Tuesday, May 11, 2010

How long does it take to write a novel?

Here are the coloured fibre-tipped pens with which I have been working out a new plan/structure for my novel in progress (I love em! I could EAT em!)

Last week on the virtual book tour for Too Many Magpies Sue Guiney asked if novels come to me all of a piece and get written quickly or if I have to work hard at them. It's very different for each novel: as she had previously heard me say, Magpies did come to me more or less fully-formed, and I did write it quickly, in just two months - although, as I also said to her, I had been mulling the ideas for some time beforehand. The Birth Machine came fairly quickly - it took about six months - but the process involved a lot more thought and juggling/tinkering (and writing out coloured plans) than Magpies. And then again, after The Birth Machine was published a friend reminded me that about three years before I had said I wanted to write a novel on that very subject. Until that moment I'd entirely forgotten that, but it shows I'd probably been working on the book subconsciously all that time.

As I said to Sue, it all depends, I think, on your prior relationship to the material - how well you've got to know it and understand it before you sit down to the actual writing. Anyway, if you'll pardon the expression, my novel in progress has been a b****r! I have been working on it for some years now, and twice I have thought, mistakenly, that it was finished. The first time was when two separate agents I'd met as an editor and who had asked to see it, found themselves utterly confounded by its complexity! I snatched it back quickly, I can tell you, and, after the necessary period of nausea - you know what it's like: you suddenly can't stand the sight of the thing, it even makes you feel physically ill - there was the period of Novel Estrangement: you just can't get back in to it; you can't remember what it was that so entranced and obsessed you about its world. And you go off and have exciting affairs with plays and short stories and even other, short novels...

Well, eventually it starts knocking at your consciousness again, and you realise that after all it's the Novel Love of Your Life, and that's why your relationship with it is so complex, and you get drawn back in... So I wrote another draft, and once again I thought it was finished. And indeed a different agent took it up with alacrity, but lo, the six publishers she sent it to, while making lots of nice noises (oh, those nice noises that don't have to be backed up with action!) still found it too complex to be commercially viable! And I really didn't know after that whether it was a Good Novel but not commercial enough in the present climate, or just a Dead Loss. In any case, once again we were estranged, my novel and I, and I shoved it deep in a drawer, and, really, honestly, I was pretty sure it was the Novel Divorce.

Then one day last autumn I was incredibly lucky to have the wonderful, wise and inspired Fay Weldon offer to look at it. Not only do I regard Fay Weldon as one of my literary influences, she has actively helped me before, by choosing one of my very early stories for an anthology she edited, and indeed playing my real-life Marriage Counsellor, or rather Cupid: she chose a story of John's for the same anthology, and it was at the launch of the book that he and I met! Well, Fay saw that to make the novel saleable I needed to streamline it. As a writer, she knew of course not to tell me precisely how to change it - you can only do a thing if it comes from you - and it took me some time to digest her comments. But then I began to see what I had to do: the chunks I had to cut, the re-jigging of the rest that was needed, and the frame that was required. Then a couple of weeks ago I discussed it with my sister Anne. Anne isn't a writer (yet) so she didn't understand in the same way the need not to tell me how to do it, but it didn't matter, because, amazingly, the way she said I should do it was exactly the way I was starting to see for myself, and she clarified it for me!

How could they see so clearly, when I couldn't? They say the wife is always the last to know...

I am so unbelievably grateful to them both.

And now I have to actually do it, and make it work...

6 comments:

gonzopix said...

Interesting point you make about friends, spouses, fellow authors trying to help writers with work in progress: dont tell them how you think they could 'improve' their work when asked to look at it. Instead do the builder's estimate thing? intake breath, barely audibly - writers are sensitive creatures - through teeth? Tell them what jars, where a road bump slows the plot, where you have to double back to check a name, a fact...But don't make suggestions about how to deal with the problems. Sounds like sound advice.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Yes, it is...! If someone says 'Do it like this' you simply can't do it, even if it's the obvious or only way, because you have to be able to own it and feel it's come from you...

adele said...

And of course you will, and like in all the best stories, you and Novel will live Happily Ever After!

Elizabeth Baines said...

Ha! I hope so, Adele!

SueG said...

I love this point of the process when you're fiddling with structure, taking notes, playing with coloured pens -- everything other than actually writing. It seems more like play, although it's actually often more difficult, don't you think? Best of luck with it. I know it will come out right. And Fay Weldon? Now that's a good friends to have!!

Elizabeth Baines said...

She certainly is a great mentor, and I am extremely lucky, I know!

Yes, this stage is weird - very exciting, but kind of scary too: you have to know when to let it go so as not to fossilise the thing, and because there are some things that will only resolve in the actual writing.