Recently, one of my writing students asked for advice on how she should structure her novel. “I already have fifty pages and I don’t know where it’s going,” she complained.
“You only have fifty pages,” I said. “Of course you don’t know where it’s going.”
I should know. I’ve been working on the same novel for almost three years. I’m only now finding a clear path forward after dumping one entire plot line, changing points of view, and creating an entirely new character who is essential to the book.
It’s a mystery to me how books get written at all. I’ve written and published many novels and, as a ghostwriter, even more works of nonfiction, but every single time, it’s a fresh puzzle.
You ask yourself, “What’s wrong with me? Why is this book taking so long?”
I’ve asked that question many times, usually after a friend says, “Wait. Are you still working on that same book you told me about last year?”
Every now and then, I find solace in an unexpected place—usually in a book I’m reading. Right now, for instance, I’m reveling in Late in the Day, a novel by the remarkable Tessa Hadley. Take a look at this sentence from the very first page:
“A gang of parakeets zipped across from the park, and the purple-brown darkness of the copper beech next door fumed against the turquoise sky, swallowing the last light.”
As I read this sentence, I hear the parakeets chattering as they swoop out of the park. The description of the copper beach creating a “purple-brown darkness” is exactly right, if you’ve ever seen a beech tree at dusk. Then there’s that “turquoise sky.” It’s the perfect way to describe that pale blue-green you get sometimes as the sun lowers, and I love the idea of a beech tree that “fumed” against it. (The word is the past tense of “fume,” which can mean “angry” or “vapor.”)
Then we get to that last phrase: “swallowing the last light.” That phrase is beautiful all by itself, but the image is even more spectacular when you realize it also serves as foreshadowing: by the next page, we learn that someone important to the characters in the book has died.
Hadley, as gifted as she is, probably didn’t come up with that sentence right away. How many tries did it take, I wonder, before she put together those phrases so perfectly?
We live in a world where we can order everything from shoes to motor oil instantly. We binge on an entire television series in one weekend—a series that probably took years to make. Many of us feel compelled to write as quickly as we do everything else. If we’re traditionally published, we worry that the world will forget us if we go more than a year before publishing our next books. If we’re self-published, we worry that our readers won’t find us at all until we fill up an entire virtual book shelf.
But what is the point of writing a novel? What if, for you, writing isn’t just about the story you tell, but how you tell it? What if, to you, the sentences matter, all by themselves?
Then you can’t rush the process. All you can do is play with the words in your head and heart, moving them around until you have chosen exactly the right words and put them in an order that makes them shine. The process can be agonizing.
When you’re finished, though, the payoff is worth it. That sentence will gleam on the page like a rare jewel.
Give it all you’ve got. Don’t hold anything back. And don’t let anyone say that you’re taking too long.