Advice on writing Great Literature

In a discussion at The Passive Voice, one Lorraine Devon Wilke was mocked for ordering writers, ‘Do NOT write four books a year.’ She offered, as an exemplar of Good Writing, Donna Tartt, who took eleven years to write The Goldfinch. Among many other responses, Ed Ryan offered this:

I’m a math idiot so bear with me. Let’s assume (so I don’t have to look it up) the ‘masterpiece’ in question is 100k words long.

11 years means 10,000 words per year (ok that’s 110,000, see how lazy I am?)

10,000 words per year/ 365 days per year us a blistering 27.3 words per day.

We can pretend this hardworking visionary took days off from that grueling schedule and slaved over the novel for a mere 200 days each of those 11 years – an electric 50 word per day pace.

If the author rewrote the book 10 times the average jumps to a staggering 500 words per day. Being generous that’s 60 minutes of work per day.

I only hope the other 23hrs were relaxing.

Our Evil Alter Blogger responds:

Don’t be silly.

If you want to become a Major Literary Figure, you have to spend the other 23 hours in a constant flurry of activity. Hanging out in seedy Left Bank cafes, drinking absinthe with deranged expatriates. Being addicted to hard drugs. Cultivating interesting but debilitating mental illnesses. Pursuing weird sexual kinks in wildly unorthodox ménages. Kissing the bums of some of your fellow verminous literary lions, and fighting lifelong feuds with others. Going into rehab. Getting out of rehab. Writing angsty pseudo-philosophical anecdota about what you learned in rehab. Forgetting what you learned in rehab so you can repeat the process. I tell you, it’s a busy and thankless life.

The ideal literary author will write ONE book, and spend the rest of his life (it is preferably a he; if a she, she should go into pop music instead and aspire to be Amy Winehouse) desperately striving to live fast, die young, and leave a corpse that may not actually be good-looking, but will at least furnish material for hundreds of Ph.D. theses by twitterpated would-be academics.

You see, that is the ultimate goal of Literature. It’s all about the doctoral theses. Authors and books are just a necessary nuisance along the way.

H. Smiggy McStudge


  1. So sorry, H.

    I refuse. I spend the rest of the time dealing with pain, corralling thoughts, and wondering where the heck I got this ego from.

    In other words, I spend those 23 hours on ME.

    The rest seems tedious beyond compare – why would I want to spend time on those unworthies? MY time.

    They will just have to invent a new kind of doctoral thesis for me. And, yes, I can sing, but NO, I have no desire to follow Amy – what a waste of HER!

    Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have WORK to do.

    • Ah, then you shall never, never know the exquisite delight of dying at 27 and being posthumously lauded as a Great but Tragic Poète Maudit, who could have accomplished so very much if only—!

      (Excuse these tears. Now I’ve got work to do, too.)

  2. I tried opening up “The Goldfinch” once. It was dull enough that I stopped reading it.

    Theoretically, it could have gotten better. But I’ll be honest, the amount of times that actually happens are much, much rarer than people seem to think. If you start off badly, you’ll probably be bad.

  3. Jay Allman says:

    1. Apply Ed Ryan’s methodology to another author: It took Tolkien 12 years to compose the 455K-word LotR. 12 years means 37500 words per year. 37500 words per year/365 days per year gives us 102.7 words per day. Let’s say he only worked 200 days each of those 12 years — 187.5 words a day If he rewrote it 3 times the average jumps to 562 words per day. Being generous that’s 60 minutes of work per day.

    Can we now mock the relaxing or hedonistic lifestyle that Tolkien apparently pursued the other 23 hours of the day? No, because we know what was going on in his life those other 23 hours, and “relaxing” and “hedonistic” would hardly be accurate. Are we similarly aware of what was going on in Donna Tartt’s life? (If she was trying to kill herself by age 27, the 51-year-old author seems to have failed.) If you know something about how Donna Tartt spends her free time, why not say something about it?

    2. Let’s run the numbers a slightly different way, starting with plausible assumptions about how an author spends his or her time. Start by assuming that Tartt’s (presumably) gorgeously written, painstakingly molded, and amazingly rendered prose emerged at a rate of 100 words an hour, and that so as not to exhaust her creative energies she only spent 3 hours a day bending over her notebook. (That does not mean the rest of her day was free of creative thought.) If she spent 5 days a week this way, she could produce 78K words in a year. “The Goldfinch” apparently is 770 pages long; at 250 words a page, it would take two-and-a-half years to produce it.

    What of the other eight-and-a-half years? According to an interview at the Telegraph (found by the most cursory of googling) she writes so many drafts she has to color-code them, and during the composition of the novel she excised an entire subplot for being “redundant.” In other contexts, you have praised this sort of process — especially the “elimination of the superfluous” — as necessary for getting it right. Eight-and-a-half years might seem like a long time to “get it right.” But as you reminded us once, it took Heinlein eleven years to finish “Stranger in a Strange Land” because it took him so long to get the story right. Again, why the mockery for an author who essentially took the same amount of time to produce a novel that is only slightly longer?

