How to write a book

The slow-burn writer … What takes literary authors so long?

Nail Your Novel literaryYou could split the writing blogoverse into two camps. There are those who streak through books, racking up a few releases a year. And there are those who incubate a manuscript for many, many moons. (I’m talking about experienced writers here, not those on the beginning curve.)

This is on my mind after Joanna Penn’s recent podcast interview with Russell Blake, where they discussed techniques for rapid writing. As card-carrying speed demons, they had a chuckle about literary writers who take their time.

And we do. Talking to my friend Orna Ross, we estimated the gestation for a literary novel as at least three years. For some of us it’s even longer. A few weeks ago I was chatting to an agent from Curtis Brown and she cheerily remarked that three years was fast for some of her writers. And then there’s the colossal amount of wastage. Booker winner Marlon James said in Guernica:  ‘You can write one hundred pages and only use twenty.’

Assuming we’re spending all that time working, what are we doing, exactly? I’m curious about this, because when I teach masterclasses, someone inevitably asks what makes a book ‘literary’. I think the answer comes from what we do in that extra time.

Here’s what’s going on with Ever Rest. I nailed the plot in draft #1 and bolted it tighter in 2. So far, I’m neck and neck with the fast folks. Now on draft 3, each scene is taking me a minimum of four days – even though I’ve established the basics of who, what, why etc. And there may be a 4th draft or a fifth. It’s because I’m working on suggestion, emphasis, subtext, restraint, resonance. (And other stuff  ) But it all boils down to this: nuance. And nuance can’t be hurried.

I submit, my friends, that this one word helps us understand what makes a work literary. Not introspection, dense sentences, poetry, show-off vocabulary, avant-garde structures, ambiguous endings, classical sources. Not even complex people or weighty themes. And if you’re about to say ‘disregard for story’, we’ve already thrashed that out here .

A nuanced experience is the difference. A non-literary work is simply about what happens.

Or that’s my theory. What say you?


59 thoughts on “The slow-burn writer … What takes literary authors so long?

  1. I absolutely agree! What *happens* in a book holds so little importance to me. Nuance is it. And that’s how I write and aspire to continue to write. I can draft fast with the best of them, but to get a finished product in my world takes years. Right now I have four years in on what I believe will be my debut novel. It only took 65 days to draft. Rushing it out the door any earlier would have meant it was a good story, but it wasn’t up to the standard I hold for tying so many elements and characters and scenes and moods together. Every successive draft (and I’ve lost count at this point) has added a layer to the canvas. Now it is rich and full of surprises so that you could read it multiple times and catch new connections (I wrote the dang thing and I don’t even remember consciously making this or that parallel). Those are the types of books I love to read and that I actually remember. I read great stories from people who write fairly quickly, but they don’t linger. I rarely think about them again once I’ve closed the back cover.

    Thanks for this post, Roz. It really hits the nail on the head.

    1. Hi Erin – great to see you here! I like what you say about adding richness and fine-tuning the surprises. The way I see it is this: I’ve got an idea of what I want the book to be, and I don’t want to shortchange myself. I only have one chance to get it right, so I’m going to take all the time necessary.

  2. Such an interesting subject, and of course one that was a hot topic in the mainstream media recently after the publication of The Goldfinch (and I’m sure will be a hot topic again when Donna Tartt publishes her next book in 2020-something).
    Nuance is a really good word to explain what it is about literary fiction. I’m not convinced it takes huge amounts of time of necessity – it’s been encouraging this year to see more people in the UK talking about Cesar Aira, one of the towering figures in Latin American literature who is famous for never revising his drafts and whose work is as nuanced as it gets. I think the Marlon James quotation is on the money – a lot of what happens for most literary writers is that we write four or five times more than goes into our final book, and in a lot of genres that just doesn’t happen because the plot structure means it doesn’t happen.

    1. Hi Dan! Yes, Ms Tartt is a nice example of someone who publishes when she’s ready. Andrew Miller is another. As you say, sometimes a writer gets to a satisfactory end-point in a small number of drafts (Graham Greene is an example), but it’s more usual for them to need a lot of revising and re-vision (hyphen is deliberate).

  3. I’m never sure quite what to call what I like to read, but I don’t like stories which are all plot. Or perhaps I should say that they leave a bad taste behind, as if I’ve binged on too many Christmas cookies. If literary is what you describe, then that’s what I enjoy; stories with deep and interesting characters, whose choices go beyond whether or not to survive by killing the guy coming after them, or falling in love with the handsome or pretty one. However, I’ve struggled to read some books which are so concerned with form and doing something new that they are boring. Isn’t that also literary writing?
    I like what you say about nuance and subtext.

    1. Hi Ann!
      It’s curious what you say about books whose chief interest is form and experiment. Here’s where absolutes break down. These might be literary, but they could also be a pretentious mess. And probably no two people would agree on them, so it has to come down to personal taste. Thanks for bringing that up!

