Did you know that it took Victor Hugo 12 years to write Les Misèrables, and Margaret Mitchell toiled over Gone with the Wind for an entire decade? That, conversely, Stephenie Meyer wrote Twilight in three months, and Charles Dickens penned Great Expectations in eight months – while in the realms of frantically fast writing, Anthony Burgess created A Clockwork Orange in three weeks, and Robert Louis Stevenson got The Strange Case of Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde down on paper in only six days?
With such a differing timescale for novel first drafts, I wonder: is there a right speed for writing?
Ray Bradbury advised, ‘You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.’ This is the thinking embraced by those who write a first draft quickly, getting the bare bones down on paper before reality can encroach much at all. I suspect these writers are also what’s commonly known as ‘pantsers’ rather than ‘plotters’; they write by the seat of their pants, directly connected to the subconscious, the muse, lost in creativity.
At the other end of the scale, it strikes me that you have two kinds of writer. The first is the writer who wants very much to write a book, but can’t quite get around to actually writing it – the writing process elongates because the writer doesn’t prioritise the writing. The second is the writer who wants very badly to write a superb book, one that will go down in history: it doesn’t surprise me at all that JRR Tolkien spent 16 years crafting his Lord of the Rings trilogy; clearly, he put so much thought and effort into each and every word (and there are many).
What, then, is the right speed? I would argue that the middle ground is where the best, most informed and good-quality writing is often to be found. All of the following books were written in nine to eighteen months: Wuthering Heights, Nineteen Eighty-four, Frankenstein, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, The Jungle Book.
Personally, I aim for around nine months per book: three for research and meticulous planning, and then six for the writing itself and editing. My aim has always been to write not just one book or two, but many, so I have created a rhythm for each year that allows me to create, on average, a book annually. During the writing period, I know just what I am writing, and I know I have allotted time in which to write – but I also have time off from writing, to rest and rejuvenate, which I believe is essential.
If I wrote faster, I think I may become exhausted by the writing process and I worry I would not write as well. If I wrote more slowly, I think I may become jaded by the work in progress, and have itchy feet to move on to the next project – or I may even lose the mood and thread of the current book.
No blog post on writing speed would be complete without considering marketability. For authors these days, there is a constant need to write the next book; spending many years on a single book is a luxury that is usually incompatible with the business side of publishing. I write ‘usually’, because a notable exception at the moment is George RR Martin’s forthcoming book in the Game of Thrones series, which has been a work in progress for five years now. But outside of bestselling epic fantasy fiction, most authors have to always be working toward the next book even while penning the current one.
Whatever the speed at which you write, one fact remains: writing is an engulfing and time-consuming pursuit, but when you reach those words ‘The End’, the sense of accomplishment and fulfilment eclipses the memory of all the sleepless nights.
George Bernard Shaw said, ‘The British and the Americans are two peoples divided by a common language.’ I have always been intrigued by this quotation, and the truth behind it, especially when it comes to book publication.
No doubt you are aware that British and American editions of the same book frequently have different cover art. Here are some examples:
You probably also know that a British edition and an American edition of a book differ in terms of the text itself: British and American English are stylistically different.
Many changes are to spelling, punctuation and grammar changes; for example, changing ‘color’ to ‘colour’, shifting the placement of a closing quote mark and pulling back from pluperfect tense usage.
Others differences, however, come down to terminology – which can rile readers. For example, while Harry Potter fans largely accept changes like ‘car park’ to ‘parking lot’ and ‘jumper’ to ‘sweater’, many disagree strongly with the US publisher Scholastic’s editorial decision to change the title of the first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, arguing that it belittles Americans who are quite capable of understanding the original term ‘philosopher’.
