Prolific Vs. Perfectionist – What is the Best Way to a Lasting Writing Career?

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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?

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12 Comments

Filed under On Writing, Randoms & My Life

12 responses to “Prolific Vs. Perfectionist – What is the Best Way to a Lasting Writing Career?

  1. I like the idea that each work means something important. For that reason, I’d much rather quality over quantity. Yet somehow, one of my semi-heroes William Faulkner did 29 in his lifetime, some like As I Lay Dying, he churned out WHILE AT WORK AT A FACTORY in five weeks.

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    • Wow, that’s pretty good!
      I think a good work may not necessarily take a long time to write, but ideally you won’t compromise the quality of a work because you wrote it fast.

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  2. Alexia

    I think you can have it both ways, and write a great number of books who still manage to be fantastic. You mentioned Agatha Christie, but she’s not the only one. Victor Hugo wrote thirteen plays, nine books (but including The Hunchback of Notre-Dame and Les Misérables, who I don’t know if you’ve read but are huge), many volumes of poetry and a lot of independant work, includind the memoirs of his exile. And he somehow managed to keep up with the excellence of his earliest work. Quatre-vingt treize, the last book he wrote while in exile, is amazing.

    Balzac would have been a better exemple (91 books and novels published in 23 years – 137 were supposed to be written but working so hard on his work litteraly killed him in 1850) but I figured Victor Hugo would be best known worldwide because of the Hunchback, I wasn’t sure about Balzac.

    (Please forgive me if my english isn’t so great. I hope you could understand me anyways)

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    • Yes, your English is perfectly understandable!
      You’re right, I do know Victor Hugo more than Balzac. And Victor Hugo’s books were really long, weren’t they? That’s pretty good, especially if his later books were as good as his earlier ones!
      I think it’s possible to do both, but not every writer can do both.

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      • Alexia

        Well thanks but sometimes I wish it could come as easily as french does. Although I do think in english sometimes (I’m so weird).
        Not all Hugo’s books were that long, Claude Gueux and The Last Day of a Condemned Man are a lot shorter, but yes most of his work is really long.

        I’m wondering now if some of the most prolifics writers wrote everything by themself or if they had assistants to help them. I know Alexandre Dumas had some to help him with some books, such as Auguste Maquet, who supposedly wrote most of the Three Musketeers. His novels aren’t less good, but it’s a little disappointing I think… I felt cheated when I found out. Maybe he had too many ideas and too little time ?

        Sorry I keep talking about french authors, I did read some Faulkner, Fitzgerald and other significant american writers but I don’t know a thing about how they worked and how many books they published…

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  3. This is a really good post.

    But honestly, if your not in writing for the love of writing, why do it at all? Even for a paycheck (a small one at that). I feel that the only reason to publish is because you feel the manuscript you’ve poured everything into needs to be shared with the world, not that it will give you some extra cash.

    Most writers, have jobs outside of writing when they first start. I plan to do that also. Probably become a teacher (so I have all summer to write) or a job that pays well enough to support me while I write on the weekends.

    I feel very strongly about this. If you don’t write just for the love of it then don’t waste your time, or mine.

    PS- :/ sorry for the harshness! LOL

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    • Not too harsh at all! Opinions are good to hear.
      Do you think it’s possible for someone to love writing, and want to make a living at it at the same time? Or will the fact you need to make enough money to survive interfere with your love of writing?
      I think it’s possible to love writing and make a living, but not everyone can do it.

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  4. To Alexia – only Hugo book I tried to read was “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” which was VERY long!
    That’s very interesting, that Dumas had help. I never heard that before, but it must be hard to write so many wordy books! I don’t think authors should really do that, but I know it was common in painting too – for large murals artists would get helpers to paint the background while he did all the details on top. So, while it feels like ‘cheating,’ I’m not sure I can completely condemn it.

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  5. Alexia

    Oh yes it’s awfully long but not all his work is like that. Claude Gueux is so short that it almost doesn’t feel like you’re reading Hugo. It’s a book he wrote about death penalty, and we actually study it in junior high.
    I don’t condemn it, but I think it wasn’t very fair to Maquet. Dumas lost a lot of money at some point, and he took Maquet down with him. Then Maquet quit his job and pressed charged to get back the money Dumas owed him, and to claim his rights on the work they did together, but even if he did get his money back he was forced to give up his rights cause he wasn’t taken very seriously…

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  6. Good thoughts Harma Mae. I guess I would have to say that if you choose to write a quantity of novels you need to make them quality. Some authors can do that. However, in my experience, one of my favorite mystery writers is Patricia Cornwall. She has written several very good novels, but as time has gone on and she tried some new things….she did not do justice to her ability. Maybe too rushed by the publishers? The same is true for some other mystery novels I have enjoyed reading by prolific writers.

    If I like an author, I will stick with him or her if they continue to develop the plot and make the story build in an interesting way. Otherwise, I lose my interest in their work. My goal in writing is to write with quality. I guess as a blogger I am also writing in quantity as well.

    Great discussion here.

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    • Yes, I’ve had the same problem, where the quality of an author has really dropped off and I wonder if they were too rushed. Or if they just weren’t interested in what they were writing anymore, or what. It’s a problem… but some authors seem to avoid it, I don’t know how!

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