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Bun in the Oven: The Gestation Period of a Novel

According to Discovery.com [1], the female frilled shark carries her babies for up to 3.5 years before giving birth. As someone who was throw-uppy for the duration of my pregnancies, I think the frilled shark’s lengthy gestation sounds miserable.

On the other hand, as someone who is gestating a novel (and has been for the past 4.5 years), I find the details of the frilled shark’s gestation rather comforting. Since I am only 25% through a draft of my manuscript (and already a full year slower than the frilled shark), I am hopeful that, once complete, it will be even more appealing than a frilled shark baby. Frilled sharks of any age make Hammerheads look like pageant queens. They have three hundred teeth. Arranged in 25 rows. I won’t post a picture of a frilled shark because you might feel scared. (But here’s a link [2].)

I feel sheepish that I write at the speed of sloth, but what’s even more humbling is this WIP’s metamorphosis over the last 4.5 years. When I started, this book was about “the friendship between an American boy with albinism and an African girl with albinism.”

You probably noticed there’s no plot there. There’s no hook or even the whiff of a conflict. But I, green and ridiculously optimistic that a conflict would emerge, plowed ahead. And then I came to a dead end because plotless stories always come to dead ends. I learned this from WU’ers James Scott Bell, David Corbett, Lisa Cron, and Donald Maass.

So back to the drawing board went I, and another draft emerged, one that involved albinism and Antarctica. Dead end. After that, another draft that focused on war and Antarctica. Then a shut-in wife who never left the house and her husband, a serial soldier, who liked war more than he liked his family. And that evolved, somehow, into a story about two kids, Caesar and Sylvia, and it took place in Antarctica. It was cleverly titled, CAESAR AND SYLVIA IN ANTARCTICA.

(I am literally cringing as I share these plotless novel ideas with you.)

Then I jumped ship and started another version where Sylvia was named Desdemona and was not a child but an adult. And then another in which Cameron, who had previously been called Caesar, became adult-Desdemona’s ex-lover.

Did you know that dogs can have false pregnancies where their bodies mimic the symptoms of true pregnancy? I now see, that with each of these silly drafts, I was only falsely with book-child. In fact, I was experiencing a long series of false book-pregnancies.

Thank goodness my agent, as well as my two critique partners, are patient. They are willing to be my doula, my midwife and my OB. They believe that this third book will be the first one to sell. They believe we are close.

I would be lying fetal in a gutter without them.

Another focus of my gratitude? David Whyte, a poet, who shares these words of comfort: “A wrong-headed but determined direction is better than none at all.”

I do wish I could have avoided these years of wrongheadedness, but some of us, I think, need to wander in the desert for a few years, chasing plot mirages, in order to arrive at the real pool of water.

So, while Stephen King writes a book each season, while Sara Gruen wrote Water for Elephants in four weeks, while Ray Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 in nine days, there are many other authors who take far longer. Donna Tartt apparently spent ten years writing The Goldfinch. J. D. Salinger also needed a decade to write The Catcher in the Rye.

Why does it take some writers so darn long?

Let me answer by way of a question: Why does an opossum give birth after only 12-13 days while the frilled shark’s gestation is 1oo times that? Who knows! It’s a mystery.

It takes me a while to find my way because story-building does not come naturally. I hope that over time the skills shared by craft gurus here at WU will become natural, but for now, making sure a story contains turning points and tension is about as easy as birthing a porcupette. A porcupette is a baby porcupine.

I also find that it takes me forever to get to know the characters in the story. I look at it this way: I’ve been married for 20 years, and just the other day, I learned that in high school, my husband dropped honors English and enrolled in regular English because he wanted to get an “A” so he’d “have a shot at being Valevictorian.” That’s right. Valevictorian. My husband somehow became Valevictorian of his high school without ever realizing Valevictorian is not actually a word. How victorious!

All this to say, it takes a while to get to know someone, and that’s true for romantic partners, close friends and fictional characters. We have to take the time to learn our characters’ backstory, their deepest desires, their most urgent needs, their darkest secrets. We need to learn just how far they will go to conceal these secrets and fulfill their desires. We need to learn the lies they tell themselves and the lies they tell others. We need to learn their quirks and their Achilles heels. We need to learn their unique voice and how to convey that voice through their diction and syntax. It takes years for me to truly know these imaginary people; it takes years before I can speak my characters’ language; it takes years before I can trust them to do their thing and move the story forward.

It’s OK, then, that it takes a long time to write a novel?

It’s irritating and frustrating to work for years with false pregnancies and no income, but as you know, very few writers can make a living solely by selling their fiction. So we juggle other jobs, and this juggling takes away from our fiction writing time, which means it takes forever to complete a book. It also takes many thousands of hours to create a strong and sturdy story.

I once had an agent tell me, “Good is better than fast.” In other words, don’t sacrifice quality by doing a rush job. Don’t underestimate the importance of strong and sturdy stories.

Giraffes, with their lengthy 460-day gestation periods, don’t sacrifice quality for speed, and that’s good because a giraffe mother gives birth standing up, which means there’s a fair bit of falling that takes place between the giraffe’s uterus and the grassy brush of the Serengeti. The baby needs to be sufficiently strong to survive such a fall.

Likewise, when a writer births a novel, that story must be tough and developed enough to survive delivery. If the story’s legs are too spindly, they will break as they fall upon the hands of readers and the eyes of reviewers. We must take the time to strengthen the story’s bones and muscles, edifying the creation with the knowledge shared by the aforementioned craft gurus.

Good is better than fast.

While some writers may be natural story-crafters, those of us who aren’t must spent months and years if we want to create strong-enough stories that can survive in this overpopulated world.

What about you? Can your creative process be hurried along, and if so, how? A baby has all of his or her fingerprints by 9-12 weeks in the womb … was your WIP’s unique identity solidified in the early weeks, or does it look nothing like its original story seed? Are you a cheetah or a snail when it comes to getting a complete draft of a story, and what qualities or skills (or lack thereof) most impact your speed?

Thank you, WU’ers, for reading and for sharing!

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About Sarah Callender [3]

Sarah Callender lives in Seattle with her husband, son and daughter. A crummy house-cleaner and terrible at responding to emails in a timely fashion, Sarah chooses instead to focus on her fondness for chocolate and Abe Lincoln. She is working on her third novel while her fab agent pitches the first two to publishers.