How to write a book

Why literary novels take so long to write

literary fictionLiterary 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.

4 Perversity

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?

nyn1 2013 ebook j halfresGIVEAWAYS! Over on the Red Blog, Bryan Furuness is giving away 2 paperback copies of The Lost Episodes of Revie Bryson … follow the steps to enter

Also, don’t forget that there’s a giveaway here as well… to celebrate the new cover of Nail Your Novel.

The writing business · Writer basics 101

Where do writers get ideas for novels?

I’m hatching a new novel.

It doesn’t yet have a title, but I know its setting. So until something better comes along I’m calling it The Venice Novel.

I have a main character. He doesn’t yet have a name. I don’t know what he looks like or how old he is, who his friends and family are – except that these people will cause as much conflict as comfort, of course. They can’t be in the story if they don’t. Some of them will change, some will not.

For some reason he’s male because it feels right. This is not the time to interrogate my instincts, so male he shall be. If later he feels insistently feminine, I’ll switch him.

In any case, his gender is insignificant compared to his problem.

This problem is the touch-paper waiting to be lit and I understand it very clearly. At the moment, this simple-but-complicating problem is germinating the whole novel.

It’s too early to write formal scenes yet. I don’t know much of the plot. But certain essential beats have come to me in flashes. I’ve written them in a file called ‘Rushes’. One of them may even be the opening scene. Whether they make it to the final cut or not, they’ve told me a lot about him.

Ideas are everywhere. Each day, some part of The Venice Novel changes drastically. The next day it might change back. But even that increases my understanding of what the novel will be.

I’m reading other fiction with an altered brain, my invention function in overdrive. I’m second-guessing like mad. I read four short stories the other day and – without even meaning to – invented alternate endings for each one.

While driving, I surf radio channels for random ideas. I do that anyway because I hate being bored, but now I am on a purposeful hunt through the chattering spectrum of songs, interviews, reviews, current affairs and the whacky community radio station that sometimes plays recordings of trains. An undercover soundtrack is taking shape. The latest addition is Howard Jones. (Don’t ask. Yet.)

Today I left the house an hour late, and happened on a programme that gave me a sub-plot. It was a missing link, an extra lens for examining my theme. Less loftily, it’s a welcome source of humour and characters. A chance gift from the ether, because I left the house an hour late.

Where do novels come from? How often are writers asked that?

They come from moments as random and unrepeatable as snowflakes.

Thanks for the girl pic grisha_21

What do you do when you’re gathering ideas for a novel? Share in the comments!

If you’re hatching a novel too and are wondering what to do with all those ideas, you might find my book helpful – Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books And How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. Book 2 is in the works!