Literary novels are famously slow to write. Three years seems the average gestation from first committed day to final sign-off. And some writers refine on and on for much longer.
In these days of empowered authors dashing off novel after novel, this tortoise speed must seem self-indulgent, even lazy. And in commercial publishing, you might be given just a year to deliver a book.
So just what makes some literary novelists take so much longer? What are we doing with all that time? If we know how to write, why can’t we just slap it out?
Everyone’s different of course. I can only tell you why I can’t – but I suspect my reasons aren’t unique. So here it is: why it takes me so long to write my kind of novel.
1 Striving to not repeat myself
I want my new novel to be its own entity. There will be enough similarities with other books I’ve written – themes, style, quirks and concerns will put my fingerprints all over the book regardless. But I don’t want to make a set of table mats. I want to ask different questions. Stretch what I can do with stories. Explore different characters.
When I have a gut reaction idea, I try my best to shift into a different groove. Is it too like something I did in My Memories of a Future Life or Life Form Three? Should I search for another answer?
Heaven help me when I also have to check for similarities to The Mountains Novel. (Which in fact does have a proper title. But I’m wary of revealing it until the fragments are joined.)
2 Patience and perspiration
At first, an idea seems full of glow and potential. Then perspiration begins. After a while the idea looks graceless, incoherent and ordinary. Perspire some more and it becomes a pupating mass of stuff that could turn into absolutely anything. It may go and live under the bed for a while, as might I.
Developing an idea is like learning a language. For a long, frustrating time, all I can hear is syllables and squawks. But persistence tunes my ear. I start to understand what I’m making. I know what I need and what I can discard. It doesn’t happen in a hurry, though.
3 No rules
If I wrote genre fiction, it would be clear how to develop an idea. I’d line up the tropes, check I’d ticked all the boxes, add a twist of me and voila. Instead, I have to invent the novel’s framework, context and references. Tropes and conventions might suggest possibilities, but I’m out on my own – and not even sure what I’m looking for.
I freely admit I make life difficult for myself. In fact, many of my ideas would make perfectly respectable genre novels. My Memories of a Future Life could have been a thriller, a romance, a murder mystery, science fiction (in fact, I had mainstream publishers pressing me to alter it in those various directions). Life Form Three was more of a challenge (see point 1 about not repeating previous books…)
So why don’t I take the road well travelled? My novels would be ready much faster. They’d be a cinch to sell, relatively speaking, and they’d probably be valued by at least as many people. But if I did that, I feel I’d be wasting a deeper truth. That’s just me: the stories I most cherish are individual and unusual. If I’m not striving for that, it doesn’t seem worthwhile.
What do you write? How long does it take you to finish? Why do you write the way you do?
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#1 by Katherine Hajer on July 7, 2013 - 2:04 pm
This makes sense, but I’m not so sure about #3. I write SF &F, and there’s always a lot of discussion in that genre about doing proper world-building and not following the same old, same old.
#2 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on July 7, 2013 - 6:01 pm
Hi Katherine! Interesting point. It’s certainly true that in SF and fantasy you don’t have to follow ‘our’ world’s rules. You can reshape the laws of physics, have the sky any colour you want, create emotions and powers that don’t exist in our everyday world. That, in fact, is one of the fundamental requirements of SF and fantasy – one of its rules.
Following a genre’s rules doesn’t necessarily imply there is no room for invention, by the way. The rules give you the characteristics of that genre. You must deliver them somehow or it’s not that genre – but within them you can be as creative and daring as you like.
Does that make sense?
#3 by MishaBurnett on July 7, 2013 - 2:08 pm
I would take exception to your number three. I don’t believe that genre implies formulaic. In fact, I write speculative fiction because I am fascinated by themes and concepts that don’t fit in realistic fiction.
#4 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on July 7, 2013 - 6:15 pm
Hi Misha! I didn’t actually say formulaic – and as I said to Katherine above, you can work within a genre’s expectations and be imaginative and individual. But there would be certain things you’d have to do to pass as speculative fiction, although it does cover a wide spread of possibilities – alternative history, horror, fantasy, superheroes… Also, each writer gives it their own flavour, and may well drift into literary waters as well as satisfying genre expectations. In those cases, the boundaries become very fuzzy. Which proves the difficulty of generalising about an art!
#5 by Dad Who Writes (Gabriel) on July 8, 2013 - 11:09 am
Perhaps #3 should read genre SERIES fiction?
#6 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on July 8, 2013 - 1:55 pm
Hey, Gabriel! I understand where you’re coming from, but there’s plenty of genre fiction that isn’t a series. Thanks for dropping in!
#7 by Dad Who Writes (Gabriel) on July 8, 2013 - 3:11 pm
Sorry, I didn’t make myself clear – I mean that genre series do, by their nature, demand much more of a “line up the tropes, check I’d ticked all the boxes, add a twist of me and voila” approach.
#8 by Catriona Troth on July 7, 2013 - 2:28 pm
Hi, Roz. As an appalling slow writer of litfic, I agree with a lot of this. But I’d add another factor.
