Tuesday, August 08, 2006

AD: Haste Makes Waste

I recently got into hot water with some writer friends by crying out for a slower, more thoughtful pace. Although I hate it when people are unhappy with me, I’m not backing down. Many popular Christian authors are in the habit of putting out three, four or even five or more novels every year. Such haste strikes me as a risky proposition. It increases the possibility of violating a fundamental principle of the Christian life: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men.” (Colossians 3:23) Since the heart was considered the seat of the intellect in ancient times this verse can be interpreted to mean, “Whatever you do, give it plenty of thought…,” and it seems self-evident that the faster we produce a novel, the less thought it is given.

There are exceptions. Some novelists experience occasional bursts of inspiration, which can produce two or three times the usual volume of work. This does not necessarily mean there is a compromise in quality. On the contrary, some of our best work can come during these rare confluences of free flowing wisdom and creativity. But I am not concerned with an occasional burst; I am worried about a steady, massive stream of words, year in, year out, leaving little time for reflection about the nature and meaning of those words. In the romance genre I am told the readers expect such a pace, and if that is so, then it must be done. One must write within the rules set by the readers, for the readers do rule. There may also be some among us brilliant enough to maintain such a pace while performing at their very best, but such geniuses are precious few and far between.

Other than those three exceptions—bursts of inspiration, requirements of the genre, and true genius—I suspect this publishing pace is driven by naïve over-optimism, economics, and/or a fear of failure. Naïve over-optimism, because some remain perennially convinced of their ability to cram 240 minutes of work into an hour, especially while negotiating deadlines. (Agents and acquisitions editors share the responsibility here.) Economics, because more books usually means more money. And fear of failure because we (wrongly) believe the readers will forget us without a constant supply of fresh reminders on the shelf. Whatever the reason, and with the exceptions above duly noted, such a pace means insufficient thought is given to the work, and let me be clear: insufficient thought given to the work is the concern, not how fast one writes the first draft.

The math can be deceptive. Three to five typical novels means 240,000 to 400,000 words. What most would consider a brutal schedule of 10 hours per day, six days per week and 52 weeks per year yields 3,120 hours. So divide the hours into the words and we have 77 to 128 original words per hour. Sounds easy, right? Some type that many words per minute. But hold on—that’s not counting time for the occasional off day due to illness or weddings or funerals or vacations, and it doesn’t include time for emails, or writer’s conferences, lost files, power outages, answering reader’s mail, going to the bath room, answering the telephone, blogging, negotiating contracts, learning new software, getting up to stretch, being blocked, working bugs out of computers, visits to publishing houses, getting something to drink, correspondence with editors, or rising to adjust the thermostat…not to mention working out creative and original plots, inventing authentic and interesting characters, basic editing and rewrites of your rewrites until you’re morally certain you’ve given the work “all your heart” as the Bible commands.

Still not convinced this is a problem? Still think you can get all that done with enough time left over for a family who needs you, and church, and Bible study, exercise, charity work, yard work, housekeeping, and all the other necessities of life? What about taking a few weeks every year (or at least a few days, for crying out loud) just to think a little, to ponder your experiences, to figure out something worth saying? Still no problem? Then by all means carry on; you’re a genius.

But hold it. You may have noticed I italicized “morally certain” above. That’s because those words explain why this matters. At the risk of moralizing, this is indeed a moral issue. It’s no use saying, “I’ve received awards; I’ve got happy readers; my books sell very well.” Similar things can be said of many popular television shows, and with that I hope the point is made. The question is—with Jesus as your witness—have you done your very best? We Christians of all people have no excuse for doing anything less than that, even if it wins awards and sells. Especially if it sells because that means more unbelievers will see a part of the body of Christ not at its best, but something less, something hopelessly naïve, or willing to trade excellence for money, or operating from fear instead of writing “as if for the Lord.” This is not about sales or awards; it is about the souls of men, the Great Commission. So please, please, please, don’t run the risk of giving anyone a reason to turn Jesus down. You work is an offering to God. Take all the time you need to present it whole and unblemished. Obey Colossians 3:23!

Athol Dickson is the author of:
River Rising
The Gospel According to Moses


At 1:03 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Honestly, I don't think it's the readers who rule. I would definitely agree readers have their favorites and anxiously look forward to the arrivals of the next books by those authors. I think it's either the publishers who want to cash in on the philosohpy of striking while the iron's hot with their popular authors, or perhaps the authors themselves who seem to manifest a new line of stories like a rack of popular clothing. Don't get me wrong: some minds are infinitely creative and productive.
I would enjoy seeing those writers slow down for the sake of quality and even length of story.
I know craft is foremost, but it takes just as much artistry to write a longer book as it does to write a quick read. Either way, take the time to invest in the book, the story, and the most critical part: the God-given inspiration.
And may the publishers desire the same goal so that more readers can find what they desire in the book stores.

