The Need for Speed

There seems to be more buzz than usual among genre writers seeking ways to increase their output. It used to be that producing one book a year was considered normal, a happy balance between flooding the market and allowing your readers to forget your name. Then that got pushed to two books a year. And then writers started juggling multiple series, sometimes in different sub-genres, and output began increasing exponentially, with expectations keeping pace.

For those doing the math, it actually seems pretty reasonable. A writer who churns out 1,000 words a day, five days a week, over a fifty-week period, will have 250,000 shiny new words at the end of the year, and that’s assuming they take weekends off and have a couple weeks of vacation. That’s about two-and-a-half to three novels. Or two novels and a bunch of short stories. Not a bad output.

Except writers know it’s not that simple. There’s more to writing a good book than simply writing the book. There’s rewriting and editing. Galley pages to review. You need to take some time to actually promote the book — updating websites, running contests, heading out for blog tours and book signings and the occasional conference. These are necessary distractions that can affect a writer’s daily output. And let’s not forget those other pesky things, like day jobs and kids and visiting in-laws.

So it’s perfectly understandable that writers are searching for ways to write faster. Whether that means hitting the daily word count in less time or simply producing more words per day, the goals are the same: Write more, better, and with less need for huge deletions. Tips for achieving this goal focus primarily on limiting distractions, such as phone and internet, and knowing where you want to go with the story before you sit down to write each day — both logical approaches that require no special tools or magic tricks. Fantasy writer Rachel Aaron talks about her own system over at her blog, and young adult writer Holly Black has challenged a group of writers to experiment based on Aaron’s ideas.

But why this need for speed? Are readers really so impatient that they can’t wait a little longer for an author’s next book? Is it because there are so many trilogies or quartets or open-ended series that we hear a greater clamor to find out where the story is taking us? Are the writers themselves pushing the race to publish — hoping that constant accessibility for readers will translate to popularity and more sales? Or are they simply trying to keep up with their flow of ideas?

I’m curious what you all think, both as readers and as writers. Do you wish your favorite authors would write more? Faster? Would you still love them as much if you needed to wait a year for their next work? And for the writers, do you feel pressure to hurry up and finish your latest project? Do you look for ways to increase your output and maybe squeeze in another book per year? Is this trend just in the genre community, or are more mainstream and literary writers getting pushed to write more? Is this all a reflection of our general impatience as human beings — the same rush that makes us flip channels during commercials when we watch TV — or is it something else?

31 thoughts on “The Need for Speed

  1. Thanks for this. Rachel Aaron’s post is especially helpful. I also find that having a good sketch of the scene first makes the writing go quicker and easier. Now if only I could learn to shut down the internet. But if I did, I might not have seen this post…

  2. A few points:

    Jean Auel, ‘Clan of the Cave Bear’ series, took 30 years (give or take a few years) to produce her series … and I waited on tenterhooks for the next book every time. One of the books came out 12 YEARS after the immediate previous book. If the book or series is worth waiting for, readers will wait. Along the way, Miss Auel redefined the term ‘research’ for writers everywhere as she spent years at archeological digs in eastern Europe and France so she could accurately depict life at the time Ayla lived.

    While I certainly can’t prove anything, when I see a ‘highly prolific’ author’s works, my first thought is ‘What computer program did (s)he use to generate this book?’ In your post, you pointed out a very few of the distractions that get in the way of writing regularly and without interruption. There are many, many more. The story generating computer programs make ‘writing fast’ so easy. Plug in a few names, a couple of locations, a genre, and a few other odd details, then let it rip while you go shopping or get your hair done, and come home to a completed book. People who use those programs are not writers, or authors. They are machine operators. Only people who struggle over every single word are true writers/authors.

    There are exceptions, of course – nothing is absolute. Stephen King, for example, from a story I read about him years ago, at that time, wrote for just a few minutes every day, on a typewriter. When he was done, he turned in the pages to his editor, and raked in the royalties. Oh, to be able to write like that!

