How Many Books You Should Write In a Year
Posted on September 17, 2015 Posted by John Scalzi 54 Comments
Folks have pointed me toward this Huffington Post piece, begging self-published authors not to write four books a year, because the author (Lorraine Devon Wilke) maintains that no mere human can write four books a year and have them be any good. This has apparently earned her the wrath of a number of people, including writer Larry Correia, who snarks apart the piece here and whose position is that a) the premise of the article is crap, and b) authors should get paid, and if four books a year gets you paid, then rock on with your bad self. I suspect people may be wanting to have me comment on the piece so I can take punches at either or both Wilke or Correia, and are waiting, popcorn at ready.
If so, you may be disappointed. With regard to Correia’s piece, Larry and I disagree on a number of issues unrelated to writing craft, but we align fairly well here, and to the extent that I’m accurately condensing his points here, we don’t really disagree. One, there are a lot of writers who write fast and well, for whom four books a year of readable, enjoyable prose is not a stretch. And, you know. If you can do that, and you want to do that, and you see an economic benefit to it, then why not do it?
Two, there really isn’t a huge correlation between time writing and quality of the finished work. Yes, as Wilke notes, The Goldfinch took Donna Tartt eleven years to write, and she got a Pulitzer for it, but so what? A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess, was famously written in three weeks and is generally considered to be one of the great novels of the 20th Century. We can have an argument to which novel of the two is better, but that’s not the point, and anyway no matter what the two are within hailing distance of each other. The point is, again, there’s not a huge correlation between time writing and quality of finished work, particularly when one is cherry-picking one’s examples.
How much time does it take to write a novel? As long as it takes. I wrote Redshirts in five weeks; it took me most of a year to write The End of All Things. Which is better? It’s a subjective call. On average it takes me three to four months of daily work to write a novel. Would my novels be better if I took two years each on them? Maybe, but I kind of doubt it. I write the speed I write because that’s the speed I write. If I inherently wrote faster, then they would take less time. If I inherently wrote slower, then they would take more. I suspect the inherent quality of the work would remain about equal, because I am the writer I am.
Also, you know. What a “novel” or “book” is, is a very fungible thing. The term “novel” encompasses a book like The Goldfinch, which is almost 300,000 words, and Redshirts, which was 55,000 words, not counting the codas. The more-or-less official lower length of a novel is 40,000 words; at the other extreme, Alan Moore’s novel Jerusalem, slated for publication next year, is a million words long. I don’t recommend trying to write four Jerusalems in a year. But on the other hand, four 40,000 word stories? That’s entirely doable for a very large number of writers.
Moreover, with specific reference to self-pubbed folks, they have a considerable amount of flexibility toward the length of their books. All of my novels are contracted to be around 100,000 words, because that makes for a nice-sized book on the bookstore shelf (this is one reason, among others, why I added the codas to Redshirts). I have some flexibility there, but add up the total word count for all my published novels to date, and you get very close to 100k as an average word count number. Self-pubbed books can be considerably shorter, and many are. So again, four books of competent, readable prose is not a stretch in that case.
The economic argument for writing that much in a year is pretty simple: If you do, you give yourself more sales opportunities; there are more targets with which to draw in new readers and to keep continuing readers happy. Wilke might argue that these all aren’t Pulitzer-quality works, but even if they aren’t: So what? Not everything readable has to be in serious contention for the Pulitzer. It’s okay to eat a cheeseburger; it’s okay to read the literary equivalent of a cheeseburger. Believe it or not, some people will read both The Goldfinch and a literary cheeseburger! Because people are like that.
With all that said, I suspect that at least part of what Wilke was aiming at was that one shouldn’t feel compelled to write four books a year, just because a self-pubbed author (or any other type of author, for that matter) read something somewhere that said four books a year was what every self-pubbed author should or must do to make money. And you know what? If that’s actually part of Wilke’s argument, then she’s correct.
She’s correct for a couple of reasons. One, and most simply: Not everyone can write four books worth reading in a year, regardless of length. Because here’s a thing: There’s more to a book than word count. There’s also what you do with the words, not to mention general plotting and organization and, moving away from the purely “creative” aspect, production and distribution, the latter aspects of which self-pubbed authors have to attend to directly (other authors get the benefit of a publisher to deal with a lot of that). Some people have a lot of bandwidth for this sort of stuff; other people don’t.
