Unspoken Rules

I’ve struggled with what to write today–there have been 2 1/2 weeks of posts, of talented authors whom I respect offering advice about breaking the rules and following the rules. What more could I add to the discussion? Well, I’ve been in a discussion three times in the past couple weeks about sales and trends and such. And I realized there’s a rule in there that a lot of beginning writers are told — “write the book of your heart.”

Used with permission from Debbie Ridpath Ohi at Inkygirl.com.

Used with permission from Debbie Ridpath Ohi at Inkygirl.com.

The thing is, yes, you should write the book of your heart. Should you expect it to sell well? That’s debatable. There are so many factors that depends upon–genre, writing ability, strength of story, characters. And your competition. As much as authors don’t want to admit that we are swayed by the size of our royalty cheques, or that we aren’t worried about our rankings (seriously, does anyone really believe that?) because we love what we do and we’d write anyway, I’ve seen far too many of my friends walk away from writing lately because their sales have plunged, or watched them switch from genres they love but isn’t selling to a genre that is. From fantasy to contemporary, from historical to young adult, from anything to erotic romance. (I may have actually growled when listening to an interview where an author used the “I sold out” term when she switched from writing literary fiction to an erotic fiction–and I dropped quite a few F-bombs when she also admitted she was writing erotic fiction yet couldn’t say the C word. Seriously? You want to write erotic fiction but can’t say cock? Or cunt? Or maybe even fuck?)

Okay, that got me off topic, but it’s been on my mind a lot lately. As I said, I rely upon my royalties to pay the bills. Especially since my 57 year old husband is facing long-term unemployment next year. At a time when we figured life would be getting easier, it’s going to get more complicated. I’d also love to write more books like my upcoming No Accounting for Cowboys. Full length books with complicated heroes and heroines, filled with angst and longing.But I’m not a fast writer and I can’t afford to take the 6 – 8 months it takes me to write the way I want it.

Which leads me to the second rule no one has really spoken of, but again I’ve seen mentioned on both Facebook and in emails lately. And I’m probably breaking an unspoken rule about only writing positively about the industry. But here goes.

When I first started looking at writing professionally in 2004, authors were publishing a book every two years. In 2006, I went to a talk given by Joy Fielding who said her publisher had just asked her to write a book every year. In 2007, I went to Texas to the Romance Writers of American conference and people were in awe of Nora Roberts who was writing 5 books a year. But most of the authors were writing a book every 8 months or so (though the Harlequin category authors have always written faster.) By 2010, one of my publishers told me they wanted 3 books a year from me. At the time, they probably would have been satisfied with 3 novellas a year. Except I tend to be a full-length type writer. And now they don’t take novellas anymore. 

By 2012, I was hearing tales of authors signing contracts for 10 books, or more, to be delivered in a year.

And on Facebook this week, an author asked how long it took other authors to write a full length novel. Most answered around 2 – 3 months. It put me into a serious depression where I wrote yet another “I give up” letter to myself–the third one I’ve written in a year.

Trouble is I’m too damned stubborn to give up. 

Used with permission from Debbie Ridpath Ohi at Inkygirl.com.

Used with permission from Debbie Ridpath Ohi at Inkygirl.com.

wish I could write faster.  I spent an average of 15 – 18 hours a day at my computer last year. I wrecked my shoulder and ended up in physiotherapy from spending too much time hunched over my keyboard. I crept downstairs for an hour when my son dropped in on his birthday last year, feeling guilt that I wasn’t writing, and then crept back upstairs and felt guilty for the entire year that I hadn’t spent time with him–on his birthday! So I’ll admit it pissed me off when someone later posted one of those “You should be writing” graphics to my Facebook wall. Like I don’t get to have a life. 

I write on average 2,000 words a day. Ten years ago people told me I’d burn out, and I have. But still there are books out there telling authors they should be writing 10,000 words a day now. Except when I try to force the words,I can tell that I’ve forced it when I go back and read it and they end up deleted. On average, for every 100,000 words I write, I’ve probably written closer to 200,000 words. It’s just my process. I wish I could change it, but I don’t know how and still give you any type of quality.

So yeah, I’m breaking that “write fast” rule. Not that it’s a rule I want to break. And it’s technically not a rule, but an expectation by the readers.  Who forget about authors who can’t put out a book every 2 – 3 months…and when it comes down to it, we look at rankings, so do our publishers. So yeah, as much it’s not a rule, it is. A very stressful rule.



