Like Asking an Arsonist For Fire Safety Tips

When people ask how long it took to write my first novel Whitney, which comes out on 10/15/13, I pause. The answer just isn’t that clear. I submitted the book to the New Rivers Press Many Voices Project on 10/26/11, so we can use that date as the day I was done writing it.

But the start is—fuzzier.

There’s a chapter in Whitney (I won’t say which) that is adapted from a short story I wrote in college in 2006. So, okay, there’s your answer: five years.

But that’s not quite right either. I didn’t write that short story with the novel in mind.

About a year and a half after that story, while in grad school, I wrote four or five more short stories, all loosely connected, that all contained a character named Whitney. This wasn’t an intentional act; I just don’t like to waste time thinking up names when I have a story idea, and so I use placeholders. Coincidentally, though, there was some common language, some common themes, and a friend pointed out that I should consider turning the obviously connected stories into something longer. With a new semester beginning, I decided that he was right.

That part of the process of building Whitney began in January of 2008, when I began working with David Gates at Bennington College. The process continued until January of 2009, through my time working with Amy Hempel, also at Bennington College, when I completed the (very short) Whitney manuscript and submitted a portion of it as my senior thesis.

I need to pause again for some backstory. The above process, about a year in length, was not a quick process. As I wrote Whitney, I edited as I went. Compulsively. I hand-wrote each chapter’s initial draft. Typed it up. Printed it out and then edited with a pen. Typed up the changes. And repeated. And repeated again. And again—and then again. I didn’t move on to the next chapter until I felt like the current chapter was totally polished, totally done. I’ve got two mail tubs worth of paper to prove it.

But even then, Whitney still wasn’t finished.

It needed to be lengthened. It needed a more obvious story arc. It needed another top-to-bottom revision (which meant re-editing the already supposedly “finished” chapters, writing new chapters, and then going through the write/type/print/edit/repeat process for all of them), and only then was it ready to see the light of day.

Of course, by “the light of day,” I mean that it was ready to be rejected by about 40 agencies (I stopped counting after 37). After despairing for a while, and after being told by another friend to make some major changes to the beginning and to the end, I submitted the new manuscript to some contests, including the New Rivers Press MVP contest that it would eventually go on to win.

So why bring all of this up?

I decided during the rejection process, thanks to the gentle suggestion of the same friend who helped me to fix the beginning and end of Whitney, that maybe it was time, not to give up on Whitney—but to move on to something else. That maybe it was time to live inside of a different world for a while. I had an idea in mind. At that point, it was mostly some big words and a couple of characters, but it had been rolling around in my head during my daily commute for a while and so I decided that I’d give it a shot. I began by writing what would become the forward to the book (referred to from now on as The Next Thing). I knew T.N.T. would be big, sprawling, and a foreword would ground it in a present tense before pole-vaulting back to the beginning.

But I knew that my process wouldn’t work again, that it just wasn’t the best use of my limited time. The road I’d taken to write Whitney wouldn’t work for something this big; it had barely worked the first time. If the low residency-style program at Bennington had taught me anything, it was how to incorporate my writing life into my work life and my personal life. I decided to come up with a plan that had a floor and a ceiling.

I decided that 100,000 words for a first draft was a smart goal. I decided next that setting the type of daily output goal you always read about writers setting for themselves (and supposedly reaching) was putting myself in a position to fail. I didn’t have the time (nor the writing style) that allowed for producing 1,000 words a day. Or for writing for two hours without stopping. Or for only writing at 4:30am when “my head is still clear,” whatever the fuck that means.

(Sidenote: taking writing advice from a fiction writer is like asking an arsonist for fire safety tips. We’re exaggerators. That’s how we got into this mess in the first place.)

What I needed was something reachable and tenable. Having already picked the fairly arbitrary 100K word total, I decided that one year was also a sensible amount of time. 365 days to write, 100,000 words—I saved the document (that was the other rule—no more handwriting. It was just a way for me to waste time and disguise it as work. I always have a computer or an iPad or even an iPhone on hand. This time there would be no excuses.) as ‘273.972.’ That’s how many words I would write a day, no questions asked. It was an amount that I could do in fifteen minutes before I went to sleep if need be.

