portrait of an art

The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life.
— William Faulkner

I want to share some thoughts on the process of literary writing, and how long it’s supposed to take to get a book written and published.

Writing is like so many human endeavors, which can be practiced as commercial pursuit, craft, or work of art. It’s good to be good at writing for business, which I like to do. I got an A in business writing in college, and an A in rhetoric too. If you’re writing a cookbook or a travel book, or a romance novel, that’s cool. But the topic today is the literary novel, and asking how long it’s supposed to take is like asking, “How long long does it take to make a rug?”

It depends. A rug factory can knock a good one out in minutes. Here, you can watch a video of that. But we’ve all heard that a fine handmade carpet, in which each thread is tied by human fingers, takes many years to make. Some craftsmen make just a few in their lifetime, but they are more delicate and beautiful.

So my purpose in this essay is to provide a tool for those who also write literary fiction, poetry, etc. So that next time somebody walks by and says, “is it done yet?” you’ll know how to respond.


As a technical writer, I’ve written many “books.” Actually, they are documents, of a hundred to several hundred illustrated pages, and they take weeks or months to write. But that ain’t art.

In the world of fiction, there are many genres, and the approach to creating them is different. The first basic distinction is popular vs. literary fiction. I like to read both, but I’m writing literary fiction. It takes a lot longer. Don’t believe me? Think it’s just making excuses for not getting the damn thing done?

Magdalena Ball wrote this about literary fiction:

Rewrite.  This may be the single most important distinction between literary and other types of fiction.  Work that is timeless takes time. There’s no other way to achieve literary fiction besides rewriting, dozens, and maybe many more, times. It isn’t glamorous, nor is rewriting dependent on a muse or inspiration like the first draft is. It is just going over and over a work until every word is relevant and integral to the story. This process cannot occur solely in the fingers of the author. Almost every writer of literary fiction requires an ideal reader, a critique group, a mentor, or someone who can provide the kind of objective advice that will transform your inspiration into a stunning creation.

…. Writing a novel is about as hard as writing gets. Writing literary fiction can take years, often with little reward, at least until the book is completed (and in many instances, thankless even after publication, assuming you are published). But if you can’t stop yourself; if the desire for producing something truly beautiful outweighs utilitarianism, then you are really and truly a literary writer and your work will have transcendency. [Link]

Sure, the process of rewriting is exasperating, tiring, but it’s easier than trying to explain – or defend – yourself and the great rafts of time you’re spending off by yourself, tacking away at the computer. Because here in the western world, nobody respects the process of creation. We only respect results. That weaver of carpets is acknowledged for throughput, not art. As a technical writer, I understand throughput. You get the data in, you put the document out. We’re shipping products here.  

Let’s face it, if Hemingway were still alive and writing, and decided to start a new book, it wouldn’t make the news. Being wise and experienced, he probably wouldn’t mention it to many people until he was finished, and sitting across from John Stewart, who was holding it up for the cameras.

The difference between Hemingway and me is that he knew what he was doing. I have to believe what they told us in college, that if you’re aiming for art, it takes years. The writers who are getting the advance contracts and doing their books in one year are generally not writing literary fiction. They’re writing nonfiction or popular fiction, which I also appreciate and admire. It’s just not where my stupid muse led me.  

This is so obvious, it’s just sitting there anonymously on Yahoo Answers:

What is the average time it takes a writer to write a book?

There is no average time.

There are many different genres and any of them can be quite short in length or very, very long. You will read stories of how a writer completed a particular work in a month. Marcel Proust began (what came to be titled) "Remembrance of Things Past" in 1909 and did not finish it by the time he died in 1922. He is hailed as the greatest writer since Shakespeare.

Most books require research, many rough drafts, countless edits and revisions and rewrites. The process takes a lot of time. It is also exhausting. Few writers have the luxury of writing all day without distraction.

Some formula writers are able to crank out a book every six months. Some fiction writers take 10 years after one book to produce another. …Generally speaking, the more literary merit a book has, the longer it takes to write. There is however no "average time." [Link]

My own book …

It started out as a novella about two kids and a dog. The first working title was The Dogcatcher. Then I met a family, discovered a landscape that wanted to spread out, themes to be explored, plot lines to thread and intertwine. A literary novel is not a story, it is life contemplated. And life is many threads of story woven together, steeped in memory and dreams, hope and fear.

It is currently in its 6th Draft – 6th major rewrite. It’s nearly a hundred thousand words and almost 40 chapters. To get that, I’ve had to write probably over 100 chapters, and over a million words. Nothing that I wrote in the first 3 or 4 drafts is still in the manuscript anymore, because more than once I’ve had to yell “Pasta!” (Stands for piece a shit, try again.)

I’m still writing new material as needed to improve the story. And my notes, ideas, to-do lists for the current draft are a separate 30 page document in MS Word. 

Each word is a thread in my carpet. With the help of a friend who is an excellent plotting coach, I have raised the sheep, collected the wool, dried it in a harsh valley sun, dyed it, and hand-tied every knot over and over. I also trimmed it, throwing out countless yards of material. And it’s not done yet because it ain’t art yet.

It will be finished when it is.

Literary prose has to sing.

Tone and cadence are vital. It wants to evoke, foreshadow, and console.

In the opening scene, the narrator, Marty, says this:

One summer in these trees I saw something strange, terrible, haunting and perfectly normal. It changed my life. So I have kept the land with my father, as my grandfather did, and carried within me a tight and faded knot of joy and grief and amazement, as I sit here watching so much time go by. And time is the matter before us, or memory and what it makes of a man and leaves of him as it gathers up the chips of wood and broken glass that time will always make of life.

Sets itself some goals there, doesn’t it? Here’s another little thought he tosses off somewhere near the end of the current manuscript:

I would rather have had them see me waiving down from on high, bearing an enigmatic smile born in the lessons taught outside of time and space, of how perfect life is and how much better than life is death. So people die, but they keep watch on what we do and how we spend our fading days, but most don’t choose to stay too close. Everything looks purer in its blues and greens—even the dull brown between the trees and the ruddy drying tack of our blood on the land—from an infinite distance like heaven.

Here’s some random Marty thoughts as he tries to wake up and get in the shower, before visiting his grandpa in the hospital.

I laid in my bed and saw that almost thirty years had stood, been glimpsed, and died away since I was eleven years old. I laid there in my lumpy old bed and tried to believe in Papa moving on, maybe soon, in Dad following, and in the whole world going on without me. Can the world really go on spinning when all of us are gone? It seems to have that intention precisely. I thought the world should have something wise to say about all this, maybe some bland apology to make. But it only rained more ardently, as though it would not stop for days.

The whole damn book is insisting on being like that: Not so much a story of events as an episodic meditation on existence. Sure, I could have written a story with just things happening and things happening next – throw in a car chase and some sex – and had the book done in six months.

That would have been wonderful, because the fun part is writing a fresh new thing. Rewriting is a pain in the butt. But does anybody out there think that my kind of writing – even if you think it’s useless and it sucks – is easy? That it happens quickly and comes out whole in one draft, or two, or three? No, that’s how I wrote this long blog post, which we can all agree isn’t great. So basta.

The problem is that some of us – right or wrong or blindly deluded – like to think of ourselves as artists. If you’re laughing at us, please do so quietly. We’re trying to concentrate.


It is my aim, and every effort bent, that the sum and history of my life, which in the same sentence is my obit and epitaph too, shall be them both: He made the books and he died.
— William Faulkner

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