Unspoken Rules — 38 Comments

  1. Leah, this is a really heartbreaking post and as a still-starting-out writer I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your honesty. Keeping the proverbial pipeline flowing is a huge source of anxiety for me, and I only manage to fit in about 1000 words a day around my full-time job! When you couple that with in-house submission times that always take longer than promised and then having to wait months and months for a slot on the editorial schedule, the timing odds are stacked against us before we write the first word.

    I wouldn’t presume to offer advice. All I can say is that the farther I go down this road, the more I’m inclined to revert to my pre-published habits and focus solely on the story, not the audience. Is this a brilliant commercial strategy that’s going to fund my retirement? Probably not. But it protects my creative impulse and reduces the number of “why do I bother” days when the whole exercise feels futile.

    And FWIW, ‘Slow Ride Home’ is up next on my TBR list. If it’s half as good as I’ve been led to believe, I have no doubt its successors will be well worth waiting for. :-)

    • I’ve had a lot of those “why do I bother” days lately. I feel like my writing is only getting better, and my Grady Legacy is much more along the lines of what I want to write, but it’s tough to get noticed when the competition has gotten so fierce and there are so many books out there to try to be noticed amongst these days. Having the added pressure of needing those royalties to survive …well, yeah it adds more pressure that definitely stifles the creativity.

  2. Leah, totally agree and sympathize with the ‘writing fast’ rule. Like going ‘too fast’ in anything, it seems to lead to lower quality. I hate that the industry is the way it is, in many ways. But I also try to remember that it’s going through tremendous changes. I have to believe that it will all settle out to some degree, at least at some point.

    Hang in there and keep writing the good stuff – at whatever speed you write.

  3. It was a real shock to my system to discover that when I got older, I could no longer write fast. I am one of the lucky ones in that, though I like my writing income, I don’t have to pay bills with it (yet). Your post breaks my heart because even though I’ve never been as successful as I would have liked, the fun is still there–I hope you get that back.

    • Liz — yes about getting older affecting my creativity! I was much more productive in my 40s than I am now. Lots of health issues are stepping in to affect things. It’s been really tough because 2 years ago I earned more in royalties than when I’d been teaching. This year? I’m down to 10% of that year’s earnings. I can only hope it gets better. Because yes, it does take a lot of the fun out of writing these days.

  4. It took me two and half years to get my first novel finished. It required a lot of research and I also run a business so I did what I could. I wrote the second book in the series in about eight months but it was shorter.

    Now I’m working on the third in the series and while I had a deadline, I’ve let that go in favour of not killing myself over it. Good work takes time and it will be done when it’s done.

    I think a lot of the pressure we feel comes from within, i.e. “I’m not doing enough” or “I’m not enough unless I’m working on this ALL the time.” That’s an attitude guaranteed to result in feelings of failure, exhaustion or guilt. Writers all need to remember that we do this because we love the work itself, not because we have to please the publishing gods or anyone else.

    • Hi Wendy – thanks for stopping by. Yes, there is a lot of self-pressure, but having contracted deadlines is an outside pressure. Having bills to pay adds more pressure too. (Being an adult sucks sometimes, doesn’t it?) I’m looking forward to having this deadline overwith. But then I have another one to meet right after it. Maybe later this year, I’ll finally be able to breathe.

  5. Enjoyed your post, Leah. It’s not that I don’t write fast, but rather I revise slow. If I don’t take the time to get it right, it’ll just come back to me, and then I’ll be making changes that someone else decided were right. Does that make sense? No? Well, that’s okay…I’m in revision mode.

    • Ah, revising slow — see that’s my issue. I am constantly revising. Very little of my first draft makes it into the final draft. One of these days I’m going to discover how to get that final draft writing into my first draft so I don’t have to keep revising.

  6. When I started writing in 2010 I figured I needed to write two books (80k+ words) a year to make a living at it down the road. Have I produced two books a year? No, not even close. I’m consciously striving for it this year. I know it’s doable (if I can get the monkeys off my back and no, I’m not talking about my kiddos), but I can’t imagine putting out more than that. I would lose my mind, my health and my family. Not worth it.

