Write It Slow?

Calligrafie,_Jan_Van_De_Velde_(1605)Ursula K. Le Guin recently blogged right her on Book View Café about how the marketing practices of Amazon.com results in disposable, interchangeable world-pablum instead of thoughtful, well-crafted literature. She wrote:

If you want to sell cheap and fast, as Amazon does, you have to sell big. Books written to be best sellers can be written fast, sold cheap, dumped fast: the perfect commodity for growth capitalism.

The readability of many best sellers is much like the edibility of junk food. Agribusiness and the food packagers sell us sweetened fat to live on, so we come to think that’s what food is. Amazon uses the BS Machine to sell us sweetened fat to live on, so we begin to think that’s what literature is.

I believe that reading only packaged microwavable fiction ruins the taste, destabilizes the moral blood pressure, and makes the mind obese. Fortunately, I also know that many human beings have an innate resistance to baloney and a taste for quality rooted deeper than even marketing can reach.


The Guardian responded with an article about her powerful essay, so I expect it’s gotten a lot of exposure now.

Le Guin’s perspective reminds me of an experience I had when I was a fairly new writer. I’d sold a handful of short stories to professional markets and I was perpetually working on one novel or another but I hadn’t sold one yet. Because I was still learning how to write at novel length, I wrote really awful, disorganized first drafts and then revised over and over. It took me a couple of years to get a novel into sufficiently good shape that I felt comfortable in sending it out. That was okay, because each one was better than the one before. They were better written, but also deeper in concept and grander in scope. I was getting personalized rejection letters from editors, which encouraged me greatly. At a convention, I encountered an author who had already sold several novels. In fact, he (nominal pronoun for the sake of the article) was churning out three or four a year. When I asked him how he did that, he told me he never revised. He’d write a draft and that was it.

I was devastated. I guess I didn’t have a lot of confidence  as a writer to begin with, but I remember thinking that if I had to write a publishable first draft (an utter impossibility for me), not once but several times a year, there was no hope for me. Fortunately, I had a good support group and I soon realized that this author and I had different aims and abilities. He wanted to write quickly enough to get lots of books on the shelves, and his first drafts must have been sound enough for his editor. I wanted to write books that readers would savor and return to, books they wanted to keep.

The two goals aren’t necessarily incompatible.  I know successful authors who write more than one novel a year (it takes me one to two years at this point to finish a novel to my own satisfaction). They are dedicated craftspeople, and some of their work is very good. It’s not that one way of working is better than another, it’s that I got into trouble by comparing mine to someone else’s.

I know romance writers who support themselves with their writing. They sell on proposal with very detailed outlines. They know exactly how many pages each section of the outline will require and by what date they must finish them to meet deadline. They do this every 3 months. By and large, their readers expect a particular experience and the writers deliver it consistently. It’s a 9-to-5 job, but one they love.

Sometimes when I as a reader pick up a book, that’s what I want. Not challenging literature but a predictable, engaging read. Fast food For The Mind, as it were. It could be escape reading, or comfort, or perfect for a time or situation rife with distractions, when subtle writing would get lost. (Think: on the bus, during your kid’s karate class, in the dentist’s office.)

If all I ever read what Fast food For The Mind, my brain would turn to jelly. Or adipocere, more like. I need my vegetables and whole grains, too: chewy, beautifully crafted work. Sometimes with prose so gorgeous I want to weep. Sometimes so thorny I want to scream at the author. Sometimes so powerful I can never see things the same way again. I won’t say these books can never be written quickly, but it’s important that writers who have these stories in them and who need to write slowly and thoughtfully have the time to do so. And that those difficult, “uncommercial,” non-best-seller, utterly transformative books find their ways to the readers they will nourish.

As a writer, I try to work at the pace that allows me to reflect and dig deep into my stories instead of dashing off the first things that come to mind. (Sometimes these are brilliant, but more often than not, they’re just trite.) As a reader, moreover, I don’t mind waiting another year or two or five for another splendid story from my favorite writers.



Write It Slow? — 8 Comments

  1. Rudyard Kipling said that there are nine and ninety ways to write tribal lays. And he would know!
    I always tell young writers that they have to figure out their own Muse. Some people write fast, some people write slow; some people need ten rounds of rewrite before it’s a first draft (Gene Wolfe) and some people rewrite only when the editor twists their arm (Robert Heinlein).
    And you yourself will change over time. Women especially, because our lives have distinct phases. Esther Friesner once told me that when she was pregnant she wrote like the wind, because she (and her Muse) knew that the moment the baby was born no more writing could be done for months. I was astonished, because the moment I became pregnant my brain dropped into my uterus, and all the creative powers were gone. My Muse was baking a baby, and had no time for me and my novel. But then, the moment the kid was out, I was good to go.

