Friday, February 12, 2010

Quantity or Quality?

Over January I had my own mini-Nano (or that's what it felt like), writing 35,000 words in four weeks. I didn't set out to - I was just aiming for 5,000 a week and the words kept coming. On the other hand, I was working on three different projects. One was a contracted book, one was my secret vice (a crime novel) and one was an experiment. Out of these, two may never be read by anyone other than me. But if you are a writer, what do you do with all the stuff you write that isn't actually publishable? And what does "publishable" mean anyway?

I was reminded of these questions when I read Dee White's blog post this week about how not to scare off publishers and editors. You're right, Dee, telling a publisher you have 80 or 90 manuscripts at home is not a good idea! I guess it suggests that you might well be a "first draft fanatic" and unable to revise. The quantity is there but most publishers would assume the quality is not. Otherwise you'd have 90 published books.

We all have stories and poems, and often novels, that should remain under the bed, or perhaps even used for firestarters, although I like to keep everything I write, which explains a lot about the state of my office. But I know most of this is just for me, either as practice for an idea that eventually evolves into something more substantial, or just plain venting about something and better put away. I have a filing cabinet that holds drafts of stories and beginnings of novels that may some day be revised with an eye to submitting, and I recently fished one of them out and did exactly that.

There are other stories that have been submitted and not yet accepted. I haven't given up on them but I recognise that they probably need another draft. Sometimes what writers struggle with is deciding what is worth working on. Some of my half-finished novels simply ran out of legs. They started well but there wasn't enough in the driving idea to drive it past page 100. Often the idea you might start with is simply not original enough. It's been done plenty of times before and you haven't managed to bring anything new to it. Only you can decide if you have enough passion left for the story concept to wrangle it into a new shape and lift it above the others.

The other aspect of all of this is time and effort. How much dedication are you really giving each idea if you come up with a new one every week? Are you taking the time to think, develop, stretch, push, plan and test your story idea to its limits before you write it? I think of writers who spend three years on one novel, and then other writers who spend six weeks. Can readers tell the difference? Can you write quality so fast? Some would insist that yes, you can. What do you think?


Snail said...

Georges Simenon wrote about 5 novels a year plus assorted short stories. In the time it took me to type that, he would have probably worked up a couple of pages!

I would have thought that it is possible to write quality quickly if the book is well planned. Then it's a matter of concentrating on the language rather than the content. As one who is a lousy planner, I'm indulging in wishful thinking rather than speaking from experience.

(Verification word: expume, which seems to a cross between exhume and expel. A sort of violent disgorging from the grave.)

Sherryl said...

If you Google the Paris Review interview with Simenon, he talks about writing a novel in eleven days. That's his physical limit, one chapter a day, and then he collapses. And his doctor checks him over before and after!
It's an interesting interview.
(And I like expume.)