Tuesday, May 29, 2012
Speeding Up the Assembly Line
Erle Stanley Gardner, the creator of Perry Mason, took a different approach to writing than most authors. According to published reports, it went something like this:
He would sketch out a plot outline and list of characters, and turn the whole thing over in his head for a few days or weeks until he was ready. Then he would go into an office, armed with coffee and cigarettes, set up a Dictaphone, and dictate the entire book in an uninterrupted 24 to 48 hour stretch.
Considering how many copies his books sold, you can’t argue with success, but having read a couple of those books, I’d have to say that if you didn’t know how they were written, you might have guessed. Even by the lightweight standards of the mystery novel, they are pretty Spartan. True, the story rushes along and keeps you turning pages, but not so well that you don’t notice the lack of description, character and atmosphere.
Compare Gardner to a couple of his contemporaries, such as Raymond Chandler or Earl Derr Biggers, author of the Charlie Chan novels, and you can tell the difference. If not for the success of Perry Mason on TV, I suspect that only a handful of genre scholars would be reading Gardner today.
It is true that there have been a handful of good authors who could be brilliant in a hurry. Charles Dickens — channeling God, the Creative Spirit, or whatever you want to call it — supposedly dashed off his manuscripts in such a state of inspired frenzy that each page of foolscap flew to the floor as quickly as he wrote it.
On the other hand was Joseph Conrad, who found writing such hard and painful work that his wife just about had to drag him out of bed and push him to the desk each morning.
Most writers fall somewhere in between those poles, but I would argue, based on experience and observation, that most writers derive considerable benefit from reflection and revision, two qualities that are the bedrock of style and consistency.
It used to be that publishing-house editors caught mistakes and helped an author improve style, organization and consistency; no more. It’s mostly on the author now, and almost every book published has several eye-popping mistakes as a result. Revision, particularly after setting a piece aside for a while and viewing it again with a fresh eye, is what winnows out the clichés, redundancies, and flabby prose.
These reflections were inspired by a recent story in the Times, reporting that authors of genre books (mystery, romance, science fiction) are increasingly being pressured, by the demands of e-publication, to do more than one book a year to satisfy insatiable demand from readers who have no concept of patience.
That may not seem like a lot to some people, and certainly many authors have done it. In the 1930s and 40s, John Dickson Carr pounded out two or three mysteries a year, and he did it with typewriters. He also wrote in an era where detective technology was considerably less than now and hardly any research was necessary. A book a year is a lot of work, and considering how much sloppy writing and how many mistakes, large and small, creep into the ones written at that rate, it’s hard to see how speeding up the production line will improve or even maintain quality. It will simply turn every author into Erle Stanley Gardner. Haul out the Dictaphone and bring in the coffee and cigarettes.