    I believe that trying to write faster or more will cause the finished product to suffer, and it’s the finished product that is what matters the most. The best quality writing comes when there are brain cells engaged in the process, and a lot of thought and caring is going into the story. For most of us, it’s not about the money, although that does provide an incentive. It’s more about the creativity, the need to tell the story and your personal pride in your work.

    Quality is the destination, not quantity.

    1. Interesting comments, and I’ll certainly agree that not all series works are created equal. That said, it’s a bit insulting to assume that the writers themselves are not doing the work. I know quite well how many of my clients struggle with their books, striving to delve into character motivations, plot development, and to provide readers with entertaining, satisfying stories. The only computer programs they’re using are their word-processing programs of choice. You may not find the results to your personal taste, but please don’t belittle their efforts.

      1. You’ve misunderstood me. I’m not talking about word processing programs, like WORD. I use WORD. Word does not write the story, it only records your keystrokes.

        I’m talking about the programs that are expressly for the purpose of taking a little input from a live person and creating the finished product.

        I confess, I actually bought one probably 25 years ago. I hated it, and, ultimately, I threw it out – and it was a major investment in those days!

        I’m in this business for the writing. It’s the creativity part that I love. I’m a ‘pantser’ writer so I sit down with a blank screen and watch the story develop, day by day.

        1. No, I didn’t misunderstand at all. I’m saying that while those “cheat” programs certainly exist, it’s insulting to assume that a writer has resorted to such technology simply because they are prolific. Plenty of writers write several books per year using their own creative energies. Also, the other professionals in the business, such as literary agents and editors, are quite capable of telling the difference between a machine-generated novel and something written by a human being.

          1. As I said, I can’t prove anything – I’m not in every writer’s head (thank goodness). It’s simply the first thought that comes to mind. I even pointed out that there are exceptions, such as Stephen King. So, obviously, with what I said, I’m also saying that not all prolific writers are machine operators. AND, I mean no insult to anyone (I haven’t mentioned names, either) … I’m simply expressing my opinion, not writing laws.
            I’m sure agents can spot computer-generated books, they are definitely easy to spot, but I have to tell you, I’ve read lots of books in my 64 years, and I’ve spotted a few myself – after (traditional) publication!

  3. As a reader, I can’t recall a time that I’ve wanted writers to write faster – but I can think of many, MANY occasions where I wish that the writer had taken more time: had polished the prose a bit more, had filled that plot hole, had reconsidered the worldbuilding even if only to avoid fantasy worlds full of Tom, Dick, and Harry (all of which I *have* encountered in second-world fantasy, along with Karl and Fred and…).

    But on the other hand I’m seeing a fair amount of pressure from the industry – ‘prepare to write two books a year’ – and advances have shrunk to a point where, frankly, most writers can’t live of them even for six months, so the temptation to at least get another book to the market as quickly as doable is all too easy to understand.

    When you negotiate multi-book contracts, what kind of timeframe are you looking for? What do publishers ask for?

    1. On the publisher’s end, it’s varying significantly by genre. With romance they’re often looking for two books a year, and in some cases like to launch a particularly promising series by having back-to-back releases — sometimes three books in a row. This, of course, is not generally feasible, but in the case of a new author who has been working ahead in a series while their agent shopped the first volume, it can occasionally work. The same with fantasy books, though of course in some cases the world building etc. results in huge gaps between titles. If a first volume in a series didn’t really capture the audience, these gaps can sometimes make it hard to gain traction with later books. No momentum. In young adult I still see 9-12 months between books quite frequently. Sometimes more, but not by much.

      But most editors I work with do ask for input from the author on how fast they can comfortably write. And if the books are not a series but simply stand-alone titles, they’re happier with a little wiggle room between books. It’s something I talk to clients about ahead of time, as well. It’s not a real factor in my own decisions; I want my writers to work at the pace that allows them to produce their best work

      For the most part, the authors writing more than two books per year are already established. This is their day job, so they aren’t struggling to work around another work commitment and that makes a huge difference in the amount of time they have to write.

