How Long Does it Take to Write a Novel?

How long does it take me to write a novel, from start to finish? As long as it takes, which might be, and usually is, several years. How many drafts go into a novel? Another unanswerable question because I pick up and drop WIPs, and pick them up again, for all sorts of reasons, or no apparent reason at all. My writing life is in a perpetual state of disorganization, flux, chaos, whatever you want to call it, and it works for me.

Ideas are always running through my head, against a background of unanswered questions about this WIP or that, even the ones that I’m not currently working on. Out of this mess comes the answers — usually. All this came to the foreground this morning as the solution to an ongoing problem with Bentham’s Dream came to me with no warning.

The question: Why would the warden of a secretive prison sit down with the first inspector to invade the premises in the 40 years of the prison’s existence, and reveal all (or nearly all) to him? I fooled around with motives like trust: for some reason, he knew that this inspector would keep everything to himself. The long-pent up doubts about his position and the whole concept of total solitary confinement, and no longer concerned about the possible consequences of his revelations. Well, there were others, also, but none of them satisfactory. This morning’s solution is truly the solution I’ve been looking for. It unites two ideas that my mind had kept totally separate, for some reason.

It’s a mystery why I couldn’t have seen the obvious need to combine them much sooner, but mystery is a good part of creative writing. Maybe I’m just trying to justify my lack of discipline, but it seems to me that you longer allow a piece of fiction to simmer and develop, the more chance there is of finding the best solutions. Not the solutions that let you zip through several thousand words a day or produce several novels a year, but the ones that bring characters to life, that result in a plot that seems inevitable rather than manufactured.

In today’s dominant emphasis on building a career, on treating writing as a business, taking the long path to a finished novel can look suicidal. It can certainly dump you in the waste bin called hobby writer, ignoring that, by those standards, many of the past’s great writers were mere hobbyists.


Re-finding Me

I’m in a strange place, mentally, and have been pretty much for the last three months, ever since a stay in the hospital and a diagnosis of heart failure. Well, at 80, what can you expect? But the place I’m in, and it’s a damned boring and uncomfortable place, isn’t part of being 80. It’s being, for the rest of my life, a heart patient, after avoiding doctors altogether for many past decades. That inevitably involves medications. Which means putting up with, working around, or refusing to accept the many side effects. It also involves meeting, on a daily basis, one’s own mortality, without the luxury of thinking about death as something that will certainly happen some day, but far enough in the future that it’s more or less an abstraction at the moment.

Believe it or not, that isn’t the real problem for me. The real problem is that I haven’t been able to write. The drugs that are helping me avoid a heart attack or stroke are sucking out the essence of what it means to be me at my best. And empowering my worst qualities. Which, if you think about it, isn’t too different from the drugs that help people with severe mental illness. It isn’t that unusual for people who are bipolar to go off their meds because the drugs kill their creativity. I won’t try to compare the fear of sinking into a cycle of depression/mania with the fear of your heart giving out on you. When you are attacked and diminished at your core, the pain and fear are the same for everyone.

What I’m working through is more complex than how do I recover my creativity and get back to writing. My concept of who I am as a writer and why I even want to write is changing. As I wrote to a friend earlier today, “I’ve given up on the idea of “making a difference,” so if I continue to write, it’s for myself and for the few who stumble on it by accident. I don’t have the talent to “write for the ages” so I have no illusions or guilt about not making more of an effort.” But the itch to write is there, unrelenting, so I have to figure out how I’m going to move on from this state of paralysis. I have to re-find myself, but accept that the self I settle into isn’t going to be exactly the old one.

Maybe that means I can be more relaxed about my writing. Maybe I can let myself choose what to write based purely on how much I’m intrigued by the story rather than how “important” it will be or whether it makes a difference — says something profound enough to change someone’s life, change the world in some small way. Yes, I’d like to “write for the ages,” but since I don’t have that kind of talent I need to leave my self-judgmental attitude behind. I don’t have enough time or energy left to waste on impossible standards. There’s no sin in writing books that don’t have a message. I just have to keep telling myself that.