    3. You may protest that you did not mock Tartt by name; but you are mocking an (unnamed) author of your imagination whose pace is the same as hers, and whose rate of productivity is indistinguishable from authors you have praised (at least on some projects) for a kind of craftsmanship that is the opposite of a pulp writer’s. You are of course free to make fun of anything your imagination has invented, but why seize on an essay — and an example in that essay — urging care, diligence, and the pursuit of good prose as an opportunity to invent and abuse a villain, especially when the essay is scornful of a productivity ideal that you have also written scornfully of?

    4. Do you disagree with anything that Lorraine Devon Wilke actually says (as opposed to what you imagine she means, or what you guess she prefers) in her HuffPo piece? If we replace the authors she holds up as examples with authors you admire, is there anything in her essay that you would dissent from?

    • Yes, I can tell you exactly where I disagree with Lorraine Devon Wilke. She says, to boil it down into the shortest and fewest possible words:


      This is arrant nonsense. She is not urging care, diligence, and the pursuit of good prose; she is urging SLOWNESS, and saying that NOBODY can possibly write well unless they write at an arbitrarily slow speed of her choosing. And she presumes to order other writers about on the basis of this utterly false belief. That, Sir, is worthy of a good mocking.

      • And for those who don’t plan to read through all the comments section at the passive voice, here’s a gem apropos to this point:
        If the only alternatives are to crank out swill slowly or to crank out swill quickly, then by all means, you should crank it out slowly and congratulate yourself on not adding too much to the world supply of swill.

        On the other hand, writers who are actually any good are not limited to these two alternatives.

        • Jay Allman’s arguments aside, that one is pretty damning.

          Apparently, she expects people to learn how to write by writing very bad work stretched out over a long period of time. Genius.

          • There is much to be said for Quintilian’s advice. Some people, especially those who fetishize the image of the Great Writer spending years or decades sweating over his one Great Book, recall only the first half: ‘Write quickly and you will never write well.’ But Quintilian immediately goes on to say: ‘Write well and you will soon write quickly.’

            Whenever you are employing an unfamiliar technique, you must not expect to perform it at speed before you have mastered it. A good writer, we may safely say, is one who has mastered a fair repertoire of techniques and can therefore do various kinds of writing at speed. But even a good writer has not mastered every technique. Beyond that we have what may fairly be called great writers, who tackle projects that may require them to invent new techniques. That is always a slow process, because there is not only the normal trial and error of learning, but the additional trial and error of figuring out which of the infinity of conceivable techniques will actually work to tell the story you have in mind.

            One reason Tolkien took twelve years to write The Lord of the Rings was that his days were full of other work, as a father, an Oxford professor, and a soldier in the Home Guard. But another reason is that he was doing something that had never been done on such a scale before, nor with such painstaking attention to many kinds of detail at once. He had to invent his own tools as he went along, and then he had to learn how to use them; and because he had invented the tools himself, there was nobody to teach him. The author of The Goldfinch has not got that excuse.

            • I remember advice from John C. Wright where he said he banged out, I believe, one short story a month at minimum, usually more, and claimed that the first…100?…or so were crap, and that everything after that was good.

              I’ve also heard things like “The first [arbitrary number of words] you write will always be terrible, so just keep writing.”

              And then there’s Hemingway, as usual cutting right to the point: “The first draft is shit”.

              Granted, that’s technically about revision, but it’s such a great quote I’ll put it there anyway.

              • So . . . if you have to write a million words of sh*t before you become a good writer, at her stated rate of output our intrepid HuffPo advice columnist will never climb out of the cesspool. Sad.

              • Ray Bradbury had similar advice:

                “If you write one short story a week, doesn’t matter what the quality is to start, but at least you’re practicing. And at the end of the year you have 52 short stories. And I defy you to write 52 bad ones.”

                I’ve found that drawing works similarly – churn out bad drawings at a rate of knots and you’ll get better quite quickly, and create a few good ones every now and then; though one has to slow down and be more careful when a particular drawing needs to actually be any good.

      • Jay Allman says:

        So you think she is NOT urging “care, diligence and the pursuit of good prose” when she praises “gorgeously written, painstakingly molded, amazingly rendered and undeniably memorable books”; when she says that “writing good books simply takes time” because it involves “learned skills, unhurried imagination, fastidious drafting, diligent editing, even the time to step away, then step back, to go over it all again.” You think she is only urging “slowness” when she advises her readers to “take your time, work your craft; look for the best possible ways to tell your story and allow yourself time to change your mind, sometimes often, until you know it’s right” with the goal of producing “a work of art, a book of depth and merit, one that would not only tell a compelling story but would meet standards of publishing that authors of the highest regard are held to.”

        I don’t understand how you get from the quotes above to “everything that is written quickly is trash.” I also don’t see how you get from any of the above to the Amy Winehouse caricature you have (IMO, legitimate) fun batting around; nor do I see anyone resembling that caricature held up as a model in LDW’s post.

        That caricature may be worth knocking about; I merely do not see how you find that caricature in the post.

