Two, No, Three, Secrets of Novel-Writing

There are a few things I figured out in the past couple of months that I find myself thinking about and thought might be worth writing down, as I come to the end of one stage of this process and start another.

The most important might also seem the most obvious. Writing a novel takes a lot of time. If you have other commitments, like children and/or an outside job, writing a novel is something you can do in your spare time only if you are willing to ruthlessly refrain from (or at least drastically reduce the frequency of) doing many other things in your spare time, things people often consider normal and desirable, even indispensable: seeing your friends, watching your television shows, exercising, going to the movies or to a museum, keeping your home reasonably clean, volunteering, attending worship services, studying a foreign language, managing your finances, spending a weekend at the beach, surfing the Internet, having people over for dinner, even reading other people’s novels. Such activities become the enemy, for however different they seem, they have one thing in common: they are not writing. When you are doing them you are not writing.

I was extraordinarily slow to grasp this. It puzzled and irked me that I could not seem to “find the time to write,” even though I supposedly wanted to write a novel, had an idea, a plan, an outline. I made up complicated psychological explanations about writer’s block, but the real answer was in front of my eyes. There are only so many hours in a day, and many of them are spent on sleep and other unavoidable things. And particularly in the early stages, the writing seemed far less real and vital than all those other things I was used to doing, and it was hard to put it first. It was just a bunch of thoughts in my head; nothing very clear. It seemed natural to wait until I had some other stuff out of the way — until the apartment was clean, until I had had lunch with the friend I had been meaning to have lunch with since February. Then, then, then, I could really concentrate!

But finally I began to understand that it doesn’t work like that, because however much stuff you get out of the way, new stuff shows up to take its place, until you either give up and don’t write the novel, or something changes in your mind and you do.

Another big problem I had, once I had started to accumulate words, was with seeing the thing as a whole. This seemed an immense challenge, because when you are writing one part you can’t remember just what you wrote 100 pages back — was that servant named Thomas, or Richard? Was that inn the Bull, the Swan, or the Crown? Nor do you want to: you want to keep going forward, not messing around with what happened 100 pages back.

And it wasn’t only small things like that, can be easily fixed with search and replace, but larger questions about the tone and the voice and the arc of the story. Is there an arc, or even a story? Or is it just a random collection of scenes? Is one thing really leading to another? It’s strange how hard to say this is, and I think it that has to do with the fact that you are both writing and reading — in effect, as the writer you are the first person to read your novel, but writing is much slower than reading. You do actually forget as you go along, and this is natural, for it is happening over months.

To my surprise this problem eventually took care of itself, but only once I had made the mental shift to totally immerse myself into the novel, to let the rest of the world go on with whatever it was doing, without me. Retyping all 150,000 words and revising as I went did it for me. Then going through it and chopping 11,000 words out. I see the thing as a whole now; what it cost me was time. Again, it comes back to that.

Three, you have to be writing the book you want to read. There is nothing else that can keep you going through the slog, unless you are lot more self-disciplined than most people. If this book already existed, there would be no need to write it; you could just read it (always assuming you could find it). If someone else could write it, you should let them. When I got the idea, about 3 a.m., almost four years ago, in a burst of insomnia-fueled inspiration, about an Austen-loving physician who travels back in time with the wish to find out what really happened and to maybe save JA from premature death, my first thought was, damn, I would love to read that book!

I am still thinking that.

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