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Seems Like Forever, or The End of the Beginning of the World

A woman in my writers’ group predicted that she won’t reach the deadline she has set for finishing her book. She’s glad that she’s pushing forward but feels frustrated not to be writing faster. The process is happening as fast as possible given the time she has to work on her book every week. That’s all there is to it.

Her frustration is my frustration. I work on my book every day for at least 1.5 hours, an amount of time I can pretty much guarantee I’ll have every day. Rather than shoot beyond that and fail on a regular basis, I aim for what’s doable and go for more as opportunities arise.

Moving forward feels good, but I, too, feel frustrated for not getting more work done during my allotted time. My process is quite ruminative, which is not, in fact, a euphemism for “slow.” I need to ruminate, or, more accurately, my brain ruminates, processing information at an average speed, but much more slowly than it is able to take in information.

Experts confirmed this ten years ago, but it’s taken ten years of experience after the test on top of the thirty years of experience before the test for me to accept that fact. I try not to fall into a determinist view about it. Sometimes I can write quickly, but it’s usually something short–a poem, a story, an email–and happens spontaneously. Slam poetry wouldn’t be impossible for me to do; I’d just need to start training well in advance of a performance. The point is that I am what I am, and I do what I do. Rather than wasting energy fighting myself, I can take a more positive approach.

Novel writing is arguably what I’m designed to do. Until I have a book deal, I’m on my own schedule, so there’s time to ruminate. I didn’t meet my super-ambitious goal for the summer (to finish revising my book by June 15) and probably won’t meet my revised goal (to finish by August 15). I’ll just keep going.

Part of the problem with setting goals is that I’m only now getting a sense of the scope of the project. I’ve never written a novel before, so for all my planning, I can’t anticipate what’s really going to happen as I work on this thing. As so many novelists say (and not just first-time novelists), we learn as we go through the process.

According to Kenneth Atchity, this cliche makes a lot of sense. In his book A Writer’s Time, he explains, “You must allow more time at the beginning of a project to accomplish less work.” Even a fast-processing writer would slog through the first stages of writing a novel. I’m finding this to be true for certain parts of the process as well as the overall process. I’ve been at it for three year and finished the first draft a few months ago. But when I started to revise, it felt as if I hit the reset button.

Writing the first draft had become an adventure. I began with a plan, but after I wrote a few scenes, I came up with ideas that weren’t in the plan, and found that continued to happen. It wasn’t that I strayed far from the plan and ended up with a whole different novel. Rather, the writing helped me understand what was good about the plan as well as the flaws. I wrote more quickly and freely. It was fun, and I had to make a conscious decision to stop, although the decision came easily because the generative writing gave me a strong felt sense that I was ready to move on.

To revise, I’m immersing myself in the first draft a little bit every day. Much needs to be rewritten (minor rewording to major gutting and rebuilding). I expected that and understand a first draft is a sketch. Occasionally the words are just right, but usually they’re a placeholder that needs to be developed. There are some interesting possibilities in there, things I didn’t intend but that are, indeed, promising.

It’s all taking more time than I expected, more time than the writing I was doing a few months ago. This new phase feels, as Atchity describes the beginning of a project, my “mind’s initial confrontation with a new experience.” I’m not new to this novel or the practice of revision, but somehow in this context it does feel new to me. I don’t quite know what I’m doing so I need to take it slow–even more slowly than I tend to proceed.

But this work is an enormous responsibility, albeit self-imposed. A novel, even one that still seems it will never be finished, is a planet with its own ecosystem, atmosphere, and gravitational force. I can make this world in six days only if I admit that day one took two-and-a-half years. That’s a lot of foundation laying, but hey, I like to lay it on thick. Now I’ve got to carefully inspect my creation, making changes as I go. Still, day two should only take seven or eight months. At that rate, I can expect a day off soon, maybe within the next two years.

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2 Responses

  1. Great post!

  2. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything that comes quite as close to describing my writing process as this. I’ve been working on my first book for seven years now, and even though I wanted to finish it much, much sooner, it took the amount of time it needed. I learned a lot in the process that I don’t think I would have learned if it had come to me more quickly, or more easily. Writing the first draft was like drawing the map, and all the subsequent drafts were like figuring out where the map was taking me.

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