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Three thousand hours

I am about to embark on the process of listening to myself read the finished draft of my book while I scrape and scrub and plaster my way through repairing the house ahead of our move to Adelaide. Six days into the year and already great changes are afoot! I have a good feeling about this one.

I have equivocal feelings about the book. At this point there is a set of calculations at work – how much more can I do to it before I stumble over the invisible line of too much work (in terms of the prose, and the mental taxation). It’s very strange to start to mark out the work from the outside, to attempt to approach it as a stranger would. I am doing things deliberately differently this time around, trying to experiment with my own process before it sets into inflexible patterns. I’ve always read my work aloud at the late stages, but this is the first time I’ve tried it with the additional cringe factor of recording my own voice.

(Yeah, I took a year off making podcasts for this blog, but I’m planning to go back to it when I go back to the happy place of being focused on short fiction – any minute now!)

I have ten hours and thirteen minutes of audio. I can never resist the temptation to measure, so I did the maths: this book has taken me three years’ worth of half days, about three thousand hours of work. And I write relatively quickly. It’s a little absurd, really. You really have to love the process to feel that this is a worthwhile enterprise.

But then the more I think of it, the more it seems to me that this is how long things are supposed to take. The handmade nature of a piece of fiction gives it its beauty, as opposed to the quick No More Gaps of content generation. The evidence of work (and of a mind at work) is what makes books worth reading. It’s the expectations of instant gratification that are absurd.

This old house has taught me to be patient. As I patch the render and soak the floorboards in tung oil, I keep thinking about timber being cut and stone quarried and the things that are built in the old way, to last. And I do love the process; it’s the process that gives the most pleasure and meaning in the end, and not the outcome. I guess that’s what is meant by writing as a craft: the way it teaches you to trust your materials and take your time.

It’s about time I wrote about time, I think.


  1. wrote:

    Nice. Interesting idea about recording your reading of your ms. I read over but usually in my head. I know some people read aloud, Colm Toibin (when asked in ‘workshop’ last year) was asked and he said no, just in his head.

    And 3000 hours. So a year and a half of full days? How many drafts have you done I wonder?

    Good luck with the house renos and ms.

    Monday, January 6, 2014 at 1:09 pm | Permalink
  2. jenjen wrote:

    Thanks Jenny.

    Three years, seven drafts. A few near-breakdowns! I don’t think I could have done the equivalent in a year and a half full time. The pauses are important. Let things calcify.

    Toibin has a fine head. That musicality of voice comes so naturally to Irish writers. I ought to try singing!

    Monday, January 6, 2014 at 1:15 pm | Permalink
  3. wrote:

    Oh I didn’t mean to imply full days are the way to go. Who does full days of actual writing? No, I agree these things cannot and shouldn’t be rushed.

    What do you call a draft? How significant are the changes before you save a new version? It’s just that my recent thing hit 27 versions. It’s been a while that’s for sure.

    Monday, January 6, 2014 at 4:23 pm | Permalink
  4. jenjen wrote:

    27 must be evidence of a careful mind. I tend to count the rests, rather than the rewrites. It’s hard to explain – an instinctive sense of need, but whether it’s mine or the book’s i can never tell. Everybody’s process is different!

    Monday, January 6, 2014 at 8:32 pm | Permalink
  5. wrote:

    Thanks for answering. Everybody’s process is different but it’s always interesting to hear about other people’s.

    Tuesday, January 7, 2014 at 5:38 pm | Permalink
  6. wrote:

    Your little contact card just fell out of my wallet while I was switching to a new (old) one and I started composing an email to you in my head, then decided to see if your domain led anywhere. This blog is fantastic, I’m so happy to see you’re writing down your thoughts online where I can read (stalk) them! I’ve been trying to force myself to rewrite my novel for close to three years now; I think the next step is to record myself reading it aloud. Here’s hoping I don’t cringe so hard listening to it back that my eyes permanently seal shut…

    Thursday, January 16, 2014 at 8:27 pm | Permalink
  7. jenjen wrote:

    Thanks Panos! The dictaphone method worked well – for some reason I listen better if I’m also doing something with my hands. All the best with the novel.

    Saturday, January 18, 2014 at 1:57 pm | Permalink