Thoughts on art, culture, and the writing life.
Since it’s Labor Day, I thought I’d mark the occasion by considering an unusual, highly specialized form of labor: the progress of a novel from initial idea to finished book. In particular, I’d like to talk about the timeline. One of the most mysterious aspects of writing fiction, at least from the outside, is how long each stage requires. A novelist will sometimes end a book with a statement of how long it took to complete, like the terse “Trieste-Zurich-Paris 1914-1921″ at the end of Ulysses, but that little number often raises more questions than it answers. How much of that time was spent on a first draft? How much on revision? When a novelist says that a book took about nine months to finish, what does that really mean? With Eternal Empire appearing in stores tomorrow, I thought it might be interesting—at least to me—to look back at my own files to see exactly how and when this novel came into being. Whether or not this will be useful for anyone else is another question, but I don’t think it hurts to share this information, since I haven’t often seen it elsewhere.
I’d been mulling over the prospect of a third installment almost as long as I’d known that this would be a series in the first place, and for years, there was a page devoted to random ideas for a final novel in my writer’s notebook. The first tangible evidence I have of the direction the novel would take is an extended notebook entry dated July 12, 2011, followed by a small text file from September 4, which consists of nothing but a short excerpt from the book by Rachel Polonsky I mentioned here last week, along with a stanza from Alexsandr Blok’s poem “The Scythians.” Three weeks later, while I was still waiting for notes on the final draft of City of Exiles, I finished a seven-page proposal for a novel that was known, at that stage, as The Scythian. Even at this early stage, the synopsis was fairly complete, but my agent and I still waited for almost three months before sending it out, since we wanted to approach my editor after he’d read and approved the final draft of the second novel. On December 12, the proposal was finally emailed to my editor, and by early January, we had a handshake offer, with a deadline of November 1, 2012. (As always, the contract and payment took longer to finalize, but that’s a topic for another post.)
As usual, I decided to spend the first month or so of the writing process entirely on research, with only a general sense of how the material I found would fit into the final story. Looking back at my own notes, I seem to have focused primarily on the Shambhala angle and putting together a chronology and visual materials on the London riots. By January 30, I felt confident enough to start a detailed outline of the first third of the book, which I finished on March 5—which happened to be the day before The Icon Thief was released. I immediately began work on the manuscript itself, aiming to write a rough version of a chapter each day, and finished up Part I on April 29. This section of the draft ended up being about 59,000 words long. I don’t seem to have wasted any time in getting to work on Part II, and I started research and outlining on April 30. I began writing Part II on June 15, taking a short break to revise the prologue, which would appear as a teaser at the end of City of Exiles. Part II was finished around August 5, amounting to 50,000 words, and outlining for Part III began the next day. I finished this outline within two weeks, and I had a draft of the entire novel by August 30. Total length was about 125,000 words.
At this point, I normally would have taken an extended break, but given my compressed timeline, I ended up waiting only a week or so before diving into the revision. In the meantime, a number of significant events had occurred: my original editor left Penguin, leaving the book in the hands of another, and the title changed from The Scythian to Eternal Empire. (If I’m going to be honest, I do miss the original title, although the new one is still pretty good.) I continued to revise the manuscript over the next couple of months, cutting the draft down to 100,000 words, and delivered a version to my publisher two days before my deadline, on October 30. I then took the long break I’d been craving for months, using the time to write the story that ended up being published as “The Whale God” and doing some tentative work on the manuscript that I hope will be my fourth novel. I also had my first daughter. I got notes back from my editor on February 9; returned a revised version, which included a new chapter and some additional material, on March 1; got the copy edit on April 16 and page proofs on May 9, both of which involved some small changes; and by May 14, I was absolutely, positively done. And tomorrow, you’ll see the result for yourself.