More on speedy writing

The comments continue to flow from my post on speedy writing. Many of them here and here. Though my musing out loud seems to have boiled down to books written fast can be good too! Maybe I shouldn’t have called it “speedy writing”.

The main points I thought I was making is that the pace of a writer’s production are influenced by many many different factors. A writer who will appear to be fast when independently wealthy and waited on hand in foot, would be slow if they had considerably less money and a family to look after. The opposite can be true. I have seen writers who wrote in the margins of their life, finding themselves suddenly able to write full-time, freak out and enter the biggest writer’s block of all time.

Sometimes a book that took five years to write had as much writing time spent on it as a book that took six months.

Do I think that book are necessarily good or bad because they were written fast or slow? No.

Do I think that the odds of the book being the best you can make it go up if you get to spend as long as you need on it? Yes.

Do I think some writers spend way too much time making their books the best they can? Yes.

Despite writers’ blogs—and most writers don’t have one—the amount of time a book takes to be written is mostly hidden from the majority of its audience. So judging a book on its perceived speed of production, rather than its actual quality, seems fairly pointless to me.

I’m always reminded of a paper I once heard on Jonathan Lethem’s early novels that assumed that they were written in the order they were published and at the speed they were published, both erroneous assumptions.

I can state one thing with certainty: My favourite writers don’t write books fast enough. Slow lazy bastards. And the writers I can’t stand are way too productive. Sloppy hacks.


  1. jenny d on #

    yes, the facts of the matter are often hard to deduce from the public record! i find these questions very vexing in my own life–i need an uninterrupted chunk of time to write a first draft, which tends to happen fairly quickly, but the “aftermath” so to speak of revisions and agenting and editoring and publishing and so forth takes more years than you can imagine if you are not a writer… so that i would say i write reasonably quickly, i drafted my new novel in about five months of very intense writing time (i suppose it’s in the region of 120,000 words? maybe shorter now, roughly that to begin with) in spring 2004, but though it was quite polished & recognizably very much like it is now there were questions to do with voice, point-of-view and plot that had to be painfully worked out in subsequent 1-2-month fits of revisions that tended to take place at 6-month intervals. and i really won’t have time to start drafting the sequel until this summer, i was all poised to do it at the time but a combination of life/work/other writing obligations/worry about the practical matters of revising & placing the book intervened. and it won’t be out till 2008, leaving the impression that i wrote it in a nice steady way over 5 years following the publication of my first novel in 2003… (and that novel was effectively finished by 2000, barring some late-stage changes in one of the story-lines!)

  2. Justine on #

    Exactly! Although I’ve spent almost twenty years fiddling with one of my novels, I think the actual time spent on it is not much more than I spent on Magic’s Child. Yet if it’s ever pub’d it’ll look like I wrote it way way way slower.

    Frankly, Jenny D., I’m amazed you have time to write fiction at all. What with the full-time scholarly career. I couldn’t do it! I mean that literally. I tried and failed.

  3. genevieve on #

    There’s an interview with Enid Blyton at the end of one biography where she relates how she composed a lot of her books in complete drafts, literally being unable to do anything else until the story was put down in its entirety for fear she would lose it. Probably a ‘sloppy hack’ in your terms, Justine, but the interview was interesting nonetheless – there was a sense she was in the grip of something almost automatic.

  4. Justine on #

    Oh, no, I love Enid Blyton. She was my favourite favourite writer when I was really little. I’m on record in several interviews saying she’s probably the biggest influence on my own writing. I do not resile from that statement.

    Sloppy hack are only writers I don’t like. You know, rubbish writers like Henry James and William Faulkner.

  5. jenny d on #

    i reread enid blyton’s mallory towers novels when i was working on my last novel, it is set in a girls’ boarding school in an alternate universe version of 1930s edinburgh so it counted as research of a sort! the earlier generation (wwi-ish) girls’ school novels are really almost even better, though more peculiar…

  6. genevieve on #

    Heehee – no Faulkner, no James, only the purest of narrative drives. Good for you, Justine. Personally I can swing both ways with all of those (though James does have his moments, you could have a post on writing that might have been produced quickly but takes ages to read, couldn’t you). Blyton’s speed writing methods are very interesting, that whole bio’s terrific (Must dig up the ref.)
    Malory Towers, old favourites all – we have a couple here without covers I think. Very well loved indeed.
    My first proper chapter book was The Book Of Fairies. I have it in a drawer awaiting rebinding. Also a very old family copy of Mr. Galliano, probably a forties purchase originally, in pretty shabby condition but the illustrations are spiffing. My sister photocopied them for my daughter to colour in when daughter was a wee child.

  7. Justine on #

    My very favouritest of her books were the boarding school ones. I desperately wanted to go to boarding school and have midnight feasts. Upper Fifth at Mallory Towers! What larks!

    So I was exaggerrating about James and Faulkner. They’re both written some books/stories I enjoy, but they’ve also written stuff I’d rather eat my own eyeballs than ever read again.

  8. Penni on #

    I too loved Enid’s books, specially the boarding school ones. Oh how I longed to be sent to boarding school (my mother, who had been to one, was quick to point out it wasn’t quite like the books – but surely she just wasn’t getting into the spirit of it). I liked the Naughtiest Girl ones. What free thinking schools they were, with their student led disciplinary methods and co-education.
    I have no opinion on fast writers except that I am pretty sure I’m not one. Except I have had to become one by necessity and that makes my life more stressful – one publisher suggested a five book contract and I think I made squeaky breathing noises. I thought we were allowed to call five books a life’s work if we wanted to.
    I just stand and boggle in the Matthew Reilly-type sections of the bookshop. I don’t think I could even type that fast.

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