Dear Writers: A Book Needs Time To Cook
I’m working on something now that’s three years in the making.
And when I say, “in the making,” I mean, “I’ve been making it inside my head.” Translation: a bunch of random ideas were invited to a random idea orgy, and for years they’ve been sticking bits into other bits and sloppily flopping around until eventually they don’t so much have a baby as they glom together and form a slippery, goopy Idea Voltron.
What I mean is, I’m working now on Exeunt.
Exeunt appeared as a collection of half-ass ideas in my head three years back, while taking a walk. And by the way, my judgment on ideas in general is this: ideas are mostly worthless. They’re dross. We like to imagine that all our ideas are pearls, but the reality is, I fear, most of them are fucking driveway gravel. They’re just hunks of broken limestone. But the secret there is: limestone is a building material. It forms the base of roads. It helps make up the recipe for concrete. And further, once in a while you find a piece of gravel that’s interesting to look at — it’s got a vein of quartz running through it, or it’s got a little mollusc fossil in there, or maybe it’s actually a goblin tooth and if you put that tooth under the pillow of an enemy they will lose all their teeth and you can laugh and laugh and laugh at your foes as they feebly gum their food.
Point is, ideas aren’t precious gems. They’re just stones.
But stones have value, too, in aggregate.
And over time, they build up, and the ideas you have keep tumbling around and around in your head. And maybe they polish up into something pretty, or maybe they start to form the karst and bedrock of something bigger, some structure, some story, some vital tale. That’s why when I get an idea, I don’t write it down. I let it go. If it’s a real idea, if it’s going to be the basis of something bigger, it will return. It’ll keep kicking around. It’ll get stuck in a shoe.
Exeunt was that. It kept coming back. Again and again.
But I never knew what to do with it. It had a core, it had characters, but it didn’t have shape. It didn’t have a point. It was just this half-formed thing in the dark, gibbering and moaning.
I knew if I started it, it’d just be me struggling to slap that mewling glob into some kind of meaningful shape, like I was a bored kid kicking a can. It wouldn’t feel right because I didn’t know what I was doing. I’d tried this previously with other books: my novella, The Forever Endeavor, is literally based on an idea I had almost twenty years ago, and periodically over the years I had tried to dip my toes in it, write a chapter or two, and every time it felt like I was on a date with someone and we just weren’t connecting. Each of us making sad small-talk, staring down at our water-glasses, trying to find some spark, some reason to keep on keeping on. My book, Atlanta Burns, was three different things: it was a name (the titular “Atlanta Burns”), a thing about dog-fighting, and a thing about white supremacy in a small Pennsylvania town, and it wasn’t until one day that those three things collided randomly in my head and the book was born. My first book, Blackbirds, somewhat infamously took five years to write — and it took five years because I didn’t know what the sweet hot fuck I was doing with it.
I say all this as a lesson to you — but more as a reminder to myself! — that this shit takes time. Yes, some books appear like vengeful whole-bodied specters at the moment of creative inception, and you can sit down right after and exorcise the spirit right onto the page. But some books… *whistles* man, some books take weeks, months, even years to figure out. It’s like cooking. Sometimes it’s high-heat and a quick-fry and the dish is done. But other dishes are low and slow. The flavors take a long time to come together. A pot of chili tastes better the next day because all those ingredients need time to cool down and join forces. Some books are that way, too.
Sometimes, with a book, you spend more time thinking about it, ideating upon it, then you do actually writing the damn thing. Sometimes the story is as much about rejecting ideas and finding shape and direction as it is about actually putting it on the page. It’s a pot of water set to boil — slow to heat, miserable to watch, until the moment comes and it’s boiling over the edge.
The problem is, this doesn’t always feel like working.
It doesn’t feel like you’re doing anything.
And that’s okay.
You can set that pot on the back burner and let it simmer for a while.
But here’s the trick:
Don’t get complacent.
Don’t let that be the only thing.
And don’t let this be the excuse not to ever write it.
You get a book that’s taking a long time to bubble and froth, hey, okay. Work on something else. Something short, something long, something that’s ready. And that’s part of the trick: you’re never just silently working on one book. I think we all have lots of pots on lots of burners at various stages of potential deliciousness — some are still missing ingredients, but you should always have something ready to go.
And then when it’s time, you gotta do it. You have to stow away the fear — because the longer the book takes the simmer, the bigger and scarier it may loom in your mind, its shadow long and deep — and you have to sit down and do the damn thing. You can’t waffle. You can’t lean on this as a crutch. Just as you know the book needed its time to come together, you also have to know when it’s time to stop fucking around and fucking write the fucking thing. Problem is, you don’t have any reliable test for it. You can’t dip a hot copper wire in a petri dish of its blood. You can’t ask it. You can’t smell its ripeness like it’s a fucking pineapple. You just have to do it. Or, at least, try it. Sometimes a book needs you to wait. Sometimes the book needs you to write it. Best you can do is put pen to paper or fingers to keys and see what happens.
It’s what I’m doing now.
Fingers to keys.
Ideas stapled to the page to stop them from running.
Exeunt, coming soon.
Years in the making, an orgy-baby purged in a rough birth.
Wish me luck, and I wish you luck, too.