It Takes The Time It Takes

Writing. Finishing. Editing. Publishing. Selling.

We want everything fast but sometimes it’s slow because it needs to be slow.

I write fast. I can churn out a book that doesn’t suck in a month or two. I also write a lot. In just over two years I’ve published ten books — one of which was self-published. Some of these books seem well-regarded, though I can’t speak to their actual quality, only to their quantity. I had a short film show at Sundance. I had a script go through the Sundance Labs. Worked on games and transmedia stuff and now comics and somewhere north of 115,000 tweets. I’ll probably write diner menus and the product description on the back of a bag of donkey chow next.

It’s a strong quantity of words. Quality, I dunno. But definitely quantity.

And to that quantity I have been referred to at times as an overnight success, which is true as long as you define “overnight” as “a pube’s width shy of 20 years.”

Because that’s how long I’ve been writing.

Twenty years.

Here are some other numbers for you:

I’m about to turn 38.

I sold my first short story when I was 18.

I made nine bucks.

I started working freelance when I was 21 — writing for the roleplaying game industry, for White Wolf Game Studios. First book I worked on was, I think, the Hunter Storytellers Guide, and then Hunter Book: Wayward after that.

I made, I think, $0.025 cents per word to start. Two-and-a-half cents per word.

Over time and with work I ended up making $0.05 per word, except when I was doing developing and editing work, which was $0.02 per word.

I contributed to around 100 books in the game industry, either as writer or developer.

In those books I wrote around two million words.

I worked various other jobs in the middle of this writing career: I was a “reporter” for the ICRDA (the Independent Cash Register Dealer’s Association, which is about as soul-killing an organization as you can imagine) and what that means was they hired me as a reporter but used me as a mule. (I crashed a tour van and got it stuck in a parking garage and that was my last day working for those assholes.) I worked one day shredding EPA documents for a pigment company. I worked a day in an advertising agency where for some reason they had sex toys everywhere and the ad execs looked like porn stars (to this day I still don’t know what was really going on there). I was a coffee-monkey for Caribou (one week), Borders (one week), and a cool little coffeehouse called Dillworth (one year). I worked behind the counter of one bargain bookstore. I worked as a manager for another bargain bookstore along with Pete, an old man who showed me scars from a time he got two bullets to the chest (at a bookstore). I did time at Gateway Computers as a help desk dude and a sales guy. I worked at a fashion merchandising company as a systems manager. I updated a website for an almost-kinda-sorta payola-based online music magazine meant to stir up radio plays when radio still mattered. I worked for the library in marketing.

But I was always a writer even when I was doing other things.

(Don’t tell my employers, but I used a whole lotta company time to write.)

I wrote six novels before I published my seventh, Blackbirds. And I wrote God-Only-Knows how many unfinished novels before that — leaving behind me a trail of broken story-corpses like furniture that fell off a truck because somebody forgot to tie all the shit down.

Those six novels were somewhere between bad to really bad with the occasional punctuation of oh that’s pretty good. It’s a good thing self-publishing did not exist back then because I’d have been shellacking the walls of the Kindle Marketplace with my stenchy word-grease.

The novel right before Blackbirds — a book called Dog Days — took me maybe a year to finish. It wasn’t really me or my voice, it was me trying to think I knew what I should write to get published, and I almost did. A few agents nibbled. I’m glad they didn’t. We can say what we want about gatekeepers, but truth is, I’m glad the bouncers kept me out of the club that night, because holy shit were my dance moves so not ready. All that flailing. Very inelegance. Such clumsy. Wow.

Blackbirds took me four or five years to write.

A month or two to get an agent.

A year or more to get published.

The sequel, Mockingbird, took me 30 days.

The third book, Cormorant, 45 days. Each with equal time to edit them, too.

Under the Empyrean Sky took a month for the first draft, but a year to get right through various successive drafts — and by the end over half the book was gone twice over. Then: more editing once the publisher picked it up — editing for content, for copy, for style, whatever.

