What Kind of Writer Do You Want to Be?

I was going to title this post “the lab or the factory”, because I wanted to write about something Seth Godin said today on his blog.  But, that’s pretty much the title of his blog post, so I went with the title you see instead.

So, here’s Godin’s post: The lab or the factory

It’s a quick read, but to summarize: you can either produce the same widget over and over again (the factory) or you can work at producing something new and innovative (the lab).  And, if you are truly amazing maybe you can produce new and innovative widgets at the same speed of a factory.  (He didn’t name that one, because that’s pretty rare.)

Godin wasn’t talking about writing, but you could easily apply this concept to writing.  So let’s do that.

My mom was telling me the other day how she’s read all thirty-six (I think that was the number) J.D. Robb books.  She’s also read all the Nora Roberts books.  (Those are the same author, in case you didn’t know.)

To me, J.D. Robb books are factory writing.  She created one world and one set of characters and then just churned those puppies out one after the other.  (And has obviously done quite well as a result.)

On the other hand you might have Stephen King.  I haven’t read a lot of his books, but the ones I have read have been different enough from one another that he’s clearly not just working from some template and cranking them out.  So, I think he’s the lab type of writer.

I chose those two names to show that you can have success with either approach.

(And I think even King has been frustrated on occasion about what people want him to write vs. what he wants to write, so it’s kind of hard to be that lab-type of writer for your entire career because if you do experiment you will have flops and failures and then everyone who loved the book before that is going to say, “Why don’t you just write another book like X?”  “Well, because I’d have to drag myself out of bed every morning and spend hours resenting my keyboard if I did?”)

Personally, I’m drawn to the lab type of writer. I hate cookie-cutter plots.

The same story told over and over again bores me.  And it bores me as a writer as well.  All I have to do is look at the last six short stories I’ve written or the two novels I’ve written to know that I tend to the lab side of the equation.

There’s something to be said for the factory type of writer, though.  They’re consistent and predictable.  You know what you’re going to get.  Which is why, when I’m at an airport and need a book I will buy one of those not-really-by-Tom-Clancy books.  Because I know it’ll serve its purpose.

It isn’t going to challenge my view of the world or surprise me with some plot twist I never saw coming (unlike Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn).  I’m not going to go home and hand it to my stepdad and say, “You have got to read this.”  But it’ll keep me entertained for a three-hour flight.  And sometimes that’s all you need.

And, if you’re going to self-pub, a lot of what I’ve seen indicates that the factory approach might be the better route to take.  Because it seems that number of titles and frequency of publication matter a lot in the self-publishing world.  If you can’t crank originality on a regular basis or your stories are very hit and miss, then go for the factory formula.  One world, one set of characters, one type of action/dilemma.  Rinse, repeat, publish every two months.

Of course, this is where you have to take a long, hard look at why you write.  Are you writing to make money?  Then be a factory.  Find a formula that works and follow it.  (If you can be a lab and make lots of money off of it, well then, do that.  But most of us are not China Mieville and the most predictable path to financial success will be the factory approach.)

If, however, making money at this is secondary to loving what you do and passionately exploring your own mind, then take the lab approach.  But be prepared to fail.

As Godin says:

“To work in the lab is to embrace the idea that what you’re working on might not work. Not to merely tolerate this feeling, but to seek it out.”

And be prepared for one hell of a rocky road.  Like award nominations one year, no sales the next.  And getting dropped by your publisher because you wanted to write something they would never want to publish.  And having fans that thought you were one thing and find out you’re not and send you hate mail.

I’m not saying any of that will happen.  And I’m not saying that you shouldn’t take the lab approach.  It’s just that the lab approach is the harder path.  At least in the short-term.  Find that knock-out idea that hits at exactly the right moment and you may reach the stratosphere.

I think in order to survive you may have to be a bit of a hybrid.

That’s what I found in my professional career.  I can always think of a different way to do something.  (“Yes, I know that’s what the client said they want, but what they need is this thing over here instead…”)  Sometimes I can convince the powers that be to try the new approach, sometimes I work on the current approach and in my free time do the alternate approach as well, and sometimes I just have to swallow what I’m thinking and do it the way it’s always been done.

But I know, for me, that if I spend too much time just cranking out widgets, a little part of me dies inside.  I could not be a pure factory worker.  (And, if you read some of what Seth Godin writes you’ll understand that even a law firm or technology company can be a factory.)

I have to spend part of my time in the lab or I get very unhappy.  My best work projects were the ones where my bosses said, “We need to do X, we’ve never done it before, make it happen.”  All I asked was, “Promise to stay out of my way?” and we were off.  (They never did by the way.  But the more I was successful at those types of projects, the more they learned to just let me do my thing.  Anyway.)

I’ve known others who were the exact opposite.  They wanted to be told exactly what to do or at least given a framework.  Tell them to create something from scratch and they’d get lost.  They were factory workers through and through.

There’s no right or wrong here.  One is not better than the other.

I think you can be either and be successful.  But you should know what type of person you are and look for advice geared towards someone like you.

(And, really, those last two paragraphs are true of anything you do in life.  Know who you are and listen to the people who understand that.)




About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
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2 Responses to What Kind of Writer Do You Want to Be?

  1. Dave Higgins says:

    Interesting that you specifically class King as a lab writer.

    Most of the people I know who have read his books recognise him from the parody: “The protagonist is an alcoholic, working in a crap job in Maine. Some people had something bad happen and will talk about it over and over again without revealing what it actually was to the reader for most of the book.”

    It is not true of all his books but common perception would put him in the factory category.

    • mhleewriter says:

      That’s interesting. I haven’t read a ton of books by him, but each of the one’s I have read was fairly distinct. The Stand, Misery, Gerald’s Game, and The Dark Tower are the ones I can think of immediately. And there are a number of his that I won’t read because I don’t like horror that also don’t seem to meet that generic description.

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