A while back on the Triskele FB page, we shared this essay about polishing every sentence. Genre writers must strive to ensure that they have no boring scenes. In addition (those who don’t like litfic might say *instead*) litfic writers must strive to ensure they have no boring sentences. That can mean the editing process takes a whole lot longer.
#9 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on July 7, 2013 - 6:34 pm
HI Catriona! Oh that IS a good point. Literary novels are works of precision, and to achieve it takes a darn long time. Once plot, characters, pacing etc are right, you’ve got the equivalent of wrangling a 100k-word poem, even if the language is dead simple. In fact the post you mention rings a bell – I think I tweeted it at the time.
#10 by Michele Gorman on July 7, 2013 - 2:45 pm
I write genre fiction (women’s fiction and chick lit) and I can promise you that it’s not as easy as lining up tropes, ticking all the boxes and adding a twist of me. I think I understand what you’re trying to say but as a literary writer who takes so much time to considers her words, perhaps you should have crafted your assertions about genre fiction more carefully.
#11 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on July 7, 2013 - 6:30 pm
Hi Michele! Actually I’ve ghostwritten thrillers, chick-lit and adventure stories. Now they were all a challenge, difficult to do well and involved a lot of sweat. I don’t underestimate the craft or ingenuity required to do them well. But *by comparison* they were straightforward … and I thought I had made it clear that it was a comparison…
But thanks for reading and for commenting.
#12 by Viv on July 7, 2013 - 3:10 pm
Bravo! I couldn’t agree more. Been pondering along related but not precisely the same lines; will be blogging about it at some point soon.
#13 by Toby Neal (@tobywneal) on July 7, 2013 - 6:11 pm
Amen sister, good genre fic is harder than people give us credit for. I always try to explore deeper themes (love, redemption, revenge, identity are favorites for me) and social issues (assisted suicide, reasons why crime happens, the nature of psychopathy, and on and on) through my mysteries without ever getting boring. Its a workout! Genre fic can be an important vehicle for change and ideas and staying entertaining while reaching the masses… challenging and fun!
#14 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on July 7, 2013 - 6:58 pm
Hi Toby! Lest anyone should think I’m too snooty for my own good, I’d better mention that I devour genre fiction as eagerly as anyone else. Robert Harris, Barbara Vine, Barbara Trapido, Sophie Kinsella, Marian Keyes, Gary Jennings, Jilly Cooper, Lauren Oliver, Jack Vance… We’ll be here all day if I go on. They keep within boundaries but by gum they work them well.
And that’s just the entertainment value. Fiction is a great way to worm inside the reality of issues, as you say. It can take us where non-fiction simply can’t reach.
#15 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on July 7, 2013 - 6:35 pm
Hi Viv! I’ll look forward to that post!
#16 by Carol Riggs on July 7, 2013 - 3:10 pm
Well said, and I think it IS often the case for more “literary” works. These take more time and thought to develop. Not that there’s anything wrong with certain genres and authors writing faster (look how many Stephen King or Dean Koontz churns out!), but you’re right–sometimes authors just need time for themselves to let things gel and develop. I can whip out a rough draft in just a few months, but it’s NOT ready at that point. Revision goes on, and I’m learning more time is really great to have, to let something sit and/or let my subconscious ponder it, giving me time to fiddle and tweak and improve. Once I get published I may not have that leisure. I AM a little concerned about having enough time to do quality work after that point. We’ll see! 🙂
#17 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on July 7, 2013 - 7:00 pm
Hi Carol! I hear your concerns. The good news is, literary novels are generally regarded as one-offs, and so you might not have an editor breathing down your neck for the next book. Although your agent might…
#18 by Edith on July 7, 2013 - 5:53 pm
This is probably one of the best and most concise descriptions I have read on the difference between genre and literary writing. Also timely for me as I struggle with the dilemma on which way to jump! 🙂
#19 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on July 7, 2013 - 7:00 pm
Thanks, Edith! Good luck, whatever you decide.
#20 by Toby Neal (@tobywneal) on July 7, 2013 - 5:59 pm
I write “genre fic” mysteries, but recently did a literary suspense. It still was fast, but because I was SO IN LOVE with the situation,and it was SHORT at 55,000 words. Choosing every word and polishing it, finding truly original imagery that enhanced the story but didn’t drag down the pacing…those were the challenges for me of writing more literary fiction.
On the plus side, I cast off all my limitations with vocabulary, (I’d been writing to high school education level) and assumed my readers could keep up with post-doc level vocab, obscure Greek references and scientific metaphor.
It felt awesome.
I’m super excited to bring this book out, and scared as hell my readers will hate it. Oh well. That’s the joy of more advanced writing, INMO.
#21 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on July 7, 2013 - 7:11 pm
Ah, Toby, welcome to the dark side! That fine attention is one of the great pleasures of literary fiction. Discarding words because they don’t make the right sound as your eye falls on them. Stripping out metaphors that are clever but somehow crack the spell. I think that’s the phase I enjoy most. Or maybe I enjoy it because by then the hardest work is done and this is a ruthless, exacting pleasure.
