The rise of the published first draft

BEA/Book Blogger Con is in full swing and I’m reminded once again that we live in interesting times when it comes to publishing. The romance genre is no exception, and since I read in both mainstream (category and historical) and niche (m/m) genres, I feel as if I see a lot of the upheaval up close. For example, it may take the New York Times until 2012 to notice that there is pressure on authors to publish more and more quickly, but romance authors have been dealing with these demands for years. A book a year used to be the norm for mainstream and genre fiction. Category romances were on a different schedule, but single titles were expected to be produced yearly for many (most?) authors. Then, at some point, a publisher got the bright idea of storing up books in a series and releasing them all at one to build excitement and demand. The first example I remember was Mary Balogh’s Slightly series, although there may have been some before that. But after the Balogh experiment it seemed to happen with greater regularity.

If an author is writing at her normal speed and stockpiling for release dates, that’s one thing. If she’s being asked to write faster, that’s something else entirely. How does a non-bestselling author say no without at best being rebutted by her publisher and at worst losing her contract? Maybe there are authors who have successfully resisted this trend and maintained their standing, but I feel as if I see a lot of authors who are trying to retrain themselves to meet increased demand. Some are successful, some less so.

Writing is a craft, and experience makes you better and quicker. But it’s also an art, and everyone’s brain works in a different way. Some people can write 5000 words a day, some are lucky to write 1000. Some people have full-time non-writing jobs, or kids, or other duties. The point is, there is no way most people can write that fast and that much without sacrificing something. Anthony Trollope was a one-off, not a guide for the average writer.

The even more important point: I don’t care who you are, your second draft will be better than your first. Your third will be better than your second, and so on. It takes more rounds than you think to get to the point of diminishing marginal returns. Yes, beta readers will catch things. But they aren’t a substitute for your own brain. And they’re not a substitute for what your brain does after it has seen the words on the page and mulled them over. Both processes are critical: the outside eye to catch what you can’t, and the inside eye to catch what you meant to include the first time and didn’t.

After decades of reading genre fiction, literary fiction, and the classics, it’s obvious to me that genre writers are no less talented. Rather, they are writers who have chosen a genre that expects them to publish more quickly and more frequently. But we’ve taken “publish faster” to its extreme already. It scares me to think we’re trying to speed up the process beyond this point.

I see this from a slightly different perspective than some readers, I think, because I’ve been reading first drafts for quite a while in m/m. Again, when I say first drafts, I don’t mean that no one has touched the work since the initial outpouring of words. But think about the criticisms made even about books many m/m books readers love. There are complaints about pacing, inconsistent characterization, baggy writing, and plot holes. These are all things that many decent-to-good-to-very-good authors will catch on their own, given some time away and a fresh look. And of course, stellar beta readers and good editors will catch some of these issues too.

But nothing substitutes for the author’s own eyes, because it’s her creation. If an author is writing to a deadline that doesn’t include time for her own thorough reread and the revisions that follow, it’s going to show. And if it’s published by a press that doesn’t have rigorous in-house editing, all too often you’re getting a draft-and-a-half manuscript being sold to you as a properly vetted, published book.

Take the example of The Book That Shall Not Be Named (TBTSNBN). What enraged me so much about Vintage’s statement that they had edited it and that TBTSNBN was a new version was that it was clear that the text had barely changed from the fanfic version through the fanfic-press version through to the NY-published version. Now, I fully agree that TBTSNBN has an alchemical appeal for readers, one that transcends its many flaws. But while its appeal cannot be copied, any more than you can catch lightning in a jar, the (lack of) process can and will be.

So we will get more barely-altered fanfic and more un-self-critical writers who are proud that they can write 100,000 words in a month and send the resulting manuscript off to a publisher. And when a slew of reviewers say the resulting book is wordy and baggy and in need of editing, they’ll shrug their shoulders and say it’s their writing style, or de gustibus non est disputandum, or something similar.

No. Just, no.

Logorrhea is not a “writing style,” just as NaNoWriMo is not a career plan. NaNoWriMo is an exercise. And 100,000 words in a month is logorrhea, whether you’re Trollope or the guy down the road with a laptop and a dream. It’s the beginning of your writing process, not the middle and certainly not the end. Notice that I said your writing process. If you send that bag of words off to your editor, she should metaphorically smack you upside the head, give it back, and make you revise it before she touches it. Her time is valuable too, you know.