Trapped by Details: an Epiphany

One of the side effects of a medication I’ve been taking for a couple of months is insomnia — serious lack of sleep. There are moments when I think this could be a good thing because the hazy state between sleeping and waking is often the source of ideas and insights — and there has been a lot of hazy state . Alas, those ideas and insights seldom carry over into the daylight hours. If I could just lie there in the dark and dictate into a recorder, who knows what marvels of novelistic fiction I could create. Well, that’s never going to happen, but once in a while, something worth pursuing does survive until morning and daylight.

A recent night was one of those frustrating on/off sleep/wake stretches that had me wanting to just get up, wander around the apartment, find something to do, and forget about sleep altogether. But I stuck it out and let my mind do the wandering. And what happened was that I had a sort of vision. I haven’t been able to write at all for the last two or three months, so part of the night’s mental meandering is often about trying to select the ongoing WIP most likely to have a chance of sucking me in and getting my fingers back on the keyboard. Gift of the Ancien is always one of those being considering — and discarded.

But last night, I saw that novel in an entirely new way. It was as if I was standing off from an actual, physical construct, and seeing it as an object independent of details like voice or characterization, and stripped of my personal interest in and attachment to it. I can’t regain much of the feelings I had about this new view, but the image itself is still fairly clear in my mind — and its meaning. Although I can’t reconstruct or explain how I came to it, the meaning of the image is that this particular novel (and several others), has been a challenging puzzle to work out, and that challenge is completely independent of the novel’s importance to me. In other words, I’ve been sucked into an ongoing attempt to solve a puzzle (or a handful of puzzles), fascinated by the challenge just as certainly as any game player. It’s the intricacies of that particular story that I’m attempting to work out, without any consideration of whether it has enough value to me to justify the time and energy I’m putting into it.

I also had brief glimpses of a couple of the other WIPs being bounced around as possible ways out of the black hole of wordlessness. Most of the insights are gone, damn it, but there was the sense, however vaguely I can see or express it now, that those WIPs had value apart from the details. Their value — their meaning — to me, personally, was more important than the puzzles they represent, or the working out of the puzzles. Ancien, on the other hand, even though it would have value as a published novel, and possibly of more value than the others, has no other value to me.

On a superficial level, this all boils down to the question of why I write: for money, or for myself. But now I can see it isn’t that at all. The real question is: is this a story I really care about, for its own sake, or is it just a container for intriguing puzzles? I turns out that anything I write for myself has a boundary far beyond me. It’s an idea or collection of ideas, that I hope will draw readers looking for more than entertainment. Of course, every novel is a series of puzzles to work out; maybe that’s a big part of the appeal for writers, especially writers who aren’t particularly successful in the fame and fortune arena.

I still haven’t settled on a WIP to drag me out of the creativity black hole, but at least I have a better basis for making that selection. Ancien, as strongly as its puzzles fascinate me, needs to be put aside where it can’t tempt and distract me. The same is true of several other WIPs in various stages of development. Maybe if I can get them shoved under the carpet and use the imagery from my vision, I’ll find the piece that will inspire me to get back to writing.



Theme and Variations

One of the topics currently under discussion on a writing forum is theme. The post’s author stated that she sometimes feels as if she’s writing the same book over and over again.  I can certainly relate, having recently taken note of the overwhelming presence of various kinds of oppression in my stories. You can probably make a good case for the presence of a dominant theme in the work of many writers. After all, any theme you choose — or that chooses you — can probably be explored endlessly in all its complexity and variability.

My particular concern, when looking over my published work, with an eye to writing projects still in process, is whether I am, unconsciously, telling the same story over and over, merely changing the settings and the names of the characters. I can see that I concentrate on the character suffering oppression, whether as a prisoner, a slave, or someone caught up in the gears of a society suffering the strains of unanticipated and extreme changes.

But what about the people or the social forces responsible for the oppression? They are the source of the novel’s necessary conflict, but I think a closer examination of my published work might show that I sometimes allow them to remain shadowy figures that aren’t fully developed. The source of conflict in a novel can’t be an abstraction; the protagonist must be doing more than punching the air against a mysterious figure that fails to reveal itself.

