January 16, 2010

Subject: Quantity vs. Quality

Over at StorySleuths this month, we’re reading a fun collection of short stories, Geektastic, as well as hosting a short story writing challenge. Somewhat coincidentally, writing short stories dovetails nicely with one of my own personal writing goals for 2010, writing short.
Let me explain the motivation for this goal. Novels are my form of choice, both for reading and writing. Opening the pages of a novel, I dive into a new world. And when I close the covers for good, I often miss my favorite characters for days.
While reading a novel requires a time commitment of a few hours or days or even a week, writing a novel requires far, far more. In the past five years, I’ve worked on drafts of three novels. Where reading a novel is like flying from New York to San Francisco, complete with in-flight snacks and entertainment, writing a novel is like walking the same distance, without a map.
Sometimes, it’s easy to get lost.
And really, to make the metaphor more apt, to write a novel, you need to make the trip multiple times, with each revision layering in more emotion, more characterization, more detail. The good news is that by the third or fourth time around, hopefully, you’re traveling a more direct route from start to finish.
In other words, it takes a long time to write a novel.
And I’ve been one of those “I can only do one thing at a time” kinds of people. I made the decision to focus my writing time on my novels only, rather than jump from chapter book to picture book to non-fiction and back. I don’t regret that decision, but sometimes, I hit roadblocks and I don’t make any progress on my drafts or revisions.
I don't just get lost. I stall.
This is where the quantity vs. quality argument comes to play. How many of you have heard the anecdote from the book Art & Fear, where the pottery instructor tells half of the class to focus on quantity alone—he’ll grade them on the number of pots produced, with no concern about quality—while the other half must focus on quality alone—they must only produce one perfect pot. To his surprise, when he compares the work produced by both halves, the quantity group ends up with better quality work as well.
More work produces better work in the long run.
So this year, while continuing working on my novel revision, I also plan to write two short stories a month. I’m hoping short stories will let me work on shaping plot, experimenting with character, and revising. And since I also want to have more fun with my writing, short stories give me an opportunity to write about a variety of subjects—when my novel gets serious, for example, my stories can be light.
What kinds of writers are you? Do you work on one project at a time? Or do you have several projects going at once? What’s your take on the quantity vs. quality story? Have you ever conducted such an experiment?
By the way, if you like the idea of playing with quantity, please sign up for the StorySleuths StoryChallenge. We’re encouraging writers to take a stab at writing a Geektastic-inspired short story. It doesn’t have to be perfect—we won’t be judging stories. Just suggesting a general story topic (something geekish), and asking writers to check back in with us on January 31st. We’re even offering a prize!


  1. I focus on my novels, MG and YA. I have some short stories that I work on every once in a while. I don't think I can finish two short stories in a month, even though they are shorter. I guess I am the kind of writers who take a long time to write anything.

  2. I write mostly novels. I usually work on one until I need some distance from it and then work on something else.

    Good luck w/the short story writing, that sounds like fun. When I was teaching I used lots of short stories with my students.

  3. I like to draft something while revising something, all novels. I need the different types of creativity to spurn me on. Good luck finding your rhythm!

  4. I write poetry, picture books, and chapter books. So it's easier to stop and work on something else for a bit and then go back. I also sub to magazines and the occasional contest. I think it keeps my other stories fresher by putting them aside to work on something else then go back to it.
    Have fun with the short stories!

  5. Thanks for the feedback all! Hope everyone has a good writing week ahead.

  6. I tend to focus on a single "live" project. So I don't work on multiple pieces at a time. But I don't push myself to finish one project completely before starting another. If I get stalled, I put that piece down and pick up a different one. So there are always a few in different stages, but only one is active at a time.

    While I have a picture book and chapter book I'm working on, I'm also focusing on shorter work right now. I think it's a great strategy because you have such limited space but you still need the story to be engaging and complete.

    I need to work on quantity myself. I have such a barrier to just writing freely and then going back. Hopefully I can become less restricting with my writing!

  7. Hi Kara--
    I like the idea of keeping one project live--I find it hard to switch gears. But I'm trying... trying to keep things moving along!

  8. Heather,
    Thanks for identifying the source of the pottery anecdote. I heard it long ago but couldn't remember the source.
    Right now, I'm going back and forth between a novel and a nonfiction picture book. though I tend to spend more time on the picture book because it's closer to complete.

  9. Hi Carmela--
    I had the same problem with the pottery story--it had almost become an urban legend in my mind until someone at Hamline reminded me of the source.

    I just wish it were easier to see progress in action. If you're making pots, you've got a whole bunch of misshapen lumps as well as vase-like objects that you can line up and touch and see. Whereas with writing, unless you print out every draft and keep all the pages, you don't see as much change and development. I'm the kind of person who likes to see results!