In the end, though, the burden of stopping this race to the bottom lies with readers. We’re the ones who buy the books, pay the publishers, and tell the authors how wonderful they are. If, as a reader, you’re willing to squee about a shapeless, under-written mass of book-like product, we’re all going to pay the much higher price of driving the carefully written and produced books out of the market.

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42 thoughts on “The rise of the published first draft

  1. Like That Book, there’s an m/m book out there from my primary fandom that drives me crazy: the only “editing” that occurred was a search and replace for names plus the addition of two sex scenes. Otherwise, even the punctuation wonkiness remains. Yet the publisher is charging $4.99 for it. Yet the reviews at Amzn are almost 5*.

    FWIW, this is a very prolific fandom writer, who has talent even if a lot of her work is over-angsted and awkwardly-sexed for my taste.

    • It’s the talent that goes undeveloped that really makes me grind my teeth. There are always going to be bad books that hit a chord. But when a writer who could be SO MUCH BETTER is squeed over and becomes financial successful, what incentive is there for her to improve? There’s even a disincentive, because maybe the technically better stuff won’t be as popular. Maybe as she improves she changes.

  2. Sometimes I despair for m/m.

    My woe as a reader is that I was expecting Alex Beecroft’s Under The Hill books to be big hits… and they just seem to have sunk like a rock, in terms of lack of reader response.

    As a writer, I try to stay optimistic, though.

  3. It is hard to swallow when great books/writers don’t break out and mediocre (and outright bad) ones do. And it happens in ALL genres. I’m still angsting over why Julia Ross is not a major star in the historical romance world and resenting lessser books/authors who are.

    • I don’t have too much of a problem with mediocre/bad books breaking out (OK, a bit of a problem), because reading chemistry is a tricky thing. But when the readers go on and on how it’s THE best book EVAH, instead of THEIR best book evah, that’s when I start to get annoyed. I’m all for respecting individual taste, just don’t tell me it has to be MY taste.

      Of course, I’m not a fiction author. I can imagine it’s much more dispiriting for people inside the industry. That’s when all you can do is keep your head down and keep in mind the number of good writers that are respected and sell well.

  4. WP is acting up, so I’m posting for Brie (racblog). She wrote (blockquoted sentence is from my post):

    Then, at some point, a publisher got the bright idea of storing up books in a series and releasing them all at one to build excitement and demand.

    I see this all the time with the very popular small town series. It’s a pretty successful formula and every year more authors seem to be joining the trend. What started as you regular contemporary romance trilogy now has become never-ending series with each book released closer and closer together. Jill Shalvis’ original Lucky Harbor books were published in 10/10, 04/11 and 12/11. That’s 6 month between each release. The next three installments in the series are being released with just 1 month between each book. She used to publish 2 or 3 books a year; now she publishes +4 books (she also writes a different series as well as category for Harlequin’s Blaze line). Fortunately she has maintained her quality, but that’s not the case with everyone. Susan Mallery’s very popular Fool’s Gold books have been progressively decreasing in quality since book 1 but those books sell well. And I wonder if it’s laziness, greed or pressure from the publisher, it’s probably a combination of all three.

    Maybe publishers are forcing authors to write faster, and maybe authors are forcing themselves to do it, the end result is more books to sell. But are authors and publishers willing to sacrifice quality in order to have more books? Also, what role readers play in all this? Are they pressuring authors as well? Do they prefer quantity over quality?

    • (the first attempt failed to go through so this is the second attempt. *crosses fingers*)

      “Susan Mallery’s very popular Fool’s Gold books have been progressively decreasing in quality since book 1 but those books sell well. And I wonder if it’s laziness, greed or pressure from the publisher, it’s probably a combination of all three.”

      In honesty? I think it’s a lot more to do with Mallery’s ability to deliver on time. More trustworthy she is, less attention they may pay to her text.