There are many ways to approach theme, and that includes discovering it after you’ve written the first draft, and then developing it more fully. Chuck Wendig, bless his foul-mouthed heart, offered some valuable views of theme in an old post. Go there.

Getting Back to the Keyboard

Being too sick to write is a new experience for me, and one that’s been made even more difficult and unpleasant by dragging on for about six weeks. I’m far from well, still, but maybe improvement can be measured by the ability to at least think about writing. As always, when there’s been a hiatus, I have to go through the process of deciding exactly what I’m going to write. Which means which ongoing project am I going to pick up.

Normally, I have some internal reason for choosing one project over another, but now a new factor has come into play — money. As happens to many in this greatest of nations with the worst health care system in the world, one catastrophic illness means that I will spend the rest of my life deep in debt. I will never write the kind of book that could wipe that out, but I do have choices that are somewhat more likely to find readers than a couple I’ve been working on recently.

Gift of the Ancien and A Well-Educated Boy are far from commercial, but both have the potential to be tweaked a little way in that direction. Of the two, Gift is complete and has been through a certain amount of rewriting, so it’s the obvious choice. It would also be nice just to see it finished and published since it’s been in the works for several years.

I probably won’t be able to do a great deal of work each day, but it feels good to anticipate getting started. Onward and upward!

Short Break from Long Stuff

I just started a revision and expansion of Refuge, one of my short stories. It’s currently around 4,500 words, and I hope to get it up to between 6,000 and 7,000 words. Why, when I’m trying to get Bentham’s Dream finished, am I veering off again? There’s certainly some burnout here–really good progress for a while, and then the wall. Maybe jumping from getting Camp Expendable out of my hair right into another big project wasn’t a good idea.

One reason to switch off is the nagging need to publish, to start making up for the last two dead years. Even a short story is a right step in that direction, and it can be done comparatively fast. From that point of view, it can relieve the pressure to get Dream written and published as fast as possible. Fast doesn’t work for me, so some downtime is never a bad thing. As long as it doesn’t turn into nevernever time. I’m always going to be switching back and forth between projects, but maybe using a short story for burnout breaks will keep me from switching to one of the long WIPs and keep me on target with Dream.

I’m thinking all this through as I’m writing, and I think I see how spending some time with short stories might break into my dysfunctional pattern of jumping constantly between novels, which just delays finishing any of them. That’s probably a big contributor to that period of publishing nothing at all. So a new pattern would be: work on a novel or novella until I reach burnout. Take time out with a short story, and then go back to that novel or novella. Repeat until publication.

It could work. Something has to work, before I’m too old and feeble for it to matter any more.

Damn Plot Bunnies

As if I need more story ideas, I was apparently dreaming one, because it was solid in my mind the instant I woke up a couple of mornings ago. Usually, my dreams just leave a trace whiff that they’d even existed, so this was a very weird thing to happen. And even bitching about it, I’m glad it happened because maybe it’s a signal that the prison stories that have been accumulating and wanting to be a book are still a thing.

It might just be something that’s peculiar to me and my peculiar mind, but I think immersion in research for a nonfiction book may need some kind of outlet other than the book itself. So the research on the death penalty, as well as other aspects of criminal justice, keeps engendering fictional variations. The original intent for those stories was to have them anchor Bentham’s Dream, which is becoming a novella — a long way from the short story I’d intended it to be. Then I thought it would probably be a waste of time and energy to publish anything like that. Who would read it? It’s bound to be mostly depressing, fodder for a masochist, or for the very few strange souls who take criminal justice seriously enough to want to read about it, even in fiction. But the damned thing keeps creeping back, and now a new story has presented itself to me.

A lot of what comes out in the stories is my own feelings about prison and the death penalty. It’s reality-based–solidly reality-based, but it’s an outsider’s view still. Well, I’m stuck with that, but I’m just realizing that this new story is not just a view from the outside, but a view of someone who has been outside the inmate mentality and then finds himself inside, part of that mentality. That’s a fascinating idea to explore. A kind of doubling of the outsider view — his view of the work, where he was an insider, and of the prisoners, which he would never have anticipated seeing from the inside, all seen through my eyes.

