The Mid-Book Blues - Andrew Crofts

Writing books is one of the most enjoyable and rewarding ways to earn a living and I can’t imagine ever doing anything else. That does not mean, however, that every part of the operation is a joy. As with any large scale endeavour, from creating a garden to running a marathon, from being a rock star to being a prince of the realm, there are times where the effort and the monotony of the job feel crushing.

The blues usually strike me about half way through the writing process. All too often, I believe, the books which the market has traditionally demanded are longer than their subject matter merits. If you write tightly and edit well as you go along you can often tell a story very effectively in thirty to fifty thousand words. (“The Turn of the Screw”, “Animal Farm”, “Of Mice and Men”, “The Great Gatsby”, “Death in Venice”, “Heart of Darkness”, “The Picture of Dorian Gray” … I could go on). Publishers and readers, however, have been accustomed for many years to books that are eighty to a hundred and fifty thousand words – and sometimes longer. Designed originally to work well as parcels in the American postal system at the end of the nineteenth century, they are simply the size and shape that people have grown used to and therefore expect.

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Imagine that you have been commissioned to write a blockbuster thriller which will go out under the name of a famous author who always produces books that are at least four hundred pages long, (around a hundred and fifty thousand words). The plot that has been worked out is great, the characters are strong and you’ve managed to tell the whole thing very succinctly and elegantly in fifty thousand words.

That is the morning when you wake up to the realisation that you now have to find another hundred thousand words without ruining the tension, without losing the attention of the readers and without waffling.

Waffling is easy of course, and by no means an unpleasant way to earn a living, but if you do that you will only have to go back and cut it all out again later, losing thousands of valuable words and dozens of valuable man-hours and severely endangering your will to live.

Like any marathon runner you have to put your head down and keep powering on, but you then become obsessed with word-counts; constantly checking how many words you have done that day, (or in the last ten minutes), working out how many more days you need if you continue at that rate, forcing yourself to stay at the screen for just one more hour, then just one more, agonising every time you have to cut something out and the word-count drops by even a few dozen. The days seem to stretch out ahead forever.

Like the marathon runner however, and the patient gardener, perseverance and professionalism always pay off and you eventually come out of the darkness of winter into the sunshine once more. The finishing line comes in sight and you are able to sprint to the end, refreshed by the rush of adrenaline and the bloom of another spring, ready and enthusiastic to start on the next book, all memories of the blue days forgotten.

Maybe this is a good moment to confess to another sin; the sin of envy. I can’t help but imagine how glorious it must be to be one of those immortal songwriters who you hear talking about how they penned their most famous track in a matter of minutes, creating a perfect little masterpiece that will be paying them and their descendents royalties for years to come. Imagine for a moment being Ray Davies and dashing off masterpieces like “Waterloo Sunset”, “Lola” and “Sunny Afternoon”. Not only do you then have the rest of the day to please yourself, you also get to sing your stories in front of hundreds of thousands of adoring fans. Contrast that with the long haul of the book writer who is then lucky if he can persuade half a dozen people to turn up to a reading in a bookshop. Envious? I’m positively mint green.

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Anonymous said…
Ha ha the sin of envy - we've all been there! I can't tell you the number of author talks I've been to where, describing their road to publishing, wthe speaker asserts they wrote their first book in a couple of months, sent it off to a big publisher (because they were so naive they had no idea this wasn't what you do, you have to get an agent etc), and received a contract back by return of post. No rewriting required, book is perfect. The audience is enchanted by such humblebragging, while I am quietly turning green in a corner. Only later do I realize this is just a bit off showmanship - I wonder why some people do it? Could be true also of song writers - even if Waterloo Sunset was written in an afternoon, perhaps 1000 forgettable melodies had to be got out of the way first.

But I do agree with you about book length. I don't want these great doorstoppers, I'd much rather a story told within 50 - 80,000 words. So heavy to carry around too.
Bill Kirton said…
Scaling your numbers down by many thousands, one of the points I make to kids in school workshops on essay writing is that it's always better to exceed the word count then cut stuff out rather than the other way round. Padding always shows. On the other hand, I've just started reading an all-action best seller and I'm longing for the characters to start becoming real.
Dennis Hamley said…
Andrew, can it really be true that the length and size of books is determined by the regulations of a postal service defunct for over a century? Well, yes, it certainly has a dreadful ring of authenticity about it. As far as young adults are concerned, I fear Rowling has a lot to answer for. I was appalled a while back when a new writer I mentor told me that an agent informed him that it was no use in sending less than 90,000 words to a young adult publisher nowadays. I had to tell him that if he wanted to be the good writer I thought he would be he should put such heresies out of his mind at once. Besides, what chance would I have had nowadays? The longest book I've ever written was 70,000 words. It would have been nearer 90k but I work by the rule of thumb that every book will lose about one fifth, probably more, of its length not by 'murdering our darlings' but simply realising how loose and baggy our prose can be when left to its own devices. In my small way, I've just found out what a problem this is for ghostwriters, so I sympathise, Andrew. But it's no better when I assume corporeal form again.

Hey, than last fanciful image should be one for the chop, surely!
Andrew Crofts said…
Dennis; I think I stole the American postal service story from Merchants of Culture by Professor John Thompson. I also think it has the grim ring of truth about it.
Nicky said…
Ah - just written my own blog on a similar theme!

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