      1. Thanks, that’s very interesting. I can see why established authors would write somewhat faster – less need for research when working in established worlds, better research techniques, fewer wrong routes to charge down, better overall prose skills, but I am also worrying that new authors aren’t given the time to _develop_ those skills – and people who need to keep the day job and can’t justify spending too much time on their writing can’t _develop_ to the same degree, regardless of how much they try.

  4. I could feel my blood pressure rise as I was reading this. Produce, produce, produce! It’s a good thing I’m a workaholic. Haha.

    I write historical fiction and the thought of cranking out more than a book and year– which is still a cutting it close with research and necessary fine tuning to make a book great– seems impossible. Let’s just say I’m glad I’m not a genre writer. Haha!

    As a reader, I’m a little impatient for the next book in a series, but the good news is, I ALWAYS wait for them. My TBR pile is a mountain. There’s always another book to occupy my time between series.

    1. With historical fiction, there’s all that research required. Historical romance writers tend to stick to one time period for this very reason — they can recycle the research they’ve done to a certain extent — but straight historical fiction definitely has more of a time gap between titles. Even if there’s a series, I think the readers tend to be understanding of the detail-heavy background material and the need to take the time to verify all those facts.

  5. I think one of the reasons we writers are all in such a tizzy is that it sometimes feels like the end of the world of publishing as we know it. As all the rulebooks change, we’re struggling not only to keep up, but to get it done before Armageddon descends.

    I don’t mean the end of the world by the Mayan calendar, but the feeling that too many book stores are closing, too many publishers are saying no, that if you’re not a best seller you’re no one. Couple that with the fear that we may never hold a real (i.e. bound) book of our own, and the future seems uncertain at best.

    To me, this is the unspoken subtext of the frantic need to produce — for us to want to write all genres at once, to tap our ideas before there is no where left for them to go.

  6. This brings Kathleen Duey to mind. I have been waiting for the 3rd book in her Resurrection of Magic series for what seems like FOREVER. She’s still working on it, and has let her fans know that…but she’s not in a hurry. She’s written other books since. And you know what? I will be there whenever it comes out, preparing by re-reading the first two (which I believe came out in 2009. 2009!). So I guess it just depends on the book. Some series leave such an imprint on their fans that time elapsed between books doesn’t matter as much.

  7. I was lucky in that my first trilogy’s publisher had deadlines of about 4 1/2 months so I learned quickly about the need for speed. Currently, I have several WIPS and would give anything to kick up the speed back to that deadline! Not because I want another trilogy but because I have so many ideas I can’t get to yet (and I hate writing out of sequence)! Plus it seems to work out better in terms of plotting and pace for me. There’s less extraneous clutter and I can always go back in and fix things if needed–in the revision phases or where I think things need to be fixed. Plus I think genre’ plays a part in the speed too. A fantasy can take a lot longer especially if it’s epic.

  8. As a reader, I’ll always wait for a writer. I like the anticipation and the excitement of cracking into another installment in a series. But I do find that lately, as far as series writers are concerned, I’m getting more disappointed by the next installment because it wasn’t fully baked. I can feel the rush of their fingers pounding on their keyboards. The exquisite prose is missing, plot holes are all over the place, or conflict is trite or forced. The magic is slipping away. I wish those writers, editors, and publishers had taken their time. Because they’ll lose out in the end. I’ll just find a better book to read and not wait for the next installment, because my trust in the author has vanished.
    As an aspiring writer, speed troubles me very much. I’ve listened to many agents and editors discuss the benefits of working with series writers or writers that produce two to three books a year, and the expectation of close release dates. I get it. It creates momentum for a debut author, but if the quality isn’t there, then it feels like a lot of wasted half effort. And are we now setting a bad precedent? Does this ultimately doom many new authors because they weren’t given the time to create a better second novel or third novel? Gosh, I hope not.

    1. Kristina, I am very tempted to counter the ‘write faster’ project with a ‘take your time’ project where every time someone feels pressured to write faster they go away and look for ways to improve either the book or their writing techniques: by taking time to read, by studying certain techniques, by doing more research, by examining their book for clichees and eliminating them.

