Taking the time for the book you want to write

Today I’ve written an article including some Tolstoy quotes sent to me by a writer friend, exploring how to really take the time we need to write the book we really want to write. I talk about incubation, deep reading, George Saunders’ view that this slow writing demands a greater focus and integrity than our quick flit modern world encourages as well as the music and resonance of Kirsty Gunn’s ‘masterpiece’ The Big Music. I also consider two possible approaches in publishing – that of the set brand (with thanks to Elizabeth’s Baines) versus the writer as developing artist. Here’s an extract

We’ve talked before about the importance of incubation, giving time to a project to let disparate ideas coalesce into something whole, layered and original. The first Tolstoy quote says:

Truth, like gold, is to be obtained not by its growth, but by washing away from it all that is not gold.

We start out with a wealth of ideas and associations, everything is fascinating but making good story often means finding a true and strong thread through those ideas. Like panning for gold or, as my friend said ‘digging and digging before washing’ to ‘string together nuggets’. An artist friend of mine advised me with my own work on The Book of Remembered Possibilities to take it and ‘shake out the detritus of work progress,’ until I could see clearly it’s ‘colour and shape’ and clear away more until “the beat , the rhyme and reason, the poetry is plain.”

George Saunders in this excellent article talks about writing, about how new devices have had a neurological effect that makes the mind leap from one thing to another, become discontent faster. He talks about how writing faster, working on a number of things such as screenplays, travel journalism etc as well as touring, doing TV shows began to make him feel ‘quesy’. Not that he was denigrating those activities but “I really craved the feeling of deep focus and integrity that comes with writing fiction day after day, in a sort of monastic way.” He adds ‘And twitter doesn’t come into that’.

You can read the whole article here and I hope you comment here or there to tell me what your thoughts are. I’m not advocating an arduously slow approach for every project, rather suggesting that where space, time, ambition and courage are required, we need to find ways of holding onto those to maintain the integrity of the project.

12 thoughts on “Taking the time for the book you want to write

  1. Ali Isaac

    When I wrote my first book (The Four Treasures of Eirean), that’s all I did. Now, I’m blogging, tweeting, facebooking, working on other projects, etc , all simultaneously, and by the time all that’s done, there isn’t much time or focus left for Book 2. I guess that is the world of the Indie Author. Its called multi tasking, its what we do, but does it adversely affect the quality of what we write, or does the experience add to it?

    1. alisonwells

      Thanks Ali, that’s certainly a very relevant question. Some indie authors say it can all be done but having self-published under my sci-fi persona last May, I know how much time and energy can go into the social media and promotion side of things. I think there are many factors, the books you want to write, how much they fit into a pre-conceived structure or genre, perhaps whether they’re part of a series where you may have thought through the trajectory of the entire set ahead of time, or where book one really feeds into book 2. There are also personal factors, how well each writer does in compartmentalizing the activities he or she is working on, can you turn from social media to writing quickly, how much time you have and in what kind of chunks. And of course what I’m really saying is that some books are just more complex in their ideas, their scope, the number of storylines, relationships, the breadth of the picture they’re covering. I do think there are occasions/projects when it’s necessary to enter a different kind of time zone where there’s more time to explore concepts in depth either consciously or unconsciously. What’s also interesting though is whether our more fickle experience of the world will feed into literature in the future.

      1. Ali Isaac

        I also think we’re always in such a hurry to get the next book written, before our existing (few!) readers lose interest! I keep reading other Indie writers saying that the only way to make money as an Indie is to have lots and lots of books ‘out there’, so that readers can bounce quickly from one to the next. I’m sure there’s something in that, but surely that hurry to produce quantity must have an effect on quality. Are readers really that fickle? I love the wait, the anticipation for the next book or movie in a series…am I the only one?

  2. Henry Cross

    I started writing in June 2010 with a big word target for a family saga in many interlinked books over three years. Now having written hundreds of thousands of draft words I realise it is a long process of writing skill development applied to my ideas and plots etc which have come quite easily. Met lots of people, read much more per Stephen King and enjoying myself. Having a big word target takes the pressure off the publishing worry bead. Better travelling hopefully etc

    1. alisonwells

      Hello Henry, thanks so much for your comment. Your project is a perfect example of where you need to enter another world for a long period of time or over a long period of time. I find it very interesting what you say about your development of skills as a writer and journey across the entire project. You’ve produced a large quantity of draft words. This is the clay. Your involvement with the project over time and your opportunity to dwell in the project will be what helps you to shape that. I’d be glad to hear more about the kinds of thing you do to find the shape of your project.

  3. Hi Alison,

    Congrats on the National Micro Fiction inclusion. Well done.
    Cant say I’m surprised having read your work.

    Re incubation, i’m not at the heady heights of novel writing but making
    progress in micro fiction, short story and poetry writing.

    What i’ve found lately is the need for a cooling off period before properly
    assessing your work. I wrote a short story some time ago which at the
    time I thought was great.

    I left it for a month and was horrified when I re-read it.
    I’d been washing and polishing fools gold instead of genuine nuggets.

    This is high risk for me if I’m reading and re-reading my work too often.
    I fall in love with it. I lose perspective. I’m too near the coalface.
    I need to leave some bits of writing for a few weeks before I can get
    perspective – and that means not looking at it at all no matter how tempting!

    Writing in spurts on a larger project would work for me – have a word number target
    etc but it is vital that a comfortable cooling off period is built in after little milestones
    for objective reflection. I’ve already wasted too much prose and dialogue hung around a poor plot or wooden characters.

    Glad to hear you back on the airwaves.

    Kind regards,


    1. alisonwells

      Hi Gerry,

      Your points are so valid and I recognise so much those tendencies to keep ‘washing and polishing fools gold’ (and what a wonderful phase.) It’s helpful to have several things on the go at once at different stages of progression so you can step back from one or another of them. I think we’ve all been horrified by something we’ve written later on! Thanks for your really helpful perspective here.

  4. This is a wonderful post, I just came back to it today from Twitter. You’ve helped to inspire me; I’ve also been reading Valerie O’Riordan’s recent post in which she talks about the writing process, and the time it takes.
    I’ve spent a lot of the last two years (after having a baby) reading contemporary flash, because it’s quick and accessible — and I love it — and I’ve written very little due to lack of time. Now I’m starting to read and write a little bit more, I’ve turned to some of the older texts in my TBR pile — Joyce, O’Connor, and, for the kids, Tolkein (Hobbit part 2 film, innit?!) They seem so unafraid — they use adjectives and adverbs freely; they’re all about the story and they don’t apologise for themselves. They sometimes take forever to read, reminding me that reading is a pleasure — and they make me slow down. It’s something I’d like to bring to my own writing, if I can work out how (not to mention my whole life…); I’m really enjoying the process.

    1. alisonwells

      I love your point about many of the older texts seeming unafraid. I was reading the Magician’s Nephew lately and C.S. Lewis just got on with telling the story in as entertaining a way as possible, as you say, certainly not apologising for themselves. Reading is fantastic for slowing down and earthing us back into what writing is all about, making moments alive, sometimes I am tempted to rush ahead, to get books done after a feeling of being held back by family commitments.

  5. Pingback: Why write: A more Humble and Sustaining Path | Head Above Water

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