Posts Tagged slow writing
I am at a nail-biting time. I’ve just sent the manuscript of my third novel, Ever Rest, to its first critical readers in the outside world. Soon I’ll receive their notes.
I’ve been through this process many times, obviously. I know roughly what to expect – both from my own experience and my experience mentoring and editing. It’s inevitable that:
- some parts will be overcooked
- some will be undercooked
- and hopefully some are just right.
After six years working on this novel, I’m eager for comments so I can finish it properly. But that anticipation also comes with trepidation. I’m a perfectionist and I hate delivering a less-than-perfect performance. This first reading is a thoroughly necessary process for any writer, but also a nerve-racking one. Do we ever get used to it?
I asked a few author friends how they handle this sensitive time.
Carol Lovekin @CarolLovekin is the author of three Welsh Gothic novels, Ghostbird, Snow Sisters and, most recently, Wild Spinning Girls. Like me, she’s a writer who takes her time, excavating a book to find the real bedrock of the story – as she described in this wonderful blogpost.
‘My first experience of structural edit feedback was brutal reality disguised in kindness. One of the things my first editor told me was, ‘Your writing is lovely; the problem is, there’s too much lovely.’ In other words, we’re dumping a lot of this. Descriptive writing is my forte. It felt utterly heartless. Once the edit was done however, I barely recalled those passages I’d sworn were my ‘best bits’ and the result was mind-blowing. Janet encouraged me to defend my words when it felt essential, and crucially, when to acquiesce and trust her wisdom. She taught me how to be a better writer and I return to her training over and again, specifically to that comment about the ‘lovely’. You will do your best editing when you draw on the criticism, good and bad, from previous books. It’s a privilege to be asked to rewrite until you bleed superfluous words.’
Find Carol here.
Peter Selgin @PeterSelgin is a novelist, memoirist, short story writer, playwright, essayist, artist, editor and associate professor of English at Georgia College & State University. You might recognise him from this recent interview.
‘These days, I’m happy to be read closely by anyone, and realized that to have any reading, let alone one that is close and careful and comes with thoughtful responses however critical, is a gift. Yes, praise feels good, but so does respectful and constructive criticism, even when the criticism is large or global, still, I see it as a gift: someone has given me and my work their time and effort. The only thing that upsets me is when someone asks to read a manuscript of mine and then says nothing, or worse, doesn’t read it. This is, to my mind, an unpardonable sin to commit against a writer (especially when committed by a fellow writer, who of all people should know better). I can’t imagine having an author send me their work and then ignoring it or letting it sit for weeks and months. Of all responses we can possibly get to our works, none is crueller, more damning than silence. The silence says (my translation): your work is so egregious I cannot bring myself to comment, or worse: I could not bring myself to read beyond a few pages; or worse still: I didn’t bother to read your work at all, having anticipated its badness. For me, a verdict of, “I read every word of your [book/story/essay] and suffered greatly each one” is preferable to silence. Well, I’d say to myself, —at least they read it!
Find Peter here.
Marcia Butler @MarciaAButler is the author of the memoir The Skin Above My Knee and the novel Pickle’s Progress. (You might remember she wrote an Undercover Soundtrack about her memoir.) Now in the final stages of edits to her second novel, Oslo, Maine, due out in March 2021, she says her process for getting reader feedback has changed.
‘I’m much more selective about readers in general and because of this I tend to show my work less and less. Most importantly, I trust myself more. I’ve realized I don’t need a lot of people to put eyes on my writing. But those who do, I select carefully.
‘In January I sent this novel to three people. Two were authors who have published numerous novels. This fact of being published is important because they’re wise to both what a book “should be” and the winds of the industry. The third was a dear friend I’ve known for 40 years who reads a ton. I knew he would be honest and thoroughly professional with me. They all came back with written comments. I also had conversations with all; one talk was lengthy.
‘The main thing I look for is consensus on what is not working. Confusion in the plot. Timelines that need correcting. Characters not nuanced enough. Things like that. If two of the three mention the same problem, I know it is real and must be addressed. Happily, all of them said it was 90% there, which of course, is lovely to hear. However, I don’t in any way take praise as a reason to relax. Praise simply means I’m on the right track. I have since gutted the thing. The plot is the same, but I have changed literally every sentence and even some character arcs. I’ll continue to work intensively until submission. That’s another thing I’ve learned over the course of three books. I try to get my novel in as complete a version as humanly possible when I submit to the publisher. Then his or her edit suggestions tend not to be as heart crushing. (Been there.)