      And perhaps, more established an author, more ‘trusted’ s/he will be. Haven’t we seen this with some big-name authors? Their later novels, esp if part of a series, tend to end up bloated, grammatically messy and increasingly incoherent? Anne Rice, Stephen King (before he wised up), Laurell K. Hamilton, Stephanie Meyer, J K Rowley, etc.

      I do believe all editors – magazine, newspaper, novel, script, any other form – have been guilty of this at least once in their careers. Any editor who denies that charge is a liar.

  5. I like Trollope, but he produced some pretty baggy writing at times, too. The serial nature of fanfic is likely to give us more “loose baggy monsters,” a return to more Victorian structures of narrative. Which is ironic, since plenty of readers say they hate people like Dickens.

    On a related note, I see a lot of writers–and readers–say that readers don’t care about writing, they only care about story. And to a certain extent, I think that’s true. Often readers are responding to the emotional experience of a book rather than the craft (I can’t see any other explanation for people describing That Book as “beautifully written”). There’s nothing wrong with seeking an emotional experience as the primary thing you want from your reading, either.

    But to me it’s like when students think their content/ideas can somehow be graded separately from their “writing” or style. If your writing isn’t strong, you aren’t conveying your ideas effectively. If your fiction craft isn’t strong, you aren’t conveying emotion and character development as well as you could (and no, that doesn’t have to mean having all the freshness polished out of you). Books that could so obviously have been better, but no one felt it was worth bothering, make me really angry. There’s no surer way to denigrate a genre we love than to accept second best. Why should we have to look past sloppiness to get the enjoyment we seek? (I, for one, can’t, so this trend drives me to despair.)

    • One of the things I love about 19thC novels is how long and discursive they can be. You can tell when people were paid by the word. And I agree that the emotional content is primary for a lot of genre readers (not just in romance, either). I was talking about this with TheH last night and he pointed out that most fiction reading engages the emotions, if it’s successful. We forgive a lot to get that payoff. But there are ramifications to that forgiveness, and I worry that we’re seeing some of the big negative ones.

      That’s why the Vintage acquisition was such a marker for me. If THEY can put out barely-edited stuff, with their history and imprimatur, the horses have really left the barn.

      • Their willingness to jump on that bandwagon made me think their previous reputation is not worth anything now, to them or in the marketplace. In the circumstances, there’s no way they could have done substantial editing; the whole point for them was to capitalize on the buzz. And they are a business after all. But the idea of different publishers meeting different reader or writer needs, having a niche…is that vanishing? I won’t say a book that connected with so many shouldn’t have been published. But that Vintage wanted to be that publisher, in those circumstances, changes my picture of them. And not for the better.

  6. The very idea of submitting the first draft leaves me rather speechless. Traumatised, even.

    Then again, it may explain Katie MacAlister. I don’t know if she still makes the claim now, but a couple of years ago, she’d bragged she could finish a YA novel in a week, a contemporary romance in two weeks and a historical in one month. And not touch them again because her editor deemed them quality enough to be publishable. Then she gushed about how smart and trusting her editor was. I remember feeling really awful after reading that because at the time, I was putting three scriptwriters through yet another round of revisions while suspecting they hated my guts. :D

    • I’m glad you brought up the MacAlister example, because it’s easy for people to think that this is only going on in self-publishing, or niche genres, in other words something they don’t read. It’s not. It’s everywhere, and it’s a function of what can be sold. The more we buy first-draft-level writing, the more they’ll publish it.

    • There must have been something in the air on Monday, because that’s when I read a post by an author whose fiction I don’t read but who is well regarded, expressing her despair (to use Liz’s extremely appropriate word) about how easy it was for quick, bad writing to sell. It made her want to leave the genre. And I thought, I may not read you, but I read other people who feel the way you do, and I don’t think you’re alone. That post is a big part of what led me to write this (related thoughts had been floating around inchoately in my head for a while).

      • If you haven’t read K.Z. Snow, I hope you’ll consider giving her work a try. I immensely enjoyed Mongrel (though it is a little more explicit than what I usually read.) The language is beautiful, the story is fun, and the characters are all vivid and worth caring about. I’m still hoping for a sequel.

        • Oh, it’s not a conscious omission at all, although I’m staying away from DSP for obvious reasons. It’s kind of odd because she writes character-driven stories, which are my favorites. I didn’t mean the comment the way it sounded, I should have said “haven’t read” rather than “don’t read.”