#22 by annerallen on July 7, 2013 - 6:57 pm
I write both literary and genre fiction and I agree with you completely, Roz. Even though I’m not particularly fast with my genre fiction, the prescribed “outline” of the mystery saves me time. Not that mysteries can’t be literary–look at Kate Atkinson and James Lee Burke. I consider my mystery “The Gatsby Game” to be pretty literary, and it took some time to write.
But with a purely literary novel, you don’t have that ready-made scaffold to hang your story on. I have one I’ve been working on for 20 years now. Some of it is more like writing poetry than writing narrative, and nobody tells poets they’re lazy if they can’t turn out 10K words of poetry a day
#23 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on July 7, 2013 - 7:07 pm
Anne – that is exactly what I mean. If you’ve done both, you appreciate how much easier it is to know there are certain ingredients you must include in a genre novel.
I remember your novel The Gatsby Game – folks, Anne has an Undercover Soundtrack – http://mymemoriesofafuturelife.com/2012/03/06/the-undercover-soundtrack-anne-r-allen/
And 20 years on one manuscript – wow, that is one slow-burning idea. Like Catriona says above, literary fiction requires the discipline of a poet or lyricist. And it’s not just about pretty sentences. It’s a whole experience of enormous depth, created with words.
#24 by Toby Neal (@tobywneal) on July 7, 2013 - 9:12 pm
Thanks so much for the thoughtful reply, Roz! It’s so funny, I flexed my literary muscles on this literary suspense, thought, “maybe this is a new direction for me” and promptly went back and wrote another in my series in a mere two months, and betas are saying its my best yet.
I think of writing like working out or athletics. It’s almost like practice and regularity make for a strong foundation from which you can tackle any sport from hang gliding to rock climbing to triathlons. I’m getting stronger, and that just means I’m more versatile. It feels so good to be able to do whatever I want as an indie, too, and have dedicated readers who’ll follow me on the journey. This is the BEST TIME EVER to be a writer!
#25 by selfxt on July 7, 2013 - 7:41 pm
No need to reply ROZ
I came via annerallen on twitter.
You stirred a pot here. Nice. I am a bit of the monkey “throw the raisins at the wall and see where they stick” but I’m also crafty and sugar coat them. Those that fall I put in a box called ‘poetry’ and those that stick I cannot move ’cause they’re stuck. I lick them until they shine.
I am going to follow your posts and see if I can satisfy my sweet tooth.
#26 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on July 7, 2013 - 7:53 pm
Nice to meet you, Rodino. I’m a formal sort of girl and always feel I should reply, even when raisins are whizzing past my head. Stay cheeky, monkey.
#27 by Chila Woychik on July 7, 2013 - 10:10 pm
Great topic, hobby horse of mine, and what a fine job (though brief) you did with it. Yes, a huge diff between lit and genre fiction, and the very best novels seem to embody a spirit of both. Haven’t read the comments here, but just let me say that I’m glad you’re on our team at Beyondaries. We always get something thoughtful and instruction, not to mention humorous, from you. Thanks. 🙂
#28 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on July 8, 2013 - 7:32 am
Chila – always great to see you! I love what you’ve set up with Beyondaries – a salon of provocation and inspiration. And yes, boundaries are difficult to define in art. Is Fahrenheit 451 literary fiction or science fiction? Is it proudly both? (What we can be sure about – indeed Bradbury’s own notes confirm this – is that it took a darn long time to write.)
#29 by acflory on July 8, 2013 - 12:02 am
I’m feeling rather stunned Roz. I’ve always been so sure I wrote science fiction. Genre all the way. And yet, after reading this amazing post I’m having to reassess my writing because every reason you cite for being ‘slow’ applies to me too. Except for me the process was even slower – 8 years, not three. I’m prepared to discount most of those years to my apprenticeship, but the rest…?
But if my groping after perfection is literary fiction rather than genre then the greats of science fiction were infected with the same bug. They all strove for innovation, that something ‘more’, and they succeeded.
I don’t believe that all literary fiction is great, but I do believe that all great fiction is literary.
#30 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on July 8, 2013 - 7:46 am
AC – see my comment above about Ray Bradbury!
Is all great fiction literary? Is all innovative fiction literary? That depends on how it is great or innovative. Literary fiction has a deeper resonance beyond the plot or the characters. It seems to have significance beyond just the story (although a story is, in my view, utterly necessary and takes real skill). As Hilary Mantel put it, it is ‘crawling with meaning’.
If the innovation is simply to add vampires to zombies, that might be entertaining or new but it won’t necessarily have depth. If the innovation is to use zombies in a way that makes us question or understand something about our own state of life, to rewrite or adjust our perceptions, then it has literary qualities.
#31 by acflory on July 8, 2013 - 10:57 am
This is what I wish I had written! “If the innovation is to use zombies in a way that makes us question or understand something about our own state of life, to rewrite or adjust our perceptions, then it has literary qualities.”