If you’re one of the people who don’t, then aiming for four books in a year, every year, isn’t going to be beneficial for you. You’ll end up drained and fatigued, and writing/producing inferior work, and it will be obvious. You’ll be punished for it, in the sense that people will stop paying you for your work. If you’re writing four books worth of crap, well. People will eat cheeseburgers, but very few people will eat crap. Don’t serve up crap.
What is actually important for writers to do, all of them, regardless of publishing method, is to find their pace for how they write, and what they write. One writer can happily crank out four books a year, in which case, good for them. Another writer will take years to write a book they’re happy with. In which case, good for them, too. These two writers should not try to write at each others’ pace; they’ll both be unhappy.
Nor is it 100% certain that the “four books a year” writer will make more money than the “one book every few years” writer. Andy Weir, as far as I know, has only one book, but that one book is The Martian, so it’s a reasonable guess he’s making more than almost every “four books a year” author. The four books a year author has more shots on goal, but if your one shot hits the bullseye, then it doesn’t matter. Yes, I did just mix metaphors there. Deal with it. Point is: money is possible at every speed.
Which bring me to my next point: be aware that there’s more than one recipe to making money as a writer. I write a novel in three to four months on average, and I have a backlog of story ideas, so it’s a pretty safe bet that I could write three or even four novels a year. I don’t. Why? Well, because I do other things with my time that make money, and also, make me happy. One novel a year, more or less, plus my other activities, has done very well for me. Other writers publish more and are happy; others publish less and are also perfectly happy. There’s not a right path for everyone. There is, however, likely a best path for you.
(Nor is it a given that every writer should have as their hard goal for writing “making money.” It’s a fine goal — I’m all for it! — and if indeed you want to write as your primary means of income then clearly you have to factor that into your workflow. But not every writer wants to, or should. You can be a writer, and be a professional writer, and do other things too. It’s allowed. And indeed, in many circumstances it can offer you more flexibility for your writing than being a full-time writer allows. Just to put that out there.)
So how many books should you write in a year? As many as you like, and as many as you can do, within your ability, for the sort of writing you want to do. What you need to do is to discover what your own capabilities are, and then work within them. Write the books you would want to read, and buy. If you can do four of those a year, great. If you do one of those every eleven years, that’s good too. Most writers, I suspect, will fall in between those two data points. That’ll work.
I think Steven King disproves the thesis.
The timing of this interests me because I just announced that my plan for the foreseeable future is to write the equivalent of the length of six novels every year. (Now, I’m not saying that’s publishable length, but rather, 50K words of text every month.)
I once read an article about a Japanese writer that had this great idea for a TV show where these kids all had flying bicycles . . . two months later, E.T. comes out and they scrapped the show.
Error: The Correia link goes to the HuffPo article itself.
The Larry Correia link goes to the original article as well?
Loved this. A beacon of common sense.
Reminds me of this:
[Anthony Trollope at a dinner at George Eliot’s house]
‘I sit down every morning at 5:30 with my watch on my desk, and for three
hours I regularly produce 250 words every quarter of an hour.’…
‘There are days and days together,’ she groaned out, ‘When I cannot write a line.’
‘Yes!’ said Trollope, ‘with imaginative work like yours that is quite natural; but with my mechanical stuff it’s a sheer matter of industry. It’s not the head that does it– it’s the cobbler’s wax on the seat and the sticking to my chair.’
— Frederic Harrison, Studies in Early Victorian Literature, 1895
I just blogged about something similar. I have spent a lot of years trying to increase my productivity, but I suspect I’ve found my upper limit for worthwhile productivity. If I try to write too much, I end up describing too much. If I write too little, the pacing falters.
It’s good to challenge ourselves creatively, but nothing matters more than the book we create.
Or, you could be Isaac Asimov and write 6 books a year (or so–official bibliography is 515, but on many of them he was an editor, so I figured 300, over 50 working years.)
If you read the clarification update first (or go back and re-read in light of the clarification), I think this is exactly Wilke’s point. However, that minor, pretty common sense point is mixed in with bucket-loads of condescending language and stretched to about 10 times as long as necessary to make that simple point. This makes it easy to get caught up in the language and the dubious examples and other filler (especially if you go fisking away, but, personally, I can’t stand the fisking format, so I haven’t read Correia’s response).