One (at least) of the stories is entirely first person, present tense dialogue. This one will be entirely third person omniscient without any dialogue at all. It will be an unrelieved look into the head of a prison guard who lives by the rules, not just on the job, but also in his everyday life, is persuaded to do something that is very much against the rules, and winds up in prison, as an inmate.

Maybe someday I’ll figure out why I’m compelled to write fiction that almost no one is interested in reading.

One Thing Leads to Another — Sometimes a Sequel

When I wrote Hidden Boundaries, it was intended to be a complete novel–no cliffhangers, no unanswered questions. But it turns out that unless you’re writing a story in which there’s  a specific goal, and that goal is achieved, then there’s always more that can be said. Because, just like real life, the story doesn’t always end with The End. So I wound up writing Crossing Boundaries.

Now, several years down the line, I’ve been working on a novel that’s intended to end with The End. The only problem is that The End of A Well-Educated Boy doesn’t want to come into focus. It shifts, recedes out of sight, comes back looking pretty good, and then disappears again. There are two ways to look at this. I simply can’t make up my mind how I want the story to end because I don’t know Hart, my protagonist quite as well as I should by now. So he can’t make up his mind about what he wants to do.

Or… There’s a story beyond this story, and its existence means that the first story has to lead into it. Hart’s decision about what he’s going to do next depends on that story. Hart’s story is originally the story of his town:

Growing up and going to school in a company-owned town isn’t something Hart Simmons thought about much. He didn’t have any reason to. Until his best friend disappeared. Came back. Killed himself. Hart was always a bit of a trouble maker, the kind of kid who shoved back at rules, just because they’re rules. But he didn’t really know what he was shoving against. Zach’s death woke him up. And then his troubles started.

Burgundy is a nice town. Almost idyllic. Clean. No crime. Good jobs. But Hart doesn’t live in Burgundy anymore, and he probably can’t ever go back. Because he knows where Zach disappeared to and why he killed himself.

Dystopias can hide in plain sight. Right under your nose.

Where is Hart when the story ends, and what is he going to do now? The feeling that the story is about more than Hart’s life in Burgundy has been getting stronger lately, but that didn’t break through until just yesterday, when a new story idea popped into my head. It didn’t actually pop; it evolved out of an old idea that I was looking over and nudging here and there to see if it was ready for a little more development. And it turned out to be the answer to the big questions Hart has about Burgundy, and what direction his life might take. A sequel, durn it.

What it looks like so far:

Privatization had taken over many cities. particularly in one state. A group of owner corporations agrees to cooperate in a “utopian” plan, which includes testing for desirable qualities. The “failures,” those who don’t measure up, are trained to do unskilled and semi-skilled work. The “elite” are educated to enhance their abilities and are treated almost as a separate species of human.

Starts as a humanitarian project to ensure the survival of desirable traits and to benefit the human race in a time of extreme instability, but becomes a more far-reaching enterprise as corporations and later, governments, realize the advantages of controlling a population trained to obedience and a work ethic.

This concept is still sketchy, but it both answers questions that are hanging right now, and adds a complication. How do I end the first novel without leaving readers hanging? It needs to point to where it might go, but not with a frustrating cliffhanger.

I Lied — Again. NaNo is On

Not really. I just changed my mind. Again. There’s a possibility that this is becoming a yearly habit: yes, NaNo; no, NaNo; yes, NaNo. So today is November 1st and I’m doing NaNo. A Well-Educated Boy is next after Camp Expendable is out of the way, so why not just get started? What’s different this year is that I’m not going for a win. I really don’t think I have it in me to push that hard, so if I come out with 20 or 30,000 words that will be a good month’s work.

It’s almost noon and I’ve written 297 words, rather than the 1,000 or so I might normally have racked up by now. I did my normal morning routine: surfing all my news site, then went grocery shopping, came back, made a cup of tea, and only then fired up Scrivener.

