them.
On the personal side, I’m struggling with the plot of The Merchant of Dreams, Book Two in my trilogy Night’s Masque; I feel like I’m peeling back the layers of an onion to get to the real story, and it’s slow, painful going. And in the public sphere, there was this weekend’s kerfuffle over Steph Swainston’s announcement that she’s giving up full-time writing to go back to the day job. I won’t go into all the details – the article has been analysed and discussed at length by bloggers and on forums and social media – but will focus on one aspect: the “book a year” model of commercial publishing that Swainston evidently finds so onerous.
The reason this strikes a chord is that I am currently in much the same position Swainston was, back in 2003: on the verge of having a debut novel published, with two more under contract. If anything, my situation is a lot tougher. Swainston’s trilogy came out 2004-2007, i.e. over a three year period; the publication schedule for mine is nearer eighteen months. I don’t know about her, but I went into this deal with only one finished novel, an unusably raw draft of another and a heap of notes. This means that, having spent four years (on and off) writing book one, I have about ten months each to write the other two from scratch.
It’s certainly not an unusual situation to be in. Most professional authors write novels on proposal, that is, they pitch an idea, usually followed up by a synopsis and/or sample chapters, and only then do they write the book. However that’s completely the reverse of the process aspiring writers go through, whereby first you write the novel, and only then do you write a synopsis and a pitch and approach agents (or publishers). It’s therefore a huge, huge culture shock for the newly signed author, to go from that “write what you want, at your own pace” process to “write what you’ve agreed to, in a fixed time span”. I know it’s something I’m still adjusting to, even though I was better prepared for it than most thanks to having taken Holly Lisle’s excellent writing courses, which are as much about learning professional discipline as they are about the nuts and bolts of the craft. Clearly, not all writers can make this transition, as Swainston has discovered.
Some critics of Swainston have said that it’s not hard to write a book in a year, especially if you have the luxury of doing it full-time. And I agree, up to a point. The physical act of writing a book is not onerous, if you are disciplined. Let’s say your novel is going to be around 120,000 words – a good ballpark figure for most fantasy. Writing a thousand words a day, six days a week, you can get that finished in five months and thus have plenty of time left over to revise and edit. A thousand words a day is doable even if you have a day-job; if you’re a full-time writer, it’s a stroll in the park.
No, the time-consuming part of writing a book is developing the ideas. Before you can sit down and hammer out the first (or second) draft, you have to have a good idea of where you are going. For some writers, this involves lots of outlining, world-building, and so on; for others, it happens at a deeper level of the brain, beyond conscious attention. But either way, the story doesn’t spring fully developed from the writer’s fingers, like Athena from the forehead of Zeus – it gestates for many, many months, like an elephant foetus. The entire process, from initial idea to finished manuscript, may well take two years, or three, or more.
So how do you make this work with the “book a year” mentality of commercial publishing? First of all, I’ll say that one book a year is not an unrealistic expectation. If you want to earn a living from your writing, you have to be either prolific or wildly successful – and there lies the rub for Swainston. As a writer of literary, “New Weird” fantasy she has had a lot of critical acclaim but, somewhat inevitably, rather less commercial success. Not that this is a bad thing; the genre should have room for experimental works, and I applaud Gollancz for supporting edgier writers as well as surefire hits. But it’s unrealistic to expect to earn a living by writing niche books at a slow pace.
If you want to write a book a year, and a good book at that, I think the only way to achieve it is by multi-tasking. You can’t focus on one book to the exclusion of all others. You have to be thinking about the next book even whilst you are writing the current one, and probably gathering ideas for future projects as well. I have to hand over a synopsis for book three of my trilogy this November, but I already have a partial draft of that underway, and as I work on book two I’m on the lookout for plot ideas that will lay the foundations for book three. Once book two is handed in, I’ll be working on number three, obviously – but I’ll also be thinking about what I’m going to write after these contracted novels are done.
If you’re an unpublished writer on the submissions merry-go-round, for the love of God write another book whilst you’re waiting! And another. Because come the happy day when you get The Call (or more likely, The Email), one of the first things your would-be agent or editor will ask is: “What else do you have?”. Sure, you pitch just the one book in the initial query, but agents and publishers don’t want one-hit wonders. Write a sequel or, if your book doesn’t have sequel potential, something similar enough that people who enjoy the first book will be interested in the second. The last thing you want is to be in the same position as my friend Stephen Deas, who had to come up with a proposal package for an entire trilogy in a weekend*!
Capture those embryonic ideas and let them embed themselves in your subconscious, so your elephants have time to gestate.
* Don’t try this at home, kids. Stephen Deas is indestructible; you are not.