Settling in for the long haul

Sometimes you get stuck not because of the content ofyour story, but because of its size. A novel can seem an overwhelming undertaking: three hundred pages (or more—sometimes much more). How will you sustain your vision that long? How will you keep yourself going? How long does writing a novel take, anyway?

Since these questions are most likely to strike somewhere in the middle ofyour book, this chapter seems an appropriate place to answer them. Seen from the middle, a novel can seem an endless task. But there are ways to make it more manageable.

The basic principle is to break everything down into smaller pieces: chapters, time, page count. Specifically:

• Don't tell yourself, Now I'm sitting down to write a novel. Tell yourself, Now I'm sitting down to start the scene where Martha sneaks onto a Greyhound for Memphis. Concentrate on just that scene, giving it everything you've got; one scene isn't that overwhelming. And by putting the rest of the task out of your mind while you write, you won't fall into the trap of doing a hastyjob because "there's so much else to cover" or because you're "saving some of the good stuff for later." There is no later. Write your best now.

• Track something. Keep records of the number of pages you write every week, or the percentage of chapters completed, or points of view used in various scenes. Tape this growing record on the wall over your desk. If you have a taste for this sort of thing, make a chart (I know one writer who actually graphs his output on an X-Bar control chart). If you use a computer, print out completed pages daily, or weekly, or as you finish an electronic file. The point is to have something tangible that grows over time, concrete proof of progress.

• Create deadlines for yourself. These must be kept at least a little flexible, so you don't strangle those lovely unforeseen possibilities as you write. Even so, saying, "I'm working on chapter five" doesn't have the same purposeful effect as saying, "I'm going to finish chapter five in the next two weeks, and the whole first part by Memorial Day." This helps prevent any self-indulgent dawdling. Nor do deadlines mean you compromise quality. Charles Dickens wrote his greatest novels on deadline for serial publication. Anthony Trollope, who must have been disciplined to a frightening degree, set his watch on the desk while he wrote, and produced one page every fifteen minutes. If he varied from this, he either wrote faster or slowed down. After twelve pages he stopped for the day.

You don't have to do that (would you want to?), but you might find that some looser, individually set deadlines make a novel seem more manageable.

How long should the whole process take? There's no consensus whatsoever on this. Annie Dillard, Pulitzer-prize-winning author of The Writing Life, says authoritatively that it takes between two and ten years to write a good book—but where does that leave Joyce Carol Oates, who appears to produce a novel every fifteen minutes? Or William Faulkner, who wrote As I Lay Dying in six weeks? Or John Steinbeck, who finished The Grapes of Wrath in five months? On the other hand, Joseph Heller went nineteen years between Catch 22 and Something Happened.

The truth is, writing a novel takes as long as it takes. You may be a fast writer, or one who, like Joseph Conrad, works much more slowly ("In the course of that working day of eight hours I write three sentences, which I erase before leaving the table in despair."). You may have other commitments that severely limit your writing time, or you may be able to spend several hours every day at the keyboard. You may have a clear idea of your novel before you begin (those books go faster), or you may have to spend time and pages discovering what you want to say. There are so many variables that to measure yourself against another writer's timetable isn't useful.

What is useful is devising some system—self-imposed deadlines, writing appointments, schedules—to keep at the novel steadily. If five weeks go by without producing a paragraph, followed by a week in which you write fifteen thousand words, you will eventually get the book written. But it will be harder to recapture the tone after such a long fallow period, and it will be harder to trust your ability to repeat the marathon at will. Try to build up a habit of steady writing that you can trust to hold over time.

And, eventually, a day will come when you look up and realize you're more than three-quarters ofthe way through the book. You did it. You're past the middle. All the clichés suddenly seem true: You can see the light at the end of the tunnel, the path out of the woods, the calm after the storm.

You're approaching the ending.

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