Writing a Novel: Thirty Days or Thirty Years?

15 Jun

I’ve ranted previously on this site about the idea that a novel worthy of reading might be completed in a matter of months (see post here). In particular, I objected to the premise of ‘National Novel Writing Month’ and its implication that a novel – or anything like one – might be written in thirty days. It took me six years to write my last novel. All manner of things happened in my life over the period. At times, it felt as though I’d always been writing that book. It’d have been convenient if it had appeared after a year – or indeed a month – fully formed, exactly as I’d imagined it. But it didn’t. It required an enormous expense of thought and toil, and was, to an extent at least, a pale copy of the fine work that I’d imagined. The idea that it might have been produced with a minimum of effort seems to me to be missing the point rather. And yet, six years, relatively speaking, is no time at all. I was listening the other day to A Good Read on BBC Radio 4 and one of the books chosen took the writer, the late Jeff Torrington, thirty years to write. Thirty years! From the ridiculous to the sublime…

And this was the case with not one Glaswegian writer but two. Torrington and his contemporary, Alasdair Gray, each spent the better part of thirty years producing their lengthy, complex début novels, Swing Hammer Swing and Lanark respectively. Young men when they began writing those works, they were deep into middle age (57 and 47) by the time that they were published. Think of the tenacity and self-belief that such an undertaking must have required. As I’ve related before, I abandoned a manuscript after seven years and it was a salutary lesson. And we’re all racked by doubts about our work from time to time. Imagine being 26 years, say, into a project and coming to the conclusion that it just doesn’t work. It must happen, I suppose. Torrington’s and Gray’s novels are both experimental to a degree and include games with language and the vernacular. I shall be discussing dialogue and monologue in a future post in my series on the experimental novel. It can all be traced back to Finnegans Wake. James Joyce laboured on his final work as his eyesight and health failed, from the dawn of Irish independence in 1922 to the advent of World War Two in 1939 – also a not inconsiderable commitment.

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Thirty years to bear fruit…

It took Hermann Hesse over a decade to write his magnum opus, The Glass Bead Game. And it took me half a life time to get around to finishing it, but finished it I have. I can report that I found it highly imaginative and ultimately worth the effort. Its major theme is the cost of dedicating oneself to the life of the mind, a subject to which anyone serious about writing can relate. I have to say that the ending came as something of a shock, even though I’d suspected something of the sort was coming. For all that it was drily cerebral at times, I found it deeply moving. I read it because games feature largely in both of my current projects. As it turns out, the game features in it hardly at all – and nor are there any glass beads. Ah, well…

I’m approaching the 50,000 word mark on the WIP that I’ve been writing for the last eight months. And when the first draft is complete, there’ll be much reworking to be done, no doubt, before I’ve produced the finished article. Hopefully though, the editing process won’t take me 29 years…

All text and image © PSR 2013

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10 Responses to “Writing a Novel: Thirty Days or Thirty Years?”

  1. J.D.Hughes June 16, 2013 at 5:45 am #

    You have my admiration for finishing The Glass Bead Game! I didn’t manage it.

    Whilst I agree with your premise in principle, NaNoWriMo gives those who have never written a novel the opportunity to work in a disciplined manner over a finite period of time. I think that’s a great idea. It might not produce deathless prose, but it might just encourage a hidden talent to become visible. I’m in favour of any mechanism for doing that.

  2. Paul Sutton Reeves June 16, 2013 at 8:32 am #

    Hi J.D. and thanks for your comments.

    The writing month is what it is, I suppose, and we see in it whatever concords with our viewpoint. I’m just seeing it as another feature of ‘all the world’s got talent but doesn’t have to put in the spadework’ syndrome whereas you’re seeing its democratic and developmental aspects, I think!

    • J.D.Hughes June 16, 2013 at 9:50 am #

      It depends on one’s idea of spadework. If a writer writes ’50 Shades’, for instance, then if one has lived a full life or worked as a hooker, perhaps little spadework would be needed and such a novel could be written in a few months, but I think you are more concerned with the quality of writing. On that question, if a writer decides to write a deeply thoughtful text in which the meaning of life is explored then it might take a little longer, but I don’t believe one can judge quality or even worth on the length of time that text takes to write. Some of the greatest truths are contained in a single thought, no matter how long that thought has taken to either arrive or to scribble down.

