Thursday, June 10, 2010

So how long does it take....

I’m on tour for Book of Shadows, which means that I actually have had to to start talking to people coherently about the whole process of writing. And sure enough, just as I remembered that one of the questions I most often get at book signings and panels is, “How long does it take you to write a book?”

Well, my feeling is what’s always being asked is not how long it takes ME to write a book, but how long it would take the person asking to write a book. Which of course, I have no way of answering, unless it’s to cut to the chase and shout, “Save yourself! Don’t do it!” But that’s never the question, so I don’t say it.

What I usually answer instead is, “About nine months.” Which, from Chapter One to copyedits, I guess is true enough. But the real answer is almost always: “Decades.”

Because honestly, where do you even start? I’m quite convinced I’m a professional writer today because my mother made me write a page a day from the time I could actually hold a pencil. At first a page was a sentence, and then a paragraph, and then a real page, but it was writing. Every day. It was an incredibly valuable lesson, which taught me a fundamental truth about writing: it didn’t have to be good, it just had to get written. Now I make myself write however many pages every day. And now, like then, it doesn’t have to be good, it just has to get written. Some days it’s good, some days it’s crap, but if you write every day, there are eventually enough good days to make a book.

Then there were all those years of theater, from writing and performing plays in my best friend’s garage, to school and community theater, to majoring in theater in college, to performing with an ensemble company after college. Acting, dancing, choreography, directing – that was all essential training for writing.

And then the reading. Again, like probably every writer on the planet, from the time I could hold a book. The constant, constant reading. Book after book – and film after film, too, and play after play – until the fundamentals of storytelling were permanently engraved in some template in my head.

Hey, you may be saying, that’s TRAINING. That wasn’t the question. How long does it take to WRITE A BOOK?

I still maintain, it takes decades. I think books emerge in layers. The process is a lot like a grain of sand slipping inside a clamshell that creates an irritation that causes the clam to secrete that substance, nacre, that covers the grain, one layer at a time, until eventually a pearl forms. (Actually it’s far more common that some parasite or organic substance, even tissue of the clam’s own body, is the irritant, which is an even better analogy if you ask me, ideas as parasites…)

So when did I start Book of Shadows? Well, technically in the fall of 2008, I guess. But really, the seed was planted long ago, when I was a child growing up in Berkeley. Which pretty much explains why I write supernatural at begin with, but that’s another post. Those of you who have visited this town know that Telegraph Avenue, the famous drag ending at the Berkeley campus, is a gauntlet of fortune tellers (as well as clothing and craft vendors).

Having daily exposure to Tarot readers and psychics and palm readers as one of my first memories has been influential to my writing in ways I never realized until I started seeing similarities in the two books I have coming out this year (the second, The Shifters, will be out in November) and discovered I could trace the visuals and some of those scenes back to those walks on Telegraph Ave.

Without mentioning an actual number, I can tell you, that’s a lot of years for a book to be in the making.

Over the years, that initial grain of sand picked up more and more layers. Book of Shadows is about a Boston homicide detective who reluctantly teams up with a beautiful, enigmatic practicing witch from Salem to solve what looks like a Satanic murder. Well, back in sixth grade, like a lot of sixth graders I got hooked on the Salem witch trials, and that fascination extended to an interest in the real-life modern practice of witchcraft, which if you live in California – Berkeley, San Francisco, L.A. –is thriving, and has nothing at all to do with the devil or black magic. Hanging out at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire (more Tarot readers!), I became acquainted with a lot of practicing witches, and have been privileged to attend ceremonies. So basically I’ve been doing research for this book since before I was in high school.

And my early love of film noir, and the darkest thrillers of Hitchcock, especially Notorious, started a thirst in me for stories with dark romantic plots that pit the extremes of male and female behavior against each other; it's one of my personal themes. Book of Shadows is not my first story to pit a very psychic, very irrational woman against a very rational, very logic-driven man; I love the dynamics – and explosive sexual chemistry - of that polarity.

So to completely switch analogies on everyone, this book has been on the back burner, picking up ingredients for a long, long time.

Now, what pulls all those ideas and layers and ingredients into a storyline that takes precedence over all the other random storylines cooking on all those hundreds of back burners in my head (because that’s about how many there are, at any given time), is a little more mysterious. Or maybe it’s not. Maybe storylines leap into the forefront of your imagination mostly because your agent or editor or a producer or executive or director comes up with an opportunity for a paycheck or a gentle reminder that you need to be thinking of the next book or script if you ever want a paycheck again. I know that’s a powerful motivator for me.

