I’d like to write another book soon. For the first time in a couple of years, I’m not sure what’ll come next.
Let me back up. I am still coming to terms with being a literary writer. It’s an accident. The sales category plays to my strengths and interests. As a hick, the “literary” appellation chafes the way the company of those in higher social strata chafes. I read an interview once, of Franzen, with the following exchange:
“I am literally, in terms of my income, a 1 per center, yes,” he says, his eyes not on me but on the empty table next to us. “I spend my time connected to the poverty that’s fundamental to mankind, because I’m a fiction writer.”
He doesn’t write about poverty, I protest. He writes about the angst of people like him and the people he knows. Franzen gives the neighbouring table top a weary look. “That’s a quotation from Flannery O’Connor, by the way.”
But that fancy shit is also seductive. Who doesn’t love the feel of hardwood floors, the mouthfeel of foie gras, and teeth the color and translucency of good china? Who doesn’t want to be a luxury product?
Well, I’m not sure. But the literary section is where my work is best shelved.
Anyway, among of the generalities I’ve heard about we literary folk: literary writers draft slowly.
I was not taught this. My formal training at writing involves a very red pen-happy high school teacher, a continuing education course or three, and long-form improv lessons at summer camp. Informally, I wrote fanfiction as an adult. Of all that, improv and fanfiction has most influenced my production style and schedule.
Long form improv focuses a lot on 1) knowledge of story forms and 2) learning to produce without putting much conscious thought into what you are doing.
I don’t want to be one of those improv people, but as an incredibly anxious, self-conscious person and creator, improv did help. Improv helps make the useful distinction between the process, and the running internal narrative about the process. The latter can be switched off without any real loss.
The next part, fanfiction, required from me a commitment of at minimum one chapter (about 2500 words per week), although I more frequently stuck to a schedule of 2-3 times per week. I did burn out on that after a year or so and don’t recommend it. But I wasn’t in an environment where I was told that was unusual. Most of my peers also did that. Did I excel in that environment because I am quick, or am I quick because quick was the default?
I don’t mean to denigrate anyone else’s pace. Writing is a lonely business, and we writers are often jealous of one another. A process is, by nature, personal.
My process is changing. Over the last year, I have slowed. My first novel’s first draft took 32 days. The second novel, the one I have rep for, took four months (though I took days and some weeks off). Every time I write a book, I get a more full idea of what a finished book is. How large it is. Because I am a literary writer, what makes my books special isn’t the plot, but the prose I improvise within a plot. That is something I can’t plan for. I can only hope I’ve picked a kind of plot that gives me room to unearth something special. But it might not happen. All I can do is draw a circle, follow the process, and hope, after a thousand hours, I manifest A Book.
Understanding that is what I am doing has slowed me considerably. It feels like an entirely new task, and I’m daunted by it. I wonder what the next project will be and how it will change me.