On the subject of book titles, these can also differ. Did you know that Diana Gabaldon’s successful novel Outlander was published in the UK with the title Cross Stitch? That Where’s Waldo becomes Where’s Wally in Britain? Here are some more notable examples:
* Cecelia Ahern: Love Rosie (US), Where Rainbows End (UK)
* Agatha Christie: What Mrs. MacGillicuddy Saw! (US), 4.50 from Paddington (UK)
* Lucy Maud Montgomery: Anne of Windy Poplars (US), Anne of Windy Willows (UK)
* Louisa M. Alcott: Little Women, Part II (US), Good Wives (UK)
* Philip Pullman: The Golden Compass (US), Northern Lights (UK)
Like it or not, variant editions on either side of the pond are accepted by most readers as necessary, given the differences in the two forms of English. But what of differences in editions that are nothing to do with the British and American English? In that case there is potential for readers to become quite hot under the collar.
Recently, a professor from Birkbeck, University of London, published a paper entitled ‘“You have to keep track of your changes”: The Version Variants and Publishing History of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas’. Dr Martin Paul Eve, Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing, was examining David Mitchell’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel using both a UK paperback version and a (US) Kindle version when he happened to notice striking differences between the two editions that went far beyond simple British/American language translation.
The differences are widespread; the paper includes some thirty pages of examples. The Guardian cites the following one:
From the UK text: “Historians still unborn will appreciate your cooperation in the future, Sonmi ~451. We archivists thank you in the present. […] Once we’re finished, the orison will be archived at the Ministry of Testaments. […] Your version of the truth is what matters.”
From the US text: “On behalf of my ministry, thank you for agreeing to this final interview. Please remember, this isn’t an interrogation, or a trial. Your version of the truth is the only one that matters.”
I confess I was quite shocked when I read these two extracts. They are so markedly different that it seems impossible that both would be simultaneously published as the same work.
In the abstract to his paper, Dr Eve explains how the differences came about:
In 2003, David Mitchell’s editorial contact at the US branch of Random House moved from the publisher, leaving the American edition of Cloud Atlas (2004) without an editor for approximately three months. Meanwhile, the UK edition of the manuscript was undergoing a series of editorial changes and rewrites that were never synchronised back into the US edition of the text. When the process was resumed at Random House under the editorial guidance of David Ebershoff, changes from New York were likewise not imported back into the UK edition.
It is difficult, therefore, to settle on which is the ‘definitive’ book – and the issue arises of which book award panellists and educators (the novel is widely taught and studied) are reading.
Have you read Cloud Atlas? Is so, how do you feel knowing that what you have read differs to what others have read? If not, would you read the book now – and which version? Do you think it is important that a definitive work exists? That books are only ever ‘translated’ and not significantly edited and rewritten in new editions? I would be interested to hear your thoughts.
The lost manuscript has long been a source of fascination for readers and for writers. When an author’s work is beloved, there is an insatiable desire for more, and the discovery of a ‘new’ old book can cause quite the sensation. In the past year alone the publishing headlines have been full of excited reporting of treasures brought to life:
* Harper Lee’s novel Go Set a Watchman
* Beatrix Potter’s children’s book Kitty in Boots
* JRR Tolkien’s poem ‘The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun’
* Mary Shelley’s novella The Wind off the Small Isles
* Michael Crichton’s novel Dragon Teeth
Media reports are peppered with language like ‘lost’ and ‘undiscovered’. But in fact there is more to the story behind these works. Controversy surrounded the ‘discovery’ of Harper Lee’s 1950s manuscript; some suggest that the author, who long declared she would not release another book, was taken advantage of by those who would prosper from its release. Beatrix Potter’s book was reportedly ‘lost’, and yet it was safe in the Victoria and Albert Museum archives. Neither Tolkien’s nor Shelley’s works were unpublished, even; they were out of print. Quite simply, those words ‘lost’ and ‘undiscovered’ are geared towards marketing, playing on a fascination for what was once in the shadows and is now brought into the light.
Having established that a ‘new’ old book is fantastic for the publisher and its market, what of the author behind the book? This is a question that niggles at me whenever I read a headline declaring a new, fabulous find: did the author want that book found?
