When asked how long it took me to write my first novel, Suicide Club, I tell people it took about a two years. This is only partially true. I wrote the first word of the first draft of the novel in October 2015, and it was acquired by publishers in May 2017—so about a year and a half, which I round up to two. The actual writing of the novel though, took seven months—four months from October 2015 to January 2016, then three months from June 2016 to August 2016. I signed with an agent in February 2017 and spent a further three months revising it with her before sending it out to publishers. After the book was acquired, of course, there was more revision, about another three months of structural edits before moving on to the line editing stage.
While I was writing the novel, time seemed interminable, progress felt sluggish and I thought I would never finish. But in hindsight, I now know that I wrote it relatively quickly. What is even more startling is during that period I also held down a demanding corporate job, I got engaged and planned a wedding, and I applied to 11 MFA programs. Present-day me—whose MFA program allows her to write full-time but only manages to finish one short story every few months—looks back at past me in slack-jawed disbelief (and more than a little suspicion and envy). Who was that superhuman paragon of productivity and how the hell did she do it? I often go back to the spreadsheet I use to keep track of word count to check if my memory is playing tricks on me, but sure enough, the dates are right.
It's hard not to feel bad about my current dismal productivity—I've been in an MFA for a year, with the kind of writing time that past me would have killed for, but only a few short stories and the stilted beginning of a second novel to show for it. In my old life, I'd get up early and spend an hour before work each day writing 500 words. Now, I still wake up early but often find myself spending hours on Twitter or hanging out with my cat. It is often mid- or late-afternoon before I become consumed with sufficient self-loathing to spur me onto writing a few hundred words. Despite the fact that I now have the whole day to write, I still only spend about an hour a day actually writing, if I'm honest with myself.
More time, yet less writing. Part of this has to do with the paradox of productivity that many of us are familiar with. I'm reminded of a corporate cliché I used to hear all the time: "If you really need something done, give it to someone busy to do." In speaking to other writers, I've learnt that my experience is far from uncommon. It seems that for many, the constraints of a day job, family, or other responsibilities provide a structure around which a writing routine can be eked out. Scarcity of time also leads one to guard fiercely whatever writing time one does have. Now that I finally have the luxury of time, I find myself only too prone to letting it slip away.
The other part of it, I think, has to do with what a writing teacher of mine calls a matter of accounting. She once told us the story of being at a writing residency with a well-known writer who had finished an entire novel in six months. Everyone was amazed, herself included. Eventually she found out that said writer had been planning and outlining the novel for years before. It was an accounting trick, she said, a matter of how you counted the time spent writing.
My own accounting tricks include a failed novel attempted during NaNoWriMo 2013 (National Novel Writing Month, where writers try to produce an entire novel in a month), a short story written in 2014 that was set in the same universe as my novel, and then, of course, all the time in my day spent on the day job, wedding planning, and MFA applications. Many of my creative breakthroughs happened on my evening commute home or while sitting in a meeting room or walking through the fifteenth overpriced wedding venue that week. All those other commitments took time away from the actual writing, but what I'm realising now is they also gave my subconscious the room to figure out characters and worlds and plot problems. All the time I thought of as 'wasted' had never been wasted after all. Everything goes into writing, everything is writing.
These days, I try not to force myself to sit at my desk for five or six hours straight just because I feel like I need to be Writing. I try to go out, to waste time, to give my mind the space it needs to make new things. I remind myself that as long as I am thinking, observing, living, then I am writing. I remind myself that it is all about the accounting.