Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Man Who Wrote Too Much

Pardon the week-long hiatus--we're both, lord help us, writing. Today, though, I finally threw in the towel and decided to print out a fresh draft of my novel for Rhian to read. Every time, I think this is the one she's going to race through in a day, then say, "It's perfect, send it off." And every time I'm wrong. (She is responsible for the removal of an embarrassingly ill-fitting element from Castle.) In any event, even if it sucks, it's nice to have it out of my hands, if only for a week.

This is the tenth novel I have actually written, counting the ones that didn't get published, and I'm beginning to wonder maybe if I'm writing too fast. This is a fault I have always felt free to find in other writers, but haven't really ever taken seriously the notion that it's one of mine, as well. In general I produce a (so far) publishable one every two years, and have done a couple even faster than that.

And usually I'm satisfied with the results, more or less. But last night I was reading this new Lorrie Moore. I like it, and I have always looked up to Moore as kind of a hero. But above and beyond that, the book has a particular quality my work lacks--it feels carefully composed, worked over. It's written...exquisitely. It feels like somebody's first novel in ten years.

Of course, there's something to be said about a book that feels unburdened, that you can read quickly, that skates along in an uninterrupted progression of thoughts. This is what I tell myself I'm writing. That my stuff is qualitatively different because of my pace, and this is a neither good nor bad thing.

But then again, think of the popular writers who publish a lot. T. C. Boyle. Joyce Carol Oates. Even if you really dig them (and there is a lot to like about these writers), admit it--you sometimes think they publish too much. You kind of wish they would calm the hell down and go into hiding for ten years. There's a slight taint to the respect we have for them, because of their output. It's not even necessarily about quality--even if they published the same damned books, unchanged from the versions we know, and just spaced them out to every five years, we would probably convince ourselves that these books are better, because they appear to be the result of years and years of effort.

That's not the main thing, though--the prose is the main thing. And while I don't want to emulate Lorrie Moore, I am thinking that the next book I write will be much shorter and much more finely wrought. (I think I already know what it is, a novel I've been wanting to write for nearly a decade, ever since a graduate student suggested it to me after reading a little metafiction I published in a local newspaper.) And if I know what's good for me, when I'm finished, I'll wait ten years before putting it in the mail.


Einar said...

Yes, what a great idea. Put down your pen, open your desk to the mice and let's watch my new Choirboy's value sky-rocket. If you could do something outrageous or perhaps even criminal with your newly freed time I may be able to retire on the tacky little fellow.

I agree with the over-published writers you mentioned. Sometimes I think the editors of certain fiction publishing magazines take long lunches and just plug in a Joyce Carol Oates story and go home early. One could stock a small bookstore with TC Boyle remainders.

The anticipation of an admired writer's new novel is something I think most readers enjoy. And I am probably not alone in buying books from the UK because publishing dates in the US lag too far behind.

Enjoy the week, pull yourself together and get back to it.

jrlennon said...

Ha ha!, thank you, Einar! The Significant Objects guys actually gave me the full amount, too--they didn't even deduct the original cost of the choirboy (which I'm certain was substantial indeed).

Sasha said...

Maybe you aren't capable of, for instance, Lorrie Moore's, product/time ratio. Maybe the time and effort it takes for her to make a piece "exquisite" would make your work over-wrought.

It comes down (I think) to why you write. If you write for the joy of storytelling, and your favorite part is when you're getting down the first draft, then maybe you *should* write quickly-- then, you can move on to more stories. If you write for a love of words, and your favorite part is revising and rewriting until the manuscript is a well-cut jewel, maybe you should write slowly, so you can savor the stories you tell.

I think the time someone takes on each piece is more than a question of temperament, it's also a question of professional satisfaction. You have to think about what joys you find in the job, and how to get the most of them that you can :)

jrlennon said...

Yeah, I hear ya! The danger though is in telling yourself "I write the way I write, and that's that" and falling into complacency.

My prolificity comes mostly from having a lot of ideas I want to work out, and not enough lifetime to explore them in. But I think a shorter book, written more deliberately, could be a good compromise, and might send my work in an interesting direction...or so I hope.

rmellis said...

Have I not been telling you this very thing for 15 years, hm?

You DO write too fast. I dont' know what a JRL book that has been worked over for ten years would look like, but since you now have a day job, why not give it a try?

Give me a chance to half catch up, anyways.

sjwoo said...

I think it's always worth trying something different, if for no other reason than just that, a change of pace. You never know what you'll discover if you alter the tempo...

And add Mr. Stewart O'Nan to the list of great writers who can pump'em out.

jrlennon said...

Stew is a madman. I don't know how he does it. I think he writes about a book a year.

zoe said...

Bloody hell John, you're a long time dead.

zoe said...

By which I mean: keep writing.

jrlennon said...

I was wondering what that meant...;-)

zoe said...