  2. Food metaphors for reading are interesting. Le Guin writes about the packaged foods, the junk foods; you write about the fast food that you sometimes need for comfort or for mental munching. Emphases here on the speed of consumption, as that’s where the growth takes place.

    It reads as though the opposite side of things is a slow-cooked or home-cooked or engaged meal: something labored, something prepared, something simmered, something spiced. Subtle combinations of flavors, appropriate textures and the right kind of crunch or mash in the mouth, and balanced nutrition. Emphases here on the intensity of the experience and the thoughtfulness of preparation and execution, as that’s where the art takes place.

    What’s the analogous read that’s something from a taco truck or pushcart sausage vendor or local greasy spoon diner? It’s not pre-packaged, but hands-on prepared by someone who makes their own living from serving up something others crave. Runny in the right ways or savory down the chin, a plate reflecting local flavors without being home-cooked and without being frozen and shipped?

    • You have perfectly captured why Ursula was wrong. Like so many of her “compatriots” she wants us (the reading public) to read/like *only* the kind of books that she does. It’s analogous to a chef _demanding_ that everyone eat only the foods/meals served at his/her restaurant. Saying. “Every restaurant must serve the same foods/meals as I do, or they should not be allowed to sell any at all. Especially Wendy’s, McDonalds, Burger King, should be closed down, for ‘inferior’ food.”
      Now, Ursula Leguin is a good author, *but _I_ don’t care for her books.* I find them tedious, difficult to read, and *not* enjoyable. (Note: I *love to read,* and will read cereal boxes, milk labels, etc., as a last resort.) Many, obviously, _like_ what she writes, but that “offends” her. She demands that _everyone_ like the same things. IMO, her _real_ problem is that the “Big 5” publishers *no longer control who/what can be published.
      Being a “published author” is no longer a “high prestige” occupation. Like being a “Chef,” when anyone can create/cook/sell food. Worse yet, there are probably _Independent_ authors, selling more books than she does. =8-0 In her mind that diminishes her. She, like so many, see success as a “zero sum game.” IOW, If I won, she loses. Instead of, “there are enough readers that *both* of us can be ‘successful.'” The difference between her, and me, is that I see _every_ author making money, not as a “competitor” to be destroyed, but as _fellow promoters of *reading_.*

      • Congratulations! You win mansplainer-of-the-day! Thank you for the perfect example, a male nobody “explaining” her craft to a very accomplished and successful female professional.

  3. Serendipitously, I put this up on LJ and DW this morning, about this very matter:

    Due to the re-formatting program, the production ms of The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave-breeding Industry dropped ALL the superscript numbers from the footnotes.

    They must ALL be re-entered manually.

    All 1500 of them.

    And only we can do that, which means only one of us at a time can do it, because of what we have to work from to get the superscript numbers correct. Then the other of us must proof those numbers. And then they must again be proofed against the old non-production ms.

    This AM we did some calculations and arrived at $200,000 — that is what it has cost us to research and write TASC, including actions like this latest one. It has taken over six — 6 — years to bring The American Slave Coast to a state that gives it the opportunity to –hopefully — be read and re-read and gain new readers over a period of years, used in classes of various levels, and sourced in new books by historians, as both Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo (2004) and The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square (2008), continue to be.

    It’s impossible to create a work like TASC without underwriting: a faculty position, salary and benefits such as research library inter-library loan, travel allowances, sabbaticals, etc., a spouse with a very fine salary, grants, what have you. Frequently, for those who are most fortunate, all of these.

    We don’t have any of them, other than some grant awards — which were awarded not specifically for TASC , and of course, the most important of all, the academic year at the CVC Starr Center for the Writing of the American Experience at Washington College — which is the only way TASC could have been kicked off. Nor does this take into account other work which could not be accepted due to various deadlines and obligations around the writing of such a massive book. We scramble to keep the bills paid and the research going this entire time. Academic conferences and invitations to present at institutions of higher learning, that provide honorariums, fees and transportation. Thank goodness for friends and colleagues!

    That number, $200,000 is scary to contemplate for the future of scholarship, history and research, particularly in light of how the middle-class is disappearing, and how the populations that try to live on $10 per day and even less, are growing. As well as how real education for most is disappearing.

  4. Pingback: Write It Slow? | The Passive Voice | A Lawyer's Thoughts on Authors, Self-Publishing and Traditional Publishing

  5. Sometimes one can write in parallel and let a story slow cook in the subconscious while overtly working on another.

    The downside of that approach (even if you can pull it off) is making sure they come off the back burner.

  6. I wanted to alert you that there is a typo in the first line of your post – “her” instead of “here”. If you are moderating comments I wouldn’t expect you to post this one (in fact I hope you don’t!). I just thought you’d want to know, as I’m always grateful when a reader flags one for me. As careful as I try to be, a few typos are ubiquitous, it seems. I sometimes think they get manufactured by some malicious cyber ghost!