At 7:09 AM, Blogger Wandering Writer said...

Definitely words of wisdom. I am encouraged.

At 8:55 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a reader and a writer I thank you, with all my heart, for this post. I rarely buy new CBA books these days, even in my favorite genre (historical) because too many times I've gotten a few chapters into them only to find the setting is brushed in lightly, the pace is breakneck, the characters shadows of what they might have been if only the writer would have been allowed the time needed to go deeper. I usually return them to the library, unfinished.

My favorite books, new and classics, are those where the fortunate writer was allowed 2, 3, in one case 9 years to complete their book.

I'm more than willing to wait for the fruit to ripen.

At 9:05 AM, Blogger Kristy Dykes said...

Thanks for a thought-provoking post. I appreciate your wisdom and insight.

But oh, to have that problem.

Writing three or more books per year.


At 11:40 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I have the same question. The more I get to know published writers, through reading their blogs, or in person, the more the publishing industry reminds me of a puppy mill. I have the natural desire that most writers to; I want to share the power of God's love, grace and redemption through the stories I write. Yet I'm hesitant to seek publication for fear of being forced to birth too big a litter, too quickly. I have a strong sense of violation and panic at the very thought.

I also wonder if it's the same with ABA publishers. My guess is... it is.

Hey, perhaps the answer is to write twenty years worth of books and then seek publication. They'll catch up eventually, but at least we'll have some breathing room! *g*

Ok, I'm kidding. Maybe I simply don't have what it takes to make it as a published writer. That's ok. It's the writing I love, first.

At 12:30 PM, Blogger Patricia Hickman said...

When some say the publishers demand the books that fast, the fact is that some do and some don't. I've started requesting a longer period of time to finish a novel, and, even then, I run behind. My goal is to make the book as best as possible. The longer I take to write it, the more it costs me personally. And I do get the occasional letter or comment from the reader who wants me to write faster, so it is also some readers as it is also some editors who demand speed over quality. The truth is, they want both. But writers are still only human tools in the Lord's hands. We're not factories.

At 3:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A really excellent post, Athol. Of your three exceptions--bursts of inspiration, requirements of the genre, and true genius--I've only experienced one, that being bursts of inspiration, which in my case simply led to a greater need at the end of the project to go back and do some *very* thorough editing!

I've found what Patty said to be true: some publishers and editors--and readers--demand that the books come quickly. Others don't. That's why it's so important to find the right fit with a publisher and an editor, and hope that your readers will find your work worth waiting for.

Because the reality is that it's *your* work, and it has to be done *your* way if it's going to be the best you can do. While some can meet what appear to the rest of us to be unreasonable demands, others can't...and choose not to try.

The song "My Way"--that's the *write* way.

BJ--admittedly one of the least prolific writers in CBA

At 3:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm the first in the line of "anonymous-es". I just want to clarify I don't think it's the readers who "rule". If they did, I think the local Christian book stores and Christian publishing in general would be stocking a greater variety of all the genres and the sizes of the novels would vary more.
I think it's an economic ploy, and I apologize if that seems harsh, to hammer at 80-100,000 word limits for a lot of the fiction. Not all houses do, and some require even stricter limits. Variety of genres, styles, and lengths would be an idication to me that readers "rule".

At 5:01 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Wow, Athol. Looks like I'm not the only one who appreciates your honesty. As I write and wait for my first contract I thank God that I've been forced to slow down and look at not only the business aspect of publishing but the fact that if I'm ever going to be the fine writer I long to be, for Jesus and for myself, I need to work hard now. Once in the machine, it will likely get much more difficult.

Thanks for the reminder that where I'm at is where I ought to be.

At 11:26 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with your thoughts, but I also worry, along with Katy, about being given the time I need. And the attention span of today's reader is decreasing, if I'm not mistaken.

Then add in the trend to series-ize everything, and we're training readers to think in terms of Book 1 in Jan, Book 2 in July, Book 3 in Jan. Then right on to the next series.

At 1:38 AM, Blogger Miss Audrey said...

Hey, perhaps the answer is to write twenty years worth of books and then seek publication. They'll catch up eventually, but at least we'll have some breathing room! *g*

That is my quote of Anom...

What this person stated in jest is exactly what I have done. And the reason for this very post is why I did it. I strove for excellence and paid the price of time.

It took me fifteen years to iron out my first novel to my satisfaction, to the glory of God. I gave it my very best.

I knew that no one would allow me that kind of time line to produce the sequel, which I didn't even know I was going to have to write until I penned the last line of my first novel.

I completed the two novels before approaching anyone with my books. (That is except for Waterbrook Press when I was in the process of the first draft of my first novel.)

