I just deleted half of yesterday’s work. Ouch! Why would I do such a painful thing? Word count is hard to come by. The writing wasn’t awful. It added a few character insights. But it didn’t advance the story. And story is the key to satisfying readers.
Most writers I know, especially writers with contracts and deadlines, set daily word counts for themselves. Some post their daily accomplishments on Facebook. I assume they’re looking for a virtual pat on the back or maybe an opportunity to shout out to the world, “I did it!” Whatever their motivation, I usually look at those impressive numbers and hang my head.
I’m currently working on the second book in my female bodyguard series. Since I haven’t written a new full-length novel in almost four years, I’m more than a little rusty. I’ve tried to avoid stressing myself with things like goals and word counts, but I really want to finish the manuscript by Labor Day. I know how long my books usually run, and I’m not laid-back enough to keep myself from doing the math. Only a certain number of words per month (and by extension, per week and per day) will get me there. It’s not an insurmountable mountain of words and it’s not carved in stone, but it will require much more self-discipline than I’m used to.
As I’ve been paying closer attention to my own productivity, it’s got me thinking about the current emphasis on being a prolific writer. We are constantly urged to write faster, but not to write better. We’re told the way to build a successful career is to produce several books a year—keep cranking them out and keep ourselves in the public eye. Our books are a product, our writing “content” that must constantly be refreshed in this age of instant communication and miniscule attention spans. And it’s true. As fewer people read books regularly, avid readers must be nurtured and cherished. Of course they want new books by their favorite authors frequently, so we work give them what they want.
But are we paying a price? Are we forcing them to pay a price?
In the past couple of years, I’ve noticed changes in the work of two of my favorite big-name authors. Their books have always been automatic buys for me, but that’s changing. I won’t mention names, but you’ll probably recognize at least one of these NYT bestsellers.
The first author writes three full-length books a year in three different sub-genres, and I have always loved them—until the last two. In her latest contemporary suspense book, the villain was obvious from the first chapter, and the pace dragged miserably. It read like she was being paid by the word. The second book was the first in a new grand fantasy trilogy. The characters and plot were so flat and lifeless I doubt I’ll read the sequels.
The other author writes in the highly popular, extended family series sub-genre. You know the kind—large families with numerous siblings, each with his or her own romance. I loved the first several books, but the last couple have felt rushed and formulaic.
I think both authors are paying the price of success in today’s market. They are under enormous pressure to produce, and because they’re professionals, they do produce. But their characters and stories are not as fresh and imaginative as in earlier books—the books that won legions of dedicated readers in the first place.
Writers create. We don’t make widgets. Our products need to have magic, and sometimes magic takes time. The creative well must be allowed to refill. Sadly, publishers (and readers) these days are often too impatient to allow that to happen. Because I self-publish, this isn’t an issue for me, but the pressure to write fast and publish frequently raises the risk of burnout for many writers pursuing commercial success. Some will end up not putting their best work out there. And that’s a big disservice to themselves and their readers.