Balancing Productivity and Art

Balancing Productivity and Art

If you are producing anything—toy dolls, bread, vacuum cleaners, or novels—there are some variables that you have to work with.

Ideally, a publisher would like you to bring them in 1) quickly, 2) beautifully written, 3) and at a low price. This is why you need to learn to balance your productivity and art while writing. Balancing productivity and art takes practice and experience.

Buyers will almost always be willing to make tradeoffs. Your goal is to provide two of the three. For example, I used to know an editor who handled a series of novels based on a major television series. A couple of times he asked me, “Could you write a novel for me in two weeks? I’ll pay you twice what I normally do for it.” In other words, he wanted a good novel quickly, and he was willing to pay through the nose. He wanted two out of three.

I told him “No” every time. The reason was that I felt that writing a novel that quickly would hurt the quality of my work, and ultimately a sub-standard novel would damage my reputation. In the short term, I might make some good money, but in the long term it would hurt my career. I’d rather write one great novel than ten bad ones. (Besides, I wasn’t a fan of that particular series, so it seemed a distraction.)

Yet more and more, it seems, this career demands that you be productive, that you up your word count. For many writers, that might seem frightening. They might feel that they are being pushed to write too quickly.

But the truth is, that pushing yourself often yields great results. If you push yourself and fail, at the very least you’ve exercised your writing muscles. You’ve considered how to write a story, and found out some ways that don’t work, so that next time you can write more quickly. Your mind becomes more nimble.

After having been a professional writer for more than 25 years, I find that my mind is far more facile than it was when I first began. The ideas come more quickly, the stories that I write are better, and it’s more fun to write now than it was back then.

So by pushing productivity, we may actually be creating a generation of better storytellers.

What I find so exciting about this is that I’m seeing the writers today rising to this challenge. With my Writers of the Future winners from 2013, I recently learned that all twelve first- through third-place winners have published multiple stories in the past year, and at least two of them have gone on to win other awards. That’s pretty cool. Years ago when I was judging the contest, I felt that the writers were doing well if 40% of them broke out at that level.

Then last week, I asked 2014’s crop of winners, “How many of you have written a novel?” I was really just curious to find out how many of them hoped to go on and make a career of writing. To my astonishment, all of them had finished a novel, and several of them had finished more than one. That’s exciting. It suggests to me that writers today are developing a strong work ethic.

It also made me wonder: “Did these people win the contest simply because they have been practicing so much, working so hard?”

The truth is that in this industry, if you can write fairly quickly and to a high quality, you can make a great living.
I was talking to one author the other day who said, “I’m the world’s slowest writer. I can only write about twenty words a minute. But if I sit down and do it for eight hours a day, I can still compose five thousand words per day.” Think about it. That’s a novel in a month. To the world, that seems “blazing fast.”

You don’t have to write quickly to make a living, you just have to be consistent. The quality of what you write and how quick you write it will matter.

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