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.