Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Amateur Authors and Time Investment: Critical Mass

I recently completed a draft of a short story that I've been working on for a while, which got me thinking about what it's like being an amateur author. I decided that one of the things that separates amateur authors from the pros, aside from the fame, the money, and the talent, of course, is the difference between the amount of time it takes to generate a work and the amount of time that the work ends up entertaining others for.
Obviously, it takes more time to generate a piece of writing than it does to read it. A novel can take a novelist many months or even years of working several hours a day, and then be read in a couple of days by a fan. Every word that the author agonizingly pulls out of his or her brain and then revises and re-revises until it feels just right is quickly read over and digested by the reader, who happily traipses over the whole work and then moves onto the next thing.
Generally speaking, an amateur author spends more time writing something than the sum of the time spent by everyone who will ever read it. There is a deficit of time investment for the author. This makes sense, because we normally think of amateur authors as doing it "for fun." It doesn't matter that they create a deficit of entertainment time, because for them the act of creation should not be a chore, but entertainment in itself.
For a professional, however, writing is a job, not fun. The professional writer, however, has thousands of fans who read his or her work, and even though each individual reader will not spend as much time on the story as the author did, all together they will spend much more time reading and enjoying the work than the author spent creating it. There is therefore a surplus of time created; the author's investment of time spent writing has created a positive return on joy and happiness in the universe.
Writers therefore reach critical mass at the moment that their audience spends as much time reading the work as the author spent writing it. Let us throw out some arbitrary numbers that you should not analyze at all.
Let us suppose that it takes a hypothetical author an hour to write 1,000 words. With revising, copy editing, and time spent staring at the computer screen, let's say that the time drops to 500 words per hour. Now let us say that this author's novel is 80,000 words long. Ignoring the revision and editing process, it takes this author 160 hours to write the novel. Again, don't think about these numbers. I'm just throwing them out here.
Let us suppose that a reader can read 80 pages in an hour. Depending on the novel's genre and the writing style, this can vary enormously, but whatever. 80,000 words is about 320 pages, so it's going to take the reader four hours to breeze through the novel.
So now you see the math of it: it took the author 160 hours to create something that a reader gets through in only 4. That means that it takes the author 40 times as long to create the novel as it takes the reader to consume it. The novel must, therefore, be read 40 times for the author to break even on the time he or she invested in writing it, and when the 41st person reads it, the author will have made a contribution to the joy of the world.
It's taken me about half an hour to write this blog. Let's say that it takes three minutes to read. Can I get ten people to read it? I highly doubt it. Do me a favor anyway and send it to your friends. I would really be chuffed to think that I had made a contribution.


bluefish said...

This is the first blog you have made that I disagree with, sir. I respect your opinion, but I think the value of a work cannot be measured merely by the amount of time it takes to read it. Take, for example, your story involving a House of Webs. I've read through it about twice now, considering edits and partially completed versions, but the time I have thought about it outside of reading it has been quite extensive. Many is the time I have thought what it would be like to suddenly take out my straight-razor and go to work, or what I would learn if I could hook a hook and chain into someone walking by. But even with that point aside, if it takes me an hour to bring ten minutes of interest and fascination to even just one person, then so be it. That's what it means to be an artist.

And I think professional writers do, or at least should, enjoy writing.

Your blogs, in general, strike a chord with my own sentiments, my good sir, but I'm afraid this one was discordant with my own philosophies. I have absolute respect, however, for your thoughts, and I continue to look forward to reading them!

Lord Admiral said...

Come now, sir, when have I ever let the knowledge that my writing would not reach "critical mass" stop me from doing so? I was merely trying to illustrate a difference between amateur writers and professional writers.

I do understand, though, how I may have given another impression in my post, and for this I apologize. There is nothing wrong with writing for its own sake, and for the sake of telling stories.