Tuesday, January 18, 2011

No One Said This Is Easy

By Bill Furlow

Let’s be honest: The ratio of just plain awful self-published books to decent ones must be at least 100:1. Okay, if you eliminate erotica from the equation, a little balance is restored, but if you change “decent” to “excellent,” it goes way out of whack again.

So what separates the inexperienced authors who can produce reasonably good books the first or second time out from the legion of those who cannot? Talent is part of it, of course, but my guess is it’s also about hard work and the desire to make something great rather than just get it done and see it in print.

A blogger posed a question about how long it takes to write a page. Nearly every author responded in a range from 15 to 30 minutes. Wow! Depending on the quality of the writing, I often can’t edit a page that fast.

Elizabeth George, who’s published 13 best-selling novels and a book about writing, says she writes five pages a day. John Updike said he’d write three. Stephen King writes a hare-like ten pages a day, but note that he does it every day, including holidays

John Irving said it takes him from seven months to a year to reach the point of writing a novel’s opening sentence. Barbara Kingsolver said, “I may rewrite the first paragraph of a novel fifty times before I’m satisfied.” Richard Price writes his novels by hand because it’s more labor intensive and forces him to think through each sentence very carefully.

If you think some or all of these folks write better than you do, you might consider spending a little more time pruning, polishing and exploring alternate ways to maximize the impact of each sentence and paragraph. As John Irving said, “Revision is more than half of my work as a writer.”

Here are a couple of almost-randomly-selected paragraphs from Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna and Richard Price’s Lush Life:

“The mother of Jesus, similarly sloe-eyed, bade us sit on a log while she dipped beans from a cauldron that must bubble eternally on the fire outside her hut. Her name: Maria, naturally. Her lath house, like every one in the village, had a tall, peaked roof of thatch, open at each gable end for ventilation. Inside the open doorway, a knot of motionless brown limbs, presumably sleeping children, weighted a hammock into a deep V shape, the reverse of the roofline…” BK

“Restless, agitated, trying not to think about the thing that didn’t happen, Matty found himself still in the empty office an hour after she left…,perusing the day’s mayhem, sorting them into kickbacks to patrol and squad-worthy; felonies obviously but domestics, too, always potential starter-kits for something more serious…” RP

If you can churn out writing like this in 15 or 30 minutes a page, it’s time to quit your day job and turn pro. If not, though…