  9. My two favorite authors have written about six books each. One book from each author is in my top two of all time. The rest, well, some are pretty good, some are okay, and the rest are not that appealing to me. Why this difference? It’s not because the authors aren’t good writers, it’s that they want to expand their art, experiment, tackle new topics. Whatever the reason, not every book by every author will appeal to every reader – even those who like an author’s previous work. I sure wouldn’t want to hear a new song from Justin Beiber every week of my life, and I don’t really want to read a new novel from a particular author three times a year. If they can pump out books that fast, they probably aren’t investing very much of themselves in them. Thomas Harris of ‘Silence of the Lambs’ fame writes a book every six or seven years, with the longest stretch being eleven years between books. All of his are good. No quickies there. Of course, he is an extreme, but I’d rather have that extreme than the other. Personally, if I read a book by an author that feels like they didn’t give much attention to it, or if it feels rushed, I’m moving on to someone else. Quality over quantity.

  10. For me, it has to do with the fact that until I’ve written a first draft, I don’t know what I’ve really wanted to say. Then, inevitably, that first draft will be gutted and the rewriting will create the actual novel.

    So getting to that final point–the faster it comes–normally the better. Because if it’s just sitting there, it means no ideas are being tested/brainstormed on the page. And inevitably, some ideas don’t show up until your fingers are moving. Plus, I’ve found that for me, the real story emerges in the edits/rewriting–no matter what I do.

    Also, like on Aaron’s article how she puts such an emphasis on brainstorming. For every single scene. I think that’s huge. It’s not just speed. It’s efficiency.

    1. I think that’s an excellent point. Everyone’s first draft is a little different. Some writers use the first go as almost a detailed outline, while others go much more into depth in the first version. That’s going to have a huge effect on someone’s perceived writing speed.

  11. Tips for achieving this goal focus primarily on limiting distractions, such as phone and internet, and knowing where you want to go with the story before you sit down to write each day — both logical approaches that require no special tools or magic tricks.

    Ahh, but planning does require extra time! At least for me. I’ll sometimes spend a month outlining and doing research before beginning the first draft, and since I write SF and fantasy, my books tend to be longer than those in other genres. Though I’m not writing 200,000 word epics, my outlines are so detailed that they sometimes make it seem that way! And even with all that preplanning, kinks come up that force me to reevaluate the direction the story is taking.

    So yes. Even if I write 5000 words per week and never have an “off” week where I produce less than normal, the work isn’t going to be done after, say, 20 to 24 weeks with the first draft. I can’t fathom writing a book in less than a year simply because of the way I write and the type of story I’m interested in. I really can’t fathom doing it if I’m published someday and have to work on revisions for one book while drafting another, especially if I still have a day job! Some writers can do it, and I give them a huge round of applause. I just don’t happen to be one of them.

    As a reader, I’ve found I don’t enjoy it when authors publish more than a book a year. Perhaps it’s because I tend to prefer longer books, and if an author is pushing 2+ of those in twelve months, they tend to need of another round of editing and the quality decreases. Of course, I like all fans get impatient at times, eagerly awaiting the next book in a series or by a favorite author, but I’m happier when an author takes the time to make sure the book is as good as it can be, rather than rushing to put out as much as they can quickly.

    1. LOL! Well, there’s nothing particularly magical about taking time to plan. I believe the theory is that the time you spend planning ahead, you eventually make up by not staring into space when you sit to write, or needing to work your way backwards and rewrite days’ worth of work because your taken a wrong turn. But everyone, ultimately, has their own system, and I think while most people can find ways to write more efficiently, the end goal is to be satisfied with your own work and progress.

      1. That is true. I’ve always been a planner, but have noticed that the scenes I don’t plan as much take longer to write, or I spend longer mid-writing to figure out how to complete them. And I do write fewer scenes that need to be scrapped or rewritten entirely as a result. It’s a trade-off: more prep time and a slightly faster draft, or take a little longer and figure it out along the way (but maybe be more spontaneous?).

