Friday, 23 September 2011

The 28-day novel

By Peter Stuart Smith (AKA Max Adams, James Barringtion, James Becker and Jack Steel)

This image is a draft of the cover design for the first ‘Jack Steel’ novel, to be published by Simon & Schuster in April 2012. I’ve covered the circumstances of writing this book before, but just a quick recap: my agent came up with the initial idea in January, I started writing it on 4 February and delivered the final, pre-edited MS of just under 100,000 words on 7 March 2011. This was a total of 28 days because I lost two days’ work due to editing another book and then having a water leak in the house in Andorra that necessitated driving 200 miles to another house where the concrete floor and staircase weren’t being dug up by a gang of Spanish workmen armed with jackhammers.
            Obviously the finished MS was a bit rough, because I simply hadn’t had the time to read it as well as write it, but my agent did some quick and dirty editing on it that knocked it into much better shape, and the finished product was good enough to be picked up by Simon & Schuster as part of a two-book deal. I’ve just finished the final editorial work on it, and in fact there haven’t been all that many changes to the submitted MS.
            And that leads me to ask a fairly obvious question: how quickly can – or even should – a book be written? Readers with a mathematical bent will realize that I was averaging well over 3,000 words a day, every day, seven days a week, as well as doing the necessary research to ensure that I got all the details of the RMS Titanic right. It was a very hard month, and I wouldn’t want to do it again, but we were working to an immovable deadline – the London Book Fair – and the end result clearly justified the effort.
            Normally I expect to write between about 1,000 and 2,000 words a day, and I gather from other authors that this is a fairly high output. I heard of one author, who was perhaps predictably working in the literary rather than the commercial field, who satisfied himself by writing just 100 words a day, but who insisted that they were ‘good’ words, which wouldn’t need changing or editing. That prompts two obvious comments: First, I don’t care how ‘good’ the words are, 100 words is not much more than a note for the milkman, and is simply a personification of laziness. This blog submission alone will be around ten times longer than that, and I can promise you it’s not the only writing I’ve done today. Second, every manuscript, no matter how erudite and accomplished the author, benefits from editing, because the author is simply too close to the work to see the faults that are obvious to an unbiased reader.
            And while on that subject, and without naming names, I know of one or two authors who have acquired a well-deserved reputation for being ‘difficult’ – meaning that they’ll argue with their editor for a couple of weeks over the placement of every single comma – who are simply not having their publishing contracts renewed, and who are being dumped by their agents. One in particular has achieved very impressive sales figures, but he’s such a nightmare to deal with that his publishers would rather take the hit and lose his sales instead of having to work with him any more. These days, and in this economic climate, being able to take editorial direction is simply vital if an author wants to stay in business.
            But back to the word count. What is a reasonable output? Should authors take the weekends off, and just work a five-day week like most other people? And, having written your 1,000 words or whatever your daily target is, should you stop at that point and go shopping or walk the dog or something? Or should you carry on until you run out of steam?
            Is a book necessarily any better because the author has slaved away over it for half a dozen years? Or does a book which has been written as fast as possible retain more of a spark of originality, simply because of the speed of its creation?
            Personally, I do know that if I did ever decide I was going to take five years to write a 100,000 word book, I strongly suspect I would die of boredom before I got half way through it. And if I did somehow manage to complete it, my guess is that most of the readers would suffer pretty much the same fate. If the author isn’t excited enough by the story to tell it quickly, I just don’t think it’s worth telling.
            And you can’t even argue convincingly that the research in a book which has taken years to write is going to be any better than one written in a much shorter timescale. Again, no names, but a thriller written by an extremely well-known British author, a literal household name, after – I think – an eight-year gestation period, included a section set on board the British aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal during the Falklands campaign. This would have been a difficult trick to pull off, because the ship was still being built in Newcastle throughout this brief and bloody war, and I know that because I was serving on board HMS Illustrious, which was involved in the conflict, as were the Hermes and Invincible. Checking that fact would have taken him about fifteen seconds on the internet.
So taking years to produce a manuscript is no guarantee of either quality or accuracy, and in this particular case I also wonder if his editor was too frightened of offending the great man to point out his mistake. Because that’s another unattractive trait among certain successful authors – the great ‘I am’ syndrome which so often translates into unbearable arrogance. Publishers normally refer to such authors as ‘demanding’, but few people in the trade are in any doubt about what they really mean.
Personally, whenever one of my publishers, or my agent, asks me if I can do something, my invariable answer is ‘yes’, and I sort out the logistics afterwards. These days, being as accommodating and helpful as possible is essential in the publishing world if you want to have any hope of a continuing career.
Or, at least, it’s certainly worked for me!

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  1. Have to agree, in my limited experience there seems no correlation between the time spent writing a MS and the quality of the finished piece. I wrote my debut in 6 weeks (while working full-time) and was offered a 3 book deal on the strength of it and the resulting book was shortlisted for a major award. I wrote another MS (writing more or less full-time)in 3 weeks, research and all. Those MS were no better, no worse than others I spent longer on. There is 'something' that makes a book work and it either hits you or it doesn't - and I don't always know when I'm writing whether my WIP has it. It's all still a complete mystery to me - so I just keep writing and hope for the best! Leigh Russell

  2. We're so much alike! When I'm in the middle of a book I invariably think it's the most boring drivel that nobody would ever want to read, but I just forge on. And in the end it doesn't seem all that bad when I finally get to read it. Forge on and hope for the best - that's a mantra very writer should follow! Peter

  3. Great blog - I'm one of those slow writers!! 8 years for my first book and just 2 years for my second. At least i'm getting faster! However I will never even approach your speed. Its amazing and, I have to say, a little intimidating. However if it works for you stick at it. I will continue to limp along at my snail's pace. OC Heaton.