By Magdalena Ball
“You can write a novel in 14 days or less!” Sound familiar? I’ve seen a number of advertisements recently selling “how-to” guides on speedwriting. They offer some tempting promises, including that you will be able to (guaranteed!) write a fabulous book, either fiction or nonfiction, within a very short space of time, then market and reap the extraordinary benefits, including fame, fortune, regular speaking engagements, and sponsorship deals. The premise is based on the concept that the faster you write, the better your writing will be, and also the well-known adage that you should write about what you know, and that all the material you need is already floating around in your head.
While the idea of writing quickly, and without overt interruption from too much proofreading before the concept is fully realized, is not a bad one, especially for dealing with writer’s block, the idea of rapid and unfiltered writing, from idea to market, is a dangerous one that could potentially result in an author, even a good author, putting inadequately edited books on the market before they are ready. One of the English speaking world’s most skilled modern novelists, Julian Barnes, says he rewrites every page something like 40 times, and avoids a computer because it makes his work look too good too quickly. James Joyce took 10 years to write Ulysses. Real masterpieces don’t happen in 14 days. They take time, and skilled crafting, rewriting, recrafting, and lots of work. That is part of why they are masterpieces.
The well-known Australian publisher Hilary McPhee writes about this notion in her recent book Other People’s Words (Picador, 2001), in which she discusses how working with writers editorially is no longer considered efficient: “the old maxim rules: the reader is a mug and the writer is a commodity — sell 50,000 copies before anyone discovers they’re not much good.” (285) E-publishing and speed writing feeds perfectly into this philosophy. I’m not suggesting that e-books necessarily lack quality — I’ve written one myself, and have read many carefully constructed e-books, but it is an area where there are few quality controls in place, especially for self-publishing, which is now so inexpensive that anyone can do it. As McPhee suggests, it is marketing, rather than literary skills that make for an online bestseller — or maybe a combination of both. The market is so vast that a racy, easy to read e-thriller will probably do better in sales than a carefully constructed work of great literary fiction.
Nonetheless, literary masterpieces are still being produced. Authors like Rushdie, Barnes, Peter Carey, Umberto Eco, and a host of others are writing 20th century novels that will rival anything in the literary canon, including the works of Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner, and Mann. However, these authors do not produce their novels in 14 days. Some of them, like the wonderful de Bernieres, may take 14 years. While this may be a publisher’s nightmare, the output of these authors, however popular, is not measurable in purely monetary terms, nor is it measurable in business styled cycle times. Books like History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters, Oscar and Lucinda, or Foucault’s Pendulum are extraordinary, powerful, and change the way we imagine our language. A writer’s craft is like that of any artists. It can be carpentry — either skilled or shoddy, or it can be art — which works beyond simple craftsmanship.
Naturally a writer can write quickly — knocking out an article in a few hours, or less. Every journalist requires the skills to begin working, and to write fast. Not everything a professional writer will produce is going to be literary fiction. However, good literary work requires time. Not only in the original creation, but in the editing, the re-working, re-writing, and re-thinking. There is research involved, even if the work sits squarely within the area of a writer’s expertise, and there are characters, plot, setting, and linguistic drama to create. A 14-day novel is not going to add to the literary canon. That may be fine. As long as you don’t expect to produce the next Ulysses, or change your reader’s world. If writers want to do that — to write something truly wonderful, they will have to plan on spending more than a few weeks on it.
Magdalena Ball is a novelist, poet, reviewer and interviewer, and is the Managing Editor of Compulsive Reader (compulsivereader.com). She has been widely published in literary journals, anthologies, and online, and is the author of several published books of poetry and fiction, including, most recently, the poetry book Unmaking Atoms (Ginninderra Press) and the novel Black Cow (Bewrite Books). Magdalena Ball has a blog.