I'm about half way done with the first draft of my third novel in my trilogy. I'm happy to say that I have learned a lot about writing in general and about my computer and I am confident that were my books actually contracted then I could spit out the third book by time I had to without the pressure of compromise.

Maybe I'll never write anything close to what I have already accomplished, but then again, who knows? What I do know is that I write with purpose and I have learned great patience along the path of this wonderful journey.

At 10:30 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just to lend a little different perspective on a couple of the comments here: you actually *can* write series fiction without having a book released in Jan. and July, and still continue to be published. That's true of several series writers, not just myself.

Although I did recently have a January and an August release in a series, that was possible only because the first book was an "expansion" of an earlier novella; thus, a good part of it had already been written. There are still some publishers who are willing to wait and allow their authors a more reasonable timetable. Granted, my books are smaller than they used to be a few years ago--on purpose--so that helps. But even with that change, I could never turn in a manuscript to make the Jan.-July release dates work, nor would I even try. And when I was writing novels with more word count (in series), my release dates were more like one every year or 14 months, if that. Liz Curtis Higgs is a good example of an author whose novels average about one a year,I believe, and her books are quite large, extremely well-written--and very successful. There are others, as well, some writing contemporary, some writing historical--all writing series, but not sacrificing quality because of an unreasonable schedule.

The point is well-taken that some publishers won't cut their authors that much slack--but some *do*.

As for the goal being "not huge profits, but to glorify God"--I've worked with a number of publishers, and while that comment might apply to some, it's naive to assume it applies to all. Most of the people working in publishing--authors, editors, and publishers--have a heart for God and go about their work for the right reasons. They do, however, have to make considerable profit along the way, or publishing would cease to exist. And then the rest of us would be off to WalMart looking for real jobs.


At 12:12 PM, Blogger Rebecca said...

Great post!

You said: "Still think you can get all that done with enough time left over for a family who needs you (1), and church (2), and Bible study (3), exercise (4), charity work (5), yard work (6), housekeeping (7), and all the other necessities of life (8)?"

I can't do all those things and any writing, let alone 100+ words/day. It's a good day if I get in #1 and #8.

At 8:52 PM, Blogger Heather said...

Thank you for this post. I recently inacted an allowance: I don't have to finish books that are not written well and am coming off of several unfinished books, both from the secular and the Christian world. Several months before that I read an excellent book that took the author three years to write. His characters still hang in my mind. We are losing the art of the craft in the demand of the marketing. Thanks for the encouragement!

At 8:58 PM, Blogger Heather said...

Blushed giggle. Substitute enacted for inacted. Where's that darn spellcheck?

At 12:47 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Athol, thanks for this post and thank you , thank you for River Rising. It is one of the best novels written. Period.

As of yet, I haven't met any editors or agents that have forced any author to sign a deal that forces them to churn out a book every quarter or semiannually. That is why I like this post. Because it reminds us authors, that we hold the power of our writing life in our hands.

What kind of writer are we? How we answer that question determines whose we really are.

I think we don't write in Big Voice and are not as reflective in our stories today, because we have disconnected ourselves from Christ without knowing it. We don't pray and study and seek him out, because we have self help books to answer all our questions. We don't pray and question God about our lives, because there is a CD series at a bookstore right now that can give us a band-aid answer.
In my grandmother's church, they called it "playing with God." We're not giving him a chance to reveal himself personally in our lives. Our characters aren't real, because we aren't real with ourselves. We don't want to contemplate and think about the questions that plague us about God. It's too scary to solely rely on faith. That's why so many people are flocking to church's with tangible products of success. We can't write in an authentic voice, one that is searching for its Savior during good times and bad. Because we don't do it in our own lives. We writers need to pray more. I need to be praying right now. :)

Love y'all, great people.

At 7:37 AM, Blogger ~michelle pendergrass said...

I've been thinking along these lines lately. I have this habit of getting down on myself because I'm not doing what everyone else is doing.

For example, over at Dave Long's Faith*In*Fiction message boards, there are several talented people that I've been hanging out with for quite awhile now and I've been praying for them and watching them get their books published or their short stories published. I celebrate with them and then leave the computer screen and wonder what I'm doing wrong. Why am I not getting any publishing credits?

I had a talk with God and He let me know (again) that when He sent Samuel to annoint David as king, David didn't storm the palace and kick Saul out in the name of God. David went straight back to the field and his sheep. And I really don't know exactly how long David went back and forth from the sheep to Saul.

God also showed me that even when everyone cheered David for being a hero and killing the giant Philistine, David was truly just doing something he had always done, this time with a bigger audience.

He didn't have anyone cheering him on in the field when he killed the vicious animals. He had no audience at all. And yet with no audience and no applause, he did his job anyway and was confident that he could.

