Is Fast Writing Good Writing?

I have a standing bet with many publishers, backed by one thousand dollars payable to the charity of their choice. The bet is that a professional author can write a book faster than a publisher can write a check. And I hereby reaffirm the bet publicly.

So far nobody has taken me up on this wager, and I doubt if anybody will. But if someone wants to, just make your check payable to Doctors Without Borders.

There is no gimmick here. At least a dozen professional writers on my client list are capable of turning out a novel in two to four weeks, even less if their publisher is desperate. But I know of scarcely any major publisher capable of routinely preparing contracts or, once contracts have been signed, cutting a check in that period of time. Unless it’s an emergency, in which case it takes about three weeks longer.

I don’t believe my clients are unique in this respect. Many agents handle or know of authors capable of turning out genre fiction, male adventure, westerns, romances, and the like, within weeks. In fact, many writers would go under if they were not capable of producing at least a book a month.

But are the books good? What is the relationship between the quality of a book and the time it takes to produce it? I’ll be exploring these questions in a moment. But I’m not quite through with publishers.

The contracts and accounting departments of most publishing companies are extremely burdened with work and, under the best of circumstances, move with maddening bureaucratic casualness. Absent, it seems (to authors and agents), is the sense that the papers being shuffled have any bearing on the basic needs, the food and clothing and rent and car payments and college tuitions, of the human beings “hereinafter referred to as Authors.” One agent, in a frothing fit of frustration, likened the process to the admitting office of a hospital emergency room, where the life fluids of victims trickle out of their bodies while the admitting clerk takes down their address, Social Security number, and mother’s maiden name. I don’t know if I would go that far, though I do remember a case of one crazed client who informed his editor he had just had his cat destroyed because an unconscionably late contract and check had made it impossible for him to pay for the poor creature’s medical treatments. But I might, if I were of a cynical turn of mind, be tempted to suggest that the torpid pace of the contracts and accounting departments of some publishing companies is yet another example of how publishers cling to money as long as possible at the expense of authors. Luckily, I am not of a cynical turn of mind.

In fact, one’s heart might almost go out to the gallant minions of the contracts and accounting departments. Anyone who has actually seen them in action, or inaction, must appreciate that the choreography of procedures for drafting a contract and drawing a check is highly complex in even the most efficiently run publishing houses. Once an editor has concluded negotiations with an agent or author, he or she draws up a contract request enumerating all of the deal points plus any variations in the boilerplate language that the author or agent may have requested. This contract request joins the many others awaiting action by the contracts department. The terms in the contract request are then transferred onto contract forms.

These forms must now be reviewed, sometimes by the original editor, sometimes by department heads, sometimes by the chief executive of the company, sometimes by all of them. The contracts are then submitted to author or agent, and if, heaven forbid, there should be but one or two minor items to be negotiated or renegotiated that the editor or contracts person does not have sole authority to decide, approval of those changes must be secured from someone at the company who is in authority. I have seen a contract held up for a month because I requested upping the number of free authors’ copies from ten to twenty, or extending the delivery date by one month. Some contract department heads are fanatical about initialing alterations, requiring weeks of additional back-and-forthing. Some agents have become quite masterful at forging their clients’ initials on contracts, and though this is a potentially dangerous practice, it seems like the only practical tactic to counter massive delay. One of my colleagues grinningly boasts, “If I spent a day in jail for every set of initials I’ve forged, you’d never see me again.”

Once the contracts have been signed by the author, the machinery for procuring the check begins to grind. The contracts department issues a voucher instructing the accounting department to draw the check due on signing the contracts. Such vouchers must in the normal course of things be reviewed by the comptroller or some other executive in charge of financial affairs. Once the check is drawn, it will be examined by that executive and possibly by the publisher before it is signed by one or both of these officers. Needless to say, it is not as if these folks have nothing else to do.

