Lionel Bart wrote Living Doll in 10 minutes. Paul Schrader wrote Taxi Driver in 10 days. Anthony Burgess wrote A Clockwork Orange in three weeks. Donna Tartt took 10 years to complete The Little Friend, her follow up to The Secret History which took a paltry eight years. See a discrepancy here? Yes, artists are front and centre in the ‘how long is a piece of narrative string’ debate.
I cite these glorious quirks because Stephen King recently praised Tartt for her work but asked her why she’d written so few novels – and why she took so long over them. In a radio interview, she answered the great man’s question with metronomic grace, saying she liked concentrating on the ‘small things, the details’ of a scene. Everyone has a different way of working, she said.
But is she right? And more importantly, does it matter? To an extent, I think it does – but only in the literary field because that is the arena most contested when ‘time taken’ is debated over your so-called ‘art’. Novels are meant be difficult to write – and that’s why critics get annoyed when some writers knock off a tale in a few months and, worse, get it published.
Many writers including the late Iain Banks only took three months or so to bash out the first draft of their novels and felt that’s all they needed to ensure the narrative momentum of their story wasn’t compromised, If they’d taken longer, perhaps it would have diluted their ‘art’. It would have made it saggy and uninteresting.
Tartt, however, and others like Nadeem Aslam (The Blind Man’s Garden) are in the other camp – they really like to plunge deep into their characters and dive into every scene with a scalpel, ensuring each moment throbs with realism. Aslam, even put a blindfold on for a couple weeks to ensure his research for the novel was authentic. A case of going too far? Maybe. The thousands of readers who’ve bought their books would think otherwise.
Also the time taken for novels may not be clear it as it seems on first glance. Many people have day jobs, some have children, some have a bereavement, some like the internet and others would rather peel away at the wallpaper with their fingernails than get any words down. So if something is said to have taken 10 years, it may not be quite accurate because the sticky business of life got in the way.
But the bottom line is, the marathon or a sprint debate is academic, it’s all about the words singing off the page. If you do that quickly or slowly it doesn’t matter, just finish it. When write ‘The End’, you’ll feel like a King or queen.
For a few seconds.
Until you find it’s not finished at all.