"It was imprudent of us, in the first place, to become authors. We could have become something regular, but we managed not to.
We were lucky, but we were also determined." Roy Blount Jr

"I don’t change the facts to enhance the drama. I think of it the other way round, the drama has got to fit the facts,
and it’s your job as a writer to find the shape in real life."
Hilary Mantel

Friday, August 10, 2007

Flying into the mist

from the other side of the Big Lake: my part of the Bay on a misty morning

The title of this post is a phrase used by writers (and others), which explains for Janice and anyone else why there's a mystery about how long it takes me to write a book.

The book on which I'm presently working is different from all other books I've done. In a sense, I've been "writing" it--thinking about it, planning it, dreaming of being able to write it, researching it, developing it--for nearly a decade.

When I first decided it needed to be written, and that I'm the only person in the world who can write it, it didn't seem to fit any popular market niche. Plus, I was already contracted for at least two other books in a highly profitable genre.

Increasingly over the past few years the market became much more favourable for my big book. And yet I got involved with another writing project, and a bunch of time-consuming volunteer activities. Two years ago, partly hoping to eventually ride a market wave, haunted by my unwritten historical epic, I set aside the contemporary novel and downscaled my non-writing distractions as best I could.

Since then, I finished my painstaking research (which took me to England more times than I can recall--not exactly painful!)

Next step: live in the book wholly and fully, finish up my proposal, let my agent assess it and start submitting.

That was my goal before I startled myself by getting elected to public office. It's still my goal as I deal with the ramifications of election and the craziness of Year 1 in a legislative biennium. (They say Year 2 is easier, and ends earlier. It sounds good, only I don't believe everything I hear...)

My commitment to the novel is unwavering, and after a fairly productive summer I'm itching to chase a book contract. But there's much work yet to do, and timing is everything. Maybe within a month...two months...maybe not till later in the year. I'll know when it's ready, and I am, too.

So this, my present effort, seems to be taking more than a decade to finish.

My first book took less than a year.

For every book--eleven published ones, a novella for two hardcover and two paperback publishers, maybe half-a-dozen other projects in various stages of completion (or non-completion)--my process has been largely the same but the circumstances have been radically different, and that does affect the gestation time.

I don't even know how to define when I "begin" a book. It definitely doesn't start with "Chapter One, Page One," because to reach that point I've been busy for weeks--months--years.

How long it takes to write a book depends on:

  • whether I'm writing it on spec (as I'm now doing, i.e. not under contract yet) or meeting a legally contracted deadline.

  • the length of the book (75,000 words, 100,000, somewhere in between,)

  • whether I'm starting from scratch (a vague or fairly concrete idea) or whether I've finished the preliminaries (plotting, characters, research, outline)

  • whether the book has already sold to a publisher on proposal (first three chapters and full synopsis) and has a mutually-determined delivery date

  • whether I intend to lead a semblance of normal life during the writing of said book, or whether I will do almost nothing except write that book until it's done, delaying all travel and any major distractions, as well as other paid forms of writing such as newspaper columns, articles, reviews, scripts, ad copy--whatever comes up.

    When I was young (oh, so young), a newlywed, living far from family and friends, I decided to fly into the mist, big time, and write fiction. After being a script and nonfiction free-lancer, and scribbling fiction on the side, I reversed things.

    For my first two books, I wrote each in its entirety before taking it to market. I did nothing but stay home and write. Both were 75,000 words. I don't remember exactly, but I know each one took less than a year to write. Probably more than 6 months, because my final drafts are really clean and polished.

    My next four sold on proposal (three chapters and synopsis finished). For each, there was about 9 months from acceptance to deadline. And I always met deadlines.

    The one after that was a chunky 100,000 words. After completing it, I eventually trimmed it to 85,000 in order to sell it to a new publisher. Wrote my option book in less than a year because it was already underway when I signed the two-book contract.

    Spent a couple of years developing a bigger project, wrote about 35,000 words of it. Got bogged down.

    Moved from Colorado to New England and played house for a while. New home, new life, new literary agent--needed new project.

    Spent that first extremly harsh winter hibernating and researching and writing another longer book--100,000 words. By spring I had a 5-chapter proposal and my agent submitted it to two houses. Both were very interested. One of those very interested editors, who happened to be with the hottest, happenin'-est publisher for that genre, looked me up at a writers' conference that summer. We found out we were very sympatico. Within weeks I had a 2-book contract and my career was taking a big upward swing.