        Meanwhile, if you reject as “arrant nonsense” the thesis that “Everything that is written quickly is trash,” then you must accept the negation, that “Some things written quickly are not trash.” Also, if you reject that “Nobody can write well unless writing at an arbitrarily slow speed” you must accept that “There is no speed above which nobody can write well.” (Well, let us assume the “speed” in question is one that human beings may reasonably reach; we are not talking about Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman, who was the fastest typist Perry White had ever seen.) It is tricky, but reasonable, to extend these into the modal proposition: “Some people are capable of producing good work at high speeds.” Do you accept that proposition, and if not, why do you seem to be constantly arguing with Dean Wesley Smith, who seems to me exactly the sort of person LDW is implicitly criticizing and abhorring for urging productivity upon his acolytes?

        • I argue with Dean Wesley Smith for exactly the same reason that I argue with Lorraine Devon Wilke. Both of them insist that there is only one way to produce books worth reading. Wilke insists that they must be written slowly, and that anyone who produces four books a year must therefore be writing trash. Smith insists that they must be written quickly, and that anyone who does not write four books a year, or something near it, is a mere hobbyist and dilettante. In both cases, they heap absolute censure on anyone who does not work by what they imagine to be the only permissible method.

          • Jay Allman says:

            “Both of them insist that there is only one way to produce books worth reading.”

            Is that why DWS festoons every post on writing with the disclaimer “NO WRITER IS THE SAME. NO PROJECT IS THE SAME”? Is that why in the very first chapter in his first “Killing Myths” book he rejects the claim that “There is only one right way to do anything in publishing”? Is that why he says over and over again “All writers are different”?

            He says those things because he believes that all writers are the same and must write in exactly the same way because there is only one way to write?

            I am beginning to feel like Alice arguing with the Red Queen. You start by condemning one writer for things she does not say, and have progressed to condemning another writer for the opposite of things he does say. It’s like being in Literary Theory class again, and being told that the simplest English sentence is actually in code.

            • Sir, Mr. Smith has ridiculed me personally and told me that I am not a writer because I do not write fast enough to suit him. He speaks with a forked tongue.

              Moreover, he would ridicule YOU. I, too, offered the precise example of Tolkien as a writer who did not produce wordage at high speed, and he dismissed it out of hand (with a further helping of ridicule to help wash the venom down).

              You start by condemning one writer for things she does not say,

              Except that she does.

              and have progressed to condemning another writer for the opposite of things he does say.

              Because he himself has said those opposite things, as a matter of public record.

              • Jay Allman says:

                Regarding Wilke, I have provided quotes to support my interpretation that she is only urging “care, diligence, and the pursuit of good prose.” Can you provide me with quotes in which she asserts — or can be characterized as asserting — that writing has no other object but to go slow, turn yourself into the object of doctoral theses, and die young while leaving a handsome corpse?

                I have no more patience for McStudge’s project than you; I only fail to see how Wilke’s post is a cheer for that project. I have tried tracing the outline of the whale I see in the cloud of her prose; do help me to see the weasel you discern there.

                Regarding DWS: I did some googling, and I found you recounting the incident in the comments at Sarah Hoyt’s blog. I couldn’t find the original exchange you had with DWS, though. Could you provide one? I would be interested in reading it directly. Unless it occurred in a private email, of course.

              • Mr. Allman,

                I have neither the time nor the inclination to continue this discussion with you further. If you want to argue with my interpretation of Ms. Wilke’s remarks, go and argue with Larry Correia. He sees the matter just about exactly as I do, and he is generally willing to make fools of all who wish to argue with him. I have a bad headache and I am far behind on my work, and you are driving my blood pressure up much higher than it is safe for it to go.

              • Jay Allman says:

                Dear Mr. Simon, I am very sorry to hear that, and I apologize for causing you distress. It was not my intention. I was genuinely puzzled by your negative reaction to the HuffPo article, since much of what I thought she said greatly resembles arguments you yourself have made against using metrics as a yardstick for success, and in favor of only including “words that are worth reading” inside a word count. Hence, my perplexity at the invective you directed at Wilke. But I often misjudge people, especially when I try to impute generous motives to them. I suppose that happened here.

  4. I wrote my master’s thesis in six weeks. My doctorate didn’t really take much longer, so the same applies to scientific writing that applies to fiction. Being prolific isn’t a hindrance to being a good scientist any more than it is to being a good novelist. YMMV.

    That said, I don’t always plow through writing novel in the remarkable speed that some people do. Some things cook longer than others. Everyone’s different. But no way is wrong.

  5. And speaking of comments: this is another particularly good one: v. sound advice:

  6. In any case, there are simply too many counterexamples to be pulled for us to take that claim any seriously. Would Agatha Christie fans be happier if she wrote a book every eleven years? Would the world of literature be richer with two or three Shakespeare plays? If Dickens had…

    Wait, scratch Dickens, bad example. He had gems hidden beneath piles and piles of rubbish, so it actually would have been nice to see the rubbish cut out. But anyway, he certainly made money out of the strategy.

    Her advice is great advice if your goal is not to make any money at all.

  7. Too great not to share:

    Watterson was a genius. Who, coincidentally, produced a comic strip a day every day, save for one sabbatical, for ten years.

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