I had decided not to bother, but an external motivator shifted the balance. I want to sign up for the Premium level of Scribophile (which I’ll elaborate on in another post), but it’s a huge chunk of money out of my tiny budget–$65.00 a year. Participating in NaNo will get me a 20% discount. A petty amount to most people, I’m sure, but valuable to me. The discount is 30% for actually winning, but that’s unlikely.

Was I thinking about the novel when I went to bed last night? Nope, I was thinking about Bentham’s Dream and about the revision of the opening that I’ve been working on for the last few days. Also making notes for a couple of other novels I hope to get to in 2017. That all makes it sound as if I’m as scattered as usual, but there is a focus there, believe it or not. Camp Expendable is complete and will be subjected to Scrivener’s Compile sometime this week. So that should be out of the way soon. Well-Educated Boy will then be top priority along with Set Me Free, so I haven’t really wandered off onto a side path.

Next big task for the day: decide whether to have pizza or a turkey burger for lunch.

Cleaning Out Post Drafts

So I’m putting off real work again, but discovering that I have 60 drafts hanging around on WP is as good an excuse as any. I’m down to the last three chapters of what was supposed to be the final edit of Camp Expendable. But so many notes have accumulated that I need to evaluate and decide whether they’d be worth the trouble of adding in. That would mean another round or two of edits. Can I face that? As long as the book isn’t what I hoped it would be, I’ll have to. Maybe somewhere in those notes is the detail that will be the magic key.

Procrastination!  While I’m in the process of weeding out some of those old drafts, I might as well pass on a few of the thoughts they began with.

  1. Golden halos don’t really brush off. When you’re writing that all-important blurb, comparing your book to x, x, and x is the surest way to signal that you have no voice of your own.
  2. How much can your hero suffer? People stop reading books for all kinds of reasons. Bad writing, cardboard characters, dumb plot. But I’ve learned that they may also stop reading because you’ve given them a protagonist they like and sympathize with — and then hurt so badly that they just can’t deal with it. Do you need to find a balance, or should you just put your hero through whatever suffering fate seems to be decreeing, or the story needs?
  3. I am, by temperament, a bridge burner. Sometimes that’s a very good thing, and other times, it doesn’t work out so well. What’s most important is the willingness to accept the consequences.
  4. To what extent does the trackable data about our lives enable interested parties to determine who we are and what we want, and use that to their advantage? And how can we manipulate the image that is supposedly who we are, to our own advantage? How can we, as writers, explore the implications of data collection and interpretation in our fiction? The important question: Should we manipulate our data, if it’s to our advantage?
  5. I don’t write books that will ever be best sellers. I don’t aim to earn a living as a writer. I’m not, in any sense of the word, a professional writer. I write for the love of it — translating ideas into stories, bringing characters to life. But I don’t write just for the love of it. I want readers. I want to see some concrete benefit from spending hours and brain cells creating the books. Above all, I want to be a better writer than I am today, and even better on down the line.

Currently Reading, and Other Stuff

Keeping an eye out for Amazon book sales can really pay off. I had Kim Stanley Robinson’s Forty Days of Rain on my wish list, but put it off, as I so often do, because of the price. Then, what to my wondering eyes should appear but a sale on his climate change trilogy, Green Earth, of which Forty Days of Rain is the first. So I’ve been deeply immersed. I was unable to read his Mars series because he isn’t just a “hard” SF writer, he glories in details that go on and on forever, at the expense of story and characters. Green Earth is an edit and slight condensation of the original three novels, and while the book is still very science-heavy, it’s a totally immersive experience.

It’s about climate change, but what the characters call “abrupt climate change,” which is an actual possibility acknowledged by scientists today  but played down, probably because the prospect is so terrifying. In the book, “ice age” winter suddenly appear, even as the earth as a whole is heating up. That’s a possibility that resonates with me, more for emotional reasons than anything else. Here I sit in southern Michigan, having just experienced a cooler than normal summer while the world average temps have reached a new high. And Fall has come on quite abruptly, with unusually cool nights. I woke up this morning to 39 F. So the nervous ape inside me has to wonder, even though I know perfectly well that weather and climate aren’t the same thing.