If you look at the basic point trying to be made, it’s that someone claimed if you are an indie writer, you *should* write 4 books a year. Wilke tried saying “No, you need to take as long as works for you to make a good book.” Unfortunately, between the condescension and spending 1700 words to say a 16 word idea, the article is a big fail. (Even the clarification update at the end could have 2/3 of it edited away and make the point even better – maybe that and being condescending about writing go hand in hand… *shrug*).
So, to me it seems, there is very little disagreement about her actual point. Wilke’s execution explanation that point was spectacularly bad, however.
P.S. Minor nit to pick – your link to Correia’s piece actually points to the original article again.
Sadly, it appears that they had an issue with the comments, and a number, including Larry’s have disappeared.
The link has been fixed; if you’re not seeing it, it’s possible your browser is caching an earlier version of the site.
Wilke’s article: Yeah, I don’t think it was written particularly well.
Fisking: Fisking had its moment about ten or twelve years ago (and actually even before that on USENET), but I also don’t find it a particularly effective way to make or to counter an argument. However, Larry seems to enjoy doing it and his readers seem to enjoy him doing it, so different strokes, etc.
I find that about 200,000 words of fiction a year is what I can manage. That’s about 7 months worth of writing time interspersed with a whole lot of thinking and living time.
If memory serves, Lester Dent wrote a 55,000 word Doc Savage story every month for 17 years.
And by probably about year 3 any high school kid well immersed in the series could probably have replaced Dent.
In my opinion, Redshirts would not have been a complete novel without the codas. The codas were what elevated the book from an interesting adventure based on an SFFnal trope to a thoughtful exploration of the way that every person, no matter how unremarkable their life, is hugely important to the people around them — an illustration of the fact that each individual, no matter how insignificant their life might seem, still matters.
The codas made what would have been a good book a great book.
I find it takes me three to four months to translate a 100,000 word book. You’d think translation would be faster, but it’s not — because you do have to think about every single word in relation to the rest of the work. I think other translators can manage about 200 pages a month — after 15 years of it, I find 125 pages a month is the only speed I can do and still keep quality. So I imagine writers face the same issue. Who cares how fast a person writes it as long as it’s a good read when it’s done? (And I include cat cozies in good reads — the lit equivalent of popcorn).
How many books should you write in a year? One more than you need to make your income goal for the year.
@OBrienNYC – that’s not literary cheeseburgers, that’s literary sliders.
Well, they took about another week, so.
Strong agreement: write as many as you can without the quality going down and without shredding yourself. Over the years of writing nonfiction books, I’ve discovered a couple truths for myself, including “Don’t write two books simultaneously” (because the creative reverie that’s necessary to really get the book out gets disrupted when you have to work on the other book) and “Don’t write more than four books a year” (because I end up feeling like I’m never able to get away from the effin’ keyboard; two-and-a-half or three books a year is my preferred maximum). But I know authors who are very comfortable breaking both of these rules for themselves and I say “Good on ’em!” and wish them godspeed.
My thoughts as a reader.
a) I am unlikely to read 4 books by an author in a year, and yes I do read more than 4 books a year total. At the point where someone is publishing books faster than I can read them, well there might be a problem. I am a little OCD about reading authors in order, so if the author gets too prolific it is likely to scare me off. If the 4 books are really 4 quarter or half books and priced appropriately, well than we are just talking about semantics.
b) There is a difference between 4 books in a year and 20 books in 5 years. An author could very well have a backlog of ideas and be able to write 4 books in a productive year, but I’m skeptical they’d be able to keep that up year after year with fresh ideas. It is possible. I’m just skeptical.
c) Like any job, it is possible to devote 60+ hours a week to it, but it probably isn’t a good idea on a long term basis.
d) Like every rule, there are always exceptions.
All I’m going to say is that while I prefer quality over quantity, if OGH and his vile nemesis, Brandon Sanderson, could write more books I would be a very happy (albeit slightly poorer) man.
I thought this was key to her piece, referring to a quote earlier in the post:
In this, I agree with her and I don’t see that sentiment as necessarily opposed to Scalzi’s since to my mind it boils down to “write good books. Don’t write crap just to get 4 books per year out.” To the degree to which self dubbed authors try to hit a books/year goal they’re turning fiction into commodities – put out more widgets per year and if your average sales are X, you’ll be able to live. That’s fine…but do we want books as interchangeable, commodified widgets? The world doesn’t really need more formulaic plots littered with tropes and peopled with paper thin characters. If someone has it in them to produce 4 of those or one really good book then, as a reader, I want the single good book.
