In praise of the slow burn
Why your manuscript failure might be a planted seed
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Hello and Happy Wednesday.
Because we are in the feverish, output-centered month of #NaNoWriMo (which stands for “National Novel Writing Month,” wherein participating writers try to draft a book-length manuscript in 30 days), I’ve been thinking about productivity. I’ve been thinking about what people think that “productivity” looks like, and how quickly productive people do things, versus what the mechanics of the creative process actually look like behind the scenes.
I get asked this question often: “How are you so productive?” I understand why people ask this: I do a lot of things and publish pretty regularly. If you look at my bio, for example, you’d have the impression that I publish books every 2-3 years, which is a fast pace. But when it comes to my writing process—the long, hard path from “idea” to “published”—I’m actually quite slow. My writing process is hands-on and long-cooking. More Le Creuset than Insta Pot.
The truth is that it takes me, on average, 7 years to write a book. Quite a lot of that time will see my project in a drawer, hibernating. I used to say “abandoned” or even “failed” for these shelved manuscripts, but now I realize that I never actually abandon anything, and that some of the manuscripts I considered total failures are the ones that have best served me down the road.
I’m learning that I am a fermenter, a distiller; I’ve got that oak-aged añejo approach to my own words. I want to share this truth about myself so that you don’t think authors receive the gift of a book idea and sit down to draft it the next day and get it right straight off the bat. And I want to share this truth because your “failed” material isn’t useless, and it isn’t a mistake. It’s just not in the form that nature intended yet. Finding that right form can take a lot of time.
Case in point— I’d like to share the actual timelines hiding behind my publishing timeline with you:
In 2002, I started writing a short story called “The Blue Bear” inspired by a sign I’d seen on the outside of an art gallery door in Paris, where I was living at the time. The note said something to the effect of “I was looking to talk to you about The Blue Bear. You had on an elegant hat.” For weeks after seeing that note, I wondered two things: Why was the note on the outside of the door and what was The Blue Bear? I started writing a short story to answer this, but the short story got super long. So long it became a novel. I got an agent for that novel in 2003. But that novel did not actually come out until 2014—over a decade after I first wrote it. That decade allowed me to have some crucial experiences that ended up deepening and texturizing the material. I wrote about being married and a parent in my first draft—both identities were important to the infidelity plot running through my novel, but I was single and childless in my early twenties. By the time the book came out in 2014, I was a wife and mother, both.
At the same time that I was working on “The Blue Bear” short story in 2002, I was also working as a trend forecaster for a boutique agency called Alchimie in Paris. I held on to the bizarre experiences and insights from my years at Alchimie until I knew what to do with them: the result was my second novel “Touch” in 2017. Let’s do the math: that’s 15 years of fermentation!
In 2013, I published a chapbook called “Notes from Mexico” that was inspired by a place in Mexico called Careyes that I’d first visited in 2011. That publication did not scratch the itch that was my Careyes obsession. In 2015, I published a short story called “Tourist Season” in Slice Magazine that was inspired, once again, by Careyes. That place? Still not out of my system. In 2017, I started researching how to make that place a character in a long-form book. That book, “Costalegre” would come out in 2019. For eight years, I’ve been drafting and reformulating my love with this one place. Our affair isn’t over yet.
In 2015, I published an essay in BuzzFeed called “Why Being a Debut Author Isn’t Exactly a Dream Come True.” This article, and readers’ positive reaction to it, planted the seed for my publishing guidebook “Before and After the Book Deal” which came out in 2020. But don’t let those five years fool you! When my first agent failed to sell my “The Blue Bear” novel back in 2003? Trust me, I was already starting to think about what it looked and felt like to be a modern author, lessons (and mistakes— a lot of them) that I would fold into my 2020 book.
