Saturday, 28 May 2016

How long does it take to write a book? - Clementine Beauvais

During school visits, different age groups have different favourite questions. Primary school children want to know what your favourite books are and how old you are. Teenagers are dying to hear how much money you make and if you're famous (or, failing that, if you know any, like, really famous authors). Adults will bully you until you tell them what you should do to get published. Kindergarteners will need to know if you have a cat, if your dress is scratchy, if it hurts your hand to draw all the covers, and they will probably ask a question that's not actually a question, in the form of 'My nan's got a fireplace'. But two questions recur across all age groups.

The first is the much-bemoaned 'Where do you get your ideas from?' which I actually do find interesting when it's connected to a particular book. The second, whose agonies are less often discussed, is -

How long does it take to write a book? 

What do you, dear colleagues, reply when you're asked that one? I always launch into the same, ten-minute-long, painstaking explanation: that writing a book isn't a linear process; that ideas might swirl for years in your head, sometimes disappearing for months at a time, and then coming back from their holiday with a new tan and interesting new things to say; that writing itself is a difficult process to measure exactly, because you might start by binge-writing 30 pages, abandon the project for a year, start again, stop, delete, start again, etc.; that you never (well, at least I never) spend whole days writing in neatly-packaged Pomodoro units that can be conveniently added up; that even after the manuscript is delivered, editing may take many more months, but then again it's not a full-time thing; that proofs, blurbs, cover checks, associated blog posts and signings are... kind of part of the writing process too; that the length of the book itself isn't a reliable indicator of how long it took, nor the quantity of illustrations; that some scenes may be written very fast and others really slowly; that much time is spent deleting, and then how do you count that time? Pieces of string, etc.

Oh the look of boredom on people's faces every time I deliver that answer. Oh the number of swallowed yawns, of glances at the clock. It's almost like their question has mutated into another: for goodness' sake, woman!!! how long can you drag an answer about how long it takes to write a book???

Once, for a change, I tried being Gradgrindingly factual about it. When I was asked "How long does it take to write a book?", I just replied: "A year and a half."
Some of the children said: "Wow."
I said, "Does that sound like a lot, or not much?"
They shrugged, and, looking like the matter interested them extremely little anyway, they said, "I dunno."


Clementine Beauvais writes in French and English. She blogs here about children's literature and academia. 


Sue Bursztynski said...

I say, "Well, it depends. For example, my last book took --- months to write and that was quick, because I had time off from my day job to write it. And that was just the research and writing. After that I had to go through editing and that took --- " They're usually satisfied with that reply. When I'm asked by a would-be bestselling author how they go about selling their magnum opus I let them know that even if they sell it tomorrow it has to be fitted into the publisher's timetable and might not come out for a year or more. They don't much like that. ;-)

Sue Purkiss said...

I love the summary of the kinds of questions you get asked - very accurate!

Clémentine Beauvais said...

Haha a WHOLE YEAR! intolerable :D

Yes, maybe I should just be very factual about it. Or keep an actual Excel spreadsheet, just once.

Sue Bursztynski said...

It does make for less drama. ;-) And kids really do like to hear about the process.

Stroppy Author said...

I love the insight that the kids don't even really care about the answer. There are so many questions we ask when the answer doesn't matter or mean anything to us.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Yes... they don't really care. But sometimes i have drawn a few smiles when I've told that my fastest book was written in longhand on a beach in less than 6 weeks and it won me the biggest prize I've ever won. Only problem is that I haven't been able to repeat that!