Tortoise vs. Hare

Tortoise vs. Hare

I have been pondering the pace at which I write my novels. I’d thought that I’d been working on this latest book for five years now, until I realized just today that in fact it’s edging past six, since Memorial Day half a dozen years ago when I cried my way through a wholly unsatisfying draft of a different half-baked work and finally realized it was destined for burial in the bottom drawer.

So here I am, six years, five drafts, and a whole lot of paper, toner and heartache later, ALMOST DONE!!! If I ever had a following among readers somewhere out there, they’ve almost certainly completely forgotten who I am!

I comfort myself that another dear author friend has been working on her novel for at least that long, and that Stephanie Cowell, who used to amaze us at writers group meetings by pulling out an entire, completed manuscript from her tote bag every month or so way back when, now sometimes also struggles for years on a book. (Though she as easily finishes one in a few months, which leaves my mouth gaping.)

I had started to call myself the Queen of the Ten-Year Novel, until my truly brilliant and wise editor, Carole DeSanti, revealed at a book talk the other day that her newly released and absolutely gorgeous novel, The Unruly Passions of Eugenie R., first formed in her mind seventeen years ago. Seventeen years!! If I am the queen, then she is the duly crowned empress!

No one in their right mind begins to write a novel of any scope and thinks, “Oh, I’ll whip this off in a few months, maybe a year.” Writing novels is a labor of love – emphasis on LABOR. If you value your craft, if you respect and love books – reading them, holding them, pondering them, standing in awe of them – and if you long to see your own broad spine proudly tucked beside others in one of the few precious bookstores left in this world – then you must accept that the work will be long, lonely and hard.

You do it because of that love, or because of an insane vision that shows up in your head one foggy dawn, or because of the voices that start speaking and won’t shut up or leave you alone until you have finally listened to them.

This is the writing’s tormented blessing, its muse, its terrible genius. In her recent TedTalk, Elizabeth Gilbert defines “genius” in its original sense: genius wasn’t in us, it spoke to us. We did not own it. It was separate from us and came to us at its will, not at our calling.

Let me tell you truthfully, that is the nature of this strange work. And sometimes it comes, and those days for a writer are glorious.

But they are rare. Many days for most writers are just work – hard work that requires attention, discernment, discipline, a critical mind and the patience to expect that some days you won’t get it, that you’ll stare at the screen and move paragraphs around and write three dense pages and delete them. And that’s OK. That’s part of the process. Whole drafts are scraped and thrown away. But we pick up and keep going because we have to get it right. Only then do we dare to put our work out into the world.

And yet the pressures of modern technology and the voracious consumer market seem to scoff at the deliberate slowness of both the novel and its creators. A recent article in The New York Times declared “In the E-Reader Era, a Book a Year Is Slacking“. Should this make writers like me feel guilty?


The best rebuttal to this pressure came in a comment to the article itself, that if we want our work to join the mass of forgettable fiction that’s piling up out there, feel free! Dash it off! Self-publish and start your marketing! Everyone has something to say and something to sell!

And I don’t blame you. In a world where we can reach an audience so readily, it’s all too tempting.

But in this very same world where writers can push a button and be instantly “published”, the true craft and expectation of excellence are all the more on authors’ shoulders. In respect to the larger goal – to create something memorable, worth reading at least once and perhaps even again – we must take the time to craft the very best novel we can and not regret the labor or the time involved.

As Graham Swift wrote so eloquently in his essay, “Words Per Minute“: “a benign intrusion into someone else’s life for even such a short duration seems to me quite a feat of communication, … a time-suspending experience that stays with them well after they’ve closed the book and that they might one day wish to return to, …that’s as much as any novelist can hope for.”

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2 thoughts on “Tortoise vs. Hare”

  • Judy, so love the article but I must confess that reports of my writing speed are greatly exaggerated if with the greatest kindness! I have done two novels in less than nine months each, but am slowly trying to finish a few which I started, respectively, in 1989 and 1995, I also feel like the queen of unfinished books…not a title I want! The problem for me is always finding the heart and the shape of the story in all the material. In someone’s life when five million things happened, how to you make a story that distills it? love, Stephanie

  • Stephanie, I’m laughing at your comment AND your tribute to Mark Twain. I do know you have a few unfinished works. (One of them in particular makes my fingers tingle because I so want to turn those pages!) Still, when I think of our reaction around the table when you’d pull out yet another ream of story-filled paper, I cannot help but to continue to be utterly in awe! And nine months?!?! The only thing I’ve succeeded in doing in that amount of time is bearing two kids. Love you, too. – Judy

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