Why Can't Your Favorite SF Author Write Faster?

Illustration for article titled Why Can't Your Favorite SF Author Write Faster?

Essayist Geoff Nicholson once tried to win a childhood reading contest by devouring science fiction stories. Now he's struggling with a crucial question: why are some writers so prolific, and others slower than you'd like?

To his credit, in his New York Times essay, Nicholson rejects some critics' claims that super-bountiful literary production is confined to genre authors, or is a matter of "low" writing. For every Dean Koontz or 800-novel-writing romance author, there are people like William T. Vollman and Joyce Carol Oates, who manage to hang on to their cache despite pounding out books like snausages.

But actually, super-prolific novel production is more challenging, and thus more impressive, among SF authors than among other types, for the exact reason that Nicholson lost his reading contest: all that world-building. The young Nicholson was reading stories containing tons of details about the "wastelands of imaginary planets," while his victorious friend Rob was "gliding through the works of P.G. Wodehouse," whose work is not only breezy (and plentiful) but also takes place in a world where the props and settings are well established.


And world-building doesn't necessarily get easier once you're writing in a world that you've already established in a previous book. As Laura Anne Gilman explains, once you've got multiple books in the same universe, it becomes a nightmare to avoid contradicting yourself, and bringing in characters from past books may be tempting, but is an invitation to continuity crisis:

It's that continuity thing again. If you're writing a one-off, or even a duology or trilogy, you only have to worry about the timeline in one direction – forward. There are six books in the Retrievers series, including May's Blood From Stone, and since the two series are running more or less concurrently along the timeline, I have to make sure that nothing happens that's too jarring, or contradicts something previously established. It's a lot like doing a jigsaw puzzle, but about 10% of the pieces will come from a puzzle you already completed. Worse, it's like doing a 3-D jigsaw puzzle, because the timeline goes not only forward and backward, but sideways as well.

In fact, SF authors may have a reputation for being prolific, but fans get cranky when their favorite authors don't crank out new works fast enough, especially longed-after works in their favorite universes. John Scalzi comments on George R.R. Martin's frustration with fans who lambaste him for, well, having a life, instead of producing his next novel faster. And Scalzi guesses Martin's alleged slowness comes partly from that world-building complexity:

I don't want to hazard guessing how GRRM does his creative thing, but I'll say this: The reason GRRM's series is so damn popular is because he's created this immense, complex world strewn with characters readers love to follow. When you do this, it doesn't get easier building on it, it gets harder, especially if you're trying to maintain quality control. This isn't like a television series (or their literary spinoffs), where you have several writers working in the universe sharing the load; it all comes down to this single guy, pulling it all out of a single brain.

Seriously, people, WTF? Give the man a friggin' break. Yes, it's taking a while. Yes, he's doing other things. But I assume it's taking time because GRRM believes it's worth getting right, and I assume he's doing other things because he wants to stay sane. Let the guy do what he needs to do to make himself happy, and happy with the writing. You'll benefit from a book that you'll actually want to read, as opposed to a book that is simply there to have.


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Chip Skylark of Space

Throwing in a couple names from the past, Asimov was a machine- pounding out many books a year, admittedly most not SF, while Jack Vance was writing on a yellow pad, with different colored inks, and then handing the pads off to Norma, to type them up into a manuscript of some sort. I have found myself devouring every Vance book I've ever found (and I haven't even kept up, so I have more to read), while there are Asimov books I've never picked up, and the man's been dead for 15 years.