There’s this thing called the Designer’s Holy Triangle. The three sides of the triangle are labelled fast, cheap and good—but it is only possible to use two at a time. According to this idea, you cannot have something that is high quality and at a reasonable price if you also want it quickly.
I read a collaborative book recently that made me relate this to writing. The authors worked very fast on this book, going from idea to finished project in something like a month. The writing itself took five days (or so I believe), and editing about another week.
It’s an enjoyable book. It’s fairly short, fast paced, and held my interest the whole way through. But something bothered me as I read it.
It could have been so much better. I’m no expert, but I spotted so many minor adjustments that would have made the writing stronger. Some of the phrasing felt clumsy. The characters’ actions didn’t always ring true. And too often it fell into ‘describing what was happening’ instead of giving me a well-written scene.
In my view, the book could have done with at least one more editing pass, possibly more. The problems weren’t major, but they were enough to drag it down to ‘meh’ when it could have been ‘wow!’
Supply And Demand
But fast, at least in indie publishing, is often seen as a necessity. According to some, if you don’t release a book each month you’ll be left behind. People talk of Amazon’s 30-day cliff, after which a book doesn’t get as much organic publicity, so you need a new book out to keep the interest up. Readers, hungry for more, contact authors to ask when the next in a series is out, and authors feel pressurised to keep their stories coming.
There is a strong argument in favour of this workrate—supply and demand. It’s giving the readers what they want, or at least what they say they want. And there are writers who consistently produce a book a month. There are those who have turned writing into an industry. And this can apply to traditionally-published authors as well. Apparently, Lee Childs’ books are polished first drafts. James Patterson uses collaboration to create a constant stream of new product. And authors like Stephen King and Brandon Sanderson are capable of writing thick tomes in months rather than years.
But there are many who argue that a book should take at least a year to write, and moving any quicker makes you a hack. They argue that a book written too fast will automatically be rubbish. They say that real quality takes time.
There is some validity in this. Writing a decent book or story is far more involved than simply putting down the words, and a rush job is more likely to have rough edges. But I don’t think it necessarily holds that a book written fast is any worse than one written over a longer time period.
Everyone is different. Every writer works in their own way. Some are able to achieve a flow state, and the words fly from their fingers. Some use dictation to work at 5000 words per hour on their first drafts. There are those who plan meticulously before they start writing, and so there is not as much structural work required later (and I believe this is Lee Child’s method). And others are simply capable of putting in ten hours of work on their books every single day.
Then there are authors who agonise over every word they type, and who will spend a couple of hours honing each sentence. There are those who seek perfection in every phrase, and who will discard pages as they go.
A book a year might be a guideline, or an average, but how many people are average?
But, as I said before, there is pressure on the independently published author to churn the books out. And with this pressure, I believe there are too many writers who are skimping on editing.
I’m not talking about typos, or about hiring a developmental and a copy editor. Yes, these things can clearly help (especially having other, expert eyes looking at the book). But from what I have read, many writers could do with spending more time on self-editing.
I don’t class myself as an expert, and I know I have so much more to learn about writing, but I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve spotted an easy way to improve a book. I’ll notice repeated words, and come up with alternatives. I’ll think about how the story could be restructured to have a stronger impact on the reader. I’ll cringe at unwieldy dialogue, imagine how someone would actually say something similar, and wonder why the writer didn’t put that down instead.
Yet these books sell as they are. Reading the reviews, many people love them. So maybe I’m in a minority here. If these stories have an avid and eager audience, who loses out with these ‘could be better’ books?
Minimal Viable Product
Short-term, it looks like the only losers are those who spend longer on their books. Without the constant ‘here I am again’ factor of regular releases over the year, each new book needs more of a marketing boost, and slow writers can easily slip from even their fans’ minds.
But long-term, things aren’t as clear.
There’s a concept called ‘minimal viable product’. If you’re producing something for public consumption, be that an object (physical or electronic) or a service, you work out what the basic model is, release this, and then work on refining it as you build an audience or customer base. There’s a lot to be said for this, and with digital products it is easy to make minor adjustments over time. Think of all the software and apps that are released and then constantly updated as they are tweaked and improved. And these improvements are based on real-time customer feedback. The first release no longer needs to be a perfect product.
But does this work with books? How many of the fast writers go back and refine already published works? Generally, by the time feedback comes in on one book, they’re already onto the next, or the one after that. Returning to an old product would slow their momentum. And so, in the majority of cases, the ‘minimal viable product’ is also the final product.
Again, if people are happy with this, where’s the problem?
I’d argue that the problem involves expectations of quality.
Imagine someone who is budget-conscious. They want to cut their food bill. One suggested way of doing this is to buy slightly less expensive products—not jumping straight to the budget range, but simply moving down a notch. The difference won’t be massive, and over time you’ll become accustomed to the less expensive brand. And then, you can down-grade again.
This saves money. And it also gets you accustomed to lower quality.
But in books (in fact, in any art), this becomes problematic. Good art has a long-lasting appeal. Well-written books can be re-read countless times and still feel fresh. Classics last forever.
Popcorn is great for a few minutes, but it goes stale far too quickly.
If someone wants to write a book for the particular moment, that’s fine. But I think that most writers want their work to have some kind of a shelf-life. Even in indie-publishing circles, where fast is encouraged, part of the reason for this is to build up a library. Those older books become catalogue, and the aim is to continue selling them. An old book is always new to someone discovering it for the first time. But for a book to last, it has to be of a decent quality.
And yes, I have already argued that fast writing can produce quality books. But there is a difference between ‘good’ and ‘great’, and maybe this is where that extra work comes in.
I’m reminded here of the 80/20 rule (at least, one of the ways of understanding it). This states that 80% of the work comes from 20% of the effort—or, to put it another way, getting the final 20% of something done will take 80% of the time. People use this to argue that it is more time- and cost-effective to work to 80%, and that the returns for reaching closer to 100% are simply not worth it.
80% is pretty good. An 80% story will be enjoyable. It will be of good quality. I’m quite happy reading 80% books, although I’ll probably only read them once.
Perfection Is The Enemy Of Done (And Done Is The Enemy Of Perfection)
Another phrase I’ve heard—‘perfection is the enemy of done’. Spend too long refining a book, and you’ll never be finished. How many perfect books are there in the world? How many classics can any one writer produce?
I’m aiming for the middle ground. I know my own writing won’t be perfect, but I’, working on it being as good as I can make it. And, for me, that means more than writing a first draft and then doing some quick cosmetic editing. It means looking at the story structure. It means throwing away sections that don’t work. It means re-writing huge chunks.
I don’t want to go years between releases. But neither do I want to bring out books too quickly if they are not the best I can do.
And when I’m reading? If I read a good book, I’ll want more from that author. But I’d rather wait for ‘wow’ than settle for ‘meh’.