          I just went and DL’d one set in Wisconsin (nostalgia time for me). Y’all are making my credit card cry. ;) But it’s a good kind of pain.

        • Actually, a KZ Snow title (Pirate King) was one of the very first ebooks I ever read when I was first getting back into the groove of submission/rejection after many years away from that grind. I was of the opinion that digital-first publishing wasn’t REAL publishing and these “publishers” MUST publish crap. Crrrrrrrap (with a rolled R) even.

          So I bought three titles from Cerridwen Press that showed me how wrong I was and set me on the path to self-publishing. Hers was one of them.

  7. Agreed. As usual, I’m impressed by your articles and this one left me nodding my head. I’m always a little … hmm. reticent? nervous? … to accept other peoples’, particularly those who are self-styled non-authors, opinions on the writing process and the production of books. But rather than a diatribe against writers, this is a well-reasoned essay on the value of the writing process. I applaud you. There are many articles in recent memory that bash writers upside the head for mistakes (and some of those are well-deserved, even I will admit – lol), but this is not how I take what you’re doing. It’s a reasoned call for a professional approach to writing and, like you, I worry about the effect of TBTSNBN (awesome acronym for that, by the way). I worry because it’s fanfic, because those of us who started or did a lot in fanfic in the early days of our practicing will be painted with the same brush, and because unprofessional drivel will now be easier to bring to the market and will have a corresponding effect on buyers’ trust in new and untried authors.

    Sad day, indeed. But I found myself uplifted by your description of the writing process and that the author is a necessary part in the editing of their own works. So many times that part is left out and I, as an author, find that troubling and sometimes, insulting. I agree with you 100% that the author must rework and polish their own material, whether that person is a beginner or a polished professional.

    • P.S. I love, love, LOVE the lolcat image you have at the front of the article. I laughed out loud when I saw it.

    • Thank you! And no, this is definitely not intended to be a diatribe against authors (except for the ones who think every word they write is a polished diamond and should not be touched by lesser mortals). It’s a diatribe against practices that let authors think that if they revise and edit, it’s going to suck the life out of their work. Or if they are told enough they are “good” writers, that means their first or second drafts are good. There’s a reason it’s called a shitty first draft, after all.

      I am a published author, but I don’t write fiction, and I have very little intuition about how the creative process of writing fiction works. But there are aspects of writing that are universal. I learned more from reading Stephen King on writing than I have from most books on writing non-fiction.

      There are so many different styles of writing: pantsers v. plotters, writing short v. writing long, writing in bursts v. writing steadily. Everyone has their own style. But NO ONE gets the words down perfectly the first time, every time.

      • I agree that editing makes pieces better. Practice makes them better, too. I learned a lot from doing a contest a few years back called “March FADness.” FAD stands for “flash-a-day.” The objective was to write one flash fiction piece, from 500 to 1,000 words, each day. The prompts were posted in the morning, and we had to post our stories by that evening. I managed to complete all 31 and it taught me a great deal about speed, polish, and where story comes from (for me, anyway).

        I do think that we get better as we continue to practice, learn and grow. But I also think that when we are unwilling to look critically at our own material, it can be detrimental to growth. This is emphatically NOT the same as the knife of perfectionism. I think that our inner critics are responsible for the bulk of the blocks in writing out there. We think it must be perfect when we write it, immediately, or we won’t continue.

        Somewhere in between the movement to “write the shitty first draft,” a’la NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) and the “polish what you write until it shines and each word is lovingly selected” we’ve lost the middle ground. No work is perfect when it’s done, it simply stops in interesting places. We decide, at a certain point, that it is “done.” Sadly, I think that with the lack of rigor and discipline, that “done”-ness has become fungible.

        That is a detriment to our life of letters, in the long term. On the other hand, I’m sure there were those who said that the press would mean the death of true literature because it meant that the “common man” would have access to printing. It didn’t happen then, and it’s not likely to happen now. But the churn in the middle, that’s the part that is the concern to me from a business standpoint. I don’t want “caveat emptor” to mean that readers won’t take a chance on a new, untried author like me because of the drivel that does, routinely, get published. I would think, too, that publishing houses would be more careful, because mud splashed on them from a bad publishing decision could mean a dip in sales of their other material – warranted or not.