Now, if they can producer four good books? Go for it. The more good books in the world, the better. But not the more books, period.
I just wish that certain authors, such as OGH, would learn to write as fast, if not faster, than we readers can read. ;-)
Heinlein wrote The Door Into Summer in 13 days. Since there were no home computers back then, that’s a good deal more physical effort than writing an equivalent novel today.
I generally average two a year myself–but that’s because I’m generally on a schedule that’s basically “one 85K novel per six months, break at the end of a trilogy,” plus I have a day job and more of a social life than maybe I should.
I second “whatever works for you,” with the caveat that, as some form of editing has also been my day job for pretty much my adult life and as I’ve been writing to very specific deadlines since Novel 1 got published, I roll my eyes at the “I cannot meet deadlines because perfectionism and the Muse and oh the burden of my artistry” people.
Granted, if you’re self-pubbed or otherwise not on contract, go ahead and be as precious as you want about your aahhhhht: it’s your own time. But once you agree to a deadline, put your ass in the chair and get it done.
I think I’m going to write as many books a year as I want to and can, based on my situation and capabilities.
If everyone would apply this to themselves we wouldn’t need to discuss this at all, since no one else is in my situation. And I’m not in their situation. All other discussions have no validity.
The Huff Post piece is another example of someone telling others what to do. Worthless.
In other words, one size doesn’t fit all.
@ Travis: “At the point where someone is publishing books faster than I can read them, well there might be a problem. I am a little OCD about reading authors in order, so if the author gets too prolific it is likely to scare me off.”
OTOH, some of us look forward to stockpiling a bunch of books (I’m a dead-tree purist) to tide us over through the inevitable dry spots in an author’s career. Horses for courses and all that.
I came across an interesting variant on this argument maybe 15 years ago which studied art students and their productivity. Basically, students were divided into 2 groups: those who were strongly encouraged to do their best work on each piece, no matter how long it took, and those who were encouraged to do a minimum number of pieces per day (or other time period, maybe it was per week). As I remember it, the result was surprising, at least to me. The students who produced on a daily minimum produced more strong works than those who tried their best to produce nothing but good works. The conclusion was that no matter what the artist thinks, some percentage of their stuff will be good, and some won’t be (and often, the artist won’t be able to predict which group each piece falls into). So the best way to produce the greatest number of good works is just to produce, every day, and then edit, edit, edit so that the good stuff is saved and one doesn’t get caught in the trap of only trying to produce good stuff.
Or, to put it another way, to quote Lou Reed from his collaboration with John Cale about Andy Warhol, from the song “Work”
“No matter what I did it never seemed enough.
He said I was lazy, I said I was young.
He said, “How many songs did you write?”
I’d written zero, I’d lied and said, “Ten.”
“You won’t be young forever,
You should have written fifteen.”
It’s work, the most important thing is work.”
For what that’s worth.
As I’ve said elsewhere, one of the persistent bugs in the sub-genre of “Writers writing about How To Write” is that the main way any writer can tell you how to write is Exactly Like Them. Lorraine Devon Wilke can only tell us how to write like Lorraine Devon Wilke; Larry Correia can only tell us how to write like Larry Correia; our gracious host can only tell us how to write like John Scalzi; Stephen King can only tell us how to write like Stephen King. This is because writing is a deeply personal craft – everyone does the work inside their personal head, and as yet we don’t have a way of translating thought patterns from one person to another. (Indeed, writing is about the nearest we get to this technology!)
So one person’s meat is another person’s literary poison. Some writers can churn out work at a fair old clip. Others have to labour over each word and polish each phrase until it shines. About the only certain advice out there is this: you’ll figure out what works for yourself – by which I mean, only you can figure out what works for you.
Maybe she can’t write four books a year because she blathers on for about 10x more words than need be, and thus when they get to an editor, they’re cut down from a novel to a short story? Prolix.
As a corollary to your point, there’s also the fact that writers and other creatives often don’t know what work of theirs is going to really resonate with people and what isn’t — what we think of as our “best” work isn’t always the same at the consensus of our readership. The example I like to give for this is Mark Twain, who maintained that his book on Joan of Arc was the best thing he’d written, while everyone else seems to think it’s a minor work of his at best.
What creative people can do is to try to do work as well as we can, given the time and the tools we have (which includes our brains). But it’s hard to aim for “only the best” or even “good,” because often we can’t tell where that target is, and we’re shooting blindly.
