Tuesday, February 12, 2013

As long as a piece of string...

People often ask (especially children during school visits) how long it took to write a particular book. I wish I knew how many minutes and hours I spent tapping away at the keyboard on a specific story. But the creation of a story, a manuscript, a book is so often not a linear process that it is impossible to know. When do you start counting? The moment you first felt that spark of an idea? The moment things started to coalesce in your mind into something resembling (no matter how distantly) the final product? The moment you started writing it - is that those hastily scrawled words on a scrap of used envelope, or the first time you saved the document on your desk top, or lap top or i-phone or i-pad or whatever you choose to write most on? Do you include all the minutes your mind cogitates, consciously and subconsciously, on the plot and the characters or is it just the time you spend writing? And when you start writing, you don't necessarily write day in, day out until done. Sometimes the first draft is done in fits, and starts, or dribbles. Sometimes a story cannot progress because you are still too raw/ fresh/newbie as a writer. Sometimes other projects demand centre stage or just, take over. And then when you are finished you start again with editing. Sometimes the editing is an interminable grind (try countin' them minutes). Sometimes the edit is a complete rethink, or rewrite. Sometimes you throw it all away and start afresh.

I am thinking of all of this because a publisher would like to publish a manuscript I sent them recently. It is a new story. But already that moniker is a misnomer. What, really, makes it new?

People sometimes comment on my output. I am fortunate that I can devote all sorts of time to my writing (although in truth I am incredibly lazy and easily distracted - oo, look at the shiny thing on facebook, how pretty, must comment). But, like the question about how long it takes to write a book, the situation is deceptive. And is probably compounded by the fact that at times, even though I am a terrible gossip and blabbermouth, I am also very secretive. Confused? You should be! - I am a girl who can read maps (I was always navigator in our plane flying games as a child). Anyway I digress, in an easily distracted kind of way. My output, like the process of writing a book, is not always linear. So the truth is, although this story is new, it all started years and years ago. We (my sterling SO and I) went to see a movie at some time in the past I can't quite pinpoint. I don't remember which movie. What I do remember is the animated short before the main feature. It was about a tree. It included an arresting image which got my gears turning and I even remember, as we left the theatre, saying to my SO that I thought that would make a good picture book story. Some time after seeing the movie and its terrific short, I started playing around with the idea and trying to shoehorn it into a more traditional kind of format, like a fairytale. I wrote maybe 75% of a story. I still liked the idea but the result was kinda ugly. So with a minor twinge of disappointment I abandoned this new baby and went and worked on other projects. Years passed. I occasionally revisited the story but it was still wrong despite my efforts. I studied a university paper on Fairytale, Myths and Legends in 2010 as part of my Diploma in Children's Literature. Then the Goethe Institute ran a competition last year for a story in the style of a fairytale, myth or legend, from any kind of culture. I'd already written a fairytale style story for Fabostory a while back which I thought was all right but unfortunately it was ineligible as it had appeared online (and you can see it here). So I had another stab at my other fairytale, completed it and sent it in. It did not win, place or rate a mention. I had thought it had actually scrubbed up pretty well in the refit but obviously the judge(s) didn't agree. My spirits sank. Maybe it wasn't ever really going to work. Then a month ago I pulled it out again and had another go. It felt different this time. It actually looked rather fetching when I'd finished. It had a kind of poetic feel to it. Before I could change my mind I submitted it to a publisher. The day after, I wished I could take it back. And then, because I know these things can take forever I tried to forget about it. And then last Friday...

So how long does it take me to write a book? The answer is 42. And that new story? Was a lifetime in the making.

Update: When I think about it I probably spent around a week maybe two, on writing and rewriting this particular story - maybe 60 to 80 hours for around 850 words. It doesn't sound like much when put like that but those hours don't reflect the time I spent thinking about the story and its themes, time experiencing and studying examples of traditional myths and legends, or the time spent on the development of my writing skills over the years that were necessary to me finally completing the manuscript. So if I gave the answer 'a week or two' to the question 'how long did it take you to write that story' people might get the wrong idea about what it takes, and what's involved. It doesn't account for all the unquantifiables and the intangibles. So its hard to know what to say. 


Jane Bloomfield said...

Thanks Melinda! This gives me hope for all my not-quite finished manuscripts.

I think... said...

Hi Melinda
Can I just say, I love reading your blog. You're so generous with your knowledge and journey. Thank you! You're an inspiration. I'm going to write this year and put it at the top of my list rather than give up so easily.

Melinda Szymanik said...

Jane - I have gone back to a few manuscripts and finished them off or whipped them into shape. I've come to realise that sometimes it's me that's not quite right, not the story :)

And Kath - I'm so pleased that you enjoy the blog and find it useful. That's why I do it.