    • Samantha, two a year is about all I can manage, especially if they’re full length. Maybe back 15 years ago, when so much marketing wasn’t left to the author, I might have been able to manage more. Probably not though. Earlier this year, I had said I was going to step back and write what I wanted to write at my own pace rather than feeling forced, but now with the threat of my royalties becoming so necessary to our survival, I’m not sure I’m going to be able to do that. I do NOT know how people with smaller children and out-of-the-house jobs manage to write anything. I am in awe of them.

      • Leah, we were facing the same situation last fall with the threat of a U.S. government shutdown. My husband’s paycheck comes from Washington, DC. We got a last minute reprieve. But I still have panic attacks when I think about it. It’s one reason why I’m determined to get two titles done this year! And yes, I don’t know how people with full-time outside-of-writing jobs and children do it. I tried to write when my kids were little, but I couldn’t produce anything consistently.

  7. Thank you for such an honest post, Leah. I think additional pressure comes in the form of social media where we are constantly bombarded by “I just wrote 10K today” posts. It leaves us feeling like we can’t compete and that we’re somehow “less than.” We’re not.

    My writer friends and I have been talking a lot about the need for balance. I hope you are able to find some. Peace.

    • OMG YES yes and yes again! And the Twitter 1K/1hr posts where people manage not only 1K but almost 2K in an hour. (I can manage 1K but I can also assure you, 990 of those words will end up being cut as the pressure will take my story off in directions it shouldn’t go.)

  8. Leah,
    You make perfect sense. At an RWA chapter meeting this past week our group discussed much of what you’ve brought to light. I agree with Alison, social media and postings about writing at warp speed can be discouraging. My advice, don’t read them. Set goals you can achieve and work for quality not quantity. The industry is still in flux, so find your strengths and work to make them even stronger.
    Good luck with your writing and thanks for the great post.
    Nancy Kay

  9. Great post. I do admire the authors who can consistently write enjoyable books in only one genre. That is focus on the art for sure.
    I’m Indie published and I get the ‘you need to publish something every 2 months or the readers will forget you’ crap all the time from other authors who heard it from someone else. But I wasn’t aware that the publishing houses were expecting more books per year too. I thought that was just us cuz we didn’t have the big pub houses doing the marketing and distribution,. Either way, more than one or two books a year is a tough thing for anyone to do consistently.
    I have been known to produce 10,000 words in a day (rarely) but my days are 15-18 hours and only when I was writing scenes that I had been laying out in my mind and in notes for several days beforehand.
    I considered upping the production but I too have a lot going on in my daily life and since I do all the pub work I have learned all about book covers and formatting and getting things done in advance that have nothing to do with the writing.
    I am fast on the first draft but slow in the editing before I send it to a grammar/punctuation/spelling editor.
    I set my deadlines and keep them. I leave enough extra time that if I am having an non-creative day then I may not write at all and it won’t affect my finished book.
    I’m not making the big $ but this is where I am in my writing journey. I do write the books that inspire me and my stories fall into different genre’s.

    • No, it’s not just the self-published authors who are feeling the pressure. It comes from a lot of the publishers too, and other authors who do have the ability to write fast. And some can do it incredibly well. For those of us who aren’t those bards, all we can do is write the best we can, and keep writing in hopes that something will get the reader’s attention and bring them back for more. I guess. I’m not purporting myself to be an expert at all.

  10. Wow. I’m not alone?

    Thank you for being a voice for me. I hope to improve on my speed some day, but for now I’m a “3 steps forward, two steps back” kind of writer. And yes, it takes it’s toll on my confidence. But this last weekend I rebelled and went to a nursery, buying 16 primroses and 2 bleeding hearts to plant in my yard. It was the BEST thing I could’ve done for myself. It lifted my spirits to know there is still life away from the keyboard. I have yet to see how the writing will go the rest of the week, but at least I have a piece of sanity back. And with that, my story is suddenly a bit more interesting again. After I post this comment I’m diving back in. I must finish this story yesterday. Wish me luck.

    • Oh man, I am so jealous that you’re getting to do your gardening already. My lawn is still buried under a foot of icy snow. It’ll be May before I get to go near a nursery and buy more flowers. Which I didn’t do last year, but I think I’m going to take a page from your book and force myself to step away every now and then. Maybe then the joy of writing will come back. Thanks, Lucy, and good luck!

  11. Leah, this was shared in our Street Team by Author Kelsey Browning. Thanks so much for opening the eyes of the readers also! We sit there thinking ok where’s the next book never really thinking about the pressure and everything else that goes with the whole book/writing/editing publishing.

