Three days in the country in an old farmhouse with stone walls 3 feet thick.
Two writer friends (thank god--writing is a hard, lonely business).
Brand new drafting on a new and unformed novel after months of revision and line edits on an almost-done novel.
How do I do this again?
One of the friends suggested paint.
So I painted. Mostly as a way to put off actually writing.
I have zero expectation of mastery with this art form, and that, obviously, is what’s liberating about it. I really can just make crap, because I know nothing about painting, crap is the only thing I’m capable of, and I don’t care, because I’m not a painter. I lost myself in it--in the colours, the texture of the paper, the tactile, physical action of dipping brush, squeezing colours, stroking the brush along the page.
I started winding words into the painting. A voice came out.
And I had it. The voice. I picked up my notebook immediately and I began writing.
It wasn't easy, exactly. But I stayed with it for the whole 3 days--the notebook, the pen, the voice--and I'm proud of myself for that.
I have sat beside this book, my own books and I, in cafes and at retreat tables and at more cafes, when it was pen scratches in a notebook and a Word doc on a laptop. I read it as a red-covered ARC, I voted on the cover (this one!) and I even, in one wintry week snuggled on my comfy couch, had the privilege of scouring its proofs for typos and inconsistencies. Now it is a book between covers on a bookstore table, and I spied it today at Queen Books and took a picture and sent it to Sarah and said, "Look! Look!"
It is intense and thrilling and provocative and hard and good. I lived this book, the first time I read it; real life felt out of focus; nothing was of any importance until I could get back to the reality of these characters and their world.
"Timely and brilliant," says Kirkus Reviews.
How to Write a Novel in 10 Years: Total Rewrites, Massive Scrap Piles, and Persistence Through the Long Haul
I had a great time as guest speaker at the Brockton Writers Series a couple weeks ago, speaking on a topic I am chagrined to be very familiar with. It was not, initially, a topic I wanted to open up about, and that resistance is part of why I said yes.
Because I've learned that resistance usually means there's something I need to examine. And that if I feel a thing, I'm not going to be the only one. And if people are feeling a thing, somebody should probably open a conversation about it.
My favourite response to the evening was from an older woman who told me she'd taken 22 years to write her novel--so long that by the time she finished and published it, it was classified as historical fiction.
I am delighted to report that since giving this talk, I have finished my novel.
A FEW CHALLENGES INHERENT IN WRITING THE SAME NOVEL FOR 10 YEARS:
The world moves more quickly than your writing process.
You’re forced to rewrite scenes because, in the time since you started this book, answering machines have become obsolete and giant multi-million dollar construction projects have rearranged the landscape in which your story is set. Three hundred kilometre highways blasted through rock are built more quickly than you can write.
Other people might think you’re delusional about the merits of the book you persist in writing.
Closely related: you will fear that other people think you’re delusional about the merits of the book you persist in writing.
At literary events you have to account for yourself with “Yup, still working on the same novel. I’m almost done! For the eighth time.” Fellow writers with whom you once walked side by side will pull ahead to achieve completion, a literary agent, a book deal, a second book deal. When they say, at these literary events, “Wow, you must really believe in this book,” your mind will hear, “Wow, you must really be deluded about this book.”
Over a decade-long process of striving for and failing to achieve a goal, your own insecurities and the struggle not to compare yourself to others will on occasion ambush and derail you.
Being still in the process of writing a book at the 10-year mark—no matter how much you’ve learned through it, no matter how the book has deepened and grown, no matter how grateful you are that you didn’t publish the 2-year or 5-year or even 9-year version—can feel more like failure than success. If you consider writing to be your primary purpose and identity and if it is the only thing you have ever really wanted to do with your life, and you have also written other books that you didn’t finish or publish, you will feel, sometimes, like you have nothing to show for your very hard work, your dreams, and your existence on the earth.
A FEW REASONS IT COULD TAKE 10 YEARS TO WRITE A NOVEL:
You are not writing the book in a vacuum.
You must earn money, a necessity that sucks up the prime hours, energy, and brainpower of each day. You might have a life, which could involve marriage, divorce, houses, children, births, deaths, and a myriad of crises in between.
Anyone who truly wants to write will make the time. But also, anyone who has tried to maintain a consistent, productive writing practice while (for example) working 40 hours a week at a day job while freelancing on the side while parenting two young children while having a partner who works outside the country for months-long stretches knows that “It’s hard to make the time” is not merely an excuse. It’s pretty damn real.
It takes time to learn how to write a novel, and it takes time to learn how to write the particular novel you are writing.
This can mean full drafts that are almost nothing like the one(s) before. It can mean hundreds of fully fleshed-out pages going to the scrap pile. Characters and plot lines developed extensively, over years, with arcs that span the entire book, in scene after scene meticulously envisioned and set down and revised and finessed: scrap pile.
You can have a stupendous inspiration in Year 2 and just know that the right thing to do is leap back in time to your characters’ childhoods and then you can write and develop that for years and it can become the deepest and truest and most beautiful part of your book but it can not belong, not at all, in this particular book that you are writing, and you can chop it all out one night at 4:00am in Year 7 because you have finally admitted to yourself that it stalls the momentum of the book and that you kind of have no idea how to create forward-moving plot. Then you have to go back to the beginning to figure out what is your story, if that’s not your story.
That can happen.
Writing a novel can be a cyclical rather than a linear process.
Each pass reveals another layer. You’re peeling an onion. You’re plumbing the depths. You’re sculpting a slab of marble—only first you have to make the marble, then you get to sculpt it.
It can take half a dozen drafts to arrive at the heart of a scene, a plot, a character, a relationship between characters. It can take years to see that actually she doesn’t just go to the door and listen, she opens the door, she walks through the door, she makes the terrible decision, she’s plunged into the results of the terrible decision.
