At the beginning of my workshop on fiction craftsmanship, I tell a story told to me many years ago by Carolyn Thorman (author of Fifty Years of Eternal Vigilance and other Stories, Holy Orders, and The Loss of What We Never Had): “A novelist and brain surgeon were out golfing. The brain surgeon said, ‘You know, George, I think I’ll take off the summer and write a novel.’ ‘Great idea, Henry,’ the novelist said. ‘I think I’ll take off the summer and do brain surgery.’”
The point of the story, of course, is that it takes just as long to learn to write as it does to learn to do brain surgery. Maybe longer. I’ve been studying the craft of writing since I was six years old and first realized that I was born to write. And I’m still learning.
But I regularly run into people who tell me they’re going to write a book. They have no clue about the monumental difficulty writing entails. On average, it took me fourteen years to write each of my books. Granted, I was usually working on more than one book at a time. But it is standard procedure for me to put a novel or short story through as many as ten drafts before I finally decide that I can’t improve it any further.
After I have finished the draft of a novel, I put it away for some period of time, sometimes as long as a year. I don’t read it or think about it during the interim. The point is to create distance and objectivity and to be able to return to the text with fresh eyes. Once the dormitive period has passed, I read and revise, then put it away again. I go through that procedure repeatedly until I am convinced I can’t improve the book any further.
What do I seek to improve? First, the overall structure of the story. Do the buildup, climax, and resolution come at the right places? The paragraph structure—are the sentences of variable length and type? And what about the wording? Do the words convey the emotional content consistent with the story? Are sentences during violent sequences short and blunt while those in exposition are longer and more lyrical? To answer these questions decisively, I read the text aloud and listen to how it moves.
Meanwhile, on the non-technical level, I live with characters in my stories and learn more about them. They take on a life of their own and are independent of me. Sometimes they surprise me with the decisions they make. Occasionally they act in ways I didn’t expect that change the story I’m telling. As I learned long ago, f I want my stories to work, I have to let my characters dictate what happens.
None of this is easy. All of it takes time and considerable effort. Writing stories is the hardest work I’ve ever attempted. The only harder thing I know of is writing poetry, which I won’t even attempt.