Lots of books. Each a different hunk of time carved out of my life.

My point in telling you this is that I get a lot of emails or tweets or folks talking to me at conferences and they want to know how long this takes or why it doesn’t go faster and should they just self-publish. And I don’t have any good answers for that.

Because it takes as long as it takes.

And generally, I suspect it takes a lot longer than you want. Like most things in life, you want it now but now is often how you get it wrong, not how you get it right. A pot roast sits a long time in the oven. Brisket takes a long time for the smoke to get into the meat, for all the connective tissue to break down. You don’t paint a masterpiece the first time you pick up a brush. It took me 20 years to figure out how to brew my favorite cup of coffee. A sapling takes a long time to become a tree. A human takes a long time to become a person.

And a writer takes a long time to become a writer.

It’s easy to see these last couple years of my career as a flurry of activity out of nowhere. But you’re seeing the trunk of the elephant poking out of the tent (IT’S A TRUNK SHUT UP GET YOUR MINDS OUT OF THE GUTTER); you’re not seeing the whole beast. But those books I wrote — the ones that were bad? — mattered. You’ll never see them; they’re part of the foundation of this metaphorical house. It’s all under the earth, just rocks and packed dirt, but part of what holds the structure up. The freelance writing, too, that put me out there with editors and developers who helped me learn the craft — their input like hard stones whetting a blade.

Some books are fast, and some books are slow. Some books suck — though the suck can be fixed. Some books are good but can be made great. And some rare books are great the moment they land, as if they were handed down to the readers by one of the gods. (Though one should never be so presumptive to assume it’s his book that’s great — an ego that big and that brash could mean a book that’s very small, very broken.) You don’t just self-publish something because you’re tired of looking at it. You don’t just send things off to an agent or an editor because you need it now. As I am wont to say to the toddler: “Patience, little monkey.”

This shit takes time. It takes input. It takes other people. It takes self-evaluation. It takes knowing when a book is wrong and when to dust off your hands because it’s right. It’s about not worrying about getting to perfect because no such thing exists.

Your writing career will be long. Lots of peaks and valleys. Lots of digging in dirt, lots of learning “wax-on, wax-off,” not sure how waxing a fucking car will teach you goddamn karate. Lots of living to do, lots of reading to do. A world of of thinking, what feels like literal tons of doubt pushing down on your neck and shoulders. And, obvious to some but not obvious to all:

It’ll take a lot of writing.

Every writer is her own creature, and every book a monster child different from the last.

A writing career isn’t a short game — it’s a long con.

You should always be writing, but never be hurrying.

It takes the time that it takes.

100 comments

  • Anthony Laffan wrote: “…they don’t want the process they want the end result….”

    Absolutely! I think that was the one thing missing from the OP. I often recall a fragment of a lecture I heard when I was much younger where “self reinforcing behavior” was explained. The idea was along the lines of, “You can train any dog to herd, but for a dog that’s of a herding breed, he’ll generally keep on herding once he’s learned how. Other dogs will likely stop herding as soon as they’re no longer being rewarded with treats.” The idea is that we should all try to find our own “self reinforcing behaviors,” where, although we’re happy to get a pay check, the true reward is in the doing. That’s the aspiration, anyway. Personally, I count myself fortunate to be fairly well suited to my career in computer technology, though I admit there are some days, not a majority of the days, when I’d definitely be doing something else if it wasn’t for the pay check.

