Conundrum

I really want to jump into the conversation about whether writers need to be writing faster, but I don’t have the f’ing time. Is that irony? I don’t know. I don’t have the time to figure it out.

For years — seventeen! SEVENTEEN* — I’ve endured the less than complimentary verbs used to describe the output of a book-a-year writer. Cranking it out, churning it out. I’ve joked that people seem to think that writing a crime novel is a bit like owning a Play-doh Fun Factory: insert malleable material and it emerges in the pre-determined shape. (So want to insert lovely photograph of my Play-Doh Fun Factory here, but WordPress is slow today.)The inference seemed to be that no one would write a book a year naturally, that it is a market-directed pace. But it is my natural pace, more or less. I suspect I could go much faster. There is the case of 2008, in which I wrote a novel and two novellas. But I don’t go faster because I am rather lazy. No one believes this. (Some people also refuse to believe that I am actually the snake-mean person in my household while my husband is one of the sweetest, kindest and generous people on the face of the planet. To paraphrase Kathy Griffin: I talk behind people’s backs. It’s called manners.) But, yes, I’m pretty lazy. Today, for example, I wrote only a short chapter, 1,100 words. I could jump into the next chapter, but I don’t feel like it. Instead, I’m writing a blog post. About how I can’t write any faster.

Damn, my head hurts.

Two years ago, my life changed in a major way. A lot of people said — some with a rather sour glee — “Oh, you won’t be able to write a book a year now.” To paraphrase Kathy Griffin again: Suck it, Jesus, a book-a-year is my God now. I’ve written two books and three short stories in the past 24 months. Also a scenario for the book to a proposed musical. (Sorry, can’t talk about it.)

A few weeks ago, I stumbled on a blog maintained by another writer, a critically admired but not very successful one commercially (it needs to be said), who had decided that a Very Successful Writer — critically and commercially — was producing books at a more rapid pace because VSW is a mercenary sell-out. The thing is, I know VSW. I know VSW well-enough to know precisely why VSW is producing more work than ever. And it has nothing to do with selling out. VSW’s writer metabolism changed. Most people slow down; VSW speeded up, caught an adrenaline rush and ran with it. But NVSW didn’t like one of VSW’s books, so it had to be because of the pace, right?

Recently, a Facebook ad teased me into checking out an oil-and-vinegar set on Fab.com. It was cute. It had sold out. I wanted it. Someone showed me the same set on another website, a website less cool than Fab.com. I no longer wanted it. If you think that we respond to books with a purity that has nothing to do with our knowledge of its author, genre, reviews — then you are wrong and I direct you to this book.

I flash back, as I often do, to Alvin Pepler in Philip Roth’s Zuckerman Unbound, complaining that he can’t win: His work is either being judged as slapdash or too labored. The fact is, we all bring to our reading perceptions, real and imagined, that have nothing to do with the work. How long did it take to write? Is the writer the beneficiary of some kind of literary nepotism? Is the writer male or female? Does the book have a cool cover? Is the writer rich? is the writer poor? Am I having a migraine?

Could I have written more than 1,100 words today? Sure. But I made a calculated decision that I would rather surrender thirty minutes of the 480 I have every day to work, work out and run errands and take a meandering walk through the neighborhood. I wanted to see my daughter as she headed to “her” coffee house and pressed her face to the display case, choosing her breakfast. When you read Chapter One in Untitled Lippman #20, remember that. Or, better, don’t. It has no bearing.

*Nineteen books sounds like more than a book a year, but it’s really not. I’d explain this, but I don’t have time.

 

15 thoughts on “Conundrum

  1. The work takes the time the work wants, whether it’s writing a book, weeding a garden or letting a toddler walk around a bakery (not that the last is work). I think that NYT article could have been written with 80 different conclusions, so I’m not going to fall prey to achievement envy.

  2. I’m a really prolific knitter, I can crank out an entire sock in an evening, if it’s an easy sock pattern, and I’m in the mood to knit fast. I can knit an adult-sized Fair Isle sweater with little yarn and teeny needles, in 2 weeks if I concentrate. I become obsessed with new crafty things on a regular basis (latest: weaving… omigod, it’s amazing to see the fabric grow, I want all of the equipment… all of it… now). But writing? I’m slow even when I’m fast. And I get all cranky-like when people try to hurry me up.

    Some people write like I knit. Others write like I write (only, you know, better). And there are always people who will judge you no matter what you do. I don’t even know if I’m going anywhere with this (blather is also one of my skills), except that speed is irrelevant. Fast, slow… write however you write and ignore everything else (except bakeries- never ignore bakeries).

  3. I think every writer has a natural pace that can be tweaked to some degree but not much without damaging effects. Genre writers tend to write faster and, for the longest time, were being held back from writing too many books. Now, they’re being asked to write more than that. I think each writer has to make that determination individually not under pressure from readers or publishers.

    I would love to write more than one book a year but I can’t imagine writing more than one of the same kind of book in a year. I do think short stories and novels open up a whole new world of opportunities but only if the writer is skilled in that area or has passion for the work.