This was an interesting post which I enjoyed reading–as well as the comments. I’ve been working on my first novel for just over a year and at 60k words I think I’m about 60% along. I’m pleased with what I’ve written so far and the direction the story has taken (which isn’t where I thought it would go when I started). If it takes another year (or two), so be it. I’m having fun, and I think I will be a little sad when it’s done. I wonder if there are professional writers who feel that way when they finish a manuscript?
BTW, I agree with JJ, the codas made Red Shirts one of my favorite books. They were exquisitely satisfying. I can’t imagine the book without them. Way to go, John!
I’m here now with The End of All Things sitting in front of me unread. It’s much like anticipating that last piece of chocolate. I’m going to savor it just a little longer … maybe 10-15 minutes.
I sympathize with her wordiness (why wouldn’t I,) and her exasperation. There’s a lot of hucksterism style marketing still coming out of the indie market that the indie market would do well to dump at this point. So “write four books a year” becomes the equivalent of “make $4,000 a week from your home” and can freak out a lot of new authors.
But her mistake was in copying the same problem she had with what she was reading — it is ridiculous to tell indie writers that they all must write four books a year (for one thing, some of them are writing ten a year as short novels and novellas.) It is also ridiculous to say that all writers should not write four books a year (romance writers do it all the time, for one.) It’s ridiculous to say that all writers’ goals, styles, methods and interests are the same.
But I do hope that there aren’t any doxxers hanging out in Correria’s group currently. This is not a popcorn moment, I’m afraid.
I wonder if the debate shouldn’t be a matter of x amount in a year but how many in a certain amount of hours.
Is there any rule as to how many hours = good book?
In that case, someone could spend 100 hours on a book, but do it all in the course of one caffeine crazed week, or do a couple hours a day for several weeks.
Judge the work on its own merits. Some people have the talent and ability to crank out several quality books a year. Others can’t.
This. Whatever the motivation for the codas, they added depth and impact out of proportion to their wordcount.
One of my expectation of good writing is that it comes back to me for a while. I’ll be woolgathering and will think of something from it. This isn’t volitional; the writing compels it. Redshirts has this quality and these moments come largely from the codas. The bulk of the novel is self-consciously meta but the codas feel more sincere. YMMV, etc.
I realize that this toasts the cheeseburger analogy. Once a cheeseburger goes down, I don’t want it coming back in any way, shape, or form.
I’ve learned to take all blogged writing advice with a grain of salt. Most seem to be personal opinions with nothing more than anecdotes to back it up. Obviously what works for some authors doesn’t work for all. In the past you’ve posted about authors who seem to feel they are the authority on good writing (or even what constitutes “professional” writing). Without any data to back up their arguments, it sounds as if these authors got into an argument with friends, then used their web presence to continue their feud in a one-sided dialog.
Do you have reblogging disabled, or am I just unable to find the correct button? Because this was great.
What I do not see here is adequate differentiation and separation between writing and publishing. Authors can write as many novels or words in a year as they want, BUT there needs to be time spent on editing and polishing before releasing them to the public, which, after recent experience, I now have the impression that self-published and “self-edited” authors are not doing enough of.
Surely editing time should be a huge factor? And are editors / proofreaders being skipped because of cost, or because of other reasons (such as “I am the author, I am perfect, there are no corrections necessary”) ?
Timing in life is strange as it is this type of problem which is what sent me looking for new authors to read and brought me quite rapidly to this site and this blog post. This after reading a self-published “Space Opera” writer who is releasing books with glaring errors and is aiming to increase his output and release 3 or 4 books this year while even making previews of the next novel available in the release-day current novel (thus time was spent on writing the next, but none on editing the current).
This smarts on 2 levels as it means a perhaps slightly longer novel is being split into 2 shorter novels, both at the standard price, and it means that inadequate editing / proof-reading is taking place in order to get the novels out “on time” (or perhaps I should write “to get the money in on time?)
Yes, writers need to get paid, but as mentioned many times there are hundreds of other authors and millions of other books that readers can and will change to, so is it worth bashing out many books per year of poor quality just to “GET PAID” now, but possibly dwindling in future?
As a reader, finding errors (whether it is spelling or continuity) makes for a very frustrating and disruptive reading experience (YMMV, of course) and while the storyline was good, the reading experience over the last few novels and this “grab for cash” has now brought an end to supporting that writer.
Reading Old Man’s War #1 is giving me the immersive cant-put-it-down experience I was missing and was starting to think did not exist anymore with the same poor spelling seen everywhere making it into all newer novels.