Take Kitty in Boots. The Guardian reported that this Beatrix Potter story was never finished; she sent it, incomplete, to her publisher in 1914, but then ‘“interruptions began” – and continued: from the outbreak of the first world war, to marriage, to sheep farming and colds’. We are told she ‘intended to finish the tale’, but by her death in 1943 she had not. As a writer, I am left wondering: did she honestly intend for that work to be published? If so, why did she not complete it in nearly 30 years? And how would she feel now, to see it published but without the illustrations she no doubt would have drawn for it, had she wanted the book to be shared?
How about Michael Crichton? His work Jurassic Park was a bestseller. So why did he keep to himself another story he’d written concerning palaeontology and fossils? His publisher, HarperCollins, clearly sees the book as the goldmine it will no doubt be: ‘Crichton’s many admirers and fans are going to be very happy,’ it declared in its press release announcing the novel’s acquisition. Why didn’t Crichton himself want it published in his lifetime in that case?
I am a writer; I have written nine novels now, five of which are published. I know well the writing process. I know that some words written are to be shared, and some words are not. I also know that a writer does not forget about a work; he or she only makes a deliberate choice to keep it private.
The question of respecting an author’s right to privacy when it comes to their literature is most pertinent in the ‘leaking’ of JD Salinger’s ‘The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls’, whose story interconnects to The Catcher in the Rye. Salinger had agreed to publish the work with Harper’s Bazaar, but changed his mind, and he gave the manuscript to Princeton University on the condition that they may not publish it until 50 years after his death (i.e. 2060). Yet in 2013 the manuscript was leaked, and read widely. A reviewer for the Guardian wrote, ‘One has to wonder why Salinger changed his mind about the publication of this story.’ Absolutely; and, I would add, a need to respect his right to control the publication of his own art himself.
What do you think of the issue of ‘lost’ books? If the infamous Hemingway manuscripts, lost in a Parisian train station in 1922, were discovered, should they be published? Perhaps, given that Hemingway made it clear publicly that he was devastated by the loss. But other writers surely have reason to wish their unseen manuscripts remain so. Thriller author Robert Ludlum, for example, lost his debut novel, written while a young man, and when he returned to writing years later ‘he was cured of his literary pretensions’ (source: the Guardian). No doubt he would not like to have his first attempt at writing published posthumously.
The crucial point is that to publish a ‘lost’ work is to contribute to a writer’s legacy. Which leaves the question: does anyone have the right to do so, other than the writer him-/herself?
Did you watch any of the Olympics coverage? I did: I find the athletes very inspiring. They work tirelessly, they make sacrifices, they push themselves to the limit emotionally and physically: they represent all that is beautiful about having a dream and pursuing it.
My favourite event is the heptathlon, because I so admire how the athletes train in not one or even two, but seven events. That dedication and versatility is astonishing. It is also, I realise, reflective of what many people do in life: try to excel in more than one field. We are family members, friends, workers, homemakers and creators, all at the same time.
Writing is, of course, my raison d’être, but I am more than a writer: I am also a wife, a mother, a businesswoman, a traveller, a gardener… the list goes on and on. But what of that single self-definition of writer? In the parlance of the Olympics, is writing a lone event, or is it in fact more of a heptathlon? The latter, I would argue.
The modern-day writer must take on many following roles in his/her work, from researcher and administrative organiser, to designer, business manager and, increasingly, marketer. But even when you strip away all the business of authoring, leaving only the writing itself, there is a duality to the work involved. A writer blends two different skills: mastery of style and storytelling. A book may be stylistically great but lack a compelling story; equally, a book may have a fantastic story but be written in a less than appealing style. But a well-written book with an enthralling story: that’s a good book.