I started on 10/11/11.

So I’ll tell you the end first—it worked.

I wrote 100,029 words in a year. Actually, it was less than that—11 months, 9 days; I finished on 9/20/12.  And I say ‘words’ specifically because what I produced in that time was raw. I didn’t pause to look up fun facts, I didn’t spend days looking up lists of names. I just wrote. I made sure to always leave off in the middle of a sentence so that restarting the next day was easier and when the idea I was working on was complete, I moved on to the next idea.

For full disclosure’s sake, I have to admit that this wasn’t all totally off-the-cuff. Like I said, I had an idea. I had several actually. And I made a ton of spelling and grammar mistakes. And I went down some paths that I see now were dead ends. But here’s what I learned:

1. During the 11 months I spent writing The Next Thing, I realized that writing is like a power tool (maybe some kind of chainsaw/jackhammer/chisel/nail gun amalgam, for what is a writer doing besides messy demo, fine tuning, and patch work?). If you keep it fueled and oiled, and it’s run on a consistent basis, it operates smoothly each time. Rather than forcing myself to restart over and over again after every chapter like I did with Whitney, where sometimes it felt like I was writing 30 individual novels (sometimes with 2-3 weeks in between each), now, my T.N.T. thought process was always running in the background. There were no cold starts, no need to prime the engine. And so while I often had to write Saturday and Sunday’s word on Monday (along with Monday’s), I still almost never ended on exactly 275 words (another admission: I put myself on pace to finish in less than a year from the start, because of my weirdness on insisting on using numbers that end on 5 or 0). What that did was give me some cushion for the days where I really, truly had nothing, or really truly didn’t have time. I knew that I was ahead for most of the process and so I didn’t stress about not writing. I should also point out that I put just as much of an emphasis on not going too far beyond my daily words—limitations on both ends of your daily tasks—a floor and a ceiling—is an efficient way of getting everything done.

2. The process of letting the book develop organically allowed me to go places that I didn’t initially envision, a process that is repeating itself now as I edit. I knew exactly where I had to get to when I “started” Whitney. Sometimes, I felt as if I was writing to fill space, to get us to an already decided-on destiny. With T.N.T, I had and have no expectations. Nothing I write ever feels wrong (well, that’s not true, but certainly much less frequently than the first time around) or at the very least, unusable.

If you’re expecting some kind of triumphant picture here—or the mention of a release date—me grinning behind a conquered stack of papers—good news of some kind—just hang on.

At a faculty meeting this summer, before I spent five weeks at home with my then 3 month-old daughter, a colleague, asked me how life as a father and as a writer was going. I told him that it was going well, save for the fact that I hadn’t gotten back into my normal writing routine yet, but that I was sure that that would happen soon. He laughed, shook his head, and told me to forget about getting any writing done for a year. I laughed him off, of course. And technically, he was wrong.

Forget about writing—I haven’t even gotten any editing done.

Now, once again, I’m exaggerating. The first draft of T.N.T. is a little over 500 pages. I’ve got the first 100 pages edited. But these were the easiest, as I’ve already worked them over a couple of times (old habits die hard). I was supposed to have the entire 500 pages ready to go by now. And sure, I’ve written a few thousand words of personal essay, and a couple of short stories, but that’s all on-the-side stuff for the moment. T.N.T. is my latest conjuring, a pieced-together globe that is always finishing spinning in every room I walk into, and above my head before I fall asleep at night.

But 3 month-olds (and 4 month-olds and 5 month-olds and almost 6 month-olds) don’t respect writing plans, no matter how mathematically-sound they might be. Add in the work I’ve put in to get this site (and content) ready to go, the work of teaching three college classes while working a 9-5 job, and the work of helping to take care of my house and property while being a decent husband and father and well—there are only so many hours in the day.

I’m behind. But I’m ahead. If I had waited to start writing T.N.T., I don’t know where I’d be right now.

Almost 2,000 words later, it’s clear why explaining how long it took me to write Whitney is tricky. Explaining how to explain it was tricky. But that’s the hard work of writing is the phrase I tell my students, so it’s the phrase I’ll tell myself.

And because old process, new process, no process—it doesn’t look like explaining how long it took to write The Next Thing will be any easier.