        I still tend to write way more words than the story needs, which would be my real obstacle to finishing anything quickly, so I’m working on that.

      2. I find that the less I plan, the more I enjoy my writing, and the more interesting things my brain comes up with. Outlining, for me, just produces a series of flat clichess, but even playing things through in my head and trying to herd the story along a predetermined path is flattening the story.

        As a reader, I really enjoy *not* knowing where a story will go. I enjoy twists, I enoy the ‘I could never have thought of that’ moments, the ‘they did WHAT’? An as a writer I am no different – if my backbrain throws up an idea like that, it’s worth my time to write it out and put it into the story even if it doesn’t appear to fit (and ruins my idea of what I thought the story would be) – because then my writer-self, too, can have the fun of coming up with explanations and fitting all these things together that didn’t, at first glance, appear to make sense.

        And… those intersting things come only when I stop to smell the roses and look at more closely and spot the fairies among them. If I’m going into a writing session with ‘so he smells a rose, I know the rose won’t be important, let’s get him back to the hut so the next thing can happen’ I feel I am missing out; and that the reader is as well.

  12. I’d have thought readers (writers) would be slavering for new books that come out. While we’re now talking processes of writing, I rarely plan but I do have arcs of the plot and subplots which characters sometimes define. My biggest problem is writing out of sequence–my process is to start at the beginning and continue to the end. That’s really what speeds my writing along. But then what do I know, lol?

  13. As a reader, I’m resigned to the fact that many of my favorite authors take at least two years between books, if not longer. The rewards are great, so I simply try to be patient and use the wait as an opportunity to discover other favorites. It’s hard sometimes, though.

    As a writer, I tend to write quickly. I also tend to write obsessively (I do so every night, and since I’ve trained myself to get my head into my work, I’m usually secure within the story shortly after opening the file). While I don’t outline in the traditional sense, I do use my day job commute to mutter into a recorder and thus work out what will happen in my novel that night, sometimes touching on plot points coming up, or things I need to fix in last night’s writing session. This method has helped me really flesh out my characters and plots. I’m also one of those writers who rewrites several times before the novel is done, so the first draft is more of an outline draft, introducing characters and plots for the first time, and showing me what I need to deepen and learn.

    As I write historical fiction, the research takes certainly takes a while. But that’s something I delve into during my lunch break and once I’m done with my writing session at night (or if I’m stuck for a detail). I’m also fortunate to be friends with several scholars of my period, so when we have lunch, their shop talk is my research. All in all, revisions included, it takes me just under two years to write a novel.

  14. Hm, well, I think it really all depends on quite a few things.
    Personally I´m a huge Nalini Singh fan, and I love the fact that there tend to be at least two new books and at least one novella every year but at the same time I don´t actually hate the wait, simply because she keeps things interesting through her blog the new time. So while I might be waiting impatiently for the new book, I still know there´ll be plenty of quotes,excerpts etc., which don´t only make the waiting more bearable but also build up the antcipation for the book itself.
    However, this only works because so far I´ve never been disapointed by any of Nalini´s end results, so apparently two books and one novella a year is a pace that works for her and her writing.
    That said, I´d rather wait longer for a really good book and get only one book every one or two years instead of having several bad books a year, which I found happened with the Dark Hunter Series by Sherrilyn Kenyon where I thought the first few books where absolutely amazing whereas the later ones where obviously rushed and forced.
    So all in all I think quality should definitely and always be more important than speed.

  15. Wonderful post, and very timely! I’m a new indie author with fifty-million stories floating around in my head (a little exaggeration here), but not enough time to put the words on paper. Between promoting, responding to emails, keeping up a blog, and the list goes on – there are times it affects my creative flow. With that said though, I have recently started putting my time management skills to good use and continue to remind myself that though there are 24hrs. in a day – I can’t do it all – and that’s okay. 🙂

    As for what I want from my favorite authors – I’d love for them to put out a minimum of three books per year, but not if it affects the quality of the story.

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