And oh my goodness, “The Year of the Horses?” My memoir that came out last May? That manuscript started as a novel I was trying to ace in 2014, a novel I was under contract for with Simon & Schuster to follow my debut with. That book was originally about a pregnant woman married to a world champion dressage rider whose plane goes down over the Atlantic—killing several Olympians and their Olympic steeds as well. I researched my heart out for that book. I talked to pilots, listened to black box recordings of plane crashes, I interviewed horse transporters, dressage riders and trainers. I couldn’t get that novel to work, but as it turned out, I’d chosen the wrong format for the story and its themes. Eight years later, I found the proper genre for it: memoir.
Today, I am working on a novel that is expanding a character from a short story called “The Arts and Crafts Section” that I published back in 2013. Theresa, my main character, has been sitting around for 9 years, waiting for me to come back and take her home.
And at some point in the coming years, I’m going to resuscitate a novel project that I researched like a maniac for in my late twenties, dropped, picked up again in 2019, dropped, re-started and got pretty far with in 2021, then put aside once more. My husband is heartbroken about how many times I’ve dropped the ball on this particular book idea, because he loves the concept, he’s been living with this concept for over 15 years now, waiting patiently for me to get it right and bring it to life inside a book. But I can’t get it right yet. Apparently I still have some living to do with this particular book.
In addition to the aforementioned material that I ferment and repurpose like some kind of mother yeast, I have five full-length novels in a drawer at present. Four of those have been written while I’ve been agented, though only one of those went out on submission (it was a short trip).
I don’t feel a need to resuscitate or fix those novels. I don’t feel that all the hours/months/years I spent researching those respective subjects is either lost or wasted. As for the sentences/paragraphs/chapters I spent unpaid time perfecting? Well, they’ve taught me to write better. They’ve sharpened my sense of humor, they’ve chiseled my aesthetics. Honestly, I think of those manuscripts as vegetables in my root cellar. I have no idea how I will use them, but when I’m hungry, they’ll be there.
I mention all this because people—American writers, especially—are so focused on creative work being usable and efficient. A blender deserves those adjectives, not creative writing. If you’ve had to put something away this year, if you are working on something now that is losing its inner light, try not to feel bad about it. Take the seeds that you have harvested and put them back into the ground. They’ll grow into something eventually, I promise!
One of my favorite women and authors, Mira Ptacin, is running a flash nonfiction course in December. At the time of writing, there are only 4 spots left. Here’s the course description, in her words:
Michael Hobbes has a new podcast! The co-host of one of my favorite podcasts, Maintenance Phase, has a brand new podcast If Books Could Kill where he and a lawyer break down the problems with the bestselling nonfiction airport books of the last decade. They start with “Freakanomics.” They also tackle Malcom Gladwell. Treat yourself.
Want signed books for the holidays? If you’d like to give any of my books away for the holidays (or to the person hosting you for dinner), I’ll send you a bookplate with a note for the recipient! Here are some ideas:
I AM HAVING SO MUCH FUN HERE WITHOUT YOU: Anyone who has been through some rough times in love; is obsessed with Paris; or is interested in the challenge of forgiveness.
TOUCH: Your social media addict friend who keeps saying they’re going to do a digital-detox; your single friend who needs a hot sexy book to read about a Virgo cougar; anyone in tech.
COSTALEGRE: Lovers of Lana del Rey and everything emo; your friend’s teenage or college daughter; people in the art world.
BEFORE AND AFTER THE BOOK DEAL: Writers, and the people who live with them.
THE YEAR OF THE HORSES: Anyone who might be in the middle of a mid-life crisis.
Oh, and we have a new cover for my paperback! Isn’t she purty?
If you’d like to arrange a bookplate delivery, please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org
As for me, I am off to Disneyland. Sort of. My daughter’s godparents are taking her, the lucky kid! I’ll be three hours west, visiting friends on a ranch and attending my first-ever livestock auction. (Will I come back with donkeys? Let’s find out next week.)
What about you? What are you up to in the days ahead? If you’d like to share the ways that you’ve repurposed (or shelved) prior projects, please share in the comments!