  8. This post makes me want to try my hand at writing fiction. I have no talent for it, but I have a lot of great ideas, and if submitting first draft quality work is enough to be a successful I should do well.

    In all seriousness, and forgive my typical cynicism, I have to wonder if books like Twilight and TWTSNBN–books that are hugely successful but no one can figure out why–would have been as popular if the writers and editors had gone over it with a fine toothed comb and produced quality work. I think a big part of their appeal is that the writing feels deeply emotional and adult without being “complicated,” for lack of a better word.

    • I don’t think that’s just cynicism, I think you’re on to something. There are any number of m/m books that are badly written, technically speaking, that readers gobble up with spoons, and I think it’s because they provide a sense of emotional accessibility that more polished work does not always have. They are easy to read, and they are clearly not like the stuff we were forced to read in school, because they sound more like normal people and less like literature. Of course great writers can do that too. But there’s something approachable about a badly written book that makes it easy to like for many readers.

      Of course, if you say this in many venues you’ll be excoriated as an elitist snob. Someone on another blog said something similar about TBTSNBN, but in a more insulting way (she essentially said people liked the book because it was written at a low grade level), and oh my, the blowback.

      • Hey, I’m a fan a American daytime soap operas…no one can ever accuse me of being an elitist snob!

        That’s another thing that bothers me about the popularity of books like TBTSNBN…it’s not so much that they’re badly written and edited but are popular anyway; it’s that people either don’t recognize that it’s bad or those that should know better decide that if they like it then it must be good. The former make me sad, the latter annoy the hell out of me. Why can’t people just say, “Yeah, this book is a mess, but something about it just does it for me.”?

  9. I probably don’t always notice if a book is badly written. At least, not any more. I think I’ve read my share of mediocre books over the years, and it has changed my perception. But, also, I’m a slow reader, so I don’t have time to read all the books I’ve got piled up (on the shelves and in my e-reader). So I generally rely on others to find the books for me. But I used to wonder if, maybe, it was the very fast readers who didn’t notice the writing. Now, I’m not so sure, because I think most romance readers read faster than I do.

    Plus, sometimes I’ll find an author I really like, and I’ve learned that my tastes don’t match everyone’s. I have to find people who like the authors I already like, so I can figure out which recommendations to trust first. But as I’ve fallen so far behind, it’s hard to tell which reviews/recommendations to trust. And then, some of the books I like can be raged against by others, so I won’t say my taste is better than anyone else’s. (I discovered Jean Ross Ewing, way back when. She later wrote as Julia Ross, and I was also surprised she didn’t catch on.)

    I think first drafts are called shitty to make the writer feel better – it’s permission to write a bad first draft, not a clear acknowledgment that all first drafts must be shitty, even if many probably are. I know some writers used to work very, very hard on their first draft, so by the time they finished, it was probably in a whole lot better shape than we’re used to seeing these days.

    I’m also not sure that all aspiring writers learn to edit and rework their own work. (I know I didn’t have a clue, when I used to write stories back in elementary school. I’d have an idea, and sit down and write.) They may join writers groups, or submit to contests, or even post their work online, but that doesn’t mean they learn how to absorb (and, where necessary, reject) the comments and criticism they receive. And how many people go over the words, the sentences, without going back and reworking or tossing out (or adding) whole chunks where necessary?

    Regarding the three books in a row deal, I remember when that started happening. If readers love the first book, it’s great, but if they don’t get to it right away, or they have other books to read before tacking the second book, it can be risky. Also, back then, there was a really long wait between the third book and the author’s next book.

    Then I started to hear that it was better to have a new book out every 9 months; one year was too long a wait to keep one’s name before readers in a very crowded market. (But even the longer books were noticeably shorter than ones I’d read years before.)

    Me, I tended to prefer the slower authors, and I didn’t trust the authors who had books too close together. Now, I can really see an advantage in writing series books, because the world, and some of the characters, are already established, so the author can produce more books in a shorter period of time. It’s even better if there’s some kind of arc to the series, so there’s a sense that something is building, and will lead to change (and, most likely, a satisfactory end to the series).

