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Saturday, June 1, 2013

Why It Takes So F#%&!^g Long To Write a Novel

A fan at my BEA book signing said she had been waiting a long while to get The Lost Prince, the sequel to Awakenings. She's right. And though I've written about the real-life challenges of trying to write novels while holding a day job and promoting one's book, the other part of that delay is the work (i.e. minutia) involved with writing a coherent, well-thought out story. Many literary writers (my favorite being Jonathan Franzen) go years between books, but we seem to expect a faster turnaround from genre writers. The delays go beyond plot, narrative, character arcs, and story development, although those too are time consuming. What I'm trying to bring to light are small moments that pull a writer aside from the bigger picture. A lot of you can read a paragraph in less than 30 seconds, but are not aware of how many hours it took the writer to make those four or five sentences ring as true as can be.

In Awakenings, I did extensive research into the NYC police codes used in the Bronx scene as well as into how the brass responded to a cop shooting. I couldn't just gloss over Erin's death and have Cal go on with his mission as though nothing were expected of him. That simply doesn't happen in real life.  I am currently writing a Daniel chapter in Blood of Ten Kings (book 3 in the Guardian of Aandor series). I had originally started the chapter with Daniel bored, tapping his pencil on a desk while Allyn Grey attempted to instruct him on his family heritage. After having written most of the chapter, I realized it was too sleepy and I wanted Daniel behaving restless and rebellious—more like a teen. I decided to rewrite the chapter and put Daniel in a skateboarding park that Malcolm had custom built for him and ignoring his instructor's pleas for study. Although I had skateboarded in my youth (before even Tony Hawk made it big), I have not followed skateboard culture in over 30 years. I realized that the terminology has evolved and new ramps and tricks had been added with each generation. I went online to research skateboarding. Of course, when a writer does this, he/she always thinks it'll take 10 minutes. But it seldom does.

When a writer decides to introduce an element they are not familiar he (or she) has to do the research. The standard (or smell test) is that someone who is familiar with the subject should not be pulled out of the story by sloppy exposition. So in my case, even if skateboarders only make up 1% of my readership, it's not okay to take their craft for granted. If I were to label a trick a Grind when it's really a Fakie, it would pull those readers who know out of the story and interrupt the narrative thread. What's worse, it would undermine their trust in the story and its author. Yes, trust between a writer and his reader is paramount in the suspension of disbelief necessary to read any story; most especially fantasy and sci-fi. 

Writers have a covenant with their readers. The elements of the story absolutely have to ring true to the universe we are creating. In Awakenings, I chose to tell a story that has realistic undertones. If you removed the fantasy elements from it, it could still work as a shell for a detective, child abuse, or even a mafia tale. So I had to know the difference between a half pipe, a quarter pipe, a wedge ramp, or that 5-0 is actually pronounced "Five Oh." I also had to make sure I used an east coast term if there were multiple names for something since my character is an east coaster. In general terms, it's as important as a character from western Ohio calling soda "pop," or calling sneakers "tennis shoes" and also knowing that in those local dialects, it's pronounced "tenna" shoes. It's minutia, but the research is vital to the tale, and it will EAT UP a writer's time. (I really don't know how scribes did it back in ye olden days before Google, but I sure am grateful for the Internet today.) Much time was spent in The Lost Prince doing research, particularly with the sword-fighting scenes. In fact, I was so proud of the research I put in too much detail, which my editor pointed out in the first edit of the book. (It was trimmed for the final cut.)

The next book, Blood of Ten Kings, involves trans-dimensional crossings and alternate realities, and I needed to be able to explain a certain time differential between universes. Nothing's more fun than researching string theory and other terms from quantum physics, but that's what I did for three hours earlier today as I tried to wrap my brain around the concepts that will give my story credence. Again, my litmus test is whether a professor of quantum physics would be pulled out of the story by my explanation. The science theory doesn't have to be provable, just plausible. Remember, these are theories because no one has actually travelled to another dimension, and that gives me a lot of wiggle room to be creative, but only to a point. At this stage, I still haven't written the final paragraph—still haven't applied my art. My job as a fiction writer is to distill this information and give the reader only what they need to grasp the context and still propel the story forward.
All in all, the quantum mechanics and skateboarding have amounted to about six hours of research before fingers even tap keyboard for prose, and will account for less than five minutes of reading material in the final book. Standards have to be high for unfamiliar elements in a book because there can be hundreds of them and it can easily wear a writer down. So a no-tolerance benchmark is a writer's only way of staying honest. It's a slippery slope when you start making excuses for taking short cuts. My job is to make sure the final book will satisfy all readers regardless of vocation, creed, or educational level. So please keep this in mind when your favorite author is late with a book. *

*Does not apply to George R.R. Martin. Six years between books?!! Even I don't know what's up with that.

Edward Lazellari is the winner of Playboy's 1999 Short Fiction Contest and the author of fantasy novels Awakenings and The Lost Prince, from Tor Books.


  1. My pet peeve is weapons. It really irks me... I see it all the time on TV and movies (including one of my favorite books: Robert R. McCammon's "Swan Song")... when a .45 automatic runs out of ammo and they pull the trigger and it goes click, click, click, over and over again. Sorry, but it just don't happen like that in real life, folks. And what's up with the blockbuster movie "The Fugitive" with Tommy Lee Jones...? Robert Downey Jr. -- supposedly a trained Federal agent -- can't tell the difference in weight between a loaded Glock and an empty one...?! Never happen. At least Liam Neeson kinda glossed over that one in "Taken". /endrant

    1. Yeah. The weapons are key as well. I can't stand it when a gun that holds only ten rounds to a clip shoots 20 bullets before a reload. I'd let them slide with 11 shots cause there could always be one in the chamber, but not 20. I'm doing research on medieval weapons for my next book. Fun stuff.

  2. Oops... I think that might have been the sequel, "U.S. Marshals"

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