In times gone by, in the era of classic literature, both style and story were of equal importance. When we read works by Dickens and Hemingway and Flaubert and Tolstoy, we are as moved by the language as the story. Take, for example, the following quotations:
‘Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts. I was better after I had cried, than before – more sorry, more aware of my own ingratitude, more gentle.’ ― Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
‘You expected to be sad in the fall. Part of you died each year when the leaves fell from the trees and their branches were bare against the wind and the cold, wintery light. But you knew there would always be the spring, as you knew the river would flow again after it was frozen. When the cold rains kept on and killed the spring, it was as though a young person died for no reason.’ ― Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast
‘At the bottom of her heart, however, she was waiting for something to happen. Like shipwrecked sailors, she turned despairing eyes upon the solitude of her life, seeking afar off some white sail in the mists of the horizon. She did not know what this chance would be, what wind would bring it her, towards what shore it would drive her, if it would be a shallop or a three-decker, laden with anguish or full of bliss to the portholes. But each morning, as she awoke, she hoped it would come that day; she listened to every sound, sprang up with a start, wondered that it did not come; then at sunset, always more saddened, she longed for the morrow.’ ― Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary
‘He soon felt that the fulfillment of his desires gave him only one grain of the mountain of happiness he had expected. This fulfillment showed him the eternal error men make in imagining that their happiness depends on the realization of their desires.’ ― Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
Beautiful, poignant writing, don’t you think? In the modern time, we still have writers who believe in the important of style. Often, their works are designated ‘literary fiction’, while commercial fiction is expected to place a greater emphasis on storytelling rather than style.
Academics and those ‘style purists’ who really care about language can find this direction quite frustrating. A good example is the backlash to Dan Brown’s books. Each of Brown’s books, based on historical research, has been a bestseller, but simultaneously panned by critics. ‘Brown’s writing is not just bad; it is staggeringly, clumsily, thoughtlessly, almost ingeniously bad,’ Geoffrey Pullum, Professor of Linguistics at Edinburgh, told the Telegraph. Examples abound of Brown’s ‘clumsy’ word style, and plenty of critics quite gleefully point these out.
But Brown is not alone: when it comes to published novels, it seems to me that style has steadily taken a back seat to story (and few disagree that Brown tells a decent tale). These days the term ‘plot-driven’ fiction is bandied about, and it has distinctively positive connotations. Modern readers are busy and impatient and seeking quick, mindless gratification, we are led to believe. They don’t want art; they want easy escapism.
Is this true, do you think? I confess, I don’t agree. I will always believe that to be a writer is to be both a storyteller and a wordsmith. When I pick up a novel, I want to be pulled into the story world but also moved by the writing style; I want to appreciate the writer’s mastery of style just as I appreciate a painter’s expert brush style based on so many years of study and practice.
Should an author today fuse storytelling with style? Yes, absolutely, is my answer. Style matters. That is why I have always taken seriously the study of style. I began at university, studying French literature, but I never stopped: all of my adult life I have sought to learn more about the craft of writing. That is how I come to spend long afternoons in my garden reading style guides, dictionaries and thesauruses (see the picture at the top of this post).
W. Somerset Maugham wrote, ‘A good style should show no signs of effort. What is written should seem a happy accident.’ In fact, it is no accident, but the product of a lot of hard work. And it is work I believe every writer should be prepared to do.
In the past few weeks, a single book has dominated the arts headlines: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. The script of the new stage show has been eagerly anticipated by readers worldwide, and the release of what has been designated ‘Book 8’ of the Harry Potter series caused a sensation easily as big – if not bigger – than the ‘final’ book, number 7, when it came out in 2007.
Here is Amazon’s blurb:
It was always difficult being Harry Potter and it isn’t much easier now that he is an overworked employee of the Ministry of Magic, a husband and father of three school-age children.
While Harry grapples with a past that refuses to stay where it belongs, his youngest son Albus must struggle with the weight of a family legacy he never wanted. As past and present fuse ominously, both father and son learn the uncomfortable truth: sometimes, darkness comes from unexpected places.
Waterstone’s description casts a little more light on the story:
A full nineteen years has passed since the climactic finale of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Voldemort is a shadow of the past; Harry Potter himself is now a burdened employee at the Ministry of Magic, the wizarding triumphs of his youth seemingly shelved for the demands of family life. Once again, the vaulting arches of Kings Cross become the gateway to wild adventure as young Albus Severus Potter – Harry’s now second son – boards a waiting Hogwarts Express, prepared to fulfil his own destinies.