Back when I was at school we were told great literature has universal qualities. I guess that’s what I was trying, and failing to say. 🙂
#32 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on July 8, 2013 - 1:57 pm
🙂 It’s easier to intuit what someone else is groping towards than to go all the way there by yourself!
#33 by acflory on July 9, 2013 - 2:34 am
lol – so true. It is such an amazing feeling though when you suddenly ‘see’ something you’ve just ‘felt’ before.
#34 by Deb Atwood on July 8, 2013 - 4:08 pm
I love that truism–all great fiction is literary. I doubt anyone would question that Le Guin’s work (for instance, The Left Hand of Darkness or Lavinia) are literary. Add to the mix all the hybrids: romance/literary, sf/literary, ya/literary, horror/literary. Examples abound.
For me, literary brings a deeper level of characterization, symbolism, theme, research, and style. This stuff you can’t just throw onto the canvas like Jojo the elephant painter. Apologies to Jojo…
Like you, I have a ms. in the works that I’ve tinkered with for many years. I also spent 8 or so years on my hybrid romance/literary, including 5 years studying Korean. During the process of working on the novel, I attended a seminar on romance writing. Turns out the romance industry expects its writers to churn out four novels a year. Nope, not going there.
#35 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on July 8, 2013 - 11:30 pm
Hi Deb! Yes, I agree that literary fiction has those extra levels of richness – and developing them takes time.
And your literary romance – I remember you mentioning that you learned Korean for it, and that this gave you extra levels of depth to understand your characters. Wow, that’s dedicated. But what led you to it? It seems quite an extreme level of research. How deep did you go?
And has anyone else here learned new skills in order to use them for a novel?
#36 by acflory on July 9, 2013 - 2:31 am
Ursula Le Guin is the goddess of my pantheon. There are gods there as well but her Left Hand of Darkness has been my inspiration for decades, literally. And there was love, of sorts, at the core of that novel.
The problem with ‘romance’ is that it has become an industry. It has also stopped being about honest relationships, and has become a sort of formulaic wish-fulfilment.
I would like to write a novel with relationships in it one day, but it won’t be romance. And sadly it probably won’t sell either. -sigh-
#37 by Michael S. Manz on July 8, 2013 - 2:41 am
If you wrote genre fiction you might have a better idea of what’s involved in writing genre fiction.
Although, come to think of it, you do write genre fiction. ‘Literary fiction’ is just another genre – the pretentious genre, as you’ve proven here.
…and before you tell me that I’ve misunderstood what you meant and that you weren’t disrespecting other genres of fiction, take a look at your comments. When 90% of the people who read your blog are telling you the same thing the problem isn’t likely to be with all of them.
#38 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on July 8, 2013 - 8:15 am
Michael, this seems to be one of those wonderful topics that has sparked real debate. And yes, I write both sides of the literary/genre fence, which is what enables me to make the comparison. I feel you have misunderstood me because I was comparing the relative difficulty, not saying genre was worthless. You’re not convinced, though. Fair enough. Though it looks like your estimate of 90% outrage is a little exaggerated.
Is literary fiction pretentious? Some definitely is; the writer beats the reader over the head with their superiority. That’s the kind of literary fiction I can’t stand, although some people may tell me off for disrespecting it. I prefer the kind of literary fiction that comes from honest curiosity about the world and humanity, and the desire to share and explore this. If the pretentious kind of literary fiction annoys you – as it does me – you might like this warmer, more communicative kind.
#39 by mrdisvan on July 8, 2013 - 8:24 am
Literary fiction a genre? Of course not. Genre is about formalization – a series of boxes that must be ticked. Not all boxes need be ticked for a work to count as a romantic comedy, say, or a whodunit; it’s a fuzzy logic question – see Ruskin on the definition of Gothic. But the boxes are there, and you can get a pretty good sense of what they are for each genre just by reading a few titles.
But when you come to write Pale Fire, or Ulysses, or A Place of Greater Safety, or The Longest Journey, or The Quiet American, or Moby Dick, you don’t have any of those pointers on the trail that would be waiting for you if you had decided to write an epic fantasy, for example.
That’s not to say that writing a good book is ever easy, but it’s like carpentry. If you always make chairs in much the same style, then you get pretty efficient at the job. Then if somebody asks you to build a bookcase instead, suddenly you don’t have all those familiar habits to fall back on.
#40 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on July 8, 2013 - 2:41 pm
Mr Disvan, that’s a great way to think of genre. Genres have rules – they are what makes a romance a romance, and a thriller a thriller. And good example with the furniture.
#41 by Penelope J on July 8, 2013 - 4:23 am
I’m so glad to read your assessment of why it takes so long to write literary fiction. In my experience it takes several years to fully develop characters, scenes, sub-plots, undercurrents, and for me most important, layers that add depth and richness to the writing. Having read “Memories of a Future Life” I’m certain it took you years to write a book that not only intrigues but stays with the reader. Also, I was rather shocked recently to read a blog post and comments where people discussed writing “books” in four months. A first draft, maybe, or a Kindle Short, but that is precisely what separates the dabblers from the true writers. I take on average 3-4 years with each book, and one I’m still working on has taken 20 years on and off.