  • Hah! Yep. Not that I’m exactly an overnight success. But my 3rd novel is coming out from Solaris this year. It’s my 6th completed novel. The first was a 250,000 word monster that took me 12 years, because gah – self-doubt and self-discipline in conflict, guess which won. I am now very grateful that beast never got published because, frankly, it was pretty dire. It took another book to get an agent: another before I got a novel accepted. And somewhere in there were a rather horrific number of unfinished novels, a tonnage of short stories, (some published) and a fair bit of poetry (some also published).
    So I finally got a book deal in my late 40′s.
    I think the ease of putting stuff out there these days has its dangers. I *sweat* with relief that the internet as it is now, and cheap self-publishing options, didn’t exist back in the day. If they had, not only the terrible novel but some even more terrible poetry would probably have been released into the wild. If these monsters had been ignored, or trashed, that would have destroyed the little self-confidence I had. If for whatever reason they had received some positive attention, I would have had far less impetus to keep working until I got better.
    I hated the fact it was taking so long, but I’m intensely glad I had that time to learn.

  • Someone once said to aim to love the most basal part of the process of doing something. So if you write, aim to love your fingers typing on the keyboard and coming up with words to describe what you mean. If you paint, aim to love every brush stroke.

    It’s perhaps not always possible and definitely not always easy, but it helped put into perspective what you can focus on. Sure, I want to paint a nice painting, but I’ll need hundreds of brush strokes to get there, each one contributing in their own small way to the whole. If I focus on that small bit and enjoy the hell out of it, it’ll make the process so much more satisfying.

  • Yep. Preach it Papa Wendig (although you’re younger than me.)
    I won my first writing contest at 13; my first newspaper gig at 16; sold my first poem at 22…then had a hiatus because my day job was photojournalism and then corporate communications (with side gigs as a bartender for a lotta years), oh and I was raising children. Then I sold my first short-story at (for the love of jesus) 45. I’m still writing. Hoping this year I break the book-ban that seems to be in my writing career. Writer’s write. It’s kind of a numbers game. You gotta play to win. Playing means writing and sending that shit out.

  • Chuck –
    This is the finest post I’ve ever read from you. I can get on the Cocksuck Truck and go on about how long I’ve been following and all that, but… this was mighty inspirational, man. Thank you.

  • Oh, the doge bit made me giggle. It’s so similar to what I think when I attempt to edit my writing. Wow. So suck. Much plot hole. Here’s doge.

    “Finish the shit you started” and “It takes the time it takes” are probably the best bits of writing advice I’ve read. So, thanks. :D

  • Thanks, Chuck. What a lovely, timely post for me.
    It does indeed ‘take the time it takes’ no matter how much I would like otherwise.

  • I’ve gotten the “overnight success” thing more than once, and I just laugh politely in response. The first novel I sold was the fourth novel I’ve written. Every time I finished one of the earlier ones, I KNEW it was publishable quality, and whenever I finished the next one, I’d look back on the previous one and go, “….welllll, maybe not.”

    Twenty years of writing. Ten years of getting *serious* about the whole writing thing instead of just noodling around on the weekends. Yeah, “overnight success” indeed, if you discount all the time it took to write the Million Words of Shit. It takes the time it takes, indeed.

  • “Those six novels were somewhere between bad to really bad with the occasional punctuation of oh that’s pretty good. It’s a good thing self-publishing did not exist back then because I’d have been shellacking the walls of the Kindle Marketplace with my stenchy word-grease.”

    I know that when self-published authors hit the “submit” keys too soon it drives you crazy…and in some ways it should. No writer likes to see others putting out sub-standard work. But don’t assume that this is the standard pattern of self-published authors. Yes, there are those that do, but their books fade into obscurity never to be seen again – so they are non-issues. The book I self-published was lucky #13 and eight of them weren’t ever intended to publish as they were merely exercises in learning to write. I know a lot of professional author-publishers who have plenty in the trunk never to see the light of day.

    My point is, some authors (regardless of path) take early works that are far from prime time and work to get them “out there.” Those going traditional spin their wheels while riding the query-go-round and often lose a lot of money as they go to writing conferences or pay freelance copy editors to polish their turds. Self-published authors put theirs out. Some sell a few, most find themselves in the same place as those who are seeking traditional…no readers or money and possibly a cash outlay.