HOW TO WRITE A NOVEL IN 10 YEARS:
Believe in it.
Love your characters enough to stick with them, care about their dilemmas enough to keep following them, and hold onto that inner flame of knowledge that this story is worth telling. If you don’t believe in it, abandon it and find a new novel that you do believe in. (And don’t be ashamed of this choice; it can be the correct choice.) Or, find something to do that is less excruciating.
Experience the process as its own reward.
You and the page and the story unfolding under your pen: this is the best part. If you don’t feel energized or moved or challenged or fulfilled by the process, if you don’t at least sometimes feel that you’re doing what you came to the earth to do, you probably gave up long before the 10-year point.
Receive enough genuine encouragement to bolster you when your inner belief-flame dims.
Share it with trusted early readers, other writers, and eventually some agents and editors and publishing insiders who will probably, if it isn’t ready yet, reject your novel but might give you invaluable insight into what is working and what isn’t and why. They don’t hand out positive comments just for fun, so if you get some you will feel that you are not delusional, there is value here, and it is worth it to keep going.
Write and publish smaller pieces.
The satisfaction of completion and the affirmation that comes from someone else’s stamp of approval will make you feel like you’re an author, not just a wannabe, and will help sustain you through the long haul of your novel. Winning contests and receiving grants works too.
Buy The 90-day Novel. Keep it on your shelf like a gleaming reward and a promise of another way…for when you’re finally free to start writing your next book.
Originally posted on the Brockton Writers blog.
This was me all by myself for 5 whole days. (Full disclosure: after 3 I couldn't stand the solitude anymore and made my family come join me.)
(But I also met my 5-day writing goal in 3 days.)
Negotiations successful. Due to new bunk bed, children delighted to share a room.
Mama delighted to have a writing studio again.
I'm proud to have helped inspire one of my husband's first-ever pieces of published writing. "Chekhov, Words, and the Long-Distance Relationship" is up at Intermission Magazine. Richard is currently playing Anton Chekhov at the Tarragon Theatre in a beautiful writerly play that unspools in letters.
A lot like our courtship.
Here's a sneak peak into Richard's piece:
“I find it nearly impossible to respond to what I’ve read. I think it’s like watching a good play. I don’t want to talk about it until I have given it a chance to be absorbed entirely. Your words are utterly compelling. I hear your voice so clearly…and it moves me.”
I wrote this to my future wife, a writer who I barely knew. Over the course of many months, I had become addicted to her words.
Heidi Reimer and I met, briefly, in 2002, and for the following nine months we wrote each other letters, our courtship unfolding through words on a page. Or rather the very first letter, sent by her, was on a page—an actual page written on with a pen and mailed with a stamp—though the subsequent letters were emailed. But they were long, thought-out documents, with days or a week between each as we took our time composing and responding, carefully unveiling ourselves to each other.
Artists are used to long-distance relationships, relationships that are hard to sustain. The words used in communicating become important. Actors and writers use words, treasure words, mould words. Words are the clay of their art.
Anton Chekhov and Olga Knipper wrote to each other. He was a writer, she was an actress. They were frequently separated by her work and his health. Their love story unfolds in their letters. The play based on these letters is called I Take Your Hand in Mine…
I am playing Chekhov in this play, in a mirror image of my own experience. This time I’m not the actor, but the writer.
Chekhov met Olga for the first time at the Moscow Art Theatre for rehearsals of his play The Seagull. He was immediately attracted to her even though he mistrusted actresses. (“Actresses are cows who fancy they are goddesses … Machiavellis in skirts.”) Olga was ambitious, impulsive, talented. She loved life and threw herself headlong into her all-consuming passion: the theatre.
I also met Heidi for the first time in a theatre.
Read the rest over at Intermission Magazine.
Family reunion, intermission at the St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival (it's a costume--he isn't actually wearing a nightgown, nor joined a cult). And family trip to Ottawa. And so much river time.
Nine years of marriage (five years together before that), and I know and love this man more deeply and fully than I ever have.
I first begin to ponder the idea that creative success--that elusive thing I have been driving toward since I was 8 years old and first decided I wanted to write books--might come with a best-kept-secret shadow side when I finished the novel I'd been working on for many years. I was supposed to be happy, I expected to be happy, and I found myself devastated. Depressed, actually.
The shadow hit again when I won Chatelaine's creative non-fiction contest and, preparing for a publication more visible than any previous publication, I experienced a dose of fear, dread and shame at least as big as the joy and pride.
I was in my shady back garden at the end of last summer when I emailed dear writer friends Sarah Henstra and Suzanne Alyssa Andrew: do you think this is a thing, this idea of a shadow side to creative success? Is this just me? And do you think anybody besides me might want to talk about it?
Fast forward nearly a year, and you will see us above, along with Carrie Snyder and Maria Meindl, talking about this very topic at the Canadian Writers' Summit to a standing-room crowd. The energy was honest and vibrant, with a real feeling that we were hitting a nerve and speaking things that needed to be spoken. There was a lot of head-nodding. There was a lot of note-taking. It was so good, so real, so resonant. And I was awed and delighted and humbled that an idea I'd wanted to explore for myself had (as usual, of course) turned out to be an idea that others wanted to explore too, that a woman who'd come from Rochester, NY would tell me afterward had been worth the trip to the conference all on its own, that people would be drawn to from other tents just to see what all these people were so engaged by in Market Tent B. Oh, it was good.
And there is to be a Shadow Side part 2: the written version. Maria, Carrie, Suzanne and I have created a written interview piece, which will appear in The New Quarterly likely sometime in 2017, and I'm very excited about that.
And until then, writer Melanie Marttila put together her notes from the panel and has generously shared them here if you want to check them out.