#42 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on July 8, 2013 - 8:28 am
Hi Penelope! Yes, Future Life did take its time, LOL. For a lot of that period, I had no idea what to do with it. Glad you enjoyed it.
I’ve written books in four months and it was pretty gruelling. And it would have been impossible to create anything of richness and coherence.
I was curious about your books but when I followed your link here it only took me to an avatar. If you have a blog or are on Facebook etc, do come back and leave its URL.
#43 by Jo Carroll on July 8, 2013 - 7:03 am
The travel writing is so much quicker and easier than literary fiction – partly because I already know what happens and, given that my travels aren’t made up, I can’t change any of that. But fiction doesn’t have that boundary of ‘truth’ (though we can discuss what we mean by that) and every time I develop a plot the characters must tweek a bit.
#44 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on July 8, 2013 - 8:30 am
Hi Jo! Ah travel writing and non-fiction – what a good comparison. The factual events and the setting can’t change – although you presumably have plenty of leeway for what you do with them, how you structure the book, what arcs you present and your writing style.
#45 by Viv on July 8, 2013 - 9:26 am
Just to add another thought. Not all writing is about the daily word count, or how long a book takes from sitting down to write. There are many novels where the actual writing has been astonishingly fast (I believe Lord of the Flies is one such) because the unconscious and subconscious mind of the writer has been working on the whole thing for many years. The human mind has capabilities that have yet to be uncovered in this respect but my own experience is that I have found entire and very deep (and literary) novels have emerged like Athena from Zeus’s head in a matter of weeks. Or in one case, days (17). This was the result of years of suppressing actual writing, believing myself to be finished with the whole thing. In this respect it is a lot like archaeology; one is not creating a novel but rather uncovering it, cleaning it up, giving it a bit of Mr Sheen and sitting back to wonder where the bloody hell THAT came from.
I am sincerely hoping that my current bout of terrible migraines will eventually result in another novel bursting from my head, and new being will leap fully formed and armoured into the world.
#46 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on July 8, 2013 - 2:34 pm
Crikey, Viv – 17 days! What a constitution you have – although I know from your comments around the interweb that you pay dearly for those advantages. Which novel was that?
I love your description of the writing process as akin to archaeology. Obviously you do your development in daydreaming or just plain old living. The rest of us have to do a lot more on the page in some way.
Take care of that head of yours.
#47 by Viv on July 8, 2013 - 2:43 pm
That was The Bet. But many others written in the wake of the long hiatus were done pretty fast too.
#48 by Dave Morris on July 8, 2013 - 10:25 am
A couple of points worth making from the above discussion. Firstly, “literary fiction” is not defined by fancy words. Hemingway kept it simple, and he’s literary. Lovecraft liked long words, and he’s not.
Secondly, a charge often levelled at literary fiction is that it has no plot. This has crept into lit fic since the Booker Prize. I remember being very disgruntled at a P H Newby novel. Sublime language, convincing characterization, but no sense of ever really going anywhere. Yet we can stack up hundreds of examples of literary fiction with a strong story – Forster, Steinbeck, Hamilton, Greene, Burgess, and so on. So I suspect this is just one of those truisms that gain easy currency in a social networking age – “Oh yes, literary. Well, I like a plot myself.”
Rather than “literary fiction”, I prefer the term “non-genre”. These are novels written without a route map. Sometimes a flash of inspiration will allow the author to whack the book out in a matter of months (a flash of inspiration that’s usually preceded by a very long gestation, it must be said) but more often it’s two years for Gatsby, ten years for Catch-22, and so on. With genre fiction, you may have to invent a world, and a bunch of names, and maybe a fantasy language, but you have a set of tropes that go with the genre that make characterization and story a lot easier. Genre is like setting out across the fields on a clear day with some sandwiches and a thermos. Non-genre is like blundering through a wood in the fog: you don’t just have to find an existing trail, you have to break a new one.
#49 by Catriona Troth on July 8, 2013 - 11:59 am
I really like the way that’s put, Dave Morris. Yes, it’s a lot about not having those basic structures in place that act as fingerposts, suggesting directions you might take along a well-mapped path (although the adventure you would find along that route would no less your own).
And simple language, yes! I once saw an analysis done by a genre author comparing his own language use with that of Nobel Prize Winner, Toni Morrison. He found that, on one of those standard ways of monitoring that MS Word provides, his language was rated far more complex that hers. His conclusion? (a) he could do with simplifying his own prose a bit (b) simple language is a lot harder to do than you might think,
#50 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on July 8, 2013 - 11:33 pm
Catriona, I love that story. That writer was a great sport 🙂
#51 by Consuelo Roland on July 8, 2013 - 4:46 pm
I’ve resisted the label Literary Fiction (caps intended) for as long as I can remember – even inventing my own term, ‘chiaroscuro’ fiction – but Roz’s excellent post is very persuasive. My novels must indeed be literary fiction: my first took 3 years, my second had a gestation period of 7 (!) years marked by endless experimental rewrites. I get that lit fiction allows me to reinvent the scaffolding every time I write a new novel, but I still have a problem with the marketing aspect… If I’m face-to-face with a potential reader I never say I write Lit Fiction but usually say it’s mystery romance – seems much less intimidating.
