Too Much Is Not Enough: Being an Author in the Age of Binge

And I must be an acrobat
To talk like this and act like that.
And you can dream, so dream out loud
And you can find your own way out.
And you can build, and I can will
And you can call, I can’t wait until
You can stash and you can seize
In dreams begin responsibilities
And I can love, and I can love
And I know that the tide is turning ’round
So don’t let the bastards grind you down.

-U2, Acrobat

I am a slow writer. Even if I didn’t work a full-time job, pick up extra editing work in the evenings, try to maintain at least a few friendships, not to mention take care of all the other minutiae of living (one of which barks and demands three walks a day), I would still be a slow writer. I envy those authors who can pound out 4,000-7,000 words in an afternoon. That is not me.

My best ideas, like a good pasta sauce, need to simmer awhile. I like to think, and think, and think again about a scene, stirring it through my mind until the character beats boil down to their essence. Only then will I sit down to write it and, on my better days, watch it transform into something unexpected. I can always tell when I’m forcing it, when I haven’t added enough seasoning to the sauce. Like any author, I have more than a few false-start books on my laptop. When a story isn’t working, I usually top out at about 40 pages. If I make it past that point, then I know I did my prep work.

Which is why my panic level is reaching DEFCON 1 in terms of having another book out this year. The “How am I going to make a career out of this if I can’t even get one book out a year?” merry-go-round in my brain is at full speed these days. Especially in the age of binge watching, where media is available in large, consumable chunks, I can’t afford  that long a space between publications. And I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling the pressure to produce.

Because I’ve been on the other side. I recently finished reading J.L. Merrow’s Played, and my reaction upon reaching the last page was: “Want. More. Now. NOM.” I hadn’t read anything by her in a while, and I love the worlds she builds for her characters. There’s a cosy feeling to them even when there’s angst, and I just wanted to snuggle down for the duration. Problem is, I’ve read all her other books.

I don’t feel this way about every author. I adore Harper Fox, but her books take a lot out of me. The journey of reading them is often thrilling, heart-wrenching, and joyous all at once; after those, I need a break. Some smoosh. So while not all my favorite authors are like crack, I know firsthand the impatience of waiting for a long-anticipated book, or even another book by a beloved author (nudge-nudge, Scarlett Thomas).

But is the bingeing tendency in our culture creating unreasonable reader expectations, especially in the romance industry, where many readers all but inhale books? Is it unrealistic to expect authors to crank out more than three titles a year to answer audience expectations? Does the law of diminishing returns apply if authors turn into book-churning mills?

The evidence is inconclusive. We all know of successful series, like Jordan L. Hawk’s SPECTER series, that have multiple volumes of excellent quality and narrative inventiveness, that could seemingly go on forever. And we all know of authors like Laurel K. Hamilton who can’t let her universe or her characters go, when maybe she should. Or series that start off great, like a popular M/M series mentioned by a member of the Hassell and Hall group on Facebook the other day, described as—to paraphrase—the first three were great, but the person lost interest when it started to be never-ending wedded bliss. I admire J.K. Rowling and Elizabeth George in equal measure, the former for setting an end to her series and sticking to it, the latter for making the hard decisions and keeping the emotional life of her lead detectives fresh over almost 20 mystery novels.

And then there is the peculiar case of my fellow slow writer, George R.R. Martin. I alternate between feeling really bad for him (and his millions, LOL) and thinking he must have known what he was getting into from the start. He will be perhaps the first series writer in history to have the long-anticipated final volume of his series spoiled by the TV show his books spawned. Other people will write the ending of his series before he does. That must be depressing as hell. On the other hand, some of those who’ve read the books (which does not include me) are of the opinion that they could have concluded with Book Four, and he’s been stretching the plot too thin ever since. No matter whether you’re a writer or a reader, it can be hard to let go.

Authors are also in the unique position that they work on a daily basis with things—invisible things, characters and worlds that are only in their heads—that they love unconditionally. Little wonder some authors never want to abandon the worlds they create, even when they have nothing original or compelling left to say. That they, like (possibly) me, fuss over every detail, never truly satisfied with their creation, no matter how much love and care they’ve devoted to it.

I may be in the minority, but I think pressuring authors to perform, whether it be writing the story you want to read or begging for an unnecessary sequel, results in less than spectacular work. But then, there’s something to be said for not being so precious and just writing the damn book. Either way, the key is finding your balance as an author, a reader, a creator, a consumer.

And, as a far better writer than me once said, don’t let the bastards grind you down.

 

-Selina

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