I’ve always considered myself lucky to be a writer. True, I work long hours…compared to the purely idle rich or to a top soccer player who puts in a tough 90-minute week. But essentially the burden on a writer is less the hours spent at writing – which ought to be fun – and more the occasional pondering about one’s self-worth, about one’s writing itself, and about one’s status in the author’s pantheon from piffling to powerful.
Which is why I was amused by the caption to The New York Times’s article this weekfeaturing crime writers who’re now being asked by publishers and agents to write short stories and extra features to help publicize their novels – or even to write a second novel a year. (In the print version, though not on the web) the caption told us that Lisa Scottoline works “a brutal writing schedule” which sees her tapping away from 9 a.m. “until Colbert” comes on at 11.30.
My great-grandfather had a brutal schedule working in a Welsh coal mine. The Chinese who make the little plastic thingamy bits of crap I toss out every day have a brutal schedule. A hooker has a brutal schedule. For your schedule to be brutal, your work also has to be brutal.
No writer has a brutal schedule. In fact, no one who works in an office has a brutal schedule. Long hours in an office are boring, but not brutal.
The Times article led me to consider the pressure on (and personality of) the mega-selling thriller writer type. I’ve bumped into a few of them at book fairs. I’ve found them to be mostly contented, charming and fun, and yet… they all seem to feel a good deal of pressure from agents and publishers. In the past (and still, no doubt) that pressure was limited to the desire of the agent and publisher that Ms. Megaseller would resist the temptation to write a standalone novel and come up with another in their hugely popular series. The writers in question never seemed keen to do yet another installment of “McIrishname and the Gimp,” or whatever their series was called. I found it more than mildly astonishing that even with millions in the bank, all these writers claimed to find it hard to resist the blandishments of their publishers.
As if the nearly bankrupt denizens of the publishing fraternity would dump Ms. Megaseller if she put McIrishname and the Gimp out to grass for 18 months, while she knocked out a stand-alone about a murder during the Westphalian pumpernickel crisis of 1384. (I’ve a mind to send a proposal on that to my agent…)
Equally: as if publishers might put aside their fear of a future of thin e-book margins and dump Ms. Megaseller if she didn’t write two novels in a year.
Now I’ve been known to do a bit of extra stuff for my good readers. I’ve made videos for my books. I’ve put out some short stories for Kindle. I’ve even recorded an album of original songs about my books. I’m willing to go that extra mile. But there’s a risk to producing more than…well, more than I produce.
Some time ago I asked my agent — while she was lunching me on sushi on Park Avenue during a three-week break in my brutal writing schedule – if she thought I should try to write two books a year. I pointed out that I was quite efficient and that I wrote quickly and didn’t really work very long hours. I could up the productivity, perhaps, if she thought it’d be good for my career. She told me I shouldn’t.
“Because one of the two novels a year might be crap?” I asked.
“Weeeeell, no,” she said. She’s very polite. She’s from the Midwest.
I twigged. “Ah, you’re worried BOTH of them might be crap.”
She nodded and pushed the sushi boat my way.
Writing too much during the course of a day drains the creative energy. Larry McMurtry has said you ought to stop before you’re played out, because otherwise you’ll be mentally too exhausted to pick up and continue the next day. I assume McMurty quits long before Colbert comes on. (I assume that, as a 76-year-old who lives near Wichita Falls, Texas, old Larry’s in bed before Colbert comes on.)
The message implicit in the Times’s quote from an Oregon lawyer who downloaded a short-story by Lee Child that was a teaser for a forthcoming novel (“I’ll give anything he writes a shot”) is that it doesn’t matter if a mega-seller writes crap. (Notice the appreciation and, yet, the lack of enthusiasm in that quote.) Plenty of people will still download it.
Michael Caine once said that he made three movies a year. A brutal schedule. “Two of them may be rubbish,” he said, “but one of them will be good, and that’s the one people will remember.” It won’t work that way for books. (Unless maybe you get a stable of little writer- chimps to bang them out for you, and even that doesn’t seem to work on a literary level, though they do sell, which proves my point. Anyhow that’s for another blog post.)
Meanwhile, I’m working on a short story about Caravaggio, which I intend to publish for digital download shortly before the July 1 UK publication of my novel about the great Italian artist “A Name in Blood”.
I assure you, it’s not crap.