      But I might have misunderstood what you are saying 🙂

  3. Paul Sutton Reeves June 16, 2013 at 12:33 pm #

    Ah, well, I would be simple-minded if I thought the mere passage of time improved a book, J.D.! 🙂 You’d just have to write for long enough and you’d find that you had a work of genius on your hands. As I pointed out, I spent seven years on a project that I ultimately rejected. Spending a long time on writing is no guarantee of the quality of the work whatsoever. Not putting in the time, on the other hand, will almost certainly result in a lesser book in terms of the thought that has gone into it and the craft lavished on the prose. And that was my point. A well thought out and crafted book is the sort that I like to read and the sort that I aspire to write (though they never seem to turn out quite like that). I’m sure that there must be naturally talented writers out there who are instantly eloquent and profound, but I’m not one of them and nor are any of my writing friends and acquaintances!

    • J.D.Hughes June 16, 2013 at 6:30 pm #

      Damn! And I thought you were saying I could drag out my stuff from the Sixties and it would be better than it was when I put it away!

      Re the last thought: give it time 🙂

      • Paul Sutton Reeves June 16, 2013 at 7:51 pm #

        Well, I don’t know how good your stuff from the ’60s is, J.D.! I know that I can’t bear to look at things I wrote in the ’90s and they’re definitely never going to get any better…

      • J.D.Hughes June 17, 2013 at 2:55 pm #

        My best period was aged 11. I’ve gone downhill since then, Paul.

        I agree with Mari when she says that over-processing is a real danger, but perhaps much depends on the complexity of the idea. My admiration goes to those writers who can express a complex point in simple words.

        I’m reading Neil Stephenson’s ‘Quicksilver’ at the moment and finding simple ideas rendered complex by painful elucidation and repetition. I have no idea if that’s the result of over refinement, but it feels as if it is. Stephenson has such an imagination that he tends to bung the kitchen sink in as well, when a handbasin would have sufficed. Yet, his ‘Cryptonomicon’ was for me, brilliant.

      • Paul Sutton Reeves June 17, 2013 at 6:07 pm #

        I’m sure that you’re being modest, J.D.!

        I’ve never heard of Neil Stephenson (we seem to have a Stephenson/Stevenson theme going here today). I shall have to investigate. Less is sometimes more, as they say.

  4. Mari Biella June 17, 2013 at 7:35 am #

    A very persuasive post, Paul. I do wonder whether the pressure on authors to keep churning out more and more books might undermine quality. This, I have to say, is especially evident in the self-publishing world, where some authors seem to put out a new book every few months. Perhaps these are very short books. Perhaps the authors in question have a large backlist to hand (this is often the case with previously-published authors), or – possibly – they are simply geniuses. However, I do question whether they are putting speed before quality.

    On the other hand, and as J.D. points out, this varies tremendously from author to author. Stevenson famously wrote ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ in about a week, if my memory serves me correctly, so evidently some people can do it and make it work. I’ve also begun to think that sometimes there is a danger in overworking things; perhaps by processing and refining a book to too great a degree, we might actually be in danger of draining it of some of its spontaneity and vigour? Maybe it’s a case of striking a balance.

    • Paul Sutton Reeves June 17, 2013 at 6:03 pm #

      Hi Mari and thanks for your comments.

      It’s all very well having lots of book ideas but there’s a danger of spreading oneself too thinly, I think. Surely, it would be preferable to produce a smaller number of fully realised works. A lack of quality control, perhaps…

      I agree entirely that a book can be either under or over-worked. A very good writer friend of mine has written nothing new for a decade or so while revising three or four older works. He and I both know that he needs to start something new. They’re fine as they are but sometimes letting go can be hard.

      Maybe Stevenson was able to write ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ so quickly because he actually was a genius, Mari! After all, the work of most writers who’ve been dead for 120 years is out of print. And sometimes, inspiration just seems to strike a writer. Coleridge was said to have written Kubla Khan in such a manner. In a much more humble way, I very occasionally experienced something similar when I used to write songs.

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