  4. Who cares how long it takes or doesn’t take to write something good? It’s sort of like the questions people ask when they hear about a death. Knowing the details doesn’t change a thing….it just says a whole hell of a lot about the insecure person doing the asking.

    I LOVE your books. I don’t care if you write them IN play-doh first with your thumbnail. I read slowly anyway.

  5. And now I really want to try writing in Play-doh!

    I agree Bryon. Our metabolisms can be tinkered with only so much. I think the thing that really ticked me off was that the Times (using an apparently uncredited Jennifer Weiner’s observation about literary writers) buys into the idea that there’s a huge gulf between literary writers and everyone else. But the Times doesn’t seem to recognize its own role in anointing and promoting the myth of a literary Master Race.

  6. I knew before I opened FB today that we would be lucky the universe found a topic to move you off your regular path. Your post made my day.

  7. Don’t you think a great deal of the pressure to write a book a year is ironically the result of the success that comes from creating a well received series? Especially in the mystery genre, once a beloved character is created, the writer is almost forced on to that path. Everyone wants to know “when’s the next Jackson Brodie, the next Alex Cross, the next Lincoln Rhyme, the next Alex Delaware, the next Kinsey Milhonne, the next Kathyrn Dance, the next Lucas Davenport, the next Harry Bosch.” You could write two Pulitzer’s in a row and we both know that the first public appearance, signing, or even interview is going to produce what question? “When’s the next Tess Monaghan coming out?” Whenever I recommend you to a friend of former student I always tell them to start with Hardly Knew Her. Once they appreciate the richness of language and style with which you write they will most often then go on to Tess and all the great local color and character development. It’s kind of the curse of commercial success but it is really unique to genre writers. I doubt if that kind of pressure existed for Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, years ago or even later for a Norman Mailer or Anne Tyler. The beloved series character offers a degree of financial security but with it the pressure not to “be lazy” that you mention.

  8. This makes me feel better. For years I used to feel guilty on Mondays every other week, when I’d hand in a 900-word newspaper column by about 10 am (a piece I probably started around 7 am) and then call it quits for the day. Tuesday would be back to the grind with other assignments, but Monday afternoons I was pretty much a slug. I think down-time is an underrated need for writers and other artists…because we are all also very goal-oriented (with or without marketplace incentives). And some of us (especially if we’re less naturally productive than you, dear LL) feel we need to be proving ourselves every moment of the day for having the audacity to follow a creative career. But of course, you gotta let the fields lie fallow between harvests….

  9. Have you read Neil Gaiman’s response to a fan who asked him if it was reasonable to feel that George R.R. Martin was letting him down by not publishing the next installment in his Fire and Ice series quickly? It’s brilliant, and I think, very accurately sums up the attitude that the reading public should have towards authors. The link is here: http://journal.neilgaiman.com/2009/05/entitlement-issues.html.

    Authors write and publish on their own schedules. We, the reading public, should read and enjoy and be happy when our favorite authors have a new book available. That is all.

  10. It’s all so relative, isn’t it?

    Evolving, as you have, from the journalistic discipline of daily deadlines, taking an entire year to gestate and give birth to a piece of work could easily smack of (lazy) extravagance.

    How many of us, no matter what our creative path, aspire to the kind of internal rhythm you seemed to have found in your hustle and flow?

    This topic makes reminds me of a minor bookstore incident that happened a few weeks ago when I was dawdling in unfamiliar territory (the poetry section), and overheard the tail-end of an almost musical pitch sung by a salesgirl in the gushing tones of a devotee, addressed to a rather stout middle-aged female, dressed in a pastel-print, calf-length, wrap-around dress of what looked like organic cotton. A straw hat with a feather wouldn’t have looked out of place perched on top of the thick, naturally grey braid festooning her back. She gave the impression of hip affluence, yet had the air of vacating by slow degrees her stance of polite attention. Soon enough, she drifted away, allowing me to buttonhole the salesgirl, about whose appearance I have little to say… only that I’d been thinking, “Oh, Ann Patchett and partner have hired a crop of dewey local enthusiasts for this book-lovers’ oasis”. “What were you just talking about?”, I asked the bright young thing. She immediately launched into further exclamations of wonder and delight for the works of Dickens…about how he could so seamlessly make his vivid characters self-combust when he needed them to. Her favorite? ‘Hard Times’! Ah, one I haven’t read…he was soooo prolific…some say, a hack…

  11. Can not stand the smell of Play-Doh yet my children want to make a mess with it every chance they get. Now that smell will trigger thoughts of the next new book and the enjoyment I’ll get reading it. No matter the length of the wait your books are always worth it.

  12. Well, I love your books and they are always worth the wait. I don’t care how long it takes you to write a book. The thrill I feel when I see that brown box in my mailbox is always fun, especially when I have the next day off and can spend it curled up in my reading chair!

  13. I found your work through the Noir books, and felt blessed that your first novel had so many relatives waiting for me. A fine summer’s worth. Take your time, each one has been so worth waiting for. I hope you introduce me to NO in the way you made Baltimore new to me.

  14. I would rather an author take their time and give me something good. So while I really want more Tess mysteries I am okay with waiting. I would rather that then you publish one every 6 months. When authors do publish that quickly their novels lose a bit of their heart.

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