Over the past few months on one writing blog I follow – Magical Words, where a collection of traditionally-published midlist+ fantasy authors blog together about writing and the business – there have been a series of posts admonishing writers to “write fast”. (For example: here, here, and here.) The publishing industry is changing, they say, and one consequence is that publishers are demanding more than the typical one-novel-per-year rate that used to be the norm. You’ve got to write fast, they say, to produce 2 to 3 novels per year, and a handful of short-stories, and so on.
I mused, in one comment to these posts, that as considering what first-time authors typically make on writing (see, for example, Tobias Buckell’s Author Advance Survey)… giving up a day-job to write full time, which is what many of us would have to do to achieve that level of productivity, wouldn’t make economic sense. Does that disqualify us from this career path? I don’t know. Certainly, there are some authors who are still making a writing career work, while holding down a day job and outputting a book every year-or-so. So the door hasn’t closed on that… yet.
My own personal productivity last week, however, got me thinking about this again.
As I mentioned on my weekly wrap-up, I generated the vast majority of last week’s generally high wordcount on a single day. To wit: more than 3,500 words that particular day. I wrote for a total of about 4-and-a-half hours that day.
I noticed something as I wrote that day. The first hour I sat down to write, I wasn’t terribly productive. Maybe 500 words, or a little less. But as I kept writing, my rate of writing got faster, getting up to just north of 1,000 words in an hour before I took a short break. After the break, my rate started higher than before and went back to that roughly 1,000-words-per-hour.
As I thought about it later, I realized that around 1,000-words-per-hour is my theoretical maximum rate of writing productivity. I wondered. What would that mean for me if I could write full time?
My reality, right now, is that I typically get to spend time writing somewhere between 2 and 4 days each week, for anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours. Since my starting-cold writing speed is lower, around 500 words in an hour, it makes sense, then, why my typical weeks are around 2,000 words in a week, as I’ve observed before.
But if I were writing full time? I did a thought experiment. As a full-time writer I’d probably spend about 6 hours per day writing, with at least one break, possibly two for lunch and other necessities. On a day like that, I’d easily hit my 1,000-word-per-hour rate after a short warm-up in the morning. So let’s say I can do 4,500 words in a six-hour writing workday. (I say 6 hours because I’d probably want to spend an hour or two with blogs, social media, writing-related business, and other non-writing but writing-related activities, which brings me back to a roughly 8-hour workday.) Writing 5 days a week, that would be 22,500 words in a week. Hmm. That’s starting to look pretty fast.
If I posit a theoretical 150,000-word novel, plus another 50,000 words in background material per novel, a single novel, in one draft, is around 200,000 words. At my full-time rate, I could manage that in about 9 weeks – or two months. If I further postulate that it takes me double that time to review, revise, edit, and rewrite each book, that takes me to 6 months from word-one to a complete, revised manuscript. Which means… I could do two books a year. I’m sure I could manage to fill in maybe up to a half-dozen short stories over the same time.
This was an interesting revelation to me. I’d always assumed that even writing full-time, I’d only be able to manage one book a year.
There are a lot of variables, there. For example, one book may in fact take well in excess of 50,000 words in background notes (I’m at about 25,000 words on “Book of M”, for instance, with a good ways to go) – but the sequel might need less than half that in new notes. Or a book might be as few as 100,000 words or as many as 250,000 words, and take dramatically different amounts of time. Different parts of the process may take more or less time. All of this is hypothetical. So in one year I might be able to write only one book, and in another year I might manage nearly three.
With that kind of productivity, I wonder, what would make for a feasible writing income? What would allow me to go from a part-timer to a full-timer? I’d have to be able to do more than just replace my current income. I’d have to make more to make up for the loss of a number of benefits. But having an idea of my potential productivity level gives me an idea of how to answer these questions.
Back in reality-land, averaging 2,000 words a week, the same hypothetical 150,000-word-novel-plus-50,000-word-background-notes I can theoretically accomplish in about 100 weeks – or in other words about 2 years. Going full-time would basically allow a four-fold increase in my potential productivity. And that’s not counting revision. But a novel-every-two-years-or-more isn’t a very sustainable career path, as a writer, unless you’re Robert Jordan or George R. R. Martin or maybe Patrick Rothfuss. I’m not any of those guys. I could be amazing, but right now there’s no way of telling. Regardless… this suggests to me that my initial pseudo-deadline for myself, for completion of “The Book of M”, was overly optimistic (or aggressively ambitious, depending on your point of view). It may need reassessing.
In the near-term… I expect my productivity to drop considerably. No more 5,000-word-plus weeks. Other non-writing and non-writing-related projects are a-brewing, and they will demand a considerable, nay, overwhelming degree of my attention. I haven’t decided whether and when I may discuss said projects, though they may be pertinent as early as this week’s up-coming weekly wrap up on Sunday… So in advance I’ll say that a lot of my time is going to be consumed by a non-writing-related and non-blog-related activity of indeterminate length. Hopefully the project won’t last long and I’ll be able to pour that energy back into writing productivity.