The rise of the published first draft

by Sunita

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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