Time & Motion by Dexter Petley

Dexter Petley is the acclaimed author of a number of novels: a literary noir whodunnit, Little Nineveh (Polygon 1995), Joyride (Fourth Estate, 1999), and White Lies (Fourth Estate 2003). He’s a regular on the cult website www.caughtbytheriver.com

Time is the novel’s greatest enemy.  The time it takes, the time it occupies and even the time it represents.  We often read that so and so is a “full-time” writer.  And then we read their novels and wonder why, therefore, they didn’t take that luxury of available time to get it right instead of rushing it out.  I don’t know if it’s rat-race ethics or just the cruise control on the Microsoft treadmill, but when I urge clients to take their time on the re-write they seem to hear a starting pistol.  Three weeks later, whizz-bang-pop, they send me a wonky new version that’s still smoking.

There are very understandable reasons for attempting to write faster than your own shadow.  Encouragement is a wonderful thing.  It’s a life-saver to the struggling writer.  When it appears, we tend to think of it as fickle, ephemeral, a light which will fade.  Struggling writers are not used to attention.  So when we get it, we act like dogs chasing a stick.

In my own apprentice days I too was eager and trigger happy.  I can catagorically say it got me nowhere.  It merely rejected the encouragement given by ignoring the details, the small print, the wisdom.  I had all the time in the world too; in the 1980s you wrote novels on the dole, hammering holes in scrap-paper on great iron framed machines. 

Time has not changed; the time a novel needs to be written doesn’t change.  Whatever you hear, the ability to rattle off twenty-thousand words a day is no more useful than being a pie eating champion.   What may have changed is that today we can write at miraculous, wreckless speeds.   But it’s like writing on a simulator.  Cut and paste is an illusion.  When I say re-write, I mean word by word, sentence by sentence.

Why, when much of the novel might remain unaltered?

Well, the same reason a singer performs the whole song night after night.  Voice, and because there is no short cut to the whole story.

In the typewriter age we had no choice.  It was an honest job, typing; we sculpted those damned novels with bleeding fingers.  But the beauty of it was the focus and concentration to be had; the intimacy we had with our text.  The tactile engagement we had with our craft.  We felt like writers, not IT users.  That craft, the progress of it, was visible and satisfying.  I fear that’s missing these days.  You’re supposed to be writing, but between sentences there’s shopping on Ebay, someone’s cursed Youtube link, an email to read…  In other words, it’s not just distraction, it’s squandering the writing time.  It shows up in the finished work.  Making up time with cut and paste or a few days spilling the midnight oil is no substitute for the slow fuse, the whole song. 

Re-writing a novel from scratch is to reclaim it.  Just fixing the leaks doesn’t prevent it caving in later.  In typewriter mode (unplug the bloody modem at least) you recover the voice, and control the dogs pulling at your leash.  Suddenly a year is well spent.  And it should be a year at least.  Good fiction needs time in the bottle before drinking.  That time includes, just as essentially, time off; time for gaining distance and a cold heart, or just forgetting.  It takes me between 5-10 years to write a novel.  In that time there might be 14 drafts of the word for word kind.  Each novel leapfrogs over the other, so one novel finally come out every four years. 

The simplest advice is often the best: don’t ignore professional advice for a start.  Take your time.  If you haven’t time, all the more reason.  I know many writers have full-time jobs or demanding committments which make writing time a rare luxury.  The temptation to be over-productive is an attractive one.  It so easily becomes a race with time.  When a novel is finished, no one will praise it because you bashed out the first draft in 3 months and the re-write in a week.  Remember, a novel is a two headed monster.  The first breathes white heat, sleepless nights, death-pacts with the muse.  The second is a cold blooded surgeon, a waiting game, the playing hard to get.  Successful writers have two heads; they’re the difference between interesting and great.

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  • Helena Nilsson

    As an aspiring writer of the computerized generation I take quite a lot of comfort from this article. I certainly wouldn’t go as far as to say I envy the pre-computer writers (just the amounts of paper it must have taken to draft back then must have been quite daunting) but I can testify on the rat-race feeling and the slight bout of tunnel vision it creates – not to mention the guilt when I’m unable to produce content in what seems like timely manner. After all, what IS a timely manner? I’m used to the information bombardment of the ‘Net; anything that hasn’t been updated in a month is old news.

    Perhaps we (writers who have never used a typewriter) would benefit from hearing more frequently that there’s a connection between quality and the time put into making something. That writing a complete novel takes years of time (especially if we include the time it takes to ferment the building blocks of the story in various thoughts, ideas and premises).

    It’s reassuring to hear from a seasoned writer that it’s okay to, if you pardon the the crude language, “calm the fuck down” and actually think about what I’ve written and will write in a story, give it the time it needs to mature.

    Thank you.

  • Harry

    We DO pardon the language. Pardon the language and share your sentiments. One of the best novelist of the modern era is Marilynne Robinson – and she’s written just three novels, some 30 years apart.

  • Alex Blythe

    I won’t name drop, but a certain horror author once said that “if you don’t finish your first draft in three months you’re taking too long.” And the article, here, says don’t ignore professional advice.

    If you’re writing for the sake of telling stories, making your readers gasp, scream at the page in response to events then taking one’s time over a manuscript is vital. On the other hand, if you’re writing for money (while, a handy possession), then the more work you bang out the better (3 months per first draft). But which one lasts in the memory of the reader more? My old English teacher once told me if you have any motives for writing which don’t concern making a reader laugh, cry, scream or go ‘ahhh’ then don’t write.

    I think we all have an urge to rush work out, especially if it’s our first. It’s the innate desire to see our story in print, the hunger for people to sit up and take notice; and I must admit it’s a struggle for me to slam the brakes on to remind myself I don’t need to bash out 2,000 words a day. As an experiment, I did just that (1,200 words, my mind collapsed shortly after!) and, the following day reviewed it as if it was a manuscript to be edited. I was left with just over 460 useful words. So I wasted time over 800 other words. The thought of writing, say, a 100,000 page first draft novel in the touted 3 months by that particular author and finding, after editing I have a 40,000 novella would cause me to commit extreme violence to my word processor.

    I totally agree on taking time, but I think writers should stop saying “Don’t ignore professional advice” because, for the majority, it’s contradictory.

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