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.

Obsessively.

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.

30 comments

  • It’s a thing. Arthur C. Clarke always said he’d let novels ‘cook’ in his subconscious for a while, sometimes years. It worked: the story would apparently pop out, fully formed, after a lot of behind-the-scenes thought.

  • I love this post. And your words are timely, especially with so many “fans” frothing at the mouth for George R.R. Martin to write the next book in his A Song of Ice and Fire series. I hope every one of those fans reads your blog and sees this post.

    These words are also timely for me, as I have recently found myself wondering. . .Whatever happened to Jennifer Crusie? Does she have any new books out in, say, the last five years or so? (The answer to that is no, sadly.)

    So thank you!!!

  • Thank you. After reading this I am torn between a motivational kick toward my keyboard or a depression block. Either way, I have a new admiration for our oyster-shell sidewalk.

  • I have to say I disagree with part of your description, this in particular:

    “Point is, ideas aren’t precious gems. They’re just stones. But stones have value, too, in aggregate.”

    Well, you know, gems ARE just stones, right? And they are precious not just “in aggregate”, but because *we* VALUE them. That is the entire story of value. And what does “value them” mean? Only that we do something interesting with them. Interesting to us, though maybe not to everyone. They are valuable because… we value them. Which is especially the case with ideas.

    Rather than “broken hunks of limestone” think of them as tools. We have a toolbox of ideas, and each has the chance of bringing its own influence to what we do. Some are better used here, others in other places, and some we may never use. The problems that call for them may never occur to us. But we have them in the box, in case they are needed. And we can gather more and upgrade on older models.

    They are not valuable simply by being collected, in aggregate, but because they DO something that we find interesting. They *fit* our projects more or less well. And they deserve to be respected for every door that gets unlocked, every hatch battened down, every sail unfurled, and every plate filled. The gem IS just a stone, but the idea that it has value has sparked wars, been the cause of murder and mayhem, and provoked a fair share of stories.

    It is just a bit extreme to call out ideas as “mostly worthless” and “dross”. In fact, they may be the ONLY THINGS that *do* have value. A piece of paper with Andrew Jackson’s head is not valuable in itself. It is the idea of money that allows you to buy things and motivates us to hoard as many of them as we can. The IDEA is what matters. Not the paper, but the idea that it is worth something.

    And your book will be valuable not because it aggregates otherwise worthless dross. Not even that it does so in pleasing ways. Your book will have value because you care enough to write it and enough of us will care enough to pay for it.

  • This kind of reinforces my own more limited experiences. But what if you’re cranking out a series? Your own series, or say, Star Wars books? How do you get a novel together FAST that doesn’t suck?
    As an indie writer trying to find the answer to writing series fiction fast seems like it’s going to kill me.

    • I’ve given up on churn. I tried but it doesn’t happen, it just increases the pressure and slows me up even more. If you’re Maserati kind of writer, you can’t be a Ford. There’s a big problem with us all trying to mass produce units and sell lots for a bargain price. But that sales and marketing model that cannot sustain you if your work is the equivalent of a hand built, hand crafted Aston Martin you need to pursue a different strategy. Some lucky people can do both, some can’t. So it may be that you have to look at the aquare peg of your writing and books and check that the hole you’re hammering it into isn’t round.

  • This post is something I needed, thank you. I have two ideas simmering and one of them has been in that pot since 2012. I go to them from time to time and in the meantime I write flash fiction and draw. I often feel that I “should” be devoting all my time to one project, but for me that isn’t realistic. I think that working on other things keeps that creative doorway open and helps me process new ideas.

  • Ugh, but this is so true. Not treating every thought-nugget as a potential “gem” is an ongoing battle. Curious Chuck- for you, is the frequency of a recurring idea the main factor in deciding whether an idea is worthy? How about single scenes that keep replaying in your head? And melding separate ideas- too much manipulation/not enough “organic thought” or just good use of material?

  • Hello Chuck! I love your posts and have been reading them for years. You are SO often bang on, it’s a bit weird. A bit like you’re surfing my brain wave! I’ve had this story stewing for more than four years. Bits and pieces would come. I’d write them. Short stories… then they started to develop glue and I sort of understood how these different characters were supposed to come together – I got where their ‘touch’ points were… and now, that BOOK is off with the MOST AWESOME editor I could have imagined for myself. I love it. I love your kick in the pants (I have many printed and posted in my writing studio 🙂 ) and I love my editor’s ability to read for content and flow, story arc and also catch line items… comes from his being a writer too I suspect! Thank you – you are a tremendous support.