Find Marcia here.
Mat Osman @matosman is now on his second artistic career. You might already know him as a founder member of Suede, who are still touring, and he’s now published a debut novel, The Ruins. He says his background as a musician prepared him well for editorial comments.
‘As a musician you’re entirely used to the idea of collaborative art. Albums are made by a group of people, constantly altering and improving and rewriting and trying things different ways. I found with the novel that I actually missed that feedback. I think I came to the editing in a completely different state of mind from most authors. Musicians (and especially producers) can be pretty brutal so I’m used to being told ‘God, that was absolutely useless, try it again without the boxing gloves on’. So an editor saying ‘We need to make these cuts and changes to make it read better’ feels very unthreatening to me. I have a friend who is a film editor and it’s a fascinating process to watch – they cut and cut and cut until everything that’s left is doing a job.
Find Mat here. Pic by Theo McInnes.
Claire Fuller @ClaireFuller2 is a novelist and short fiction writer. Her longform works are Our Endless Numbered Days, Swimming Lessons and Bitter Orange.
Now on her fourth novel, Unsettled Ground, she uses a writing group for feedback as she goes.
‘I share parts of the novel I’m working on every month. That does make sharing the whole novel easier because I’m used to getting feedback. Two or three friends from that group will read the whole novel, and before I send it to my literary agent. (And I’ll read theirs when they’re ready.) When their comments come back, I always feel a moment of anxiety – what if they hate it? But of course the comments are always mixed: some bits are working, other bits not. Then I have to let the comments sit for a day or two to digest them and let my emotions calm before I can look at them dispassionately and decide which ones I want to act on.
‘My agent is my second reader, and we usually meet for lunch to go through what she thought. If she books somewhere nice, sometimes I’ll think she must be happy with it, or if I’m feeling particularly insecure (when aren’t writers insecure?), I’ll worry that she’s taking me there to break the bad news! It’s never as bad as I think, and actually I like editing more than writing first drafts, so I’m happy to get feedback.
Find Claire here.
As Claire says, it’s never as bad as we think. And her point leads me to a final tip.
To get into the criticism-improving frame of mind, I decided to reread the feedback I had for Not Quite Lost, my last book. I meant to re-appreciate how helpful it was, how it showed directions I’d never otherwise have noticed. (Like Marcia, I gutted the book again afterwards. I’m a very thorough self-editor.) In so doing, I made an important discovery. In my memory, one reader found a big flaw, and I recall feeling embarrassed, because I’d made her read a misconceived mess. Now, reading her email again, I realised she was praising most of the book. At the time, I hardly saw. So that’s my tip. If you have been through this process before, dig out the critical reports you received on previous books. You’ll see how helpful they were – and you also might be surprised that they were positive and supportive too.
I’m still biting my nails, though. Wish me luck.
PS If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores (US only at present) use Bookshop.org. And if you’d like to know more about my creative life, including the full Richter scale of collywobbles about letting my manuscript loose, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.
It’s been a long journey. Five years ago, I started my novel Ever Rest. Fifteen drafts, and I now have the manuscript in a state where it’s fit to show to another person.
For the first time ever.
A curious feeling.
Like unveiling a massive secret
I never talk much about a work in progress (I’ve got a post about that here). I have never workshopped this novel or discussed it with a critique group, though I did base it on a short story I workshopped many years ago.
When I began in 2014, I brainstormed the concept with Husband Dave, but the book is now as far from those original thoughts as a wineglass is from sand.
I have shared tiny morsels of the plot with experts for research. Thank you, pathologists, musicians, priests, media lawyers, artists, expeditioners and mountaineers who answered my questions.
But the whole thing, I have kept to myself, done entirely alone.
Words in, words out
To begin with, I worried it would never get big enough. I had to change from short-form to long-form thinking (here’s a post about that).
For a while, I was pleased any time the wordcount went up. In the late drafts, once I knew what it was, I was relieved to see it drop again.
Under a crazy spell
In these finishing months, I have been a diligent writer and a negligent author-publisher. I’ve kept up with news about ways to stay visible and leads to pursue. I’ve made to-do lists. And I have not done them. The book needed my undivided attention and I could not imagine doing that other stuff, or how I had ever done it before.
But now it’s like a craze is passing. A sense of other priorities is returning.
