A question came up the other day during interview about my book Convicts – New Zealand’s Hidden Criminal Past. It was off-record, but I thought worth putting it on record myself, because it’s apposite for writers. The interviewer said he’d heard it takes five years to write a book. I write more than that. How?
It took me a moment to think about it, and I’ve had time to ponder it since. I have trouble understanding where ‘five years’ comes from. It’s an awful long time. You can get respectable post-graduate university degrees in less. Maybe it’s because many authors of history books are not trained writers and don’t write enough to get proficient – they are learning how to write a book, while they do it.
I also think the real motive for many who end up writing a history book is discovery; they’ll spend months and years joyfully poring over archives, many of which aren’t relevant to the final text, or their understanding of the topic.
It is, I suspect, the people who view writing as tortuous and slow who come up with the idea that ‘prolific’ (as in somebody who publishes more than they do) equates to loss of quality. Sadly, that particular allegation is often used as a put-down. Interesting. How would a writer who’s slower than I am like it if I classified them as ‘lazy’?
Besides, as professional writers will tell you, it just isn’t true that writing which is faster than popular mythology imagines must also be slap-dash. Sure, some writers knock out tripe at Mach = 3. But professional writers write with quality - and the pace that works for them may well be faster than a pace that works for others. Look at Isaac Asimov, who was a brilliant writer at all times – and colossally prolific. The trick is being able to keep the structure and content in your head – to the scale of a book.
How’s that done? Writing is a learned and practised skill. One training ground for quality, professionalism and speed is journalists’ deadlines. That said, the skill set needed for book length text (35,000+ words) is different from what is required for articles or short stories. In particular, book writing demands that the author integrates an argument over the length of the text. I use ‘argument’ in the philosophical or mathematical sense – it includes such things as character arcs and plot for fiction.
One of the ways I tackle multi-book writing is through forward planning. I don’t work on one project at a time. Instead, I’ll come up with an idea and sell it to a publisher well in advance. Books stack; I’ll research one while writing another and maybe working on the editorial of a third.
It’s called professionalism, and all these skills, it seems to me, are essential for anybody who wants to write seriously. Certainly for anybody who wants to make a career out of it.
What do you figure?
*** Don’t forget – I’m appearing on talkback interview with Graeme Hill, 11.15 am Sunday NZT, talking about Convicts on RadioLive. Tune in! And my Convicts contest closes today, 28 July NZT. Winner announced Monday.***
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012