    • Hi Delene — thanks for dropping over. Like I told Jeannie, we try very hard to keep our readers happy. You’re why we exist, why we continue to write. Some writers feel the pressure more than others, same as some authors can write much faster than others. Each author has to figure out their own way and their own process…but we always have the reader in mind.

  12. I am a reader, not a writer, but I thank you for saying so well what I want my friends to understand. It hurts me to see writers I love feel so much pressure that it lessens their pleasure in writing and often affects their health. From the fans at least what you all deserve it support. I would like to share your message with my book friends.

    • Hi Jeannie — when I was telling my husband about my post today, he had to admit that he often grumbles when his favorite authors make him wait. But now he appreciates the work that goes into it. And as he said, if it takes him a few weeks to read a book (he’s not as avid about finishing quickly as romance readers are) then he has to realize that it takes a while to write too. It’s tough to just turn your creativity on and force it to write some days. And what readers also don’t see is the developmental edits (to correct elements of the story), copy edits (from the main editor to correct sentence structure etc), line edits (grammar and punctuation and continuity), as well as proofing passes that each take time to do. That mean we have to put aside our new work-in-progress to work on the last book that is getting ready to release. It’s a juggling act sometimes. Thanks for commenting–all writers are writing for you. So it helps us if you know we are thinking of you, and trying so hard to keep you happy.

  13. Hi Leah :)
    Great article and touched a very sensitive spot. Thank you for putting it out there.
    Cecilia and I have been struggling with that rule for a while. Because of the method we use to collaborate and also because of our personal quirks when writing, it has taken way too long to finish our latest novel.
    Like you, we tend to write long full length books and edit as we go. And even though we have the novels’ arcs developed before we begin, they are not set in stone so we might change something that can make us go back to adjust earlier chapters. That takes even more time.
    Life also gets in the way. For a while I was able to focus a lot of time on writing and we managed to publish two novels in a year but the last 18 months have been trying. So the next story continues to be worked on as time allows.
    Like you and many others, we do need those royalty cheques, but we both believe that we should only publish the stories when we are thoroughly satisfied with the final result. We’ll continue to stand by our own personal rule and leave its success to reaching the right audience–and maybe a bit of serendipity–when it is done.
    Just keep doing what you are doing, how you are doing. You are doing an awesome job at your own pace. :)


    • Hi Chris — I wondered when I hit post on this if I’d end up with a lot of authors saying boo-hoo-hoo at me. Because so many authors do manage to write quickly. I just know I can’t force it any faster–it’s nice to know I’m not alone.

      • Not alone at all and I’m glad you had the guts to talk about it. Somehow, it feels like being a slow writer has become a stigma. It shouldn’t be. Nobody does the same task the same way even in manufacturing assembly lines.
        Writing is a very demanding creative job. It takes a lot of imagination and energy to create something different, unique, particularly with the enormous amount of books published every day.
        Again, thank you for placing the issue under the spotlight.

  14. Great post, Leah.

    I think one of the pressures that has upped the push to produce more is the lack of advances with digital publishing. In order for digital-first or only authors to see any income, the book has to be publish. And then its a crap-shoot if it’s going to sell enough to make the little royalties we get accumulate to anything big. Which means building your backlist in order to stack up all of those smaller amounts into something bigger.

    The advances that come with print publishing, even when they are below ten thousand a book, is still more than what a majority of books will make on royalties alone. Unfortunately, it’s one more hit us authors have been forced to accept and we have.

    Like all jobs now and days, we’re expected to work harder and produce more for less. It’s a bunch of crap, but we play along because the evil we know is better than the evil we don’t and there’s always that hope that things will get better. That, or we’ll win the lottery.

    • I’m not so sure it’s digital presses that are to blame. Or lack of advances. I was privileged enough to sit at a dinner table a few years back where some NY pubbed authors shared the actual figures they made. As a digital-only pubbed author, and since this was in the days when self-publishing was only just starting to become acceptable, I thought I was the little kid at the big kid’s table. It turned out that I made more per book than every single author at the table. Even though several of mine were novellas. That none of their advances, even though they were big name authors that I held in high esteem, made more than $5K as an advance. And since then, advances have only gone down for most authors. I’m even hearing of authors who used to be offered $30K for their next book now having to settle for $10K or less. And far too many others who are getting only $1K as an advance and then they have to wait sometimes several years to see any more money, where with digital publishers I start seeing it (with one of my publishers) the month after the book has been published.

