Jul 4, 2011

The Speed Limit on Story Telling

I normally would make a confession on Confessions from Suite 500, but I'm working on a new First Page Shooter for that blog today.  In fact, after you read this, you should go check it out!

So here is my confession:

I am not a fast reader.

I know, I know!  I work in publishing.  I work with some of the speediest speed readers I've ever seen.  But I'm just not that fast.  And I've never admitted it in public before, because being a fast reader is the type of thing that people expect of an agent.

Well.  I'm just not.

But that doesn't mean that I don't love reading. I do. So much so, that I've made it a huge part of my life.

A good story is good for the soul.

Because I'm not so fast, I like to keep my client list on the smaller side of average.  I'm working with some incredible writers, and I love, love their respective styles. I want to have time to read each manuscript they send me closely, not quickly. I find that the times when I am forced to read quickly, I miss things.  Not big things like plot and character moments, but I miss the subtleties of the language, the creative use of the words, and even lines that later become my favorite upon second or third read.

And those are usually the parts that take me from "This is a decent story" to "This is AMAZING!"

I say that as an agent, and as a reader.


I read the article by Katie Crouch in Slate.

Although I don't appreciate the overall sarcastic jabs she takes at YA as a genre, (in fact, a number of authors have responded quite perfectly on that matter, Last Leigh, and Oh, Courtney to name a couple), I do understand what she means by the generally fast turnaround that has been the expectation of authors lately.

But Katie got this wrong here--this is not just happening in YA.  Aside from two specific fiction genres (literary and epic--whether it be epic fantasy, sci-fi or historical), I've seen the same quick-quick-quick pace happening across the board.  And it's been getting faster.

Where is this coming from?

I have my theories, as do others, and they all make good points.  The digital age has created a shift in how quickly we can communicate, write, edit, market to a wide audience--everything.  And not just for books.  People are getting used to instant gratification with everything.  And when it's not there right away, they move on.  Right?

But here's the rub.  At least for me.

Stories are not like other products.  They aren't put together in a factory. They aren't told and written by an entire department of people. And all of the advertising in the world isn't going to make a story have lasting power.

It may take an entire team to get a book published, but publishing a book is NOT the same as telling a story. And before anything else, stories are told by just one or two people (if you have a co-author).

They take time to create and unfold just right. And rushing them only shows in the writing eventually if not immediately--the writers have less time to hone their craft, to focus on the prose, to weave everything together; the editors and agents-who-edit have less time to really dig deep into the characters, plots and themes. And the story will eventually suffer for it.

So what do we do in a time when the audience is looking for instant gratification?

I haven't found the answer yet, but I do know I'm digging my heels in a bit on rushing things when I know it will affect the work.

What are your thoughts on all of this as writers/readers/industry persons/whatever?

Please share!


Anonymous said...

My admiration for you just grew about 18 points after reading this article. I love it that you're a careful reader - and take your time.
I'm aghast at some of the "blockbuster" style that so many books are conforming to. It's not that I don't enjoy that style-it's just that I don't want every book to read that way. Several big-name writing gurus are pushing that fast-paced lets-start-with-an-explosion type storytelling right now, and I really really appreciate the agents like you who find story the most important part.
Great post!
-Ellie Ann

Anonymous said...

Great post! I can only come at this from a writer's perspective and as someone who is VERY new to the business. Part of the process of generating a new work is giving the ideas time to gestate, taking the opportunity to step away from the story and then coming back to it with fresh eyes. When you're on a tight deadline, that really becomes a luxury. It's also a radical departure from the way that writers are told to approach their first books (slow down! revise! revisit!). BUT I do like that these ramped up turnaround times cut back on my slacking and fretting time. I have a draft due in October and I simply don't have time to sit around wallowing in self-doubt and watching old seasons of Project Runway.

Shelby Bach said...

Oh man, Jo - I <3 you so much. You just put into words a whole bunch of things I've thought about recently!

Yes, I've noticed a rise in speed-writing, speed-editing, and speed-revising in recent years. Back when I was an editorial assistant, I thought that it was just how "The Industry" worked now. I believed that if you wanted to be an author, you had to learn how to keep up. But these days, living on the writerly side of the biz, I find myself wanting to resist rushing things too.

I know how long a good revision takes now. I know how much stronger a book can be if you take your time to think through a new subplot. I know that if you pay attention to the language as much as the plot, to the characterization as much as how many adverbs you use, a revision can take months, but it'll pay off.

I don't know exactly what the answer is, but I think the decision has to be tailored to each author - or even each project - individually. This calls for serious time management skills.

Maybe an author needs to write a draft over an extra year before the book's due - to give them extra time to hone their craft. Maybe an author needs to send her manuscript out to a group of trusted critique partners - to receive more feedback than just what her editor has time to give. Maybe the author needs to pad her deadlines so she can give herself time for that final line-edit before turning in a new draft. Maybe she needs to pick and choose her projects - ie. to write FEWER books.

(Personally, it helps me to tell myself that if I take a longer time with THIS draft, I'll have to do fewer revisions OVERALL.)

But then, that creates another problem: where do get that extra time from?

I'm sure I'm not the only one, but I often feel like there just aren't enough hours in the day. What do you do when you're out of time? Do you turn in a draft that isn't ready like Katie Crouch? Or like Kristen Cashore with BITTERBLUE, do you risk delaying the project to make sure you send out the best book possible?