Sorry, sometimes I forget that not everyone is tuned into the rude Scottish station. Anyway, at the risk of being labelled as merely a fan, I like your books - they don't feel rushed or hasty or anything similar to me. I know that JCO and some others knock them out with alarming frequency, but I'm okay with that. I've just started using public libraries again and maybe that's making me feel generous because I wouldn't get skinned for not-quite-amazing books. But I don't need every book I read to be amazing. I would be too much to take if everything I read was like The Road or Jesus Son. I'm not saying that between greats I want the literary equivalent of Easy Listening, but it does mean that I'm not overly perturbed by Oates' high volume of output. Good for her and TC Boyle etc. I just need to focus on what I want to do writing-wise and write as much as I can whilst trying to be as self critiquing as is healthy.

k. said...

I got curious about TV Boyle's output so I checked and he actually seems to average about the same as you, one novel every two years. Of course, that doesn't count the trillions of short stories he's written. I remember reading something by him in which he said his agent and editor once implored him to go at a slower pace because it's easier to sell books that way.

rmellis said...

Yeah, JR, I'm not sure why you picked on TC, he never struck me as overly productive. Now, P. Roth...

jrlennon said...

I think of Boyle as publishing more than he does--but actually I think the problems with his writing are ones that I share. I always read a new story when it comes out, and always enjoy it, but I think he ought to slow down, and so should I.

Rhian just got her comments back to me, wow. She has some very interesting ideas...!

jon said...

what about someone like William T Vollman? I can't read him, but for sheer tonnage it is almost 19th century. I don't know of anyone else like him writing today.
I don't mind reading things that are purely pleasurable, but I hate feeling like I wasted my time with a book, whether I paid for it or not. That's why I stopped reading Anthony Burgess after Earthly Powers. If I had my way I would only read great books. And there are enough of them to read nothing else.

christianbauman said...

I was Vollman's copy editor for Argall. I've never quite had an experience like that in my writing/editing life, and doubt I will again. But that's a story for another day.

As for your post, JRL...

One of my most-remembered quotes from another novelist is something Jhumpa Lahiri was quoted as saying in article I read on her. She was talking about reading a story of hers publicly, and during the reading she realized there was an echo (that is, an unintentional and clumsy repitition of a word in a sentence, paragraph, or page; or unintentional repitition of an odd word in the same work). Anyway, her echo wasn't in a sentence, paragraph, or page, but chapter, and her reaction to discovering this echo while she was reading aloud is what I remember: she thought to her self, "Damn, it's too late...I can never fix that." She was very upset.

That's how I feel when I go back and read my published work and find any kind of clumsiness like that. Now, I am a former copy editor, I used to look for those things for a living (Rhian, I hope I didn't miss any in After Life, please forgive if I did), so maybe I'm overly sensitive. But to be truthful, it bothers my soul as a writer, not an editor. The better the story, the better the writer, the less occasional clumsiness matters when I hit it. But I do always feel let down. I want to call them up and say, "You know, if you'd have waited another few weeks and read that one more time, you'd have rewritten that phrase." One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was: "When you're done with the novel/story/essay, and are absolutely sure it's done, and it couldn't possible be any that point, put it away for six months, and then read it again and see if you feel the same way." Almost impossible advice in the real world, but it's the point that matters.

Funny, about JCO: she puts her stuff away for a year and then reads it again. But maybe her re-reads are as fast as her initial writing.

Anyway, though, the circumstances of my life force my writing to slow whether I like it or not, but mostly I try to take it as a positive. Because I am very impatient, and have published or released many things that make me wince later. When I look back at the few things that I am truly proud of, the one thing they all share is that whether intentional or not, they got a lot of room to breathe.

k. said...

Don't get me wrong. I still think TC Boyle is insanely prolific. But even though his subjects vary, there are certain patterns in his books, similar structures, that are surely the result of his pace. Whereas, you, JR, seem, to me, to be almost as prolific, but you don't seem to ever repeat yourself. (Also, from reading your blog and Boyle's website, I can say you place much more emphasis on revision.) Pace only becomes an issue for me when I start seeing the evidence in the work itself.

And Vollman, yes. Good Lord, that guy must have a legitimate form of a graphomania.

rmellis said...

Christian, I never noticed a single mistake in the book! I hope I thanked you adequately at the time, and I hope I wasn't too much of a bitch during the process, but I fear I was -- I have vague memories of being a bitch during that entire time... I was pregnant, and kinda crazy, though that's no excuse.

Anyway, THANK YOU!!

christianbauman said...

Thanks. I'm sure something got through. I was a good but not great copy editor. Viking had trusted me with nonfiction for about a year, but After Life was either the first or second novel I ever did (the other being Reap by Erik Rikstad...spelling?). I was writing my first novel at the time, and remember just being absolutely anxious that I would fuck your book up, somehow. Nonfiction was no anxiety. But copy editing novels? I grew to love it, but god it was anxiety provoking.

Mark said...

"Now, P. Roth..."

He's the one who came to mind for me. There are lots of prolific writers, but in his case, it feels like there's more at stake. He is/was capable of writing a great book, and my feeling is that instead, he's written a bunch of very good ones. I imagine him knowing he'll produce a good-to-very-good book just by putting in the time, and I can see how it would be hard to tinker with the formula if that were the case.

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