Monday, June 29, 2009

How many books can you write in one year?

By Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I just read an article about Nora Roberts in The New Yorker (a couple of weeks back I fear – I can never keep up!) and my jaw dropped when I read that she publishes five novels in a typical year: two installments of a PBO trilogy; two J.D. Robb books; and, each summer, a hardcover stand-alone romance novel (otherwise known as a “Big Nora”). She estimates that it takes, on average, 45 days to write a novel. When I read that I thought – what they hell have I been doing with my time?! I’ve just finished my draft of Unlikely Traitors (which we can only hope in this publishing climate will get to see the light of day!) which brings my tally, after Lady Coppers was finished a few weeks ago, to two books. Yep, just two in on year. So I thought hey, it’s only June so how many more books can I write before December??

I haven’t got a cat in hell’s chance of meeting Nora Roberts’ book tally but I am hoping to write another book this year as well as a few proposals. Why? Because I feel in this economic climate I have to write, write and write – just because things are so uncertain. I think it’s very necessary (for me at least) to spread my genre-wings and fly. My plan at this stage is to write a young adult book and start a historical novel set in the mid 19th century – I also want to write a proposal (or two) for a romance novel. Panic is a wonderful motivator…

I think that Nora Roberts is phenomenal – she treats her job as a profession – one in which she respects her readers and fulfils her obligations. I am also in awe of her productivity. Not every writer can meet her level of output – nor should they. Writing is a solitary art and producing a novel is something that can take months to years to accomplish. When I finished the article, however, it made me think about expectations – my own as well as the expectations of readers and publishers. I think a fine balance has to be struck between quality and quantity but I also think that in the current publishing climate publishers aren’t often willing to invest or maintain their authors (just look at how many great mystery writers have had their series dropped) so many writers have to churn out a considerable chunk of work just to keep in the game (even if it means that many manuscripts go unpublished). For me I am seriously evaluating both my productivity as well as the breadth of my work – it’s a survival mechanism necessary if I’m going to succeed in maintaining a writing career.

But I wonder- do popular writers necessarily sacrifice quality for quantity? Is there really ever 'over exposure’ for a bestselling writer? And for those of us who aren’t quite at Nora Roberts’ level yet, what’s the best strategy for dealing with the current climate (apart, of course from writing the best damn books we can?!)

For me it's all about one word – perseverance.

If Nora Roberts can do it, so can I.


  1. Clare, I think you answered your own question when you said ". . . apart, of course from writing the best damn books we can?!" I think it's fruitless to compare ourselves to any other writer or their success.

    An example of the opposite of Nora Roberts is Thomas Harris. It took him over 30 years to write 5 books:
    Black Sunday (1975)
    Red Dragon (1981)
    The Silence of the Lambs (1988)
    Hannibal (1999)
    Hannibal Rising (2006)

    Personally, I would love to have the output of Roberts with the masterful skill of Harris. But neither one of those scenarios is going to happen. I think that no matter what the economic conditions are in the publishing industry, we just need to make our goal writing the best book we can.

  2. Thanks, Joe. I was starting to panic and I'm not even published yet...LOL.

    Clare- You do bring up a valid concern. I read that same article about Nora Roberts and felt my heart hit my toes. But, I think even finishing two novels in a year is quite an accomplishment, so don't short change yourself. Just keep doing what you're's obviously working for you.

  3. Five a year? Two a year? I managed for three years in a row to write and podcast the audio of one novel each year. I was very excited last year when I also got a set of short stories out in podcast audio. Then this year comes and I get an agent, and time to do anything but edit the one she's trying to sell and do a rewrite of the others so she can sell those too.

    My newest is just sitting in synopsis-land awaiting flesh on its skeletal form and who knows if 2009 will see it gain a body or not.

    Of course being stuck in the land of working and writing means less time on the schedule for such endeavours as writing multiple books in a year. On top of that are my wife and kids. Unwilling to sacrifice my family on the altar of writing I will, therefore, be happy with what I can do and ecstatic if something happens that enables me to do more.

  4. I think the better question is, how many good books can you write in one year? That's ultimately what is going to determine how successful you are. If you start cranking out books at Nora Roberts' speed and they're clunkers, it doesn't matter how much quantity you're able to produce.

    Plus, I want to enjoy life. If I'm able to write four or five books and still have fun and do everything I like to do, then why not? But if it starts making me into a hermit that stares at a computer screen 12 hours a day, every day of my life, no thanks.

  5. Nothing profound to add here - I agree with the already posted comments. It's about writing the best you can given your schedule. A goodly amount of us keep a full time job in addition to our writing and I personally can't imagine writing more than one book per year given the fullness of my life.

  6. I write 2 novels a year, the odd short story or two, and hold down a day job, and this article made me feel like a slouch! Even if Ms. Roberts doesn't have to cook, clean and punch a time clock, 5 books a year is freaking amazing!

    I agree with you Clare, we have to spread our wings to survive in the current publishing climate. I just made a commitment to myself to finish the stand alone I've been working on in snatches as I could grab the time. I've now carved out 4 hrs a week to dedicate just to that book.

    True, it's about perservarance, but it's also about commitment.

  7. Wow! And I really enjoy her books. But it's nice to know we don't have to have that kind of output to be writers.

  8. Remember, though, that Nora doesn't have to have a day job. If I remember an interview with her from a few years back properly, she works pretty much from 8 to 5 every day. It's a serious job for her. That gives her evenings to rest and watch TV or read or whatever, like regular folks.

    And I suspect she's got housekeeping help, so everyday chores don't intrude.

    But the sheer willpower to sit and produce for 8 hours a day leaves me breathless. I just can't imagine it. But then, I'm not really a writer, either.

  9. Writers, as you know, have to do more than write. And if you don't have someone to do that support stuff for you, it falls to you to do. I suspect that Nora Roberts, Inc. has a lot of support staff, and not just of the housekeeping variety. She no doubt has a secretary, an accountant, and isn't her husband involved in her business somehow?

    Some of us write while raising children, or taking care of elderly parents, or holding down a fulltime job in another field.

    And some of us have fewer stories in us than others. It's not fair to compare.

  10. My personal solution is don't sleep. Cat naps. That's all you need. Cat naps at the keyboard even better. That way your subconscious be to do some work while you're not looking.

  11. Writing that fast sacrifices quality in the style. I think this was the dig on Isaac Asimov. He even admitted paring it down so he could just produce. Then there are those who spend years writing one book. I think there has to be a place in the middle, and you should find where it is for you. Write as much as you can without sacrificing the quality you yourself have decided you can live with.

  12. You bring up a good point. I'm just getting into a series at a time when many who have mastered it and actually produced revenue are being dropped. Scares the living crap out of me.

  13. Oh, my!!
    I feel the max I could do is two--one every six months isn't too hard.
    Although I'm just beginning. I'm sure writing phenomenal work is second nature to her...
    Maybe some of us will get to the same point one day.
    I'm actually working on a series and dread the day *if* I get published as I don't know what kind of output I could produce..

    Great post =)

  14. Thanks everyone - I was in the wilds of Wisconsin and couldn't get on the internet until now but thanks for all your comments! I'm happy with output so far:) and bringing up kids while I write certainly means I can't match Ms Roberts!