On the other hand I’m trying to position my novels better with the right readership by referring to them as literary fiction in essay and review articles. The problem with terms like non-genre or mixed genre is that it works brilliantly for us writers but potential readers just look at you with a blank-faced expression… And what do you do when you have to categorise your lit fiction novel on Amazon or Smashwords?
#52 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on July 8, 2013 - 11:32 pm
Hi Consuelo! It’s great when we can get creative with our categories. That must be how steampunk started. I’m toying with making my own mashup category for Life Form Three.
But as you say, it’s a different matter when we’re faced with a pull-down list on a selling site. We have to fit with what’s there – and if it’s a massive and undivided category like literary fiction, we’re hardly going to be noticed.
#53 by OCBookBlogger on July 8, 2013 - 9:03 pm
Language and character development take time, and that is what makes great literary fiction. Three years seem right for a master!
#54 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on July 8, 2013 - 11:32 pm
Glad you agree, OC! Thanks for dropping by.
#55 by Marni Scofidio on July 9, 2013 - 6:07 am
What a comforting post!
I agree with Dorothy A. Bryant who said your writing method is like your hair or your temperament thus very difficult and/or damaging to change. Being of Afro-Caribbean/Sicilian/Native American/Welsh descent, I’ve tried to change my kinky hair (damaging chemicals for decades) and volatile temperament (no luck). I’m fortunate not to be bald. A hairdresser said to me one day, Honey, why’n’t you just let your hair do what it wants to? As for my temperament, it all goes into my characters; writing for me is really the acting career I once pursued.
My creative psyche works at the speed of margarine. But I’ve learned to accept that, because if I let it do what it wants to do, I’m rewarded, as I am at the moment, with too many ideas which are all being scribbled down for future reference. I have three projects on the go, in different stages. One of them I’ve been writing since 1998.
We are in good company: Audrey Niffenegger, Gustave Flaubert, Sue Roe, amongst others. Didn’t J.D. Salinger take the entire rest of his life to not produce the follow-up to Catcher in the Rye? And I’m sure Austin Wright didn’t speedwrite his masterpiece Tony and Susan, an original literary thriller which still haunts me; unfortunately it seems to be the only book Mr. Wright, now deceased, gave us.
PS. Roz, I also love point 3. Your advice in Nail Your Novel: Bring Characters to Life on how not to bore readers with romantic developments they’ve read a squillion times before is priceless, specially for people like me who deeply dislike romance but need to use it and aren’t sure how. Hundreds of pounds of sound advice for a snip: hail, Roz, Queen of the How-To! Or do I have to call you Doctor Morris?
#56 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on July 9, 2013 - 7:28 am
Hi Marni! Writing as a way to do acting… there’s a heap of truth in that. I’m not saying I ever seriously desired an acting career, but when I write a character I feel as though I’m climbing inside them. With The Mountains Novel at the moment, I’m getting to know my people through dialogue and it’s an interesting process. At first I riff with superficialities that anyone might say, then one of them says something that shows me how they really feel about the other person. At that point I feel inhabited by them, the way I imagine an actor does.
And you’ve read Tony & Susan! I love that novel! I went through a phase – a while ago now – of writing posts about it. It’s such a clever way to use a story within a story. I think Austin Wright didn’t get much credit for it at the time. Did you know he taught creative writing?
#57 by Marni Scofidio on July 11, 2013 - 7:37 am
I did & I wish I could have taken his class… but I’m thrilled to have found your books which make up for it. I’m so oooooo gutted that he only wrote one novel, though the best ‘revenge’ story, in my opinion, EVER…. and people don’t *get* it!!!!! Hel-lo.
#58 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on July 11, 2013 - 12:26 pm
#59 by danholloway on July 10, 2013 - 9:19 am
Great post, Roz (though I’m glad you said “some” as there’s always the likes of Cesar Aira who can pump out original literary fiction every few months). Not a lot I can add, really – if I had to add anything it would be that as well as the worthy reasons for not writing genre fiction you give above, my personal main reason is that I’ve tried it and was no good at it. I find it easier to write literary fiction by far. Even then, my thriller outsold my literary novels by about 50:1 and I was starting to get invited to events as a thriller writer, and no one wanted to know about the books I was really proud of. Which is why I withdrew the thriller from sale and have expunged that part of my writing past
#60 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on July 11, 2013 - 12:15 pm
Hi Dan! Yes, there will always be irritatingly talented exceptions who are able to channel an original piece as easy as breathing. Viv describes how she poured out a few – and you know her anyway.
I remember your thriller, but didn’t know that you withdrew it. That takes integrity – especially if it’s selling well. I certainly remember it was very different from your other work – uncharacteristically so.