    The neighbours still remember me happy-dancing all over my front garden the afternoon I got The Call from my agent and one from the nice new editor.

    I finished that book on time, delivered the manuscript the following May. (A bit more than a year from start to finish, by my reckoning.) The second book on the contract was the one I'd stopped writing at 35,000 words. I finished it up fairly quickly (for me).

    Both books were published in the same calendar year. This was a boon to my career (frequency of publication is a Good Thing) but it nearly destroyed me. Because by then my original enthusiastic editor had given up her job to have babies, I'd been handed off to two other editors since then, I'd signed a second 2-book contract, and I was trying to write a new book while promoting two published books. Early on, I asked for a deadline extension. I've no idea how long it took to write that third long book, I only remember I thought it would never end.

    When it was time to submit the proposal for the fourth book with that publisher, the one I confidently put forward was rejected. The publisher was focussing on a specific type of book--the type I 'd successfully written but was increasingly weary of writing--and my idea just didn't fit the bill. (My first inkling that our relationship wasn't long-term.) It was an unexpected blow, coming days before we were due to leave for a stint in the UK.

    I pulled myself together, came up with a new proposal, took a draft along with me, refined it and submitted it from overseas. By the time I was home again, it had been green-lighted, and I started writing like a maniac. I also re-negotiated the deadline. I had a lot more fun writing that book than I expected, even though I suspected by then it was likely to be my valedictory effort.

    On completion of the final book on my contract, the publisher still had the option on a "similar" work. I'd already completed a proposal--a New Hampshire-set novel, in fact, about the rise of railroads and lakes and mountains tourism in the late 19th century. It was a real long shot and I knew it. I only got as far as pitching the idea--it was instantly shot down. And I never proferred another idea. At that point I felt free to change directions--either fiction or in nonfiction.

    As a palate-cleanser, I embarked upon research for a literary biography.

    Interesting footnote: the sell-through for the fourth "lame duck" book turned out to be the highest of all, even though it had a dreadful cover and I did virtually no promotion and the book had average publisher support.

    Nothing about this business is rational. Or predictable.

    Technically, I think that publisher still has an option should I ever go back to writing the sort of books they were (and still are) publishing, because I never requested a release statement.

    I subsequently obtained all my reprint rights back from that and all previous publishers. My agents have repeated re-sold books to other publishers in the US and abroad. (And continue doing so.)

    When writing books, I'm a planner--time-consuming--but on any given writing day, I can write really fast, if the juices are flowing. To reach that point of productivity I've laboured a great deal in advance. (Mind you, the prep is thoroughly enjoyable.) I read history books. Study maps. Check original source material. Create outlines upon outlines. Character charts and timelines. Synopses--long, excruciatingly detailed, for nobody's eyes but my own.

    When I have the luxury of time, I write huge chunks of a book just to get the "feel" of it and make sure it's solid. I write experimental drafts.

    Just last week, I was emoting to a friend/priest/fellow creative person about the writing life, and choices, and decisions, and responsibilities, and leading a balanced life. He recommended Life Work by New Hampshire's Donald Hall (who just completed his term as U.S. poet-laureate, succeeded by Charles Simic, another New Hampshire poet.) It's now on my list for the next bookstore run.

    Because now that I've matured as a writer (and as a human) I consider much more carefully why I'm doing what I'm doing, what the rewards and risks will be, than my youthful self did on first flying into the mist, determined to finish a manuscript and see it in print. Back then I was buoyed by hope, sheer ignorance, stubborness, and my husband's and family's faith in my ability to succeed at whatever I attempted.

    Today I'm buoyed by experience, past accomplishments, a better understanding of myself and my process, hope--and a strange fearlessness. Though I rarely discuss what I'm working on with husband or family, they still have faith. I've cured the ignorance and constructively re-channeled the stubbornness...which sounds much more attractive when I call it perseverence.

    It's far easier to say how long it took to write books already written. I've no idea exactly when I'll finish the book-in-progress, and that's all right. Yes, there's a plan. (I always have a plan.) But it's only a road map, for a writer who's always open to interesting, challenging side trips.

    That's why, when it comes to creating a novel, I am always, on some level, still joyously flying into the mist.

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