If, therefore, you wonder why a publishing company can’t just type up a contract the way you might scribble a thank-you note, and dash off a check the way you dash one off to pay your landlord, now you know, and perhaps you’ll feel a bit more compassion for the clerical staffs of publishers.

I do. But my bet still stands.

Despite this lengthy digression and a muffled tone of querulousness, this chapter is not about how slow publishers are. It’s about how fast writers are.

Outsiders—by which I mean people with little firsthand experience of the creative and technical aspects of writing—have difficulty making peace with the idea that any kind of book, let alone a good one, can be turned out in thirty days or less. But I know of several professional writers who have written full-length novels over a weekend, not because they wanted to, but because they had to in order to accommodate publishers in a jam. A tightly scheduled manuscript had not been delivered on time, covers were printed, rack space reserved, the printer’s time booked. “Can do,” these heroes quietly said, and on Monday morning, looking like The Thing From The Crypt, they dragged into their publisher’s offices with a manuscript.

Ah, you murmur, but were they good manuscripts?

This annoying question arises again and again whenever prolific writers are mentioned. It’s easy to understand how the public at large would classify such feats as belonging to that end of the spectrum of human accomplishment reserved for flagpole sitting and marathon dancing. It’s harder to understand why many editors feel that way too. But a large number have the attitude that the quality of literature rises in direct proportion to the time required to produce it. Publishers, even those who publish lines of genre fiction that call for short and rigid deadlines, are quite suspicious of prolific authors. They can’t believe a book written that fast can be that good.

I have always felt that in order to qualify to practice their profession, editors should be required to write a novel. They would then undoubtedly discover that many of the skills they now consider dismayingly hard are actually quite easy, while many they regard as a cinch are inordinately difficult. One thing they would appreciate, I’m certain, is that an experienced professional writer working an eight-hour day and typing at average speed can produce five thousand words daily in clean first draft without pushing. That’s a finished book in twelve to fifteen working days.

But one draft? How can a writer produce a first draft that is also a polished draft?

One reason is that he has no choice. The author who writes a good book in one draft will earn twice as much money as one who writes the same book in two. And when the pay scale is twenty-five hundred to five thousand dollars per book, one simply cannot afford to write a second draft.

It is also a matter of training. Many professional writers reach a level of craftsmanship where whacking out clean copy is as natural as hitting balls is for a professional baseball player or dancing en pointe is for a ballerina. The amateur who writes fast usually writes sloppily; the professional who writes fast will most likely write masterfully.

And let us not forget inspiration. It is not uncommon for writers to talk about writing as if in a trance, or feeling like a channel through which a story is being poured from some mystical source. Some writers rehearse a scene or story so often in their heads that when they finally commit it to paper, it all comes in a rush, as if they’re writing from memory rather than from a sense of original creation.

All this is helped by the development of computerized word processors, which enable their owners to write two drafts in the time it used to take writers working on conventional typewriters to write one. But now that the technology is at hand, will the prejudice against prolificness finally be overcome? I’m not too sure.

For, in the last analysis, it isn’t the editors or public who cling most tightly to the myth that fast writing is poor writing. It’s the writers themselves. Almost all the professional writers I know equate speedy writing with money and slow writing with love, to the point where their personalities actually bifurcate and the halves declare war on one another. Authors capable of knocking off a superb genre novel in one draft will agonize over every sentence of their “serious,” “important,” “literary” novel as if they were freshmen in a creative writing course. They seem to believe that anyone wishing to cross the line between popular entertainment and serious literature must cut his output and raise frustrating obstacles in his own path, and that legitimacy may be purchased only through writer’s block. It is futile to point out that Dickens, Balzac, Dostoyevski, and Henry James wrote as if possessed, in many cases with scarcely a single emendation, yet turned out a body of sublime classics. And they did it in longhand, by the way.

Richard Curtis

A Modest Wager is a chapter from Mastering The Business of Writing by Richard Curtis
Published by E-Reads, 1999.
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