It’s been like beginner dating
In the beginning, I was eager for comparison titles. Who were the readers who might get it? I looked for comparisons, according to themes, locations, inciting incidents. They were most unsuitable. Very well, it would be a misfit, so I wrote in a state of defiance, like a bolshy teenager. Now it’s become a recognisable shape after all, different from my expectations. I know where it might find friends.
I can break my reading diet
A developing book is fly paper. Any idea, style, mood might stick to it, and particularly from other books. See here for my detailed post about what I read while I’m writing.
Now, I can choose books for pure interest.
More to come
It’s not finished. There will be much to refine. but compared with what I’ve already done, the remaining work will be small. Details will change. Technicalities, repetitions. unclarities. plot goofs, realities I need to make more real. Layers that need more sparkle – or less. emphases that need to be adjusted. But it is now what it is. All changes will help it do that better.
Making new humans
There are people who compare the writing of a book to motherhood. I’m not a mother so I won’t appropriate that comparison, but I find I relate to the singleminded purpose that develops through a pregnancy. In this way, making a novel seems like making a new human. except I have made at least seven with hearts to inhabit, and several more who will test them. No wonder it’s been intense.
I am missing those characters. They are not completely lost to me, of course. I may have to adjust them. Later, the production phases will require that I read and reread anyway. But I miss that I might have no more to discover about them, no more to give or take away from them, because that was one of the pleasures of knowing them. Perhaps it’s good that I am not a parent. (There’s more about how to parent your characters here.)
Heart in mouth
Now it’s ready to be tested. A tightrope moment. Best not to look down.
It’s not over yet.
But it feels like it is.
Thanks for the pic Gusaap on Pixabay
PS There’s loads about organising a rewrite (or several) in my workbook
PPS More on editing fast, editing slow… here’s what’s been happening in my creative world this month
How many drafts does a novel need? Some are ready for an editor by the second or third draft. Others – like mine – are assembled in slow layers of revisions, a process of discovery. There’s more about that in What Takes Literary Authors So Long.
I wouldn’t be surprised if I went through a manuscript at least 50 times, but I’ve never counted. So for Ever Rest I’m keeping a draft diary. How many times do I set out from the start? What am I doing each time and how much difference does it make?
Right now, I’m starting draft 10, which on my usual timescale is early days. But my draft diary has already revealed some surprising and paradoxical benefits of slow writing.
Outline first, obvs
Ever Rest has been with me a long time. I wrote it originally as a short story, read it out at a workshop and the feedback was unanimous – it had enough guts to be a novel. So began long hours of staring at plot cards in uffish thought, and much collecting of Undercover Soundtracks (music for writing… see here). Finally, I’d assembled a set of troubled characters and some torments for them. I put my headphones on and began writing.
Draft 1 – inhabiting the scenes for the first time. I was trotting nicely through the outline when a couple of characters went off piste and sent everything to pot. Somehow, though, it made glorious sense so I clung on and wrote to the end. And hurrah, I had a wordcount of 76,123. The original short story was 7,000 and I’d been worried it wouldn’t make novel length. Onwards.
Draft 2 – dealing properly with the disobedience in draft 1. It made intuitive sense, but why? Draft 2 was understanding this, pushing the characters harder. When I landed at the end I had 107,471 words. Shortness wasn’t going to be a problem. I suspected much of the wordcount was flab, but I now had room to cut.
Draft 3 – getting strict about facts. I’d left a lot of factual gaps so I didn’t nonce around with research I wasn’t going to use. What colour is a police uniform in Kathmandu? Now it was worth finding out. Also I filled the gaps in back story. How do x and y know each other? When did crucial event z happen?
This draft fizzled out, alas. Other deadlines intervened and I made my ghostwriting course for Jane Friedman. After that the manuscript looked like an exam in a language I didn’t speak, so I started again, draft 3.2. Pretty soon, draft 3.2 did something that disrupted the beginning, so I rewound again and started draft 3 for the third time.
Drafts 4-7 The original short story was a first-person narrative. In enlarging it, I added a lot of people and it grew into an ensemble piece, with short chapters from different viewpoints. Several characters had matured much further than their original roles, so I needed dedicated drafts to give them proper space.
Meanwhile, the book’s Undercover Soundtrack was now the size of a small record shop.
After a detour for a little travel memoir, draft 8 began with a radical scene reshuffle. The book had never felt balanced so I put a main character’s introduction earlier, where it ran more smoothly. Often I don’t know why something is wrong until I make a drastic change; then it seems to sigh with relief.