Someone asked me if I had a novel to "pitch" at the ACFW conference next month and I felt that familiar rock in my gut and I started to explain how this is my first ACFW conference and blah, blah, blah. Then I stopped and remembered David and I told the person that I think I'm like David, annointed with a calling and sure about it, but I need some more time in the field with my sheep.

And God's peace settled over me.

Thank you for confirming my insecurities. You've been a blessing to me.

At 11:51 AM, Blogger Heather said...

Well said. Thank you.
This is my first ACFW conference as well. I had the same "pitch" question and had the same roller-coaster-stomach reaction. Thanks for the encouragement through your vulnerability.

At 3:46 PM, Blogger CFisher said...

Mr. Dickson,

You have just convinced me to buy your book--my first CBA novel in over a year.

At 11:07 AM, Blogger Mary DeMuth said...

Thanks for this post. I wrestle/wrangle over this stress in CBA, wanting to create lyrical prose and yet try to make a living (ha ha). Switching between NF and fiction helps me, actually, because I'm able to be inspired differently.

Yet: this year I had three releases and it nearly killed me! :-)

At 7:43 AM, Blogger Colleen Coble said...

Great post, Athol, but I have to point out that not everyone writes at the same pace. And some of us write full time, 5 days a week, and can easily write 20,000 words in a week of diligent work. And that's okay if I've carefully thought out my book and know where I'm heading with it.

You mentioned Lizzie Higgs, and you also have to remember that she speaks a ton and writes non fiction as well so it's no wonder she writes one novel a year. She's a powerhouse in everything she does and gives it her all. And that's what we should do. In my case, my all is focused only on writing fiction. I don't work at anything else and that makes a difference in output. I have no children at home and my husband works all day so my days are free to work hard on my writing.

What matters is are we doing our best work? My best work is NOT slow and dragged out. I lose the inspiration when I do that. My best books were written down quickly while the entire story was fresh in my mind. Then I took a few months and went back and made the prose better and tried to enhance the book. That's what I try to do all the time now because it's my natural pace and brings out my best work.

There is NO cookie cutter, one size fits all pace. Just as we all have different stories that excite us, we all have different paces. We do what God equips us to do. Some of us are fast workers in everything we do. We have a lot of energy and excitement and we can accomplish a lot when we focus it on that one thing.

At 11:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I think I may have been the one to mention Liz Curtis Higgs here, rather than Athol (see above comments)--but not in regard to how fast she writes. It was in reply to another comment about the time schedule those who write in the series format need to keep. I mentioned Liz as one author among others who doesn't keep to the 4-6 months time frame (just as I don't).

Liz does travel extensively to research her books, so there's some time spent--and I believe that at some point she did cut back somewhat on her speaking and other activities to devote more time to her fiction.

As for the pace each of us keep, I think we all have to concede that different writers need different schedules, and as you pointed out, it's all about doing our best as as God enables.

(From time to time I'll admit that I wish He'd enabled me to write faster!)



At 10:19 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I’m glad this post got so many people thinking.

While there may be some publishers who press authors for a fast pace, I’ve written novels for three of the biggest houses in the CBA, and none of them ever demanded that I hurry. Also, having hung out with published novelists for a few years now, listening to them talk about their work schedule, I’ve never heard anyone complain about their publisher demanding a fast pace. Maybe a few houses do, but when we face tight deadlines, the explanation is usually one of the other reasons I gave in the post, plus one I forgot to mention: those unforeseen events in life that make it impossible to write for a while and force us to play catch up in order to honor our contract. This last reason, being beyond our control, should not concern us. Jesus did most of his miracles while being interrupted.

I loved Michelle’s comment comparing David to an unknown writer doing her best without a contract. A boy in a field all alone with a slingshot against a wolf, or a boy in a field with two armies watching and a slingshot against a giant: either way, still just a boy serving the Lord with everything he’s got, and that’s what matters. Keep writing for the Lord!

I also appreciate the wisdom in Dee’s remarks about writers digging deep, not “playing with the Lord,” but WRESTLING with Him, in order to receive something worth saying, and (more importantly) in order to live it from the inside out, so we can write with authority. Call it “spiritual research,” if you like; it’s essential to stand up from the computer and take plenty of time to dwell with the Lord and with one’s neighbor. Hermits make bad writers! Those of you who must still work a day job should take heart from this.

And if I might add a more little encouragement to the unpublished, when you hear those stories about lists shrinking and fewer houses accepting “unagented” manuscripts, don’t despair. It’s actually good news for those who follow my advice, because it means the playing field is being leveled. Ten or twelve years ago, CBA fiction editors were hungry for material so I think they were sometimes tempted to lower the bar a bit and take the first manuscript with a little promise. But in conditions like these today, they can afford to wait for excellence right out of the box. This means it’s a little less about the pure dumb luck of getting your work into the right hands at the right time, and a little more about the work itself, which is something YOU control.


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