Samuel R. Delany’s book About Writing will not get out of my brain. I keep thinking about his concept of the usefulness, no, the essentialness of doubt (good! I got plenty of that), about how slavishly following the rules and working hard leads to aesthetic banality (the rules of good writing, not the rules of how-to-get-an-agent/editor—you have to follow those). And about being a hack.
Delany’s book made me feel like one (in a good way). His description of his own writing process, of how to write the absolute best you can, is a recipe for books that go through many, many drafts and take a long, long time to write, books that delve down into every doubt or dream you ever had. These descriptions are sensual and exhilarating and inspiring (if I hadn’t read his book I’d still be working on the draft of M! M! M! O! O! O!). As Delany goes through explaining every word choice, you marvel at not just his brilliance and talent, but at his unerring ability to explain this really, really difficult stuff (how’s that for a word choice!).
The book inspires and it also makes you think seriously and long about your own writing.
I’ve been a freelance writer since 1 April 2003 (excellent day to begin, no?). In that time I’ve sold four books, written four and a half, edited one. Deciding to make a living writing, meant deciding to tell different stories than I would if I had a stayed as an academic. Given that so far it’s earned me about US$1,200, and it took four years to research and write, books like The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction went out the window. I had to tell stories that enough other people wanted to read that publishers who could pay decent advances would want to buy them, and I had to learn to write faster. Much faster. I’m now on a two-books-a-year schedule.1
Every page of Delany’s book made me think about the central tension in my life between writing the best books I can and writing them quickly. How do I not become a hack?
I don’t have an answer.
I’m lucky that I write Young Adult books which are considerably shorter than say, Charlie Stross’ work. Magic or Madness and Magic Lessons are both about 65 thou words. In book form that’s 275 pages with a comfortable sized font and balanced amount of leading. But it’s still 130 thousand words of publishable prose a year.
I’m starting to think that—except for the lucky few—to make a living at writing is to be a hack. The best I can do is to write as well as I possibly can within the time restraints, and hope that one day I’ll be generating enough money that I can slow down. But I temper that hope with the knowledge that most people never do. I’ve already seen any number of writers around me write too fast and burn out. Scott was on a near three-book-a-year schedule and wound up with all sorts of health problems (and also nine very fine YA books). But still: too fast words eat up your body and your brain.
And while on a major deadline crunch—unless you have servants or a traditional wife—the rest of your life is falling apart. Housework doesn’t get done, or your taxes, or any of the other admin, you don’t see your friends, and lots of takeaway and delivery food and ramen noodles are consumed.2 When you finish you really should be turning to the next book before your editor’s notes come back at you. Because that’s one of the worst things about writing more than one book a year: the constant interruptions from the previous book. You do not—as a dear friend of mine imagined—write one book, send it off, and then leisurely write the next. While writing the next you’re also be working on the last. There are rewrites, checking copyedits, proofs, and galleys. I have no idea how those writing four or more books a year cope.
I’m hoping, some day, to have the time and opportunity to write both as slowly and as well as I want. To only go on to the next book when the last one is well and truly finished and as good as I can make it. In the meantime I strive to be the very best hack I can be!
How do all you other hacks manage?
- I have many writer friends who are writing many more books than two a year, who consider such a schedule luxury. [↩]
- I am well aware that there are much harder jobs than being a novelist. This is the best, most fulfilling job I’ve ever had. Every single day I’m grateful I’ve had the opportunity to have a go at it. [↩]