I was also worried about easing the reader into the story, so I promoted an outsider character to a bigger role. If I introduced the story through him, the reader could learn alongside him. His back story looked thin, so I tipped a lot more words in to give him a more defined life. But despite all this, he was boring. What to do? One of the other characters had a job that resonated with the novel’s main themes. What if he did her job? At first this seemed inspired; a perfect fit. Then I began to hear a false note. Instead of a pleasant resonance, it screamed the smart parallels in the reader’s face.
By the end of draft 8, they were back to their original professions. And I realised I’d been right the first time. The person who originally had that job had a bigger arc I hadn’t suspected. I only found out by breaking the book.
Draft 9. I now knew the supporting character couldn’t kick the book off. So I tried the most complicated character as centre stage. I hadn’t before because I’d thought her situation was too strange and required copious explanations. But if I could find one detail that would plug the reader into her world? I found it. Geronimo. With this new opening, I then chopped a number of redundant scenes and made a list of scenes that were missing. I usually find these tricky to write, but I found if I started typing and made the characters talk to each other, they took the scene further than I ever imagined. When you know the characters, they will surprise you when they talk for themselves.
And now I begin draft 10. What now? In the previous drafts, I’d been singling out particular threads or problems. Now I’m going to read the book in its entirety, to listen to the whole mix. I think I know what I’ve made, but I’m not yet certain. Wish me luck.
Oh and what’s the wordcount? 110,213. Each round, I’ve culled and added a lot, and I’m sure there’s more that can be trimmed, but it seems to have found its comfortable weight. Expect a whopper, guys.
So here are my 3 wondrous paradoxes of a slow writing process
- A massive switch in my original plan was so intuitively right … that discovering why helped me understand the whole book.
- Sometimes you have to break the book to understand how it works. Swapping characters’ roles, giving the opening chapter to a different character, even changing the main viewpoint were all useful experiments. Even if you restore it to the way it was, you come away with a stronger understanding. (You might also like Revision is Re-vision.)
- When you know the characters, that’s when they might surprise you most.
Thanks for the balcony pic, Maxpixel.
Are you a slow writer? Have you discovered any wondrous paradoxes? Share them here.
Need a writing plan? My method (including time spent staring at plot cards in uffish thought) is in Nail Your Novel.
Want to know more about Ever Rest’s progress? Get updates in my newsletter.
Didn’t I say in January that I had a book I would write quickly? A book based on my travel diaries. A book that should have required a quick spit and polish, then out of the nest it would go.
But no, the months have passed, and if you followed my newsletter you’ll have seen the progress through rough edits, reconcepting, purge of darlings, second purge of darlings, beta reader 1, beta reader 2, reader 3, reader 4, final polish, snapshots of typesetting on Facebook and final sigh of relief.
January to July: seven months to take a book from personal notes to publicly presentable. It was a lot more work than I thought it would be, but still quite fast by my usual standards.
I haven’t been doing it full time, of course. My usual freelance editing gigs have snowballed, and sometimes I’ve been fighting to protect a few hours for my book. Equally, it’s benefited from being consigned to the basement, cogitating. If I’d had an uninterrupted run, it wouldn’t be the book it is.
‘Finding a destination’ is generally the biggest challenge of the bookwriting process for me. It’s what takes literary writers so long (which I posted about here).
It also doesn’t seem confined to writing, by any means. I recently stumbled across these lines in an obituary published in The Economist of the mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani:
By her own account, she was “slow” …. she teased out solutions by doodling for hours on vast sheets of paper … the point, she said, was not to write down all the details, but to stay connected to the problem. She likened mathematical enquiry to being lost in a forest, gathering knowledge, to come up with some new tricks, until you suddenly reach a hilltop and see everything clearly.’
I’m a card-carrying slowcoach, and I see this same struggle in the Facebook feeds of writer friends. It’s the hell of book writing, and also, eventually the heaven. You did it. You persevered, you made a substantial something out of fat nothing; just a notion that took your fancy or kept you fretting. The fact that it took so long is, in the end, part of the triumph. You persevered with a possibility that no one else saw, shaped it in a way that no one else would. Finally, a stranger can take your trip and say ‘I never went there before’.
So far, so personally rewarding. But we stumble over the finish line and into an immovable fact. This cherished, nurtured, shiny new book is a speck in a sea of plankton. There are not enough eyes to read all the books that are published. It’s the best of times to be a writer and the worst of times to try to make a living at it, or run a publishing company. The Guardian recently published this piece with a bleak view, which we can boil down to this: barring a miracle, hardly anybody will buy it.
