Monday 10 December 2012

Writing and the Lost Art of Patience

Claire Merle

 …long-form writing is like running a marathon: it requires endurance, patience, a deep reserve of will power and commitment, and an almost Herculean ability to delay gratification.
                                                                     –      Dennis Palumbo

Last week was a milestone week for me. A year and I half ago I signed a contract with Faber and Faber for The Glimpse Duet and last Tuesday I posted the final corrected proofs of the second book back to my publisher. It was an extraordinary feeling. Both books finished. A year and a half of deadlines and revisions and corrections had come to an end. A second book ready for the press. WOW! But beneath this incredible feeling of accomplishment lay the ever present ‘what next?’ It is wonderful to know that the answer to that could be, ‘Well, anything you want!’ But it’s also daunting. All around me I suddenly seemed to be hearing the importance of pitching NOW; of general industry expectations for a YA writer to produce/publish a book a year; of not falling off the bandwagon because God knows how hard it is to get on it in the first place.


I think all writers put it on themselves. You have to if you’re going to learn the craft, dedicate time and energy to writing a book you’re not sure anyone will ever read, find the courage to give it to critique groups and send it to agents. To get published you need to be extremely motivated and always pushing forwards on the next step – revisions, critiquing, agents, publisher. But I'd got to a point where I also felt I needed to step back a bit, give myself room to explore a few ideas before committing to one single one for the next year or more. So with the feeling that I was/ am going against the grain, I began searching around to justify the instinct. And that’s when I stumbled on an audio interview with Paulo Coelho, author of The Alchemist, (translated into 71 languages), about his writing process. Despite the fact that Paulo Coelho says it only takes him around two weeks to write a book, he also says that his ‘natural cycle’ for producing a book takes two years. When explaining this further he says,

Eventually some subject pops up when the cycle of two years ends and there are several layers of ideas… I think I’m going to write a book about this and then I start and then (I start) a second and a third. But hidden behind all these books that are not ready to be written, or should never be written, is the book that wants to be written.’ 

As the saying goes, ‘people see what they want to see,’ or in my case ‘find what they want to find.’ Yes I admit, hearing these words after I’d just ditched 35,000 words of a rough draft of a contemporary YA, offered some comfort. But while it is often acknowledged that writing requires stamina and endurance, I was intrigued by this idea that sometimes we may need to throw things away to uncover the book that will be the right one to have published next.

In an article for the Huffington Post, ‘Hollywood on the Couch: For Writers, Patience is still a virture,' writer turned therapist Dennis Palumbo says,

Nowadays, few writers are advised to cultivate patience. There’s a lot of pressure to just write, to get it out there, to strive mightily to come up with the next high concept (“You got anything like Iron Man?” “We’re looking for another Harry Potter-type book.” “How about a police procedural show on Mars?”).

Don’t get me wrong – there are many writers who have an amazing talent to turn around books in six months or less, to sit down at their desk and spin something off and their books are selling well time after time. Some authors need the deadline, the pressure, the sold pitch. 

As an aspiring writer, I believed if only one day I KNEW I’d be published then I could relax, just enjoy the process without worrying what the rejections meant. Now I know that wherever you are on the chain, there’s always the next step… agented, published, mid-list author, best-selling author, film deal, huge best-selling author, J.K. Rowling. 

We live in a competitive, consumerist culture where success is measured by money and sales. This is inescapable. But for me the art of living is appreciating where you are now, of being fully in the moment, of absorbing and interacting with the world around you. And perhaps it’s also the lost art of patience. In terms of being an author, I don’t mean sitting around waiting for a masterpiece to smack you over the head, I mean digging and cultivating and nuturing until you find it. 

I'm working on something new now. I'm trying to cultivate patience, hoping it will be THE ONE. Or at least THE NEXT ONE. What about you?

If you want to hear all of Paul Coelho’s audio interview, ‘How I write’ go here.


  1. Hey, if you do listen to Paulo Coelho's interview, don't forget to come back here and tell me what you thought of it. I found the whole thing really interesting, (even though I've only read one of his books a long time ago!)

  2. I really, really loved this, Claire. I related to so much of it. It's a beautiful meditation on what it is to be a writer, whatever the stage of your journey, and on being true to yourself. Brilliant.

    And now I'm going to listen to the interview.

  3. Patience isn't something I have in large supply, but I really hear you on wanting to pause, and think: what next?
    Great post

  4. So true. It's hard to keep sight of the fact that some things have to be done slowly, when all we see are deadlines and urgency. We might spent months (or years) writing a book, but it still ends in a frantic rush of editorial queries and page proofs. This is also very timely for me, as I'd leapt into a book I hadn't thought through properly because my agent wanted it and now I'm having to stand back and let it lie for a bit as I know I'm messing it up.
    Off to listen to the interview! Thankyou!

  5. This is a brilliant post. Thank you for taking the time for sharing your thought processes here. They make so much sense to me. Am off to listen to the interview

  6. Thanks so much for all the responses. It's great to know I'm not alone, and thank you Julie - you gave me some wonderful advice in helping me get to that 'place' ! Stoppy Author - hope your agent is understanding about the need to let it lie, (I was amazed at how understanding my agent was when I approached her with this.) Teri, I'm not great at patience either, but I'm trying! Vanessa, glad you enjoyed the post and thanks for commenting.

  7. That's really good news about your agent, Claire - the sign of a good one!

  8. Sorry for being so late to comment, really enjoyed and identified with this piece. I am right where you are now, Claire, having just handed in a manuscript ... and before I get the comments back I'm exploding with all the things I haven't been doing while I was stuck in the Writer's Cave. Some balancing act this is.

    1. Late comments welcome, Candy! Congratulations on handing in the manuscript. Hope you have a bit of time now to catch up with all things out of the Writer's Cave.