Friday, July 14, 2017

Instant Gratification: Dangers of Seeking It When Writing a Book

When we start writing a book, we have no clue how long it will take.  Most first-time book writers think maybe a year, two at the most?  A colleague was both relieved and dismayed to learn from a graduate-school panel of published writers that memoirs typically take seven years to write.  Rebecca Skloot, author of the best-seller, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, said her book took ten years and it couldn't have gone any faster--she needed all that time. 

But we're seduced by workshops and craft books that promise a completed manuscript, ready for agents, in nine months.  I recently saw a workshop that was called "Novel in a Month."  I participate in Nanowrimo regularly (National Novel Writers Month) and have even published a novel from that marathon, but it didn't come out finished--it needed a couple of years of revision before it was ready for other eyes. 



Instant gratification.  We're trained towards it in our culture.  It's exciting to think that you can produce a publishable book from idea to finished draft in one month, isn't it?  That's not much of your life to give.  But it's an illusion, truly.  If you believe it, if you can actually do it, more power to you.  Let me know, and I'll be at your book-signing launch.

Most writers don't want to spend their whole life writing their books, but they also feel constantly behind if they believe this myth of producing a quality manuscript that fast.  It might be relief to hear than most writers take between three to six years to write and revise their first book.  The second one, maybe less.  Or maybe, like me, you get interested in a much more complex structure and you take a little longer.  I'm on year five with my current novel and it's close to being really done this time.  I needed all those years, all that learning, all the help and mentoring I got, all those mistakes I made (sending it out too early, suffering through rejections) to produce a story that astonishes me now--especially when I recognize what I didn't know about it when I began.

A friend who struggles with how long a book takes shared an excellent writing exercise that I'll pass along this week.  It helps calm the urgency, the feeling of being behind, and the seducing whine of instant gratification, to let the writer get back to work.

Your weekly writing exercise:  Where I've come and what I've learned so far

1.  Take 20-30 minutes and remember where you were when you began this book project.  If you can actually recall your location, the life you lived then, any other details, bring them forward.

2.  Begin making a list of what you've learned since then.  On my list was ten or more items about my characters alone.  Plus dialogue.  Plus plotting!  Plus, plus, plus.  Write for as much of the 20-30 minutes as you can, including even small learnings you know you've made.

This exercise is a mood booster, at minimum.  It also helps the writer become more satisfied with where they are and honor what they've learned, so it's easier to keep going.