What lies ahead is as much about the past as it is the future; it will be a time of unexpected alliances and the extraordinary lure of potentially changing what has already come to be. Although much-loved comrades will indeed play their part – no Harry Potter tale can possibly be complete without the courage and companionship of Ron and Hermione – this is very much the next extraordinary chapter, a story where the son of the world’s most famous wizard finds both camaraderie and friendship in a most surprising place, the boy Scorpius Malfoy, son of Draco.
I was interested to read this book, not because I am a Hogwarts-banner-waving aficionado, but because I wanted to see how the book stands in terms of legacy.
My Andalucían Nights series is all about legacy: it follows three generations in southern Spain, each individual and unique and yet also irrevocably tied to their family’s legacy. The final book in the series, which I have just released, is called Legacy, and really explores this theme. When do you continue the traditions of the past, and when do you break free? When are you your father and mother’s daughter or son, and when are you your own person? Can you walk away from your heritage, deny the nature and source of the blood that runs in your veins, or are you always destined to be of that which you were created?
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is an interesting exploration of legacies: of how it is when heroes and heroines grow up (far less exciting, romantic and glamorous), and how it is to be the new generation, eager to be your own person but shaped by those who came before. Albus Potter, Harry’s son, feels he can’t live up to his father’s legend; Scorpius Malfoy, Draco’s son, lives under a shadow of darkness cast by his father in his own youth. Both are the heroes now, and yet to be so both must find that balance between carrying on a legacy and creating a new story of their own.
There is a lot of depth to the story, and complexity, reflective of any family saga, and as I read I could well imagine how much Potter fans will enjoy revisiting characters they love and seeing what happened after those final words, ‘The End’, nine years ago. Certainly, plenty of reviewers of the book so far have written of their pleasure in connecting with ‘old friends’; it is a sort of homecoming. I imagine it was so for JK Rowling as well; I know when I wrote each new book my Andalucían Nights series I loved weaving in some characters from the preceding book(s), though of course I was careful that the older characters do not overshadow the new ones, to whom the story belongs.
In my own series, the characters who are revisited have developed as you would except over the intervening years. In Legacy, for example, the couples from the preceding books, Masquerade and Indiscretion, come together at a masked ball, and each is as you would expect having read their own love stories; there are no surprises, because I write happy endings, and so the reader simply enjoys seeing the once young heroes and heroines as older couples: parents and grandparents. In Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, however, there is a clear move in a darker, grittier direction; several versions of the original characters are offered (via a time travel plot device), and many reviewers have expressed disappointment with the characterisation – the beloved Harry, Ron and Hermione are absent, replaced by less likeable.
A new Harry Potter book was always going to be contentious and scrutinised closely. But it is impossible not to notice the many criticisms coming through in reviews, not only about the characterisation but about the story (plot holes are being pointed out) and the style (which is not entirely true to JK Rowling’s). Why the emotional response to this book? Because legacy matters a great deal: the legacy of the Harry Potter characters, who are beloved (and real) to so many, and the legacy of the Harry Potter books, which is so precious to so many.
It is to be admired that JK Rowling published this book: to leave the Harry Potter legacy well alone was the easy path, to add to it was risky. But I know, as a writer, that sometimes characters must speak. Indiscretion was initially a standalone romance novel, but the characters continued to speak to me; I knew the story was not finished, and hence I wrote Masquerade and Legacy. My Andalucían Nights series ends with Legacy, and JK Rowling had stated publicly that there will be no further Harry Potter books. When a story is finished, it is finished.
But for Pottermore, JK Rowling’s publishing company, the future remains bright. Never mind the record-breaking sales achieved for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child already; the Amazon listing for the book includes the following note: ‘This Special Rehearsal Edition will be available to purchase until early 2017, after which a Definitive Edition of the script will go on sale.’ So the truest Potter fans (and there are many) will buy the book all over again in a few months.
Have you read the new Harry Potter book? If so, what are your thoughts? If not, is there a reason you chose not to? I would love to discuss the potential legacy of this publishing sensation with you.