Scalzi: JJ: Well, they took about another week, so.
That’s a nice, noncommittal response! ;-)
Well, whether or not what I got from the codas was what you meant to do with the codas, at least you didn’t say “Actually, what I meant with the codas was that the curtains were fucking blue.”
Ugh, that would be… astoundingly fast (I seem to have, so far, finished 95-or-so novels this year). I doubt there is an author that can crank novels out at a pace of 2-3 per week, but it would possibly be amazing to watch it happen, from a safe distance.
“I can write better than anyone who can write faster, and faster than anyone who can write better.”
A J Liebling
I don’t think that is a problem that is specifically reserved for self-published authors. The most recent book that I read from Harper’s Voyager Impulse imprint had at least a dozen obvious errors in grammar and spelling. There have been a couple such issues in both books that I am reading now; one from Tor and one self-published.
I’ve subscribed to a few of the various SFF magazines over the last few years. Each of them contained obvious errors; including Asimov’s. I’m hoping that IGMS will be different in that regard.
On the topic of writing just for the sake of getting paid, Kameron Hurley speaks wisdom:
How many years can one be a creative successful author, musician, Mathematician?
“Henri Cartan, a mathematician known for meticulous proofs and for
inspiring a revival of mathematics in France after World War II, died in Paris on 13 Aug 2008. He was 104.” said the Science Tecaher.
He was still giving great research lectures at 103.
What’s interesting to me is the effect of even a very small number of
immortals (or near immortals) sending memes into the generational
system. There are so many Nobel laureates mentored by other Nobel
laureates. World-class musicians tutored by other world-class
musicians. I’ve learned to ask many questions of my best teachers, as
to whom were their best teachers, and (by induction) how far back they
can trace the lineage.
One Ibn al-Haytham or Segovia or Merce Cunningham or Leonid Euler or
Isaac Newton or Alan Turing in a century is more than enough to create
an explosion of works of genius by mere mortals who follow the paths
blazed by the Immortals.
“Where’d you get that?” said the student to the science teacher.
“Conquering Uncertainty: Understanding Corporate Cycles and Positioning Your Company to Survive the Changing Environment.
By Theodore Modis. McGraw-Hill. 1998. 199 pages. Available from the
Profiting from the Cycles In Nature and Business
Everything from a chrysanthemum to a corporation has a life cycle, and
so useful predictions can be made.
“Business, like the weather, goes through seasons, and so do the
correct management policies.”
This insight, from physicist turned management guru Theodore Modis,
was first outlined in his 1992 book, Predictions. In his new book,
Conquering Uncertainty, Modis offers tips on how to recognize the
signs of each season and how to estimate the varying lengths of
complete four-season cycles for an individual, a product or service, a
corporation, an industry, or the entire global economy.
While many researchers have detected recurring patterns in human
affairs and institutions, Modis is noteworthy for his insistence that
such cyclical changes closely match the natural progression of seasons
in a temperate climate: four roughly equal periods of winter, spring,
summer, and fall. To make the most of present opportunities and plan
successfully for the future, Modis advises, managers must first
determine which season they are currently in, then take actions
opposite to those that proved most successful two seasons ago.
“Failures result from good decisions that are ill-timed,” Modis warns.
Just as farmers plant crops in one season and harvest in another, so
businesses must recognize the need to invest heavily at one stage of
their cycle and seek to maximize profits at another.
Drawing examples from history as well as from his own business
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The seasonal characteristics of the business cycle Modis points to are
all straightforward, and his suggested general strategies for each
seem appealingly apt. Among his findings:
* Spring – a time of learning and concentrated effort, where market
competition should take a back seat to product innovation.
* Summer – a time when success has been achieved and easy profits
often make even strong leaders overly complacent.
* Fall – a time for questioning assumptions, cutting waste, and
focusing on process innovation, while launching new ventures.
* Winter – a chaotic time, ideal for experiments, most of which will
fail, but where successes can lead to dramatic renewal based on
An interesting feature of Modis’s forecasting method is his
recognition that seasonal change is reflected in human emotions.
Gauging how we feel about future prospects in a given situation, he
argues, can provide a powerful clue to what season we find ourselves
in: optimistic in spring, satisfied in summer, alarmed in the fall,
and despondent, yet hopeful, in winter.
