Tuesday, 19 February 2013

How long?

How long does it take to write a book?

This is one of the questions that I almost always get asked - by adults and children - whenever I do any sort of writer talk.

Recently I read a post on Melinda Szymanik's blog about the same question, and it made me realise how often I gloss over the answer. There might be a classful of children all waiting impatiently to ask their own question. Or maybe I'm feeling a bit worn out with talking by then and I just give the easy answer. It seems like a straightforward question, so it should have an equally straightforward answer. Shouldn't it?

So what do I usually say? I talk about the difference between writing fiction and non fiction  I explain that I need to do a lot more research for a non fiction book. I might give a wild estimate: six months, a year, two years.

But now I'm wondering if that is what the person asking the question is really asking, and what they actually want to know.

Writing a book is such a mysterious process, one that many non-writers or would be writers (or even writers themselves) are fascinated and intrigued by. I wonder if the person asking this question is really trying to quantify and make sense of the process itself. If I know it takes six months to write a book, they might think, then all I have to do is set aside six months of my life and I will have written one.

But of course it's not like that.

Books are such individual things, the process can't be pinned down - and writers are such individual people. It's true that some books get written astonishingly quickly. The Internet tells me that Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde - now regarded as a classic - in six days. I can't vouch for that, but last year I went to a talk by John Boyne who described how he stayed up for three days existing on little food and less sleep to write The boy in the striped pyjamas. (He said that if he'd had a meeting scheduled on any of those days, his concentration would have been broken and he might never have finished the book.)

On the other hand, some books take years to get set down on the page.

A book for me starts with a germ of an idea that won't go away, and it might take years to develop into something bigger, or to gather other ideas around it. And even then, it' s not a matter of sitting down in front of a sheet of paper or a computer for so many hours, days, weeks and months. As Melinda says, "when you start writing, you don't necessarily write day in, day out until done". For me, it's writing a bit, making notes, going for a walk to try and sort out a problem of plot or characterisation I'm stuck on, stopping to hang out the washing, stopping to cook dinner, having to deal with emails and paperwork, maybe having to meet a deadline for another piece of writing,  checking up on a few facts in the library, writing some more, editing, writing...

At the end of all of that - the writing , the editing, the interruptions, the emails flying to and fro with the publishers - it would be hard to say exactly how long it took to write that particular book.

But it would take a long time to explain all that, so I apologise if sometimes I go for the easier option.

Six months? A year? Two years?







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