Southern Scotch

Southern Scotch

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Literary Factories: The Shocking Conclusion

We begin as we began, with a nod to Russell Blake: thriving proof that lively, entertaining books can be written--on a rolling basis--in only five or six weeks. As illustrated in the second part of this series, Blake is part of a long tradition of ultra-prolific and successful authors. I read his work with real pleasure. And when I was growing up I read with equal pleasure books by well-known writers who also wrote at lightning speed: H. Rider Haggard, Alexander Dumas, Edgar Rice Burroughs, etc.

Today I might not be reading at all if I hadn't started long ago with books that rocked my boat: SheKing Solomon's Mines, Tarzan,  etc.

But only books of a certain sort--employing certain formulas--can be written at this speed and on a rolling basis. As readers, almost all of us have other reading hungers--often for the sorts of books that can't be written so quickly, or with no break between. Many top mystery writers tend to limit themselves to one or two books a year. James Lee Burke--a favorite of Russell Blake's--has written twenty Dave Robicheaux mysteries since 1987. The beautiful style, the rich characterization, the intricate plotting--these things all take time.

I hear an objection. A voice from the back: 'Don't even try to tell us that great writing can't be done at lightning speed. You ever heard of Jack Kerouac or Lord Byron?'

An important point, sir. Thank you. I acknowledge that both men wrote quickly and that Byron, in particular, liked to boast that he never revised--that he wrote as the lion leaps and if he missed he'd leap again. That said, let me respond with two points. The shorter first:
1) Byron was an English Lord with a very long inner division: he had literary genius...but believed writing was unmanly and unworthy of his rank. He never achieved his full genius till he discovered a form--in his comic epics--where his offhanded, slapdash style perfectly suited the form and the themes. Even more important: Lord Byron lied through his teeth: I've seen samples of his writing...and they show significant revisions.
2) Kerouac requires a quote from writer Andrea Shea. On the Road is often cited as proof that spontaneous writing is better. But writers lie like bastards. Read:

Legend has it that Kerouac wrote OTR in three weeks, typing almost nonstop on a 120-foot roll of paper. The truth is that the book actually had a much longer, bumpier journey from inspiration to publication, complete with multiple rewrites...'Three weeks' is what Kerouac answered when talk show Steve Allen asked how long it took to write OTR...What JAck should have said was, 'I typed it up in three weeks.'

As readers--and as writers--we need to ponder the differing payoffs of books. Writer must be getting something they can't do without, whichever camp they park in: those who can't help spending long months, or years, on their books...and those who can't stop producing in only a couple of months. The first camp may find the payoff in the backbreaking quest for perfection. The second camp may find it in the rolling pleasure brought to thousands on thousands of readers.

I like to mix up my reading: mysteries, histories, literary...and, now and then, a classic like the Aeneid that took Virgil ten years to write.

Not so fast, though, Reb MacRath. It's true Virgil wrote one or two lines a day, then spent the rest of every day fine-tuning and polishing. But it's also true that Virgil was being very well paid--and would end up one of the wealthiest men in all Rome. He had no incentive to finish the book in a year. Furthermore, he had no laptop. And--

Oh, dear, this is so complex. Gotta go now--time to work on my labour of eighteen months...then check out Russell Blake's latest...then read a poem or two by my favorite poet, Auden.



  1. If you liked H. Rider Haggard, Alexander Dumas, you'll LOVE S.R.Crockett. Give him a whirl. He was a direct contemp of HRH and 'Men of the Moss Hags' is Dumas set in Scotland (and Holland) and a great place for you to start! It was serial fiction in popular magazines of the day so the style is breakneck and episodic. Easy and quick to read and real boy's own adventure stuff... take a trip back to your youth and give him a whirl. special offers on ebooks will start on Wednesday on the site so why not join Galloway Raiders and give it a whirl. (like the shameless plug?!)

  2. There is absolutely no way I could write a book in 5 or 6 weeks. I can take that long on revisions only of the finished article. I could maybe type it in 5 to 6 weeks, but there's a difference between typing and writing!

  3. Thanks for the tip, Cally. I'll check him out. And, Chris, I'm with you on this though I'm able to read and enjoy some writing that's been quickly done.


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