A good question

In my recent reader mail:

Yes, this IS a real question, not just for readers but for me. Like all real questions, its answer is…complicated.

We humans love to quantify things– how many inches of snow expected, how high our kid’s score on aptitude tests, how many calories in that brownie, even how many followers or friends we have. I guess it gives us some sense of satisfaction and even control to put a number on a thing, and it lets us make comparisons, for better or for worse.

Even writing falls prey to this. NaNoWriMo just ended. Over 30 days, writers try their best to write 50,000 words, the draft of a whole novel or at least a good start on one. And of course we published writers, if we possess a masochistic streak, can always go on Amazon and compare our sales numbers (#7,642 in Children’s Mouse and Rodent Books–word! this is a real thing!)

But back to my reader’s question–how long does it take to write a book? You have to be careful answering this, because when the question-asker is only nine years old, and the answer is “maybe a year or so but sometimes possibly four years or even more”, you risk scaring that child silly and making her secretly vow to never, ever try to write a book.

“As long as it takes” isn’t a good answer for a child either, even though it’s the truth. Between the time I conceived of Khalil and Mr. Hagerty and the Backyard Treasures and the day I finished it, well over a year had gone by–and this for a book only a few hundred words long. While I had the idea for a long time, I couldn’t figure out how to write it, despite many attempts. Seeded between those attempts was the fallow time I spent thinking–consciously and unconsciously–about my characters and their story. I can’t calculate those minutes and hours, but I know I’d never have written the book without them.

Next spring I have a new middle grade novel, The Most Perfect Thing in the Universe, coming out. I’ll write much more about it as the pub date comes closer, but for now I’ll say: please don’t ask me to try to add up how long I spent writing it. I prefer amnesia. I know I actually wrote an entirely other, entirely different, complete novel first, and when I try to think about what of that book made it into the one I’m publishing, the answer is exactly one single thing: my good, steadfast, shy, self-effacing, infuriatingly timid main character Loah. How patient she’s been with me!

How long does it take to write a book? What I’ll answer my reader is that every book, like every person, is different. If it sometimes takes what seems like forever to finish a story, it’s only because I want it to be the best I possibly can make it. Only then will it be ready to share, and it will be worth every minute.

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