But the reason a professional writer is able to perform relatively on demand like that is that we have all those stories cooking on all those back burners. All the time. For years and years, or decades and decades. And if a book takes nine months, or six months, or a year to write, that’s only because a whole lot of stuff about it has been cooking for a very, very, very long time.

A long time.

So writers, how long does it take YOU to write a book? Or your latest? How many stories do you figure you have on the back burner at any one time?

And readers, do you ever notice certain themes – or recurring scenes or visuals - in your favorite authors’ books that make you suspect that story seed was planted long ago?

- Alex


All the information on this blog and more, including full story structure breakdowns of various movies, is available in my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks.  Any format, just $3.99 and $2.99.

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Mike said...

Yep, that's exactly it. There exist crummy drafts of my writing in Google's Usenet archive dated as far back as 1993. It has taken from then until now for me to write what I can write now -- and I still have much to learn. The late David Eddings once wrote that writing is a job with a 25-year internship.

This is not restricted to our particular art. My wife's uncle, Charles Pabst, has been a professional painter for decades. People always ask him how long it takes to paint a given piece. His answer to the curious party is the same as ours.

Joylene Nowell Butler said...

It took me 7 years to write my first. Three months to write the first draft of my second book and then 4 years to edit. Number 3, 4, 5 are still being edited, though 4 comes out next year as my 2nd published novel. Guess I better quit revising it pretty soon. The first draft for Number 6 looks like it's going to take a year because I'm working with my editor on book 4. Book number 7 is growing in my head.

Maybe the question should be: How long does it take you to write the first draft? Answer: From 3 months to a year. Then comes the best part = revising!

Thanks for maintaining your blog even though you're incredibly busy, Alex. Your insight and wisdom has saved me a lot of trouble.

Bobby Mangahas said...

Actually writing SNAPSHOT took me about nine or ten months (mind you I haven't touched it since finishing). The story idea itself was kicking around for a long time. It kept taking the forms of either attempted short stories, a screenplay and a novel. Not to mention characters, situations and settings were constantly changing. Perhaps I'll try outlining next time :\

By the way, I'm really looking forward to reading BOOK OF SHADOWS.

G.R. Yeates said...

Hi Alex,

I'd say 3-4 months when everything in life is going smoothly. The first draft in three months and then redrafting duties wrapped up by the end of the fourth.

This evening I've been brainstorming some titles for short stories and also sketching out ideas for another five novel ideas.

That said, all of this will be whittled down. Titles can become lines of prose and novel ideas can interfuse to create something better and stronger.

As for how long the ideas have been developing, some of the seeds of material I've written to date go back as far as my earliest childhood memories.

I could use the more comforting analogy of one's life being a garden from which to pluck just the right flowers and herbs but I write horror, so I'll go with one's life being an unquiet graveyard, full up with the hungry dead, scratching at their coffin boards, waiting to be disinterred......

Wolf Lahti said...

"It is, after all, the dab of grit that seeps into an oyster’s shell that makes the pearl, not pearl-making seminars with other oysters."
--Stephen King, On Writing

Wolf Lahti said...

"It is, after all, the dab of grit that seeps into an oyster’s shell that makes the pearl, not pearl-making seminars with other oysters."
--Stephen King, On Writing

RhondaL said...

Mine had been brewing since I was a little girl ::cough::ty years ago.

I wrote a Man from UNCLE fanfic when I was 10 with the same setting. (Well, so much for being cagey about my age.)

And now I'm 3/4 of the way through a mystery novel in the same setting. Different characters, of course. No Solo, no Illya.

But, then again, maybe my story needs an Illya Kuryakin??

ssas said...

I have some recurrent themes I can't escape:

Ineffective parents.
Christianity, from myth to reality.
Death and life afterward.
Dichotomy of faith and violence.

I have one book that took four months to write. I have another that I'm still working on after 6 years. I can't nail it down.

I can't escape them. I was a lot happier when I realized it was okay, I was SUPPOSED to write about that stuff.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Whoa, Mike, that's a terrific quote by Eddings, thanks!

And very interesting about the same timeframe for painting. Will have to ask some painter friends, but I bet you're right.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Thanks, RJ. What you're saying of different forms of the story goes to that idea that we're all constantly working the same personal themes which translate to a limited number of story themes. I really do think so...

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Greg, I find flowers and graveyards go together pretty inevitably.

I think you're even more right than I am - it all starts probably in our earliest childhood memories. Including our genres (!!!).

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hah, Wolf. I'd say there's more than a dab of grit down there in The King's unconscious...

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Rhonda, what story WOULDN'T benefit from an Ilya Kuryakin?

That's charming about your Man From Uncle fanfic.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Starbucks, those are some great themes. Yes, surrendering to destiny is probably always a relief.