    • “My point is, some authors (regardless of path) take early works that are far from prime time and work to get them “out there.” Those going traditional spin their wheels while riding the query-go-round and often lose a lot of money as they go to writing conferences or pay freelance copy editors to polish their turds. Self-published authors put theirs out. Some sell a few, most find themselves in the same place as those who are seeking traditional…no readers or money and possibly a cash outlay.”

      I disagree that this is “losing money,” though. What this does is this sets up self-publishing as the minor leagues — it suggests, as others have, that putting your work out in the self-published space is good practice, that you can hone your efforts in public, that it’s okay to test the waters with self-publishing. That’s still a mindset that suggests traditional publishing is the dominant worldview and, frankly, it is, as long as author-publishers continue to believe that putting half-ass work out there is a good idea.

      If self-publishing is ever going to shake itself of its stigma, the culture needs to stop pretending that this is either okay or that it (at the least) has no effect on the culture at all. I’ve said for a while now that self-publishing needs fewer cheerleaders and more critics. We are now at a point where we know acting as your own publisher is viable and can even be completely awesome. So we no longer need to keep up the charade that unprofessional work is tolerable in that space.

      As a sidenote –the time I spent querying a bad novel was illustrative for me. Not a waste of time, nor a waste of money. My comment wasn’t to suggest that every author who goes that way would just put up their work as a self-published book, but I know me, and I would have. And it would not have helped my writing; it would have hurt my writing.

      – c.

  • I fully agree that every book will take a different amount of time to complete. My first novel took me 20+ years to finally see in print. The sequel, just under a year. For the most part it takes me over a year to write, edit, rewrite, send to my editor, rewrite, do the cover, format for all phases of publication, and to finally hit that “publish” button. Some books are easier to write. Some, like historicals, can be a real pain because you spend more time researching than writing. So there really is no hard and fast rule about how long a book takes. It all depends on the writer, the subject matter, and time.

  • “Blackbirds took me four or five years to write.”

    Cue a huge sigh of relief from me. I was mildly discouraged after reading Stephen King’s book “On Writing” in which he said he completes his first draft in three months. Of course, he’s been writing since he was in his late teens and earns his living from writing without having to work a day job.

    I started writing a novel 18 months ago, but I am a long way from feeling like it’s finished. I cringe when I re-read scenes I wrote six months ago, the very same scenes that struck me as magical inspiration at the time. Within the last year or so, I’ve come to see my novel as more of a marathon and less of a sprint. As long as I’m improving as a writer, I’m in no hurry to see the finish line.

  • Great thoughts as always, thanks from this longtime lurker. Makes me wonder, though… Why are we artists, writers, musicians, etc. so reluctant to show people our early works and practice? You say you’re glad you couldn’t/didn’t selfpublish your early stuff. Why not show it, warts and all? I follow a lot of musicians and I love finding bootleg or hard to find copies of their demo reels, earlier work, and the like, because it helps me to see where they were coming from and also how they’ve grown and changed. Seeing their ‘practice’ stuff makes me appreciate them all the more as a musician.

    For writing, and the only example I can think of off the top of my head is Tolkien, I love reading the Histories volumes and related works that cover all the many and myriad ways the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings changed over the years Tolkien tinkered.

  • And sometimes, (connecting back to the tips on characters), I would rather kill a character than develop him. Then is a good time to step back and take a breather. Which also takes time. As always, your presentation is hilarious and your advice is solid.

  • You’re a truth-sayer, Chuck. I’ve been writing for close to 30 years. I’m slow and always will be, that’s just my nature. My stories must stew until they’re good and ready to come out. I’m also too much of a perfectionist. Stupid, I know, but once again it’s in my nature.

    I’ve self-published several books and have won writing awards, but I can’t crank out two or three books a year, and that is a handicap in the indie market. Oh well, it takes as long as it take, to quote a much admired author. :)

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