  4. Genre is quicker to write because on the whole it is using prose in the same way as it is used in a screenplay, ie simply to describe what happens and what is said. In general it is an objective/ surface form of the medium. If you then treat that objective text as a first-draft armature on which to build a subjective dimension with psychological depth, allusion, nuance, etc, then you are turning it into a literary work. On the whole that takes a little longer but ideally you should end up with a novel that is not like anything else – the very opposite of the goals of genre fiction.

  5. I’m afraid I’m on the slow-burner myself. I try and write faster, but it takes me a while. I hope to finish up my second draft soon. Then on to the third next year. I will probably do a fifth, maybe a six not sure. I have to tighten, tighten, tighten after I get everything down and in its place, lol.

    1. A fifth draft, a sixth … go for it! I decided with Ever Rest that I’d keep track of how many times I go through the manuscript, whether major revisions or minor sweeps to adjust one particular thing. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s 50 times.

    2. I think my novella itself had like 20 official drafts. I have a banker’s box full of drafts edited both by me and others. I wonder how many boxes a real novel will fill! Hopefully I can keep it down to your reasonable 5 or 6 drafts.

      1. I wrote the novel of my heart, four books in all, at least seven to eight times. I just couldn’t give up. I went back to it last summer but I put it aside again. I think it is pretty well shelved right now.

  6. Brilliant. I can’t say that I’ve been wondering about this, but had I, I think I would have struggled to come up with the perfect explanation. It’s certainly in those extra drafts that you get the depth.

  7. My head hurts from the colossal light bulb that just fell on my head. Thank you, I needed that. You just removed a feeling of incompetence and comparison that I’ve held for two years. I absolutely agree. I’m sitting here revising two manuscripts and for the first time I feel like it’s okay that this is taking YEARS. I’ve spent months revising a short story and heard “if you have to change the actual words outside grammar and plot than you aren’t a good writer.” but sometimes a semi colon IS important, two similar words do not mean the same thing and maybe rewriting 80% of a project is needed. Adding layers of symbolism, subtext and all those minute things take time and are worth while.

    1. Hello Maya! I know what you mean. In the past I’ve had conversations with agents who’ve said publishers would need a new book every year, and that’s made me somewhat depressed. It wasn’t until years later that I discovered my revision ethic actually fitted with a different set of writers perfectly. Yes, these things may seem minute, but they add up to a perfectly controlled reader experience.

  8. Thanks for support both for the slow burners and in another post, the under-writers. My hand is up to both. Another reason for slow working is if research is needed. Usually for historical novelists this is a given but if I was writing contemporary work I don’t think I could simply….well…write! This is true whether I get a draft down with gaps and question marks or do some interesting reading round first. My present novel is in its thirteenth year of maturation but there has been a great deal of time away from it for all kinds of non-writing reasons. I’d say, unless you’re lucky enough to have a contract with a date on it, do not worry – it will stress out the result as well as your brain.
    On ‘nuance’ as a marker for literary novels I think Julian Barnes is a fine example and why he wins awards.

    1. Hi Linda – good that you brought up the subject of research! Yes, it’s easy to write from your own experience about your own environment, but the further you stray away from that, the more you add to your novel’s development time. I like your word ‘maturation’ – let’s hope your book reaches a point of fruition soon!

  9. I like your theory. Nuance may very well be the defining characteristic of literary fiction. It may also be the characteristic that limits the appeal of literary fiction. Nuance takes time for a writer to integrate, and it takes patience for a reader to appreciate. In a market where genre fiction rules, nuance is often either omitted by the writer or lost on the reader. Balancing nuance with pace is a difficult skill. But when nuance is combined with the other essential elements of story, the results can be astounding. Where most literary fiction fails for me is where nuance has been painstakingly layered into a story that isn’t worthy of it.

    1. Hi Daniel! You raise an interesting question about nuance. If I read you right, you’re saying it can get in the way if it isn’t handled well? Indeed it can. But it doesn’t have to! (Yes, I’m just a rather demanding reader…)

    2. That’s more or less what I meant. However, I think nuance can get in the way even when it *is* handled well. That’s why we have so much “great” literary fiction that is unreadable for most readers.

      I’m assuming you are using the dictionary definition of nuance: subtle shades of meaning or expression. To be appreciated, subtlety has to resonate with the reader. It’s magical when that happens. I always feel like I’ve been treated to something special and that the author has connected with me on a personal level. Perhaps even a spiritual level.

      But when that same subtlety fails to resonate, it quickly becomes an irritant. Readers start to roll their eyes and skim pages looking for the next “good part.” If they get bogged down frequently enough, they give up. I’ve seen it. I’ve done it.

      I’m not suggesting that anyone avoid nuance, I’m just saying that nuance can personalize your work to the degree that the only readers who will appreciate it are those who think and feel like you do. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as you accept that your audience may not be as large as you hoped.

      I write what I like to read, regardless of how large or small my potential audience might be. It sounds like you do the same. Our writing is our gift to the world, with all its nuance or lack thereof. Viva la diversité.