#61 by Viv on July 11, 2013 - 12:22 pm
I’d like to add that I suspect I’d be incapable of writing *genre fiction* of any kind because I’m hopeless at adhering to rules or guidelines. I cook the same way, almost never with a recipe but usually along the lines of “What do we have I can use? Oh yes, and there’s some smoked paprika and a jar of anchovies…” and it goes from there. I’m reckoned a good cook too though the bucket chemistry approach doesn’t work so well for making cakes…
So hats off to those who can do it.
#62 by Dan Holloway on July 14, 2013 - 9:28 am
My feelings exactly, Viv – I think anyone tempted to disparage genre fiction should try it – it’s *really* hard – certainly beyond me
#63 by J. Conrad Guest on July 10, 2013 - 12:20 pm
I think the reason why literary novels take more time to write is because how it is written is as important as what is written. Writers of literary novels focus on word choices and arrangement of those words, and not just story. We’re challenged to use new words we’ve learned, but using them in such a way that the reader can infer their meaning; while other writers write to a sixth-grade level. We’re concerned about the turn of a phrase, the beauty of the prose, what Elmore Leonard calls “the writer butting into the story.” Mr. Leonard, forgive me, but you write with a screenplay mentality, and I’m underwhelmed by your work.
I agree with point three. If I were writing to a genre, a formula, it would be a much quicker process: start with my last novel, change all the names of the characters, change the setting, maybe the period, toss in a couple different plot twists, and I’m ready to go to print in three months.
Generally, my novels take anywhere from eight to 14 months to complete, but that’s the first draft. After that it might take me a month or two to revise and polish before I submit it to my publisher. Once he accepts the piece, he sends me his suggestions for changes, and I continue to revise right up until he tells me, “Enough already!”
The work is never done. I could revise and polish indefinitely. But there comes a time when I must let it go. Letting go, for me, means never again reading the piece once it’s published. By then, I’ve been over the manuscript maybe 20 times, so I have no desire to read it again. But also, I’m sure I’d find many things I’d want to change, do differently. Maybe I’d even find a typo or two. Why would I wish to put myself through all that?
The world will either embrace my work, or eschew it. Nothing will ever change that. Hemingway had his detractors. I have mine. Art either connects with someone, or it doesn’t. If you want to be a bestseller, become a mercenary.
I’ve been writing for 20 years. I’ve streamlined the process, become more efficient. I enjoy the process, learning something new about craft as well as about myself. I’ve found nothing so gratifying as arranging words on a blank monitor. I’m not sure it’s gotten much easier though. What’s easy about opening a vein and bleeding?
#64 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on July 11, 2013 - 12:25 pm
Great to meet you, J (if that’s how I should address you). Point 3 seems to be polarising people – but if they do what we do, they understand the intention.
I agree about the revision process. Although I love a story, I also feel a novel is more than that. You could call it a spell in the reader’s mind, and I want to weave the sort of spell that comes from repeated refinement. When I think I’ve finally got a draft right, I go through it again to see if I can tune it more precisely. When I can read it without wishing it was better, it’s ready.
#65 by J. Conrad Guest on July 11, 2013 - 12:55 pm
Thanks, Roz, for the reply.
While it’s true that Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road on one continuous roll of paper, it’s urban legend that his finished first draft went to print. He wrote six drafts in an effort to please publishers who were remiss to take a chance on it.
I suspect many writers fear they’ll lose something from their manuscript if they revise to any great extent, that it might become something different than their original concept. What’s wrong with that, if it’s an improvement?
On the other side of the coin, there is something to be said about the popular music of the sixties and seventies. There was something raw and edgy about the music the Beatles recorded for a new album in a day. Much of today’s popular music is too slick, over-produced, so it lacks spontaneity.
I’m not sure the same thing doesn’t happen in literature, when it becomes apparent to the consumer that the writer, as Leonard claims, butts into the story. I think I recognize reaching that point in my own work when I start asking myself whether my edits improve the text, add something to it, or take something away from it. If my answer to the latter is, “Yes,” I know it’s time to put that puppy to bed.
#66 by Jack Eason on July 10, 2013 - 1:11 pm
All so true Rozz. I wonder how many readers fully appreciate the thought, agony and research that went into that book in their hands or on their Kindle? Hardly a one is my guess… 🙂
#67 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on July 11, 2013 - 12:26 pm
Jack, that’s because we’re meant to make it look easy! You’re absolutely right. Thanks for dropping by.
#68 by Katie Cross on July 12, 2013 - 4:59 pm
I liked the reasoning behind not repeating yourself the best. A lot of authors don’t bother with that, and that’s part of why I’m not a big romance fan anymore 🙂
#69 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on July 12, 2013 - 8:36 pm
Katie, I hoped someone would like that! I didn’t realise how much it bothered me until I sat down and wrote that piece. But I frequently find I’m thinking ‘I can’t do that, I’ve done it before’. So pleased it mattered to you too.
#70 by A. E. Kalquist on July 27, 2013 - 3:07 am
#3 is offensive. The word trope has a negative connotation, but I’m sure you already know that.