Anyway, I'll keep pondering.

Graeme Smith said...

Lady Joanna

It is indeed an interesting conundrum. Or at least, so I see it.

On the one hand there's the time it takes to write. To write, to edit, to re-edit, to re-re-edit, to re-re-re... well, you get the picture. Not that you don't know the picture a lot better than I :-). On the other, slow reader or fast, there's the plain fact that a book takes a lot less time to read than to write. Even if the boring ones _feel_ just as long :-).

So on the reader's side, especially if it's a book they've been waiting for for a while, there's the rush to gratification. On the writer's side, beginning a new book is a road that can take measurable chunks out of a life.

There's a tie also to advice I've seen for authors posting excerpts for unfinished or un-Agented work on their web sites. A reader comes along. They read. They love what they read. They ask ask when or where they can buy it - and are told 'um, good question. Maybe if I get an Agent. Or a publisher... could be, um... a year? Two? Never?'. Is the result likely to be a happy potential buyer? The writer has excited a short term desire, and can only answer with a maybe. A long term maybe.

The pre-digital was bad enough. Or wonderful enough. I remember finishing a book in a series and holding my breath for a year and more for the next one. Maybe it was easier when I didn't have any real way of following progress. In the e-world, I'm reading the author's blog posts, I'm watching their web page, and I'm seeing activity - but still not the book I want to read.

Eaiser? Harder? Both?

I was reading an article recently about a research team who recorded 100s of Irish rells and jigs. They programmed a mchine to auto-tune generate - reels and jigs. It was probably quick. They, at least some, were possibly good. But give me a smoky bar filled with one part smoke, one part Guinness. Give me Maggie on her fiddle, Dáivi on his drum, Fiona's tin whistle - for any value of 'Maggie', 'Dáivi' and 'Fiona'. I'll take their years on the road over the auto-reely-jig, and I'll take the writer's time over my desire to read any day.

Pfah. I'm talking too much. And probably way off topic by now. I'm told I do that. Me - I blame my keyboard :-).

Graeme Smith

storyqueen said...

I love you, Jo!

The element of time is very key. A flower cannot grow faster than it can grow (unless you are on some island like in Jurassic Park and they genetically engineer something and there is a seed one day and a rose the next...)

Anyway, I think that maybe, MAYBE a full time author might be able to keep up with such a crazy pace, but those of use with day jobs...well...the story is just going to unfold when it does. And that is that.

Great post!

Donna Hole said...

I'm a reader who reads every word. Yes, every word. So, I'm very slow. Which means when my writer friends send me something to beta read and critique, it can take a couple months.

My brother and I read the same books; he'd finish one in a weekend, me in two-three weeks. I'd ask him how he liked this-or-that and he'd be totally clueless b/c it happened outside of the dialogue, or in a narrative sequence that the MC was not named in. And even reading every word the first time through, I still find concepts/phrases I missed by reading a second, third . .

I find reading a relaxing experience - even if it novel is action packed (though you can probably tell I read few of those). Reading isn't something I do to fill a few minutes of down time; it is a preferred activity.

And maybe that is one of many answers to the speed reading problem; people don't read for pleasure necessarily, they read to fill a block of time and want to quickly get to The End and move on to something else.

I prefer to have an editor/publisher who takes the time to read the story, not just the main plot points. I like my readers to take their time also.

Thanks for sharing the links Jo, I'll check them out.


Gem said...

Publishers rush books out so readers don’t lose interest in a series, but really if a book is good enough, do you ever lose interest? (as you said Jo, the great stories have a lasting power all of their own).

Can you imagine falling out of love with Harry Potter after book 5, or not wanting to read the conclusion of Hunger Games after reading Catching Fire? Of course not! We just suck up a long wait and spend our time counting down and pre-ordering and getting excited.

What worries me with publishers rushing books out are the reasons behind this fear readers will lose interest. Why don’t the publishers have confidence in the books they are putting on the shelves? Why are they already assuming the reader will lose interest? Do they know something about the quality of the series or the overall plot arc?

I’d rather wait a eighteen months for a good sequel, than read something that feels forced and rushed.

Great post Jo, lots to think about!

Em-Musing said...

Time...it takes time to read...and I'm guessing many people are like me who won't slow down and enjoy a book...they just read it. I'm trying to slow down.

Laila Knight said...

This is just my opinion, but it's better to read slow. I find that if I speed read something and then go back and reread, I've missed so much. You tend to overlook those tidbits that might make a story cute or unique and miss the author's point of view entirely. I've also noticed the same in writing. If I rush ahead and then go back and edit I'll find myself rewriting.

KitKatKaity said...

I hope this won't be in poor taste but on the subject of speed limits and deadlines, what is going on with the query log? It hasn't been updated in almost 2 months.

Joanna said...

Hi KitKatKaity,

Thanks for pointing out the Query Log! We've actually been keeping up with our queries and submissions just fine, but it's completely slipped off the radar to update the log!

Good catch :-)

KitKatKaity said...

Thank you!

Claire Dawn said...

I also think books are so amazing because it's only (mainly) one person. TV and movies have directors and actors and costume ppl and set ppl and music ppl. And all by themselves authors do all that.

I write first drafts freakishly fast- less than a month, but it takes forever in edits. I guess the thing a consumer has to ask is "Do I want his book now?" or "Do I want this book good?"

Amy Armstrong, MS, NCC said...

I agree 110% Good stories should be savored at every step.