  • I’ve had an idea on the back-burner since 2002. Every now and then it crawls out, develops a hideous growth, has to be operated on and then crawls back again. One day… And in the mean-time I’d better get moving on the current Project of Many Years.

  • Thank you for the advice, Chuck. I had some promising ideas, wrote them down and placed the whole thing on the back burner until I could find the connecting piece to link it all together. It has been a while since I had revisited my rough notes, but your words ring true: don’t let it simmer for too long…it would get more scary (read: difficult)….and it definitely did. Ugh. 🙁

  • Thank you for this very timely reminder! I have a novel I’ve been “working on” for almost 2 years now. Every now and then, an idea for it will collide with the established ideas and add a bit of momentum, but it’s very short-lived, and I’m lucky if I can get a new scene in before I’ve worn out the idea. Ever book is different. And I can’t figure out the secret to this one so I can procede with it. (Might just be too many other projects that are priority right now?)

  • Oh. My. Heavens. How badly did I need this right now? Thank you thank you. I have two such books on the go right now one, especially, is beginning to coalesce but it’s clearly a first in series, another is one I thought was a short but the minute I began I Discovers I had questions and it looks like it’s actually a novel. I’ve been prodding at both for two years and I have about 40k of each and then there’s the complete opposite. A 12k short that was just barfed out of my literary mouth onto the page in a month – which sounds like it took ages but my life is a bit action packed so that was actually a mere 8 sessions.

    But I do tend to go charging in there where angels fear to tread which is how the last book in my trilogy ended up becoming two books and how I ended up with at least 70k on the cutting room floor. Since then I’ve always tried to have more than one project on the go. So nothing is forced and I just switch if I’m stuck. I was wondering if that was a sensible idea. Now after reading this post, I’m not. Great advice and a modicum of validation, to boot. Thanks.

    Cheers

    MTM

  • The problem with treating every idea as if it is solid gold is that there is never enough time to address every idea. For me, letting them float across the brain and then settle is a better strategy than trying to keep track of every millionth notion. “Oh hey, an idea! I should write a story about that! Let me put that on the list of … oh.”

    For one thing, a lot of ideas aren’t original. They’re inspired by things we see or read or hear, and there’s a really good chance that someone else got that same idea from seeing or reading or hearing that same inspiration. Now, an idea doesn’t have to be original in order to be well- or uniquely-developed. The same basic plots and characters can be successfully treated over and over again in medium after medium. But an idea has to stick in order to be worth developing, and we have to bring something unique to it. That requires time and information.

    If an idea sticks, it will recur, and if it recurs often enough it’s likely to recur in a slightly-different context each time, meaning it comes with some new bit of information about how we might develop it. Once an idea has recurred several times, I’ll have several bits of information, and with that data set I can determine if there is enough there to be worth developing with my limited time.

    I know people who have ideas all the time, but they never finish anything … because they are too busy celebrating all their ideas. In business, people with ideas are a dime a dozen. It’s the people who can execute who are rare.

  • Love your work, and your generosity. Over the years you’ve made me laugh my ass off, kept me current on all things words and writing. Your sharing of your experiences wide and deep is gold, gold, gold. You’re a serious treasure, and I’ve drooled over reading many of what your books, and all of your blog posts.

    It’s been such a pleasure to have been able to watch your trajectory, and you’ve given me hope that as I plug along maybe I too could be a member of the writing life, even in small part. It took a while to overcome fear, but the best advice you’ve given is that writers write. I stopped calling myself a writer, finally, until I earned the verb.

    Thank you, Chuck, more than you can know. Finding you has been one of my top ten strokes of love. Also, you’re my favorite of the Twitterati set.

    Best always, gratefully,

    Susan

  • June 4, 2017 at 10:36 AM // Reply

    I’ve been writing my memoir about childhood forever, it seems. It’s definitely getting better all the time! I know my writing’s good, but I’ve been afraid to offer it to publishers, because of fear of rejection. Silly, eh? Thanks for your great posts.

  • June 9, 2017 at 8:58 PM // Reply

    I can kind of relate, I started writing a book in 2013-14 but it just didn’t work out. Last summer I came back and started working on a new and better version. I’m writing the draft currently

  • Some stories just like to take their sweet time, or maybe I’m just terrible at making time for it. I’m curious though, has anyone had instances when they felt the need to change the medium of their story? For example, turning a novel or novella into a comic or video game? Or have told a story across different mediums?

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