Evolution of a collaborative novel, part two

I remember what it’s like trying to write a scene too far from the here and now without adequate background information. It’s akin to trying to paint without colors.

I’d need to describe a room, and I’d have no idea what the walls or floor would be made of. So then I’d have to read about how stone is quarried, and about different types of roofs, and make some decisions about the availability of wood, which in turn entails some decisions about geography, maps, and placement of forests. Several hours later I might come back to my scene and eke out a sentence. Only to discover that I now need to know if the windows would have glass, which means researching the history of glass-making …

No. I’ve been firm in my conviction that I’m going to do all the research I expect to need before attempting a single line of prose. I want the geographies and the cultures and the technologies and the languages spread out before me like colors on an artist’s palette, so that the times when I have to halt everything and drive to the art supply store for a new pigment are mercifully few and far between.

Jak’s style, on the other hand, is much more ad hoc. He wants to outline the plot in considerable detail, but would be happier doing most of the worldbuilding on the fly. He’s never argued with my need to do it all up front, but he’s already showing signs of dismay at the amount of time it takes … and I’ve only covered a fraction of what I believe we need.

I suspect he feels like until we’re setting down prose we’re not really writing, and fears that perhaps we never will — that it will be all buildup and no payoff. I can understand this, but I can’t effectively reassure him, because I’ve never done anything on this scale before. I think this will work out, but I can’t be certain.

Last week I ran across this interview with Tim Powers:

How long does it take you to write a novel? And what do you make of the whole idea that a successful novelist ought to write a novel a year?

It takes me a long time. Longer than I can really justify, I guess. But I do have to do a powerful lot of reading before I can even figure what sort of plot would fit into the period I’m writing about and the things that were going on then. I take heaps of notes, make dozens of long, cross-indexed files! And I freely let myself get sidetracked on peripheral topics, which generally don’t prove to be useful (though it’s very nice when they do!). And then I have to figure out my plot and characters, in a lot of detail since I want to have made the tricky decisions in the outlining stage rather than be surprised by them as I’m writing—though inevitably a few sneak in anyway. All this winds up taking about a year, somehow.

Then all that’s left is to write it; and with revisions and all, if the book is in the neighborhood of 200,000 words, that takes about a year too. And then the editor usually has some suggestions for revisions, which prove to be good ideas.

If I wrote a novel a year, they wouldn’t be the sorts of novels I write. They might be better, objectively!—but in my eyes, at least, they wouldn’t be what they could be. The real reason to write fiction, after all, isn’t to make money, nor to show the human heart in conflict with itself, nor to give a picture of one’s time, nor to call attention to the plight of any oppressed classes, but to show off. You want to be able to say to visitors, “Sit down, let me clear that stuff off the couch, it’s copies of my new novel.” And to show off effectively, I want each book to be as close as I can get it to what I want it to be. It’s like making six-foot-tall replicas of Gothic cathedrals out of toothpicks in your basement—you might as well get all the saints’ faces right.

I found this immensely reassuring, as it all sounds very much like me and the way I work. When I told Jak, he half-laughed, half-groaned at the thought of a whole year of pre-writing. I honestly hope to have it done in less time than that, but it’s likely to be measured in months rather than weeks, which is tough. For both of us. I am very fond of instant gratification, and this novel process is the antithesis of that.

But damn it, if we’re going to make six-foot-tall replicas of Gothic cathedrals out of toothpicks, we might as well get all the saints’ faces right!


  1. 27 May 2009 at 8:54 pm

    Two thousand? Truly? Zowie.

    I recommend Last Call, if you haven’t read it.

  2. 27 May 2009 at 8:13 pm

    FINE, now I want to go read a Tim Powers novel. 2,000 books in the house and nothing to read — how does this keep happening!?


  3. 27 May 2009 at 10:14 pm

    …make some decisions about the availability of wood, which in turn entails some decisions about geography, maps, and placement of forests.

    Or just a decision about how much money the homebuilder wanted to spend? Fewer factors to deal with, that way.

    I can see how worldbuilding on-the-fly might bog one down, though.

  4. 28 May 2009 at 10:43 am

    Silly Karel, no … buying homes instead of making them (and shipping materials from hundreds or thousands of miles away) is a recent development, and not available to most cultures in most times.

  5. 28 May 2009 at 7:49 pm

    Fair enough. I was just trying a different angle, is all. :-)

  6. 29 May 2009 at 11:33 am

    True, Bill, but the thing about suspension of disbelief is that you don’t want to waste it. It’s not a free pass; you usually only get one instance. Everything else has to follow logically from that one premise, and remain internally consistent, or your readers will be (justifiably) disgusted.

  7. 29 May 2009 at 9:47 am

    Three words: Suspension of Disbelief

    I don’t write, but I think this may be the most powerful tool that a fiction writer has. Especially in the genre of fantasy.

    Your task sounds daunting.



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