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Thursday, March 6, 2014

Prose and Cons: Literary Factories 1

There's a world of difference between a prolific writer and a literary factory. In fact, there's another world of difference between a literary factory and a literary factory superintendent. The distinctions lie at the heart of this new series, Prose and Cons, whose main theme is writing from a reader's point of view. So, to keep the debut short, let's start with the distinctions--and a thought about the different demands of the three classes of readers.

1) The prolific writer. Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Sue Grafton readily come to mind as present-day examples. Any writer capable of turning out a book each year, or every other year, should have their name on this list. King proved prolific enough, years ago, to have had to resort to a pen name for his surplus novels. But the key points distinguishing prolific writers from factories is: their concern with quality and their abiding conviction that they are serious writers. Readers still expect quality from these writers and are capable of criticizing work not perceived as first-rate.
2) The literary factory. Quantity for this group overshadows quality. The legendary Frederick Faust could be their patron saint. Faust, who wrote as Max Brand and at least eight other names, turned out more than 500 novels and as many shorter stories. Total lifetime output: 25-30 million words. Speed: 12,000 words in a weekend. You'll have names of your own that belong on this list: Edgar Wallace, Isaac Asimov, Erle Stanley Gardner, ebook writer Russell Blake (25 books in 2 years). Some wrote for money, some wrote for fame...and some wrote, I believe, because they could not stop. The process of production, not the quality of the end product, drove them to put out again and again. Variety is welcome by readers as long as it's seen to run true to the brand.
3) The literary factory superintendent. Alexander Dumas caused a fury when his habit of 'farming out' parts of his books became public knowledge. No one minded his having a staff of researchers and assistants. But readers felt duped by his practice of having others write the parts that bored him or were beyond his ken. The Dumas brand, however, proved far stronger than the scandal. And I wonder how many readers today would be alarmed to know the practice still runs strong today. Publishers and agents are silent on the subject while they agree it does exist--and that readers would be shocked if they knew how prevalent it is. James Patterson deserves a good deal of credit for tearing down the Chinese Wall...and listing the names of his 'partners'--aka, employees. Readers of this last group's books want repetitive experience. They don't want a new book from James Patterson in the sense of something different. They want the same book as the last one they read, but with a different cover. Above all, they want the addictive formula: the third person opening that segues to the first person...short chapters...snappy characters...etc.

In Part 2 we'll have a look at the likely differences between a novel written in a year and one written in a month.


  1. I'd add one idea to the mix, which is that, regardless of the number of days it takes to produce a novel, a better metric would be the number of hours. As an example, I generally take 150-200 hours to write a first draft. Maybe another 125 for rewrite, and 75-100 for third draft, before it goes off to the editors, where it gets four more passes. So in plain math, call it 400 hours to write a novel ready for the editors. If you work full time hours, five days a week, that would be 10 weeks. If you, as most authors, don't get eight hours of writing into an eight hour day, but rather, four, then it's 20 weeks, possibly more like 30 if you're like me, because I find that it takes a lot longer to get back into the story if I don't write in long stretches. The point being that even a "literary factory" like myself will take the equivalent of a typical full time writer's 20-30 weeks to complete a novel. Add in eight more weeks for editing and proofing, and there's your one novel a year.

    My secret is that I work 12-15 hour days, of which 80% is writing. Call it 70-80 productive hours a week. By my math, that's how you can turn out a competent first draft of between 80K and 100K words in two to three weeks. Add couple to three more, and there's your polish. If you look at my publishing history, you'll see I have put out a novel roughly every five weeks. Some are short (my non-fiction run 50K), but most are between 75-125K words.

    The math adds up. I typically take three to five days off between novels, mostly sitting around plotting and outlining the book that's come to me while I was editing, and then repeat the process. So far, no burnout, although last year I admit I came close, with the Clive Cussler novel and one I'm shopping to trad pubs thrown into the production schedule.

    Most novelists do it part time, because they have to have a day gig to support themselves. So maybe they get in an hour or two of coherent writing each day. At that rate, you can see where it might take six months to a year to complete and polish a novel.

    The fallacy I encounter all the time is that the number of days taken to produce a novel somehow equates to the quality thereof. That's hogwash. Some novelists take a year for the words to steep and mature, others splash it onto the page nearly fully formed. Everyone works differently, and this is a business of exceptions, I've found. Every author is different, just as is every reader.

    That marvelous diversity is what makes it fun. Be boring if we all were the same, don't you think?

  2. Thanks for your detailed response and explanation, Russell. I plan to explore speed and regularity in the next couple of posts. In particular, I'll delve into misleading comments from some writers about the time spent in 'writing' their books--when 90% of that time may have been spent finding ways to avoid the writing. My breakdown into groups doesn't turn negative I'll the third group--because I believe that writers should actually write their books. I think the factory analogy holds in a positive way for writers committed to producing large quantities of books on a strict timeline while maintaining strict quality control. I buy and wear with pleasure quality clothing by brand names I trust. At the same time, there's nothing like a custom tailored suit. My warrior's big enough for all--and so my reading wardrobe...except for literary sups.

  3. Unable to edit my comment on my Kindle Fire. Should read ' My breakdown into groups doesn't turn negative till...' and ' My wardrobe's big enough for all..' Finally, just to be perfectly clear, I've enjoyed a half-dozen books by Blake--whereas I couldn't read ten pages of The Bridge by Wiliam Gass...thirty years in the writing.


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