Haven’t You Been Working on That a While?
I just completed a real live draft of my current W-I-P, a draft that is much farther along than a first draft but not a final draft yet, a draft that I hope is one round of hard revision away from being submission-ready. A few months ago, I was telling a very close friend about my plans to get this draft in place by now, and she said, “Haven’t you been working on that book for a while?”
I had no idea what to say to that. What is “a while” in the context of writing a novel? I began this story in May of 2011. Is a little over a year “a while”? Earlier this summer, I attended a book reading in which the author explained that it took her five years to write her first novel. On the other hand, I hear some prolific and established novelists can write a book in a month (first to final draft).
During the period from May 2011 until now, while I was working on this book, I was a full time attorney, and then wrapped up my position at the firm and turned my attention to applying to MFA programs. I did some traveling. I dealt with an ill pet, cleaned out my house, wrote some short stories, started this blog, and became a part-time teacher.
So, tell me, is a little over a year “a while”? In the way that she meant, which I’m pretty sure is “shouldn’t you have finished that thing? how long can it possibly take, anyhow?”
It got me to thinking that people who don’t write novel-length fiction really have no idea what it’s like to write novel-length fiction. The next time someone who loves you but just doesn’t get it asks you how come you’re not done with that novel yet, you can tell them this:
Novels do not spring forth from the author in full, finished form. (I know, what?)
It’s like putting up a building. You see some buildings you like and some you don’t like. You think, “I want a building that has this and this, but not that or that.” You think, “what if I put this in a building?” You get very excited about your vision of this building.
You draw up the plans. You calculate for structural integrity. You argue (with yourself, with your cynical best friend, with that guy at the party who clearly has seen too many buildings by Michael Bay) about elemental design. You stress about whether someone else has already put up a building like this. You decide it’s okay, because this will be your building.
You pour the foundation. You put up the skeleton. Sometimes things change in the process and you move things around; you decide that this part of the first floor really belongs in the basement, and this part of the second floor needs to be on the first floor, and haven’t you really always wanted one of these rooms too? You revisit the plans. You test the load-bearing weight of your foundation under these new restrictions, and make adjustments as necessary.
You start to put in non-structural elements. You put in molding and realize it looked good isolated in the store, but when you put it in the building it doesn’t fit with the rest of what you want, so you pull it out, leaving scars that need to be repaired. You repeat this process for what seems an eternity. You wonder why you ever thought putting up this building was a good idea, because clearly it’s just a terrible-looking structure that’s probably going to fall over and you’re tripping over construction debris and you’ve gotten notices that you’ve committed zoning violations and maybe you should just demolish the entire thing and start a different building, one without so many problems.
Your foot hovers over lever that will release the wrecking ball, but as you look at the mess you’ve made, you catch a glimpse of what you had once envisioned. You take a harder look. Then you start cleaning things up so you can see the structure better. You fix the drywall, and you stumble across a secret room you put in the back and think, “oh, I forgot about this, this was such a great idea, what fun!”
Then you start painting and putting in window treatments until everything looks amazing and just the way you want it, and when people ask, you say “I had this vision from the beginning.”
Happy novel-writing, fellow novelists. Isn’t it fun?