  15. Your post really resonated with people today, Leah. I’m not a fast writer either, though I’m better than I used to be. I consider myself very lucky because I don’t have to try to live on what I make in royalties; I’d starve if I had to. I’m going to write as fast as I can, and work very hard to put out a quality book, but I’m not going to sacrifice my health, my marriage and my sanity. In May when it’s gardening season (I’m in Canada too, Leah)I’m scheduling in some time for planting.

  16. It’s discouraging, I agree. I just finished book 2 in a 5 book series and started book 3 while I wait for copy edits. It’s hard all the way around, whether you have an outside job, kids, whatever your challenges.With the onslaught of so many new epubs, there’s a glut on the market (I think)which only makes the compeition to get noiced more fierce, and pretty darn meanspirited at times.
    My speed varies with the book I’m writing. If I’m really inspired I’ll sit in the chair, maybe grab 4 hours sleep and back at it. On the days I really have to work at it, I might not get more than 1K. I have health issues so very often 6-8 hours at the desk are simply not possible, though the pressure to get more words sometimes makes me push the envelope and I pay for it later.
    I’ve never felt embarrassed by writing erotic romance but I would like to do more mainstream stuff as well, though I’ll never be a sweet writer. Thing is, mainstream is more difficult since 50 Shades. It does make me want to throw my hands up on occasion. Especially when so much is expected of you with so little value attached to it. And I’m not just speaking monitarily. The work of writing is not valued in the epub world. Like because a book is digital it is less than. Like we dont spend countless hours researching, reading until we have the topic nailed down before ever putting a word on a page.
    And for all of that, we’d still find time to write. We still dream of writing, not just a best seller but the great American novel. It’s just harder now. There will probably never be a day I’ll write 10K. I’m just not that kind of writer. We all have our process. So I’ll continue to write, just like I’ll continue to buy and read books and appreciate the effort it takes write them.

  17. Hi, Leah. Thanks for sharing your story. Writing deadlines aren’t fun, whether they’re from a publisher or self-imposed. I was glad to see at the end of your article that you’d decided to scale it back a little. I recently released my first book, self published, which adds the additional stress of self-promoting and marketing. Whenever you’re frustrated, try to tell yourself you’re lucky to get to write for a living, instead of having to squeeze writing into time off from a ‘day job’. Being the perfectionist that you clearly are, that’d be a nightmare! And as for rushing your work, let the characters and the story dictate that. Some demand to be out of your head quickly and others can sit there a while and develop more. You work hard, cut yourself a little slack! Take care. :)

    • Hi Cheryl — you’re so right about some characters demanding to be out of your head quickly. Tangled Past was like that. I had the idea and submitted the proposal — and then decided to write it anyway because they just wouldn’t be quiet. By the time I heard back from my editor/publisher six weeks later that they were going to be offering a contract, the story was already finished and I subbed it to my editor a week later. I wish all characters were that co-operative! But then again, it was a 50,000 word story, instead of the 100,000 word stories I’ve been working on the last year, with a much less complicated story arc.

  18. I enjoyed both of your ‘rules’. The first rule, really is what gives something an authentic feel no matter what you’re doing.

    The second rule is very interesting to me. If I write an essay for school, or a blog post, I can generally just type it out, send it along, and turn my back on it. No joke.

    But, this fiction writing thing …. it doesn’t come quite as easily … and really…. why should it? Quality should be more important than productivity. I find the direction the entire world is going, where no matter your profession, productivity is being measured like you (we) are churning out something from an assembly line. Quantity, as a measurement of productivity comes from doing the same thing, the same way each time. Do it and then repeat. Forevermore. I work a job where that sort of attitude is expected and I promise you, the do the same thing the same way every time approach doesn’t work like corporate america wishes it would.

    Quality is something else altogether. I imagine it comes from digging deep, breaking some rules, keeping some, looking at things a different way, and then putting it all together.

    I enjoyed your post.

    • Hi, Amber! While I’ve always been reminded that professional writing is a business, there are days I feel like we’re part of an assembly line and that makes creativity really tough. And I’m just not prepared to sacrifice quality (which I really try to give my readers) for speed. Of course, every book is a learning process and maybe I’ll figure it out soon.

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