Modis is confident that the “wisdom encoded in nature’s seasonal
behavior patterns . . . can be studied and transferred,” but warns
that “the time scale may vary” from a few months to many years,
depending on what growth process is involved. Despite its alluring
title, Conquering Uncertainty offers no effortless method for making
this calculation, which is crucial to decision making.
The art and science of Modis’s system lies in determining how long a
season in any particular context will last. Part of this task involves
common sense and life experience – a reader finds it easy to agree
when Modis argues that a growth cycle “will not stop halfway through.”
Without denying free will or dismissing the impact of human
interference on “natural” processes, Modis’s seasonal metaphor does
permit a degree of predictability in even the most seemingly chaotic
The key is to change focus – focusing on specific details and then
pulling back to take in the “big picture” in order to see the pattern
of systems within systems. No matter how large or small the scale is,
Modis believes, all changes follow a similar cycle, which can be
graphed as an S-curve. The steepness of that curve will vary
consistently, but at any point will be based on its own time scale. In
general, the bigger the system, the longer its time scale. But outside
limits for the length of seasonal variations in a subsystem can be
derived mathematically from determining where that subsystem fits on
the S-curve of the larger system it forms a part of.
Thus the life cycle of a given industry might have seasons of five to
10 years, while the world economy as a whole cycles through seasonal
variations of 50 to 60 years in length, as suggested by
early-twentieth-century Russian economist Nikolai Kondratieff’s
long-wave-cycle theory. But seasons in the life cycle of a particular
product or service from first development through production and
marketing to obsolenscence might last no more than a few months each.
Perhaps the most intriguing feature of Conquering Uncertainty, at
least for the general reader, may be the author’s many
thought-provoking suggestions, such as whether Mozart died of “old
age” at 35: Mozart’s creative output followed a natural S-shaped
curve; the composer died shortly after he had completed more than 90%
of his potential creative output of 644 compositions. Of course, as
Modis points out, “Mozart did not have to die at 35 just because he
had exhausted the capability to innovate in music.” But speculations
of how many more masterpiece of music Mozart could have given the
world had he lived to a ripe old age may be wishful thinking.
For readers seeking more-detailed information on Modis’s concepts of
the S-shaped curve as a forecasting tool, Conquering Uncertainty contains two appendices devoted to the relevant mathematical formulations. See also Modis’s article, “Life Cycles: Forecasting the
Rise and Fall of Almost Anything,” in the September-October 1994 issue of THE FUTURIST.
About the Reviewer
Lane Jennings is research director of THE FUTURIST, production editor
of Future Survey, and author of Virtual Futures, a unique collection
of visionary poems.
“OGH”?? I keep seeing it, don’t know who the hell it is.
@ Erick RoM
I read it as Our Good Host–in other words, Scalzi.
Having read Correia’s fiskings in the past, I expect his current effort made a nice companion piece for it then.
Chuck Wendig has a strong interest in disproving the 4 books/year = bad books…
Don’t you love it when they try to reduce humans to widgets and fiction writers to dancing widgets? Writers have different brains and different lives. Different things will happen to different writers. This is not a bug, it’s a feature.
Remember the “Hi Bob” drinking game from the Bob Newhart Show for which you drank a shot every time a character said “Hi Bob?” I think there’s a literary equivalent of late: drink a shot every time James Patterson’s name appears on a book! (I’m not dissing JP – I think it’s great that he helps young writers.)
I took a couple of classes at UCSC in the late 80’s on the “Psychology of Creativity”. This was more geared at projects with several people. It broke down to (a) hire great people, (b) give them a challenge, and (c) give them a deadline. This matches with my engineering experience.
However, even in an engineering context, people have their own pace. I have the pace of spending a lot of time on planning, prototyping, and documenting,followed by actually writing the code. I can spend two months on the planning phases, and two weeks on the coding phase, doing 500..1000 lines of code per day, and only a few days debugging (because I don’t write the bugs in the first place. NASA and IBM estimate a good engineer does a few lines of code per day. Some of them write a bunch of code then spend weeks debugging (which is *not* the way I like).
So – I can see where writers have different paces.
I am waiting until the End Of All Things is at my library (short wait list) because I think it is going to be great. Redshirts – honestly – meh. the first half was kind of fun, the rest sucked for me. (OGH: sorry, personal taste. *Love* the rest of your stuff, esp the OMW books.)
But – I will still read what you write.
The only author I wish was faster is David Garald and his Chotor (sp) series. YMMV