How long should it take to write the next novel? A couple of years? One year? A few months?
One of my favorite authors is Donna Tartt, and I’m reading her latest novel The Goldfinch. I’m determined to savor it, because she always takes ten years to write a novel. At that rate I won’t be enjoying another Donna Tartt novel until 2023.
A decade is a very long time. Long enough to age single malt scotch and serve a prison term for armed robbery. By 2023 I’ll probably have had my first face lift or first grandchild or both. My dog will be deceased (sniff) or incontinent and “The Simpsons” will have just entered its 35th season. And my question is this. What the hell is taking Donna so long?
In her defense, The Goldfinch is 748 pages. That’s a hefty book; in fact my wrists got tired holding it up. But let’s do the math. Seven-hundred and forty eight pages is approximately 187,000 words. To write a novel that length in ten years, you would need to eke out only 51 words per day.
Why So Slow?
Now I realize Donna Tartt is considered a very accomplished writer; her words are like precious diamonds and compared to how long it takes the Earth to make real diamonds, (a few billion years) Donna Tartt is a speed demon.
Still it’s hard to justify ten years particularly since Donna claims she isn’t on Twitter and rarely uses the Internet. Additionally she has never been married and works exclusively as a writer, thus family and work concerns aren’t getting in the way of her output.
In a recent profile piece, Donna tries to explain why it takes her so long to write her novels. She compares her journey to an astronaut or a polar expedition. She also says she writes in longhand and claims “she can happily move around a comma ‘for hours.’”
Fine… But ten years? Seriously. How much comma moving can one person do?
But then I discovered an older interview with her, and she quoted John Gardner saying, “Write as if you have all eternity.”
It’s Not the Page Count; It’s the Attitude
Suddenly it all made sense to me. She wasn’t talking about daily work count or the laborious chore of handwriting 750 pages; she was talking about a mindset, one that is a vital part of the writing process if we want to produce quality work.
Nowadays so many writers feel the need to rush, rush, rush. If they are published, the pressure comes from agents, editors and readers. If they are unpublished, they feel the need to catch up, to prove themselves, to justify all the time they spend at the keyboard.
But the longer a person writes, the more they understand that a well-told tale sometimes takes a while to reveal itself. We’ve all heard of instances where an entire novel comes to an author in a glorious rush over the span of a few days, but that’s the exception instead of the rule. Typically it takes a much longer period of time for a story’s nuances to be revealed, nuances that can’t be uprooted in one abrupt swipe of a steam shovel. Instead they must be unearthed teaspoon by teaspoon.
Letting it Come Out, One Word at a Time
Novels aren’t widgets; anyone who has ever written one knows there is a mystical element involved. Insights into character and structure usually come in small, unexpected flashes, typically when we are far away from our desk. The insights also tend to build on one another, and there is no hurrying the process. When we encounter the inevitable snags, we must resist the temptation to force a solution. A better strategy is to take a long aimless walk or fold laundry or watch a cardinal pull a worm from the ground, all the while having faith that the knots we’ve created will eventually loosen.
Brenda Ureland understood the process well. She says, “… the imagination needs moodling – long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling, and puttering. The people who are always briskly doing something may have little, sharp, staccato ideas, such as: “I see where I can make an annual cut of $3.47 in my meat budget.” But they have no slow, big ideas.”
The Joy of Moodling
Donna Tartt may have spent many hours rearranging commas and writing in longhand, but it’s my guess she also spent a good portion of those ten years moodling. In The Goldfinch one of the characters restores antique furniture. His methods are described in such painstaking detail that I suspect the author has restored a piece or two herself and has also spent hours in dusty and dimly lit antique shops, inspecting old secretaries and chifferobes, and well… moodling.
It’s important to allow ample time for moodling, even when writing something as short and simple as a blog post because sometimes it takes a while to figure out what we really want to say.
We’re all different in the way we approach our work. Unlike Donna, I don’t think I’ll ever take ten years to write a novel, but I do hope to be more respectful of the process and not become impatient, constantly prodding my work forward like a reluctant mule.
It’s so tempting to settle for a facile manuscript, one that goes down easily and amuses the reader for a few hours, but is swiftly forgotten. At the time, it may seem good enough. We say to ourselves, “Haven’t I put in enough time already?” or “I just want to be done.”
When we start thinking along those lines, it pays to remember we might be only one revision, one month or even one year away from something much more meaningful. And the extra time we put in is almost always worth it.
Just ask Donna Tartt.
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