Please Be Quiet, Stephen King
by Writing Workshops Org Admin
A year ago
It shouldn’t take more than three months—the length of a season—to write a longish book. Or so advises Stephen King, master of the longish book. At one time, I was a huge devotee of the king of horror. But that ended after I finished IT, a longish…no, a LOOOONG book that occupied much of my time during the winter of my senior year of high school. Don’t get me wrong; I think King is an okay writer. After all, he delivered Carrie to the world and launched a long career in the process.
I have no idea if he took his own advice and wrote Carrie in three months. Considering how erratic the prose is and how bad it reads, it certainly seems as if he might have written it in less time—say, three weeks (basically the length of autumn in most places these days). Back in my life, I’ve struggled to finish anything in under three years, much less three months.
My first novel took three years from start to finish, although it languished with an editor for another two before finally being published. Back then, when I was much younger, I believed in the quality of the work, an attention to detail that elevated the story I was telling. I thought I was dealing with a meritocracy whereby if I wrote a beautiful book with a compelling story, I could sit back and watch it take off, turning me from an unknown into a known—or at the very least, a writer who was read.
That’s not exactly what happened, though.
Entertainment Weekly raved about the book. But then it barely got reviewed anywhere else. I was sent out on a book tour where no one turned up. Maybe, I thought, writing a book about cutthroat writers in NYC wasn’t the smartest way to show up at the literary table. My editor, while lovely, never edited the book. I did it all myself. And because of it, I learned how to be my own best critic. I learned clarity and concision. But most of all, I learned to trust in my inner censor, or rather, to tell him to shut up.
When I sat down to write my second novel at the beginning of 2015, things were different. After writing 2,500 words a day and teaching two classes of creative writing, I had completed a longish manuscript in just under three months. I cleaned it up and sent it out to agents, landing one of the bigger fishes, who ended up selling it in two days for six figures. Out of all my friends, I was the only one I knew who’d managed to secure such a big advance. I was under the impression—and delusion—that a big advance meant a big, warm welcome. I thought it meant the publishing world was finally embracing me and my work, that it wanted more from me.
That’s not exactly what happened, though.
Rather, that big advance was just that, a big advance. It didn’t mean anything in the end. That second book was reviewed even less than my debut. Although it was a book for our times, it turned out to be a book that no one read and that was summarily ignored by critics and readers alike. Needless to say, the reception of it, or should I say the utter lack of reception, sent me into a dark and depressive tailspin.
I don’t want to say a book that took me three months to write ruined my life because that’s just me being overly dramatic. The book didn’t ruin my life. My expectations for it did. And again, without a real editor to guide me through the dark times that came from such disillusionment, I was on my own to get through it the best way I knew how. For a while, I disavowed the book. I canceled events, knowing no one was going to show up for them. I fell into a serious funk about the state of my writing career. I knew I’d written a superb novel and went around wondering why readers hadn’t it taken it up as the novel of our desperate times.
And then, one day I awoke, and it was 2019. The heartache that had accompanied my second publication had receded like a bad dream. I awoke to a world I had mirrored in my second book, but I decided to shut up about it. I decided it was time to move on. I couldn’t hold anyone responsible, least of all myself, for the deafening silence that surrounded my second publication.
Publishing is a fickle business. To attempt to figure out what will and won’t please the market is pure folly and leads us down an even darker road, I think. In the meantime, I’ve gotten good about not caring who’s doing what and keeping my eyes on my own paper, writing what I want because, in the end, that’s all we have anyway. No matter how long it takes to finish your book, for most of us, it’s not the destination but the journey we’ll remember, and oftentimes that’s a far more satisfying ending anyway.
So, write it in three months or three years—or thirty. Readers may come. Then again, they may not.
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Author Bio: David Samuel Levinson is the author of the novels Tell Me How This Ends Well, Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence, and the story collection, Most of Us Are Here Against Our Will. He's received fellowships from Yaddo, the Jentel Foundation, Ledig House, the Santa Fe Arts Institute, the Sewanee Writers' Conference, and the Marguerite & Lamar Smith Fellowship for Writers. His stories and poetry have appeared in storySouth, The Brooklyn Review, Prairie Schooner, The Toronto Quarterly, West Branch, and Post Road, among others. He served as the Fellow in Fiction at Emory University from 2013 to 2015. He’s taught online at NYU and UCLA’s Writing Program.