Your post makes literary fiction sound like the end result of far too many hours spent navel-gazing. Is that what it is? I confess I don’t read much of it. Fantasy, historical fiction, and non-fiction take up most of my shelf space.
And this: “But if I did that, I feel I’d be wasting a deeper truth. That’s just me: the stories I most cherish are individual and unusual. If I’m not striving for that, it doesn’t seem worthwhile.”
What deeper truth would you be wasting? It sounds like you’re trying to be unique and “unusual” just for the sake of being unique and unusual. What’s the point? Our job is to tell the story we need to tell in a way that entertains our readers. That’s it. You can suffer for your art, if you like, but it doesn’t mean literary fiction is truly harder to write, or that it tells a deeper truth than genre fiction can.
In fact, I’d argue that it’s easier to connect with readers in genre fiction. You can challenge the reader to question things and see the world in a different way, all from within the safe confines of a genre they’ve lost themselves in hundreds of times before.
#71 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on July 27, 2013 - 7:14 am
I think the point to take issue with here is ‘entertainment’. I am entertained – yes, amused, provoked to enjoyment and pleasantly challenged – by reading the kinds of books that most people class as literary. This is genuine, not a need to suffer for my art, or teach the world anything, or be unusual for its own sake. It’s false to do that, – and as you rightly point out it won’t connect with anybody.
In any case, the post wasn’t about the relative values of genre versus literary fiction. It was about the relative difficulty, from the viewpoint of someone who has written both. You move and entertain your audience in your way, I’ll do it in mine. No need to feel threatened.
#72 by A. E. Kalquist on July 27, 2013 - 3:12 pm
Not threatened. In fact, in my latest blog post, I wrote about how people feel threatened when you don’t “dance to their song.” I’m all about people doing things their own way.
The point of the post seemed to be “Literary Fiction takes three years because it’s so special / unique / original / hard to write / holds deeper ideas (vs genre fiction).” You can’t really avoid conveying value judgements about the two types with the way you set up the post. I just disagree with a few of the things you wrote.
I think some people find literary novelists to be pretentious because of this suffering / starving artist attitude. I haven’t read your other posts, so I’m not saying you come across this way. I’ve just noticed that some writers and readers feel this way about literary fiction.
I don’t really see suffering for one’s art as a noble thing, especially not if you can tweak a book to reach more people and put food on your table. It’s very difficult to relate to and I can see how some would find it to be self-indulgent.
#73 by J. Conrad Guest on July 27, 2013 - 3:49 pm
Certainly I’ve read a few novels where I thought the author self-indulgent, pretentious.
However, not all literary novels are pretentious. Literary novels are intended to connect with the reader at a deep level, whether through its theme of a human ideal, or simply through the beauty of its language. Yet not all literary novels connect with all readers. Some readers may simply not have lived enough to be able to connect with a text. Or maybe they read simply to escape.
One of my favorite writers, Samuel R. Delany, wrote, “A text is only as good as what its words make happen inside a reader’s head, and not all readers are the same. A reader has the right to say of any text, ‘I just didn’t think it was that good.'”
#74 by Mrdisvan on July 28, 2013 - 11:48 pm
“Trope” has negative connotations? Since when? I’d throw away that dictionary for starters.
Kafka wrote drafts and tore them up, so it took him a year to write “Metamorphosis” and it’s barely a novella. Fitzgerald spent over two years writing The Great Gatsby. Heller took a decade to wrench those books up out of his subconscious and fashion them into the form he was striving for. I seriously doubt if they were affecting a pretence of noble suffering. They just needed to create something new, different and lasting. Few things of genuine value are ever achieved easily.
Could those writers and others like them have entertained a readership and made money more easily? Sure. Pulp writers like Lester Dent could knock out a genre novel every 10 days. Like Burger King, millions were sold. But none of them Gatsby.
#75 by Layla on October 21, 2013 - 12:29 pm
It seems to me, that all of what you’ve mentioned in your post (minus the snark & elitism of course) are the same reasons I would mention when asked why any good book in any genre might take long to write. As a fantasy writer, I might also add to your list, how difficult it is to create a unique world, a unique language, technology, history, culture, religion/s… you name it, and try to convey all of that without halting the plot. I wish I could, as you called it, line up the tropes, tick all the boxes and have it done with, in three months but like you, I also want to be unique too.
Also, taking a long time to write something does not necessarily mean it will be great. Sometimes great books are written in a ridiculously short space of time. It took William Faulkner 6 weeks to write As I lay dying while he was working at a power plant. Does it then, taking Mrdisvan’s analogy, make him burger king?
#76 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on October 21, 2013 - 7:18 pm
Layla, I think I’ve already answered the suggestions of snark and elitism perfectly well in previous comments. And I’ve explained what I mean about the differences between writing in a genre, where the established forms can guide you (but don’t stop you being inventive and original) and striking out with the kind of book where you create its rules and tropes. I also haven’t denied it takes skill to write a good genre novel and to put your own stamp on it.
It’s interesting that you mention Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Yes, the active typing may have taken six weeks but the conceptualising, maturing and experience may have taken years.