Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Incubation times

This post was prompted by recent discussion on Nathan Bransford's blog, in which the following question was raised: what do you feel about authors trying to keep up with a book a year, or more, to satisfy their publisher and their readers? (paraphrased from memory)

Personally I believe the author should demand enough time to finish the book properly. Problem is, a book isn't a roll of toilet paper or a loaf of bread ... it's an artistic endeavour, and it's finished when it's finished.

Over time, most authors find a schedule they're comfortable with, and provided they stay on track they can write novels to that deadline. For me it's about 8 months from start to finish, and when you add in the publisher's side of things that's about one book every 14-16 months. (Hal 4 was the first book I've written for this publisher from scratch, and having done that one I'm confident I can repeat.)

This doesn't allow for writers block (Pah! No such thing!) and backtracking heavily to fix those major cock-ups we suddenly unearth near the end of the novel. That's why we invented extensions.

Just out of interest, these are the time scales for each Hal book, from my writing the very first word to their appearance in the shops with Fremantle Press:

Hal Spacejock: 11 years
Hal Spacejock Second Course: 4 years
Hal Spacejock Just Desserts: 4 years
Hal Spacejock No Free Lunch: 1 year (with a 1 month extension)

Hal 4 is a bit of a special case because I wrote the first bits of the novel in 2004, and also wrote two versions of it for NanoWrimo in 2005 and 2006, but so little of those efforts made it into the final version it was effectively written from scratch.

There's also quite a bit of overlap in the figures, because I started Hal Spacejock book 1 in 1994.

A long gestation period can give the writer time to dot every i and cross every t, to shine and polish until every single word belongs. Although if you believe this you clearly haven't read Hal 1. Even after all those years of editing and polishing, I can still open it to any page and see things I'd like to change. That's the sort of education you get from writing three or four additional novels.

Also, by the time you finish your one-book-a-decade half the book reps have moved on, stores don't remember you and fans have all found another writer to idolise.

On the other hand, writing a novel in 8 months can lead to consistency - plot, character, dialogue ... even the writing. You're not blending passages you wrote a decade ago with sentences you just crafted last week. There's a certain attraction to single-mindedly pursuing one goal over a relatively short time span, excluding minor distractions like your health, earning capacity, and your family.

So which is really better? Which do readers prefer?

Yesterday there was a reply to one of my recent posts which said something along the lines of 'Hal 4 has less of the one-line belly laughs than earlier books in the series, but it's my favourite so far' (Paraphrased from memory)

I think this is true of most comedy series (apart from the 'fave so far' bit - that varies), and there are several reasons for it.

First, there's the fact the author has probably been chasing a publishing deal for years, and during that time he/she has been tinkering with the novel in question. (What you should be doing is writing the next - and I did, twice. But that still doesn't prevent tinkering every time a new rejection or four lands in the mailbox.)

Second, to stay original and fresh with each book means NOT repeating yourself. Gags, dire situations, one-liners, plot points .. Personally, I err on the side of caution, avoiding anything which has echoes of earlier books. You tend to lose the freewheeling, carefree, have-at-it nature and become a bit more precise, and with each Hal book there are less irrelevant side trips just to fit in a funny scene I couldn't let go. Scenes are written to fit the plot, because I don't have time to let my brain wander too much ... or if I do, I'm happy to save it for a later book in the series, which was a luxury I didn't have when writing book #1.

Finally, with each book you want to grow as an author. You don't want to throw away a hard-earned readership with an artsy renegade volume of second-person stream of consciousness with no punctiation, but you don't want to put out the same-old, same-old either. For example, one of my goals is to fold one or more genres into each Hal book. Hal 1 was SF humour with satire. Hal 2 was an alien civilisation and corporate evildoers. Hal 3 was espionage and goverment coverups. And for Hal 4 I dug deep into the bucket and came up with mystery, crime, romance, horror and a bit of police procedural. (I wasn't sure whether it would be the last Hal book, so I threw everything in.)

By the way, whether No Free Lunch is the last Hal book or not depends on whether enough people buy a copy next time they're browsing in the local store. I'm working on Hal 5 now, but there are no certainties in the publishing game, whether you write one book a decade or three every year.

Simon Haynes is the author of the Hal Spacejock and Hal Junior series (Amazon / Smashwords / other formats)


Adam Heine said...

So what do you say to the still-has-a-day-job, hobby author who is trying to sell his first novel, working on his second, and wondering - if he does get a deal - if he will be able to say, "Yes, Mr. Publisher, I can do that." or if he'll have to say, "I'm sorry, but I'm parenting six kids, homeschooling two, and I have a seventh on the way so I can't make any guarantees."?

I know the answer is probably something along the lines of "It depends how committed you are to writing." And that's the real problem: I don't know yet and I won't until it happens.

(The 6-7 kids scenario is only slightly exagerrated.)

Simon Haynes said...

What I did was to stock up on novels while I was seeking a publisher. The more I wrote & stashed away, the more experience I gained and the more I had to draw on when the time came.

When the publisher asked me for book 4 the call went something along the lines of 'we'd like another one, and we'd like to release it in January '08. Can you have it written by the end of July?' (This was at the end of April)

I said no - I needed two months longer, and we settled on an April 1 release date. Then, after I'd handed it in, they pushed the release back two months. I could have had another two months to edit & polish the novel, but such is life. In any case, I was sick of it by then and was keen to take a two day break before starting NanoWrimo on November 1 2007 ;-)

Simon Haynes said...

(What I meant to say is, if I'd told them it would take me 12 months from the phone call, I'm sure they still would have been okay with it. They were just trying to fill a slot in their release schedule.)

Adam Heine said...

That's really good advice. Thank you.

So back to writing then!