I have bookshelves bursting with books at home – with old, well-thumbed titles whose authors are long-departed, and with smart, new books whose authors are busy writing more, more, more. I love both kinds of books, but as I sit at my writing desk, pondering a scene in my latest novel, I find myself thinking about the time I’m giving to that thinking and how quickly the ‘Hannah Fielding’ shelf beside my desk will fill with books.
Time spent on the craft
Writing was once a real art form, with many authors spending years on their books. They agonised over the choice of a word, the rhythm of a sentence, a single punctuation mark. Take the following quote (which, confusingly, is attributed to both Flaubert and Oscar Wilde):
I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again.
Such care, and such time put into the work!
Today, authors write more quickly. Because we live in a fast-paced world, but also because the business of being a writer requires that you be timely and prolific – and both publishers and the market expect the next book quickly. How fans of George RR Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series struggled to wait a couple of years for the next instalment!
It takes me something like a year to write a book, including the planning, research, writing and revising the novel until I’m sure it’s the best it can be. I think a year is about right – much longer and you’re lost in the book, perhaps revising where you shouldn’t be, and you lose sight of the next book and the next. But were I to push myself to complete a book more quickly, I don’t think I would enjoy the writing or be happy with the process. I’m not quite so pedantic as to worry about a comma for a morning, but I admire that attention to detail.
Take a look at the first paragraph of Dickens’s 1859 A Tale of Two Cities:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
Indisputably an example of poignant, intelligent, superbly crafted writing. But were you to open a book today and read this as its first paragraph, would you be surprised? I imagine so – because today in general writers are expected to write:
- In short sentences and paragraphs
- With simple language
- Directly and concisely
- In an attention-grabbing manner
- With the focus on people and plot more than exposition and description
- Stories that move along quickly
Personally, I find a lot to appreciate in the more classic style of writing: after all, I grew up immersed in classic French, English and Egyptian literature and took my degree in the former. Take description, for example. Reviewers often note how descriptive my writing is and how vividly it paints a scene and transports the reader to the setting. For example, here’s a description from The Echoes of Love:
Palazzo Mendicoli was situated in the western half of the Dorsodurosestiere, the southern peninsula of Venice, on the curve of a small canal. It was a sixteenth-century three-storey marble façade palace that had been restored in the early nineties and had been turned into flats, Venetia’s being on the top floor. As Dorsoduro was on higher ground than the rest of Venice, one side of the building had the fortune of overlooking the lagoon to the south, and the other faced north-east, with a view over the rest of Venice towards the Grand Canal. Most of the interior’s architecture, as well as the paintings and frescos in the rooms, was still intact. Only the part-end of the building, destroyed by fire over the three floors in the nineteenth century, had been totally restructured to create an elegant, old-fashioned lift.
Venetia’s apartment was large, with high ceilings carved with lecherous little cherubs pursuing strange-looking winged animals, and plaster borders embellished within borders. It had been her godmother’s home for the five years that followed Giovanna’s widowhood, until her marriage to Ugo Lombardi. After this, Giovanna had moved to her new husband’s penthouse at the top of the Bella Vista building in the centre of Venice. It had been the site of an old decaying palazzo that Ugo had bought, on which he had erected a very modern block of luxury flats where the couple lived during the week. At weekends, they escaped to the Lido, the long sandbar south of Venice, where Ugo Lombardi had bought his bride the most fabulous old palace with beautiful views across the lagoon to the city’s medieval towers and ochre rooftops.
The walls of Venetia’s apartment were covered in pastel silks, and the heavy brocade curtains that hung from the tall windows were in deeper but matching tones, held back by thick cords of the same colour. Each room had a marble fireplace that was elegantly decorated with scenes of mythological fauna and flora. The massive pieces of furniture were a mixture of Baroque and Rococo styles, comfortable and curvy, and also embellished with motifs like shells, flowers, and the stars of the firmament.
Recently, a reviewer said of The Echoes of Love:
If you’re looking for a fast-paced book to read during your lunch hour, this is not it. The Echoes of Love is a love story to be read slowly and savored.
I like that idea. For me, a love story is not a race – and it’s not superficial. It’s a slow dance, with so many levels of nuance, each to be considered. A love story should be savoured. Books should be savoured!
What do you think? Do you note a speeding-up in modern writing – to reflect that occurring across all the arts, such as in the cinema? Do you love stories that ‘go, go, go’? Do you like stories with more depth? Do you love your favourite authors to be prolific and release books quickly? Do you value the wait? I’d love to know your thoughts.