There is no exact science to determine how long it takes to write a novel. Tolkien conceived The Lord of the Rings trilogy in ten years. Nabokov dedicated time to Lolita over the course of eight years. Virginia Woolf wrote Orlando in one year—the longest love letter in literature. But then Virginia materialized what was already aching to be delivered: her passion for Vita. Her feat of crafting such a masterpiece in a relatively short time is supported by a powerful emotional drive, a protagonist fully alive within her before she even penned it, and her incredible intellectual baggage.
Having switched hats from reader to writer, I can’t help but read books from a more analytical perspective now, paying close attention to form and structure. After a long gap reading mostly “serious literature,” I’ve read several works of commercial fiction in the past year. What struck me was the level of superficiality in those works. And by superficiality I don’t mean every book needs to tackle the meaning of life and the mysteries of the soul. When I think about depth, I’m thinking of character motivation.
Virtually all commercial and not-so-commercial novels I’ve read flopped at some point to me. Many started brilliantly and made my mouth water for more. Then they would slowly—sometimes abruptly—go downhill. Even though they encompassed a variety of genres, from chick-lit to romance and thrillers, I started to see a pattern emerging in most of them.
As I mentioned in my previous post, the publishing industry seems obsessed with plot twists nowadays. Authors have to surprise the reader. So readers are granted many shocking scenes and entire stories based on… not much, really. Characters weave complex vengeance schemes that are disproportional to their cause. Characters suddenly change their behavior. Or fall in love instantly. Or do things that don’t make much sense. Those instances merely serve the plot, and that’s why the motivation attached to them lacks depth.
I’ve seen, for example, lots of characters reacting to the abuse they have suffered in the past. That should explain why they are dysfunctional, vengeful, cruel. It promotes an illusion of depth by alluding to human emotions and pain, but it ends up being cliché. Why? Because each person is different and reacts in a different way. So it’s not enough to show/tell that a character suffered abuse in the past to explain their present behavior. You need to explore and root their actions in their psyche, not in past traumas per se. First you have the person, then you have the traumatic event and finally you have the person reacting to it. Affirming that a traumatic event alone turned a person into a monster or a psychological tatter is oversimplifying things.
To that effect, I have a perfect example in my own novel. When I wrote the first draft, the whole premise was based on a character and her reaction to a past event. But the more I thought about it, the more I concluded the whole thing didn’t hold water. The dialogue was pasteurized, the behavior was unconvincing. The fact is I had avoided going deeper into that character because it was unpleasant to me. I spoke at length with friends, brainstorming about what my character’s real motivation was. Here, I’m not talking about external motivation but inner motivation, and that makes a huge difference. As I said, it’s not about how a character reacts to an event but why they react precisely that way.
To answer the question regarding my character, I had to struggle with my own emotional barriers. It took several passes over time. I had to immerse myself in painful scenes so that real—not canned—words and emotions would surface. It was a process: you cannot rush a battle with your inner demons. Which leads me to my initial thoughts: how long does it take to write a novel that explores characters’ motivations beyond the surface?
Like wine, a higher quality novel needs to age so to expand in texture and flavor. As authors, our daily experiences inspire our writing: a play touches our heart, a well-crafted book enlightens us, a learned technique improves our draft, and countless other things contribute to round up our novel—a piece of news, a conversation or a trip to the countryside, not to mention our growth as human beings on our journey of self-discovery. Again, you cannot rush that. You cannot rush life, and a novel is a reflection of the author’s life, even if it isn’t autobiographical. Allow the author time to evolve as a human being and accumulate knowledge and experiences, and you’ll have a richer novel.
In our fast-paced times, an author must deliver a new book every year to make a living, satisfy readers and meet publishers’ expectations. A well-written and compelling novel can surely be published in one year, with the author taking six months to write it and another six months to polish it into a book ready to hit the bookstores. Will that be a novel at its full potential? I can’t answer that.