Is it better to churn out hundreds of books that are mediocre, or just a couple that are really, really good?
A few weeks ago, I mentioned how it is a general rule that writers need to publish around three novels before they establish their name in the industry. This means, of course, that a writer actually has to churn out those three novels. This is in direct contrast with the authors I mentioned in that post, who only published one novels in their lifetime, and yet somehow defied the odds and had incredibly well-known books anyway.
So, okay, you resign yourself to the fact you’re probably not a genius, and will have to write at least three novels to make a living. (If that scares you, you probably shouldn’t be a writer anyway). At this point, do you go down the incredibly prolific route and pump out those novels because each book represents a paycheque? Or do you slave over those manuscripts, debate over every word, in the hope that your next book becomes a classic?
I’ve certainly read enough books that felt like they were written just to get a paycheque – way too much padding, plots that peter out halfway through, and characters that act because the plot needs them to (in completely contradiction with their stated personalities). But, recently, I came across the argument that the time put into a book, and the experience when writing it, does not guarantee success. “It should matter, but it doesn’t,” as Neil Gaiman says. In fact, some classics such as A Clockwork Orange, were written in three weeks.
Some of the authors I absolutely love did not write very many novels. Jane Austen wrote six (probably doesn’t help she died young), and J.R.R Tolkien wrote five, if you count Lord of the Rings as three. (Tolkien was a perfectionist, and slaved over The Silmarillion for most of his life. When his son, Christopher, published the early drafts of that book into a series, they took up eight volumes.)
But the reality of making a living as a writer means you don’t have the luxury of slaving away on half a dozen books. I’m amazed by authors who produce books this well. Agatha Christie, for example, produce eighty mystery novels at a rate of about a novel a year, and she managed to reinvent the genre and influence thousands while doing this.
So it’s possible to leave your mark either way. (Though it’s much rarer to produce a classic on your first couple times out). But if you could choose, what would you pick? The luxury of time to polish your manuscript to perfection? Or the ability to write numerous books a year?