When it comes to the time it takes to write a book, some authors are ponderously slow, yet others seem capable of performing at breakneck pace. Gustave Flaubert apparently took five years to write Madame Bovary. At the other extreme, I keep reading about self-published authors who are able to write and publish an entire novel in just two months. To me that is quite astounding.
So what is in fact reasonable? Well, if you take some of the world’s best-known thriller writers as a guide – people like David Baldacci, Lee Child and CJ Box – they seem to produce about one book a year.
That sounds reasonable, especially when you consider that they probably have numerous other public commitments to keep up with alongside their writing. Or is it?
Arguably a relatively unknown novelist will be less in demand than they are, and might therefore be able to product a book more quickly than they can; but then again, an unknown writer might well still have a day job, which will reduce the available writing hours drastically.
In both cases, surely you also need to allow some time for the book to be edited and fine-tuned? In addition, some writers will want feedback from others before publishing – a kind of peer review, if you like.
And finally, what about thinking time? In my experience, complex plots and highly-developed characters don’t spring to life overnight. These things need time to mature as you ponder and refine them. There has to be a gestation period.
So how do those speed-writers put together a novel in eight weeks? That could involve producing eighty thousand words, or ten thousand per week: in other words, nearly fifteen hundred words a day, every day. And that’s without allowing any time for plotting, planning, correcting, editing, publishing and promoting.
Well, determination and commitment probably play a big part here, and presumably also a willingness to forego other activities in pursuit of the single-minded goal of producing another book.
But there’s more to it than that. A key factor is that self-publishing seems to favour writers with multiple books to their name. In purely numerical terms, having more books available is almost bound to mean more sales overall – whether those sales are measured in thousands or in penny numbers. It’s simple mathematics.
On top of this, these writers’ books tend to feed off each other, helping to raise the author’s overall profile. The theory (and apparently it can work remarkably well) is that readers who like one book by that author will buy another and another – especially if the books form a series about the same characters.
I’m not saying these fast-track books are bad, by the way. I haven’t put any specifically to the test, so I don’t know. But I’ve just taken five months to write a follow-up to my first book, Alternative Outcome, and I can’t seriously imagine taking much less time and still maintaining adequate quality. As it is, I haven’t finished the reviewing and editing process yet.
But can I afford that luxury? Or should I hurry up and write books more quickly myself? Well, I can see the attraction, but I just can’t imagine how I would do it. I always feel I need time for reviewing and re-writing: not because I’m searching for that perfect phrase, but because I want to avoid mistakes like repeated words and phrases, unnoticed clichés, logical flaws in the plot.
Maybe I err too far in the Flaubert direction, though I certainly don’t intend to. Perhaps I need more discipline. But I’m afraid that if writing books in two months is a shortcut to fame and fortune, it’s one that will continue to evade me.