So does the world need my new book?
We have so many already. Good books; great books. The human condition doesn’t change.
Certainly it doesn’t, and Chaucer still resonates now. I’ll read a book from the 1950s as readily as the 2000teens. Dave keeps urging me to read New Grub Street by George Gissing, which was published in 1891 and nails the creative industries exactly as they are today. But sometimes we want the company of contemporary minds. People might not change, but the world will always do things that are, for better or worse, unpresidented.
Even if your work is not tackling current issues, it still comes through contemporary sensibilities. Although authors primarily write for their own reasons – personal fulfilment, making a living – the world does still need them.
The duty we have now is to publish only what deserves to be. To use a reader’s time wisely and responsibly.
Still, why write?
But selling books can be so soul-shrivelling, particularly today. So why do we still write more? We do it because the long process of conversation with an idea, like Maryam the mathematician, is intrinsic to those who are creative. Even though it’s often agony to face a blank page. The writer in the Guardian goes back into her cycle, the way we all do – not knowing if she has the goods to do it again.
The selfish gene?
Is that primarily a selfish process? It must seem so. But at the least, it must make us wiser people. To understand our own themes forces us to see them from more sides than just our own. We might delve a long way in research to write a situation truthfully. To create a character who isn’t a stereotype, we might have to admire their flaws or be critical of their virtues. Our invented people teach us tolerance and generosity.
Even my travel tales – which were not invented – had to be revisited with a more critical eye.
And so, for better or for worse, I have a new book. Because that is what I do.
Not Quite Lost – Travels Without A Sense of Direction will be available on preorder soon -watch this space.
Still time to grab this bargain! You have until the end of July to grab a special offer on Nail Your Novel – Amazon have chosen it for a Book Of The Month deal, so the Kindle edition is just USD$1.99.
Bargain! again! – Last chance to read my novels FREE and choose from hundreds more titles on subscription service Bookmate – exclusive code at this link.
Some books take time to write. You know that already. Having recently flogged my way through two tricky narratives, I’ve been blogging about slow writing quite a lot.
But slow isn’t the only way to write decent books. There are a lot of authors who turn in perhaps two or more a year (I once did four). If you’re writing in a well defined genre, your craft is well established and you know what you’re going to do with the ideas, it’s perfectly possible to whip your novel out in six months or faster. Especially if you’re writing a series.
With genre fiction, I know where I’m going – and here’s my rough process:
- 1 establish the characters, using genre expectations as a start point, and then twist as much as I dare to give my version a unique flavour
- 2 establish who will cause the biggest problems, what they want to do and whether that will have enough mileage for a story
- 3 take the tropes of the genre as a starting point, identify the reader must-haves and work out some spectacular set-pieces
- 4 research where necessary
- 5 decide my locations, arm myself with details to write plausible scenes there (travel photos on Flickr are brilliant for this)
- 6 plot, write, revise, ferment, revise, send to publisher, get notes. Done. Bring on the next one.
[If you liked my potted guide here, you might like my book Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence, which I wrote in about 6 weeks (and 20 years of experience).]
A lot of writers work like this, especially genre writers. If you know where you’re going, know your audience, you can keep fans and editors well supplied. Perhaps too well supplied – the publishing industry usually likes a writer to produce one book a year. They don’t want to publish as fast as some writers are able to deliver.
What’s the problem?
You could say this does no harm; the books can be stockpiled and everyone sits pretty for years. Except they won’t. Because readers don’t want to wait. They are used to gobbling their entertainment in the grip of a craze – they want all of Lost, right now. And these kinds of writers get more leverage the more titles they can offer. Publishers may be losing something if they can’t feed those fans right now.
I know plenty of writers who find themselves hamstrung by this and turn to indie publishing in order to satisfy their fans and make the most of their productivity.
So does the book-a-year model suit the slow-maturing novel? Not remotely. When you’ve been hit by a bizarre idea where anything is possible, these books need many drafts of experimentation before you get near the steps in my plan above. This work cannot be done in a mere 12 months.
Obviously, the traditional book-a-year schedule exists because of publication practicalities. But there are a lot of writers it doesn’t suit. And it seems it doesn’t necessarily serve readers particularly well either.
Thanks for the pic Kio
Fast writers, slow-burn writers – we are publishing in interesting times… What writing pace suits you and why?