  10. Howdy, Roz. This is a question that never ends, nor does it seem to have an answer. On the Donna Tart issue (grr….)… It’s been frustrating to hear so many times over that readers finished only 45% of the book. Oh, really? Were the bean counters behind me counting pages as I read the hardback? When a book of quality comes along, I buy it in digital for underlining and such, but the hardback is for the love of a book so thoughtfully done it aches. I know many who divide their book buying in the same way. I do like what you have to say about nuance and agree 100%. But I can’t agree that it’s like a screenplay, which I believe is excellent training ground for literary writers. The demands are staggering, and if the screenplay isn’t packed with nuance, it will end up food for the paper shredder or something starring the boy-toy du jour. The top screenwriting teachers these days *never* teach mise-en-scene, a concept that echoes the literary novel. Every single scene of the best films have layer upon layer of goings over for adding elements that will flash by in a second yet resonate on a sub-conscious layer that haunts. Film is a team sport, each player adding (often after a great deal of interpretive argumentation) another touch of nuance that brings everything to the scene and ties it to the next and the last and the theme and the voice and on and on and on. For the writer, they’ve got to be the entire team themselves, with or without an editor working with them every step of the process. I write both fast and slow, genre and literary. I find one enhances the other and ups the quality of both. Or it could be that the pace of doing both has driven me bonkers and I only *think* I’m getting somewhere 🙂 Bless you for tackling this subject yet again. It always puts you in the position of chin out and ready to take a blow. That’s courage and character, and it shows in your work.

    1. Cyd, your replies are wise posts in themselves. Daniel Marvello raised the question of books that are too much nuance and not enough pace, or where nuance seems to be used on an idea that lacks substance. I think you’re picking this up in your point about screenwriting being good for literary writers – and I agree. Sometimes, it even seems that story is disdained (though as you say, I’ve covered that before). On the other hand, I see a lot of novel manuscripts that have been written by people who clearly don’t read books. They read like instructions; the prose fails to spark in the mind. Indeed, I suspect many of these writers are hoping to go straight to the movie deal!
      And yes, I can think of many movies that are as rich as prose. Neil Jordan’s Ondine; a lot of Woody Allen; Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Double Life of Veronique (I’ll have Dan Holloway back here by uttering those magic words). There are no absolutes. This is what happens as soon as we try to find them.

  11. I write in a cocoon; gathering impressions around an initial image, allowing meaning to evolve by attracting other impressions. I shuffle connections, try combinations of colours and shapes as in a Kaleidoscope until the central image falls into place, from which all deeper nuances shine through and the first vague vision becomes clear, is ready to be polished and eventually can open its wings.

  12. To me genre fiction is about what happens, and literary (in what I have read) focuses a great deal of time on the why aspect.

    Why did this happen and not the other thing. Why did the Chicken cross the road? To get to the other side most certainly seems like a half ass reason. Works for cartoons apparently. But what made the chicken be willing to risk being ran over?

    That’s where I come in, and many of my great writer friends.

    1. Why versus what… an interesting theory, and watertight in some quarters. But let me counter with a genre example. Whodunits and murder mysteries usually focus on ‘why’. Which just goes to show that this nuance business is more slippy than it looks…
      Thanks for stopping by 🙂

  13. Thanks Roz for another insightful post. Have you read Andrew Sean Greer Novelist, author of The Story of a Marriage and The Confessions of Max Tivoli and The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells? I find his writing so richly nuanced that his characters and their story arcs leave a long comet trail in my mind.

  14. Reblogged this on sherriemiranda1 and commented:
    This is so good to know! I spent a few years writing my debut novel & before that, many years thinking about it. I think it came out at just the right time though, as 10 months in, I am still happy with it (except for a couple minor issues that only I seem to have noticed). I really want to get the prequel out sooner, but I guess that all depends on whether I can tie up all the loose ends and decide on one major storyline.
    I feel much better, having read this post. For that reason, I am passing it along to my blog followers! 😉 ❤
    Peace, love & great writing (eventually) to all,

  15. Nice blog post! Personally i’m not sure if I 100% agree with the time it takes to write what is considered “literary” fiction. My opinion is that is is more about the work definitely not being considered “genre”. So if I took say 18 days and wrote a story about a dysfunctional family in Barbados or something in “cool prose” i’d say people would see it as literary. Naturally some people take eons to write certain books, but I don’t think people who take a lot of time to write are necessarily stuck in some high literary bubble, maybe that’s their just process (to me). I’ve always thought that Literary fiction wasn’t necessarily what is considered “dense” (e.g David Foster Wallace) but is just not easily classified. Either way, it is what it is.

    1. Wise words, Marcus – and they demonstrate the difficulties we get into when we try to impose definitions on our slippery artform. Some literary writers take a long time; some do not. Some genre writers ditto. It’s generally the case that one type of writing takes a lot longer than the other, but not always so. And the fact that we can’t absolutely make rules is… one of its characteristics.

  16. On the flip side there are novels written in a short time span, sometimes as little as a month. The short turnaround time for these literary efforts often are the result of monetary reality, but for some writers a shorter writing period can be a strong creative stimulus.

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