Monday, September 19, 2011

Productivity is a matter of psychology

Today in the Guardian Sarah Crown initiates a discussion on author productivity, suggesting that we overvalue slow production (such as that of Jonathan Franzen and Jeffrey Eugenides) as proof of literary quality, and tend to despise productive novelists regardless of the actual quality of their novels. It's a fair point, but the ensuing discussion veers towards that old either/or pattern and 'Henrytube' 's comment, 'Personally I don't think it's at all unreasonable to expect a novel per year from a professional author, given today's technology, if that's all they're having to do', is enough to strike despair into the heart of this novelist, at least.

The essential point that's missed in the discussion is that production rate is a private and internal psychological matter rather than a technological one as Henrytube suggests. For me at any rate some novels are quicker to write than others, and as I'm often saying, it very much depends on my prior relationship with the material before I start writing. Too Many Magpies was written in eight weeks flat, and while it is pretty short it's not much shorter than The Birth Machine which took me longer, not much less than a year. But the novel I've just finished has taken a lot longer than that, requiring three major drafts before I found the way to write it, and plenty of mulling time in between. And how soon you can get onto something new after finishing a piece of work depends on how much it has taken out of you. After writing The Birth Machine I wrote a flurry of short stories, as if I were using up all the extra creativity the novel hadn't needed, and the situation was similar after I'd finished Too Many Magpies. But this time, quite frankly, I've felt creatively drained. I finished in early summer,  but I'm only now starting to feel creative stirrings again.

Only now am I clearing up my room after it, a process that is usually symbolic of clearing your head of the work and letting go of it: partly I've been too busy with other things, but also I think I couldn't face it. It's taken me the whole of yesterday morning and most of today to sort through the drifts of paper - not just the drafts of the novel but correspondence and bumph that's built up unattended over the last six months, and even the proofs of the reissue of The Birth Machine that was produced and published during the last eighteen months while I was working on the current novel. It's hoovering next, but I'm leaving that till tomorrow: one thing I still couldn't face today was discovering what damage has been done by moths and carpet beetles while I've been so privately and psychologically away in the clouds.

7 comments:

Claire King said...

I can absolutely relate to what you say here. In my (limited) experience of writing novels so far, the speed at which they have been written has depended to a great extent of the maturity of the book in my own head. To write it fast (which for me is a year, as it is NOT all I am doing) it needs to have taken shape slowly over many months before the writing has even begun.
And I have certainly felt the need to 'clear the room' and let go of a novel before starting fresh on even thinking about the next.
I suspect that in certain genres (broadly speaking) this may be different, but for many of us a novel a year would be likely to result in a novel far below its potential.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Absolutely, Claire.

JO said...

I also agree totally with this. Both with the need to 'room-clear' between big projects, but also each novel taking as long as it takes. Some need to simmer for months, others need so much research you feel you'll never begin to write, while others seem to spill onto the page by themselves. Hard, I know, for publishers to work with this as they have targets, marketing plans etc. but it needs acknowledging as a writing reality.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Yes, Jo, that's the rub: it doesn't fit with publishing patterns and market demands. But yes, it does need to be acknowledged.

Rachel Fenton said...

"some novels are quicker to write than others" - totally right. I've written one in a month and another's taken me seven years - to date! Neither of them published yet so I've no grounds for opinion but there it is. A work takes as long as it takes. Daft to put a stop watch on it. How do you measure thought anyway?

WOMEN RULE WRITER said...

that 'novel a year because writers have nothing else to do' comment is beyond silly. We still have private lives and we also review, interview, promote etc. just to keep afloat.
Both novels I completed took a year but I know others will take less or more time. I am often 'accused' of being proliific as if it lessens all I do. My prolific-ness has to do with being committed and organised and, guess what, creative (!), but it is seen as something negative like I am breaking some rule.

Elizabeth Baines said...

I know, those ridiculous rules...