Sunday, July 3, 2011

Six Novels a Year

Going to a revisit to a topic I've hit on before: Productivity.
More specifically the myth that writing well means writing slowly and its corollary: stories written quickly are no good.

Do not confuse typing fast with writing fast. Despite Mavis Beacon's best efforts, I am not a touch typist. I do use nine fingers (left thumb just sort of goes along for the ride) but not in the way the truly keyboard savvy do and I'm as likely to be watching them as the screen or my notebook. Though I have been known when under the gun to produce 1600 words each hour of four to six hour sessions, I normally cruise at about 600 words an hour when writing. Sometimes slower, sometimes faster – but at the end of the week when you divide the words I keep by the hours I spent writing it averages out to about 600. This is actually slower than the industry average. Most pros produce a page of prose every fifteen minutes. If you double space, have proper margins, and use a font large enough for the editor to read comfortably, a manuscript page is about 250 words. So a page every fifteen minutes is 250 words every fifteen minutes is 1000 words an hour.

A standard novel these days is about 90,000 words long. (Paperbacks from 50 years ago look like novellas because the official definition of "novel" is anything over 40,000 words. Publishers took that more seriously in the 60s.) At my cruising speed of 600 words an hour, a 90,000-word novel represents 150 hours of typing. At 1000 words an hour it's 90 hours of typing.

Of course, there's more to writing than typing. I spend a lot of time with a pad of graph paper mapping out plots in boxes and circles and connecting lines. I think visually, and the storyboard approach works best for me. I also research any locations or cultures or technologies I might use in a story (because I'm a luddite who doesn't get around much and ain't got no culture). In addition to preparation, many writers rewrite. I don't, in the classic sense; most people who earn a living writing don't. But some who know me have argued I rewrite constantly. Note the phrase "words I keep" above. I routinely delete half of what I've written as I'm writing – throwing out scenes that don't work and redoing them from the beginning. Though I'm quicker to slash and burn than most, this mid-course adjustment method is common. (Unless you're Harlan Ellison or Robert Heinlein or Isaac Asimov or Fred Faust; then your first draft is your only draft.)

Most of your researching is at the beginning of your project and most of your revising/polishing comes at the end, but for the sake of keeping my math simple I'm going to pretend the time spent is constant. In my experience, even when a lot of research is needed if you track your time you'll discover there's at most fifteen minutes of research for every hour of writing. And from what I've observed of revisers, every hour of writing engenders about half an hour of reviewing and polishing. Let's call it forty-five minutes just to be safe (and have round numbers to work with).

So pretend you're me (only better looking and prone to revision); you get 600 good words per hour on the page and you're determined to devote two hours six days a week to completing your 90,000 word novel. While the number of minutes you spend on each task will vary daily, on average those two hours will break down into 15 minutes of research, 60 minutes of writing, and 45 minutes of polishing. Working only twelve hours a week, you will have your novel ready for the publisher in twenty-five weeks. Just under six months. Take two weeks off before starting your next project and you'll be finishing (and submitting) two novels a year. Devote three hours a day, six days a week to your writing and you will produce a novel every four months; three novels a year. Four hours a day dedicated to writing (not surfing the net and reading blogs like this one) will produce four good novels a year.

This timeline applies only to my writing, of course. Everyone is different. Double the amount of time you spend on revision and research relative to writing, and twenty-four hours a week still renders two 90,000-word novels a year. Write faster and five or six novels a year are likely. In fact, six-novel-a-year writers are not at all unusual.

But. If people believe that novels written quickly are not written well, will they buy what you write if they see six new titles from you a year? Some writers (and publishers) are afraid of the fast books are trash books prejudice. That's why you see pen names like Ellis Peters or Richard Bachman or Kris Nelscott or J. D. Robb or Max Brand.

When war correspondent Fred Faust died in combat in WWII at age fifty-two he had been writing for thirty years and published five hundred novels. No, that is not a typo. 500 novels divided by 30 years renders something in the neighborhood of a novel every three weeks. Now remember, in those days a novel was only about 40,000 words; it would take him six weeks to write a modern 90k novel. Of course, he didn't just write novels. In addition to being a correspondent he was a screenwriter and wrote short stories. He was well aware of the prejudice against writers with work ethics and used dozens of pen names. It's been estimated that he had over 25 million words published in every genre and mainstream literature. And if you don't think fast writing produces good fiction, Google Frederick Schiller Faust.

But what if these numbers are all science fiction to you? What if on your best day you only produce 200 words an hour? It would take you 450 hours to complete a 90,000-word manuscript. That comes out to 90 minutes of writing a day, 6 days a week, for 50 weeks.

A novel a year is not a bad start at all.


Charles Gramlich said...

I've gotten faster and faster in the past four years, partly because when I'm off in the summers and write I pick up a lot of momentum that I lose when I'm working in spurts during the regular school year. I can't imagine doing six novels a year. I figure if I were full time I could probably do two 70,000 word novels and half a dozen short stories. I'm definitely a slow writer. Or so it seems to me.

G said...

I agree with that sentiment of a novel a year.

The project I'm shopping around took me about 2 1/2 months to write (very much out of the ordinary for me) but the remaining part of the year was spend editing and rewriting.

My current headache falls more under your guideline: seven months spread out over two years.

Elle D Hayes said...

My current goal is four releases per year starting in 2012 (I've gotten a late start on 2011 and will probably only have three releases this year). I work full-time and write slow so I'm comfortable with this goal. I think every writer should find a flow that works for them and stick to it.

Liane Spicer said...

I've written the first draft of one novel in two and a half months, and another in about four. The first I managed by writing every day. I take a break after the first draft and pass it to my critique partner. The hard part, the polishing and partial rewrite, might take another couple of months.

I've seen a formula somewhere: 1000 words a day x 5 days a week x 52 weeks a year = 3 novels a year. It's supposed to be quite doable.

Maybe it is for full time writers, but not for me. One complete, submission-ready 90,000 word novel in a year = a good year for me.

Marissa Monteilh said...

Great post - Fred Faust averaged a book every 3 wks.? Yikes!!

I always thinks of 2500 words per chapter, and if I write 30 chapters, that's a good point of where to stop for the first draft - then I polish, rewrite, edit, layer, etc., usually ending w/80 - 90k words. I have written 3 books in 1 year, but I really do need at least 6 mos. to write so that I don't miss what my characters might have to "say" and I don't like the pressure of rushing it. 2 per yr. is my max, unless I'm including a short story - but like Liane, I prefer 1. It's a lot of work if we want a life as well, something's gotta give!

Jess said...

Fascinating! :)