There is too much in the book, including political maneuvering, that could be taken from today’s news, even though the trilogy began in 2004, and the last book came out in 2007. If you’re looking for a nice long read of about 1,000 pages, and don’t mind having your sense of “everything’s fine” shaken up, it’s a must-read.


The development of Empire of Masks is coming along swimmingly, with many surprises that appear out of nowhere. At the same time, Bright World of Sorrows is refusing to bow out gracefully, so that’s also in development. All of which means that the public debut of Camp Expendable has been put off, yet again.


One last chance at finding a site where I can post work and have it critiqued. After my experiences with Authonomy and Write On, you’d think I’d be gun-shy by now. And I am. Scribophile is one of NaNo’s sponsors, and failed to provoke my interest in previous years. For some reason, I decided to check it out this year. And joined. It’s very different from other posting/critiquing sites because you have to earn the right to post your work, by earning karma points via critiquing. Instantly, that raises the overall level of competence in what is posted. There’s very little of the YA and TV-inspired attempts at writing. The site also has excellent forums, and topic-specific groups. I don’t have much time or patience for critiquing, so my accumulation of karma points will be slow. But the level of the discussions about writing is such that membership is worth it for that alone. Judging by the number of “reputation” points some members have, they’ve been on the site for years, which speaks well of how it’s run. Altogether, it’s an enjoyable place to spend some time with other writers, which is more than I can say for those I’ve tried in the past.


Turning Dry into Drama – Bentham’s Dream

This is an unplanned followup to yesterday’s post. It may be somewhat disorganized, even a little incoherent, since I’m thinking with my fingers. Bentham’s Dream was originally intended to be part of a short story collection about prisons, from about the early 19th century to the 2060s or thereabout. Somehow, Bentham’s Dream took over and shoved the other stories out of sight. Credit the last few years of research about the death penalty, solitary confinement, and other aspects of criminal justice. The story has grown, from some 8,000 words to 26,000 words and is still a long way from being finished.

I think it was at about 25,000 words that I realized I had a problem and needed to do some very deep thinking about where the story was going. More important, and I think yesterday’s question about why anyone would want to read it was a trigger, the problems coalesced into one question: how do I turn a somewhat dry subject and two talking heads into a story that will fascinate rather than send readers off into slumberland.

This might serve as a metaphor for any subject that might grab a writer, but seems to have little potential for attracting readers. Fortunately, science fiction allows a lot of latitude in topics, and any serious sf reader probably has fond memories of books dealing with subjects that they never would have considered worth their time. This is worth thinking about in this age of formula writing. How many Hunger Games clones can you bear to read? How many zombie novels or post-apocalyptic end-of-the-world reruns?

There are thousands of possible topics waiting for the science fiction writer with some imagination, someone who’s willing to take some risks and walk away from the clones and clichés. But it won’t be easy. It’s probably been well over a year since I started writing Bentham’s Dream. My original concept was fairly limited, but turned out to be nothing more than the skeleton from which to hang something much more complex and, I hope, more dramatic. Something I discovered about my writing is that I tend to place my characters in very restricted circumstances. Well, there’s nothing more restrictive than a prison where there is zero chance of prisoners causing any problems for the staff. So, no riots, no murders. None of the clichés that we associate with prison stories. Just two people wandering around the prison, observing the prisoners, and talking about it. How in the world can I introduce action and drama into such a setting?

Originally, the main protag, an inspector for the region’s penal system, does his job and then leaves, trying to decide how he wants to slant his report. He and the warden have had an interesting and enlightening discussion, but never touched base with each other as human beings. Dull, dull, dull. After much backing and forthing about POV, I’m writing the story in first person, from the point of view of Jerry Stanton, the inspector. This puts us closer to him than third person would be, but also limits what we can know about Chandler, the prison warden. Since Chandler starts off as an efficient bureaucrat, Jerry’s point of view is important if we want to see him as a human being, possibly with doubts about his job.

As the story evolved, Chandler turned out to be the key to the drama, and to a very different ending than I had planned, one that will be, if I do it right, a shocker.