Wednesday, June 27, 2012
Time after time
I grew up in a house built in the 1580s.
My family tree is charted back to the 1600s and includes a dude in a very fancy wig who has his own plinth in Westminster Abbey, London.
The church I used to attend was consecrated in 1094. I went to its 1000th birthday party.
Time moves very, very slowly in my bloodstream. Born and raised in a country where most grassy hillocks conceal ancient secrets and a simple brick wall can enshrine whole layers of civilization, I see most events through a long lens. Disaster? We will rebuild. A new gimmick? The wheel will turn. Think you know it all? We’re just passing through. Everything has layers of meaning, nothing is lost, and the decades and centuries shuffle forward, forever gone but forever present.
But I also work in a very fast-changing industry. I was involved in the launch of a very early e-book list in 2007 and just look where we are now. Methods of pricing and delivery are changing before our eyes. And every time we get a contract from one particular house, the digital wording is slightly altered to reflect some new reality.
Now, we agents are on call practically every moment. We can wreck our reputations in 140 characters – the work of ten stupid seconds. And if we don’t get there first, someone else will have beaten us to it. The pressure for all of us – writers, agents, publishers, can feel relentless. We’re ruled by the tyranny of the urgent, the need to win NOW, and ‘speed is of the essence’ is even enshrined in our contracts. The temptation not to think but to act can be very strong.
Oh, how it throws us about!
If you’ve got queries out there, it’s an agony of expectation and self-doubt. As the days crawl by, how that optimism must turn to jelly.
Time can also be one of the toughest issues for writers once they get a deal. Suddenly the speed of an offer, a negotiation, the whirlwind of announcement is over, and the long pause begins. The watching-the-paint-dry hiatus of waiting for a contract to be finalized (often several months. ‘Did I dream the whole thing?!’). The thumb-twiddling, anxious tedium of awaiting editorial notes (‘Do you think they really want this book? Suppose they’ve gone off it!?’). The nerve-racking crawl towards second revisions (‘Did she like it? Has she even read it? Suppose she DOESN’T like it?!’). And of course the shifting of tectonic plates that must happen before a print copy actually appears, bound and jacketed.
For the author it can feel like a bad case of ‘All dressed and nowhere to go’ until you lurch into the next phase, suddenly asked for a major turn-around of manuscript or proofs in a weekend when you’ve been waiting for weeks. Not quite as streamlined and elegant a process as you imagined?
You see, this is a business forever poised between frantic haste and the ponderous stretch of time, and the knack is both to accept that (usually; unless an ‘intervention’ is needed) and to use time to your advantage. Where might your dreams take you while you’re waiting? What creative ideas could pop in from your peripheral vision that you’d otherwise have ignored? What might you discover hiding down there in the deep well of the past, beneath those grassy hillocks, and how does your treasure trove intersect with the present and future?
As Tolkien said, our creativity comes from the ‘leaf mould of the mind’. What is in YOUR compost?
As an agent, I constantly feel the pressure to speed. To find that great novel today. And if I haven’t found it today, next week, next month, what am I doing wrong? Perhaps I should grab something I don’t really love as it rushes past me . . . .Or perhaps not.
Once I have signed a new client, how tempting it is to throw their manuscript out there and see what sticks. My client wants a deal. I want a deal.
WE WANT TO SEE WHAT WILL HAPPEN. NOW!
But this is where my thoughts about time truly do play into my process. Because it is the easiest thing in the world to be rejected. Many are. Even agented manuscripts. And crafting a great book is an immense mental and physical challenge.
Everything I have learned about writing, about story creation and craft, has convinced me to breathe deeply, unclench my hands, and take the time a manuscript needs. And the time a writer needs, too. After the thrills and spills of the query chase, we are now a couple, and the relationship and the work can begin out of the spotlight. How might we extract every bit of juice from the succulent fruit of plot and character? Is there a way to raise this story by 10, 20, 50 per cent? Maybe it’s ready to go straight out – but that is very rare.
If I were an editor, with a bursting Kindle of manuscripts, what would convince me to read this one – and read it before the others?
Now it is time to shut the door and put on our aprons. Time to bake this literary pie in our peaceful, magical, painstaking oven. And what a thrilling, revelatory process that can be. It may take a few days; it could take several months. What I can guarantee is that it will be worth it.
Do you feel the rush of panic and haste? The urge to sling your query, your manuscript, out there at high speed? If you’re working to a genuine deadline, under contract, then you do indeed need to buckle down, cut out as many distractions as you can, and find ways to beat time at its own game. Or ask for an extension. You’ll usually get it.
But if you’re not yet under contract, calm down and take your time. Every day Julia and I receive scads of misdirected, mistake-laden queries that would have benefited from more time spent on both writing and research. They waste our time, they waste yours; they lead to regret at wasted opportunities, fruitless hours. Results can wait - just get it right.
Maybe we’ve all listened a little too well to ‘seize the moment’. Maybe it’s time now to stop, breathe, experience the silence, know that all things will be well, and craft in peace.
Under the wind-blown grassy hillock, there may be an Anglo Saxon ship burial. In the gnarly old brick wall , there could be a Roman mosaic full of breathtaking colour.
If you take the time, you might spot them.
Pix: 1) St Mary’s Church, Harrow-on-the Hill, Middlesex, GB. Consecrated in 1094. 2) and 3 and 4) ): A weird metaphorical clock, a grassy hillock and a very old brick wall. What can I say? 4) A relic from the Sutton Hoo ship burial in the UK. A true treasure trove.
Yes! I love this post so, so much. I think you’re right - we’ve all heard ‘Seize the Moment’ so often - we get used to racing through against a made-up clock. Maybe we’d be better served by thinking ‘Seize the Opportunity’! The chance to percolate, to revise, to just breathe a bit and see where it goes. Thanks so much for posting this great reminder!
Excellent point. Taking the time to do things thoroughly helps so much.
One of the most interesting things I read about Cormac McCarthy (in the rare NYT Book Review interview just before Blood Meridian’s release) was that he never had a timeline. He didn’t care about the “when"-- he just wanted to produce quality work. That has to be the key, work that endures.
I was just on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland interviewing storyteller Ian Stephen. Stephen has received two major grants from the Scottish Arts Council to help him complete his first novel...which he’s been working on for 30 years. Genius grant winner Alastair MacLeod has produced only one novel and about 20 stories across his entire career. But people will still be reading his work in 30, 60, 90 years.
Naturally, it’s a fine balance. But I tend to agree with Sarah. Get the work right, let the chips fall from there.
So, so true. Isn’t it great how we humans can understand each other? That we all go through the same stuff? I love it and I love this post. Thanks for putting it out there.
*And because I am obsessed with history and all things UK, I’m also in love with your pic choices.
Such good advice… so hard to follow…
Good and timely post. Thank you.
Thank you for such an honest post. I’m in the submission phase right now and everyday crawls by--I have to pull myself away from stalking my email:-) It’s good to know that agents understand what the other side of the fence feels like.
I think authors, agents, publishers, retailers, and those committed to the literary field, are all waiting to see where it goes next.
My goodness! Thank you so very much for posting this. There is loads of pressure out there for a writer to be ‘the next best thing’ and it’s crazy! I have felt it too. The pressure to DO IT NOW is daunting and makes one feel like they don’t do enough, that they aren’t trying hard enough, that they don’t want it bad enough. I don’t want to be that writer. I want to take my time to do it right. I need to take the time. There is always something to be learned and I don’t want to miss it.
Ooooh! Gave me goosebumps, this post. I wonder why!