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Linger, Tinker, Savor: Taking the Time to Get it Right

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Please welcome guest author Henriette Lazaridis to Writer Unboxed today! Henriette’s new novel, TERRA NOVA, will be published by Pegasus Books in December 2022.  Her debut novel, The Clover House, was a Boston Globe bestseller and a Target Emerging Authors pick. Her work has been published in such outlets as ElleForge, Narrative MagazineThe New York TimesNew England ReviewThe Millions, WBUR’s Cognoscenti and Pangyrus, and she is a recipient of a Massachusetts Cultural Council Artists Grant. Henriette earned degrees in English literature from Middlebury College, Oxford University, where she was a Rhodes Scholar, and the University of Pennsylvania. Having taught English at Harvard, she now teaches at GrubStreet in Boston. Visit her website at https://www.henriettelazaridis.com/.

Linger, Tinker, Savor: Taking the Time to Get it Right

I came to novel-writing later in life, after a career in academia. Though I’d decided as a teenager that I wanted more than anything to be a novelist, one thing led to another, and I detoured into scholarship and teaching at the university level, and then I was almost forty when I realized I’d strayed from my once-held dream. Starting “late”—or so I thought—I became a Woman in a Hurry. It’s not that I wrote massive amounts right away. Quite the contrary, in fact. I didn’t take myself seriously for a few years and kept undermining myself by engaging in all manner of other pursuits on top of (and often in place of) writing. But even then, I was in a hurry mentally. When I did finally get serious about writing novels, I wanted everything to happen fast.

My first novel, The Clover House, set me up for some false expectations of speed to come. The novel went on sub on a Thursday and, by the Monday, I had phone interviews with three publishers. About three weeks later, I had a sale. This gave me the impression it would always go like this. You write the draft, you revise a little, you go on sub, and bingo, you sell. I imagined doing this on a sort of two-year timetable and queued up my ideas accordingly.

Insert a pause for sad-maniacal laughter.

No, the next manuscript I wrote did not go off into publication at lightning speed. Nor did the next one. But though the publishing world’s operations were slowing me down, I continued to write if not quickly then briskly. I began a third manuscript, and then set it aside to revise one of the two novels I’d already completed, reworking it under the skillful and attentive scrutiny of my then agent. Before the ink was barely dry on a finished draft of Terra Nova, I began and finished another manuscript, during the pandemic (didn’t everyone?), in a matter of months.

The take-away from all these manuscripts bouncing around in my writerly existence isn’t the speed of their creation. That’s, in fact, the cautionary tale. The real lesson is that the ones that really succeeded were the product of time and slowness. Notice that while we have a nifty word for when things are fast—speed!—the word for when things are slow is awkward. Slowness? And yet, there it is: a word that takes as much drawn-out time to say as is fitting for its meaning. What worked best for me as a writer was Slowness.

To go back and examine it, The Clover House was not in fact the product of a first draft wham-bang creation. I had spent years on and off trying out different approaches to the material I thought I wanted to fashion into fiction. I’d written at least two full manuscripts that no one but I would ever recognize as drafts of what became the final novel, but that were surely first attempts at that story. If you count all those versions and all those years, my debut novel was almost old enough to vote by the time it had its pub date.

The same is true of my new novel, not only in its publication history but also and especially in its process. I began Terra Nova fresh off of the failure to sell a previous manuscript. I had two novel ideas in my head and was ambivalent about which to work on, wondering whether I should try to game the system with a book that would be sure to get me back into the on-sub-phone call-sale conveyor belt (to the extent that I had ever been on any kind of conveyor belt). Thankfully, I came to my senses about trying to game a system that’s not even a system. I chose to work on the novel that spoke to me, the novel that had been speaking to me for decades on and off. In the superstitious hope that this would help the book succeed, I determined to shake up my process. First and foremost, I decided to slow myself down.

Instead of writing on my laptop, I wrote longhand. I used a fountain pen that required refilling with a plunger mechanism every six or seven pages. I wrote before dawn, in the winter, turning on only the light above the dining table where I set up my notebook and my coffee. And I will confess this, mindful that eventual readers of my new book might scoff: I vowed to write “superb prose.” I told myself I could write B+ or A- prose in my sleep. What I wanted with this novel was to write A+ prose. So I was going to slow the heck down and craft every sentence as if my life depended on it.

It didn’t hurt that I began the book with four men and four dogs in Antarctica, trudging on skis across the ice because their life did depend on it. They were going slowly. So, I did too.

I could lie to you now and say that I’ve maintained that slow approach ever since, and that I’ve become to writing what the Slow Food movement is to dining. In truth, dear reader, I relapsed, and wrote that pandemic novel super-fast. When that dust had settled, I jumped into the manuscript I’d set aside for it. But I caught myself. I had to remind myself that going fast with my manuscripts had led them to be sort of underbaked. I told myself: take your time. Don’t rush.

This fall, as people were gearing up for NaNoWriMo, I joined a group who were sharing writing progress, but I set myself a goal of 200 words per day. That was it. 200 words. Of course, you can’t write a novel in a month at a rate of 200 words a day, nor did I plan to. What I did plan was to set the rhythm for the process I wanted to maintain even beyond November, for as long as it took. The glacial pace forced me to take time with my story; it allowed me to even revel in the bite-sized chunks I got down every day; most of all, it gave me time to think creatively and it re-energized my writing.

We spend so much time being in a hurry. We tend to value speed (doesn’t it seem negative if I describe my pace as “glacial?”). Writing a novel takes time. It takes slowness. And to embrace slowness can demand a supreme braking effort in this cultural climate where speed and accumulation are most rewarded. It’s not a race. Nobody is holding a stopwatch on your manuscript. You’re the only one who knows if a milestone is passing or approaching. If you slow down, and embrace slowness, you’ll produce something better, I’m sure of it. Now, after a few decades at this writing thing, I’d rather linger than rush. I’d rather tinker than produce. I’d rather savor than consume. Join me in my slowness and maybe we can help each other take the time to get it right.

What is your process? Do you write fast, slow, or do you mix it up? What has worked best for you traditionally? Does it change based on your book-in-progress? What do you know to be true about yourself on the other side of each of your projects? The floor is yours.

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