In Defense of Being a Slow Novel Writer

My parents are going through a phase where they’re obsessed with McDonalds—with its cheap coffee drinks and Big Macs with Special Sauce on the side. They are eighty-six and eighty-one respectively, and it seems a little late to talk about heart attacks and health.

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This, of course, is fast food—the kind that fails to fill you with the righteous feelings that slow food can give you. Slow food, with its hand-foraged whatnots and organic kale composted in the remains of last year’s organic kale, is deliberate, thoughtful, sustainable. McDonalds is not.

When my first novel, Goodhouse, came out in 2014 from FSG, I did a radio interview to promote it. The novel was about a school for boys who had a genetic predisposition toward violent behavior. After the interview, the host leaned toward me and said: “Tell me truthfully. Did you write this book just to get a movie deal?”

He was, in essence, asking me if the novel had been over-salted and slathered in Special Sauce in the hopes of a quick sale. And I was surprised by this question, at least in part, because it took me seven years to write that novel. Seven holiday gatherings where family members asked me what I was working on and, when I told them, they said: “Still?” It had been frankly agonizing to finish that book and the question from the host felt like an insult. It was as if he was asking: Did you even care about what you were doing?

The whole point of a slow novel is that you do care, that you feel the project moving toward something, even if you cannot quite see what that something is. And meanwhile, all around you, life continues to demand trips to the grocery store and hours of child care. You battle outbreaks of norovirus, rat infestations, catalytic converters stolen—then stolen again just hours after the new one has been installed.

The whole point of a slow novel is that you do care, that you feel the project moving toward something, even if you cannot quite see what that something is.

And still you must show up to work every day in a semi-presentable and somewhat functional state. Then, you plan birthday parties and holiday meals, but also save receipts, so you can do the taxes late at night on April 14th as TurboTax malfunctions and you wait on hold with customer service, nodding off into a dream.

And still you write. It takes stamina and dedication and perhaps a bit of insanity to work on the same story, year after year, and do it without praise, without support, without even the knowledge that it will come together in the end.

I did try to find shortcuts to fiction writing. I read books on how to write quickly, in the hopes that I could speed up the process. I wanted to feel more in control, and these books laid out strategies for organization. They offered advice on character building and conflict. I thought that if I could make the writing process easier and more straightforward then I could lessen the amount of unpaid time I spent sitting in an uncomfortable state of doubt and confusion.

And it was in these very moments when I thought fondly of my days producing financial services newsletters for Morgan Stanley, or real estate marketing materials for Prudential, or even the dusty and unoriginal essays I wrote about Shakespeare and his sonnets, or Herodotus and his histories. They were boring and stale like an old bag of French fries, but they were known, blessedly straightforward, production-line-style documents that never once veered off into weird and too-vivid backstory.

An unexpected character named Duke never took over the financial services newsletter and used it as a platform to complain about his messy divorce or fixate on the dead raccoon he’d found in the trunk of his son’s Subaru. Shit never got that weird.

I wanted to be a fast writer. But I simply wasn’t. How-To books failed to kickstart the novel writing process and reading them only heightened my confusion. Trying to create quickly just set me at odds with whatever story I was struggling to tell. It left me outside the flow of words and the slow creation of character and time.

And this, it turns out, is one of the great strengths of the slow novel. Each successive draft only strengthens the story. Even when scenes are cut, they often remain on a deeper level—still felt inside the text. It’s the old iceberg metaphor. Ideally the reader sees just the tip, but can feel the mass under the water, just off the page. The slow novel is very good at creating icebergs.

For example, in the earliest draft of Goodhouse, I had several chapters that took place in a barn. My main character, James, had been assigned to work with animals as an empathy building exercise. In these scenes he steals candy wrappers, helps a pig give birth and eventually fights with a goat that’s eating a mop.

And while these very shrewd, Hollywood-friendly scenes were eventually cut, they remained inside the story—off the page, under the water. They appeared in dialogue and recollection throughout the book. Having spent time in James’ past helped me understand his place in the front story, as it unfolded.

You don’t always know what will be important in a draft. I ended up keeping four sentences from those chapters. I kept them because I liked them but later I would find that these sentences were the key to the entire book. Here they are:

I hurried onto the bus and sat down, eagerly sliding my hand between the fold in the cushions. These buses were used by the public-school system and sometimes we found plastic buttons in the seats, found coins or brightly colored candy wrappers. This time however, the seat was clean. As a boy in the system I didn’t possess anything, and I craved the experience of ownership, I coveted anything with beauty: a fluffy tuft of wheat grass, a dead ladybug, an autumn leaf struck red or gold. I’d pick them up and fold them into a shirt cuff or a sock and this always made me feel powerful.

Eventually, James takes something he shouldn’t—and this becomes the event that sets the novel in motion. But as I wrote those lines I had no way to know how they’d play out. Part of what’s wonderful and also maddening about a slow novel is that you don’t necessarily know what’s important. You pursue one thread only to have another minor plot point be unexpectedly ascendant. You aren’t always in control. But you do always have to show up.

After I sold Goodhouse, and after my editor quit and the house thought to cancel the contract if I didn’t revise the book and make the ending “really, really good,” I used to sit at my computer in a state of terror and fantasize about jamming a fork or a pen into my hand—just so I could feel something different. And it was then that the years of working on a slow novel helped me to persist through failure and uncertainty and get to the last words of the book.

And it was then that the years of working on a slow novel helped me to persist through failure and uncertainty and get to the last words of the book.

Because you must get to the end. This, I think, is the hardest part. Much of writing and editing trains you to work in the beginning and the middle.

But without an ending, your collection of slow manuscript pages cannot become a novel. So you must finish. Remember you are the product of all the toughest people in history, you are built to be resilient. So keep building your icebergs.

And when your novel is done and people tell you it’s good or bad, or it should have been a mystery, or that you’re selling out, or that they could have done it better, you can go out and celebrate with a Big Mac or a thoughtfully-foraged kale salad, or any other kind of food that threatens to kill you or fill you with righteousness. Because only you know what it took to show up every day and sit in that quiet room—and not stick a fork in your hand.

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