    As for Vintage, they’re probably feeling so much pressure, and the big publishers have different priorities now. I’m not sure where to look for the publishers who promote good books, good writing, and good editing. The market is weird, and maybe people are running a bit scared. (The top bosses are no longer likely to fire someone for publishing a runaway success just because it doesn’t uphold their former standards. But I also get that they had to rush the book out while the momentum was there, and waiting to edit just wouldn’t work.)

    At any rate, the current market situation seems to be conspiring to encourage authors to write quickly, and not worry about editing and redrafting. Though I’m hopeful that some authors will continue to do it, and enough readers will continue to look for those books. And maybe tightly edited books will become a new and popular niche?

    • So many good points! Just a couple of comments: you are absolutely right that most writers don’t get either experience with or training in rewriting drafts and editing their own work. Colleges now have writing-intensive courses that do that, but otherwise, outside of English Comp, it wasn’t the norm, let alone before that. If it’s not treated as part of the writing process across the board, how are people supposed to learn it? And it’s not easy to get the hang of it.

      You and Liz are right about Vintage. I always have to remind myself that these presses are now part of large multinational media conglomerates and quality is only useful when it coincides with profit. The NY publishing industry as we once knew it ended when Farrar Straus and Giroux finally succumbed and were acquired. Now NY pubs might as well be selling potato chips or laundry soap, in terms of how they view the product.

  10. Good post! I have agreements and disagreements. *rubs hands together*

    I really enjoyed Liz’s post on “Day Old Books” and I’ve given a lot of thought to authorial success, naturally. Because I’m one of those plebians who wants to do well. Or at least better. Have you ever heard the saying that “easy reading is damned hard writing”? Bad writers don’t create easy to read, fast-paced pageturners. Poorly written sentences get stumbled over. They have confusing syntax and grammar errors. Readers might recognize them and they might not, but they don’t gobble it up and beg for more. So, popular books are not poorly written. They are mediocre, at worst. Where they excell is in storytelling, and this is what the average genre reader cares about. You can’t convince me that the majority of readers like poorly written books with flat characters and bad storytelling. For my own sanity, I must believe otherwise.

    Authors have different writing processes and that includes drafting. I sat right next to Maya Banks when she said she wrote a category novel in a week. I’ve read some of her work and it isn’t poorly written by a long shot. If she says she can do a clean first draft, she can. On twitter, I’ve heard authors talk about 10k days. Impossible? I would have thought so. Now I believe it can be done by some, and that clean first drafts can also be done.

    Using myself as an example. I have to work pretty hard for my 1-2k a day, and I’m a “full time writer.” That is, I have long stretches of time to write. Maybe I’m slow, but I revise as I go. I write a fairly clean first draft. Perfect? No. But definitely not “baggy,” because I think I have the opposite tendency, towards writing that is too spare and needs…rounding out. Anyway, it’s possible that a “fanfiction first draft” is also a product of careful writing and revising in the moment. It’s possible for an author to write a solid draft in a month.

    Some people are geniuses. I can’t worry about that because I’m not one. I just have to do my best, and maybe work a little harder than those who write effortlessly, but not as hard as someone who agonizes over every word.

    I have an agreement part. Let me dig deep for it. Uhm. Oh! I sometimes tell myself not to worry so much about sentence-level construction because readers are after The Story. This is pure laziness on my part. I also feel pressure to write faster, and this means less twiddling over sentences. I don’t know how to negotiate these things. Readers will not buy me if I crank out bad stories. Readers will not buy me if I dawdle and have a year between releases. It’s a conundrum. But the part I have to believe is that readers will find me if I’m good–not just fast.

  11. Great post! One thing I’ve noticed is a tendency among some writers to confuse different levels of editing — as if copy editing is the same as proofreading, or a substantive edit is what you get out of a beta reader. I especially like your point that sometimes in the revision process, what’s really needed is your own inner voice to tell you what to put in that you meant to in the first place but didn’t. An editor can remove what isn’t working and make suggestion for what is needed; but the author only knows how he/she is going to do that.

  12. Speaking of which, man — the last sentence of my comment needed an edit: “…make suggestions for what is needed, but only the author knows how he/she is going to do that.”

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