The Incubation Period

On the face of it, it hasn’t taken me that long to write any of my books. The long short stories are very quick: I wrote the first draft of 1NG4 in about three days last year, and had it published in a couple of weeks. Vespasian Moon’s Fabulous Autumn Carnival took about two weeks to write, and about a month before I finally published it.

As for novels, I started writing The House of Teufelvelt in mid-February, and had it finished by late July or early August. And The Directorate, my longest book, as I have recounted before, I started on August 17, 2017, and finished a first draft by October 5 of that year. For the next two months, I did revisions and gathered feedback, before publishing it in January.

Looking at the start and end dates of when I began writing something and when I finished, it seems logical to conclude that a long short story takes about a month to produce, and a novel takes maybe 4-5 months. Not too bad, right?

Except this is deceptive. Because when I first began putting down the words on what would eventually become a recognizable first draft of something is not really when I started working on it. 

Take 1NG4: I’d wanted to do a weird, cyberpunk-ish story full of mystery and conspiracies for years before writing that. My 2014 novella Start of the Majestic World is a primitive forerunner of it. The November before I wrote it, I wrote a complete first draft of another story full of weird conspiracies and hints of the paranormal. And I was completely unsatisfied with it. Only one line from it lives on in 1NG4.

Vespasian Moon’s Fabulous Autumn Carnival is another example: I’d been obsessed with doing a story about a mysterious cryptid living in rural hill country since reading Lovecraft’s The Whisperer in Darkness in 2009, and doubly so after discovering the Mothman legend in 2013. A lot of the scenery and descriptions came from trips to West Virginia and Southern Ohio made in 2012 and 2015. (Again, my less-successful attempts at these ideas appear in Majestic World.)

With novels, it gets even more dramatic: The House of Teufelvelt was also the title of a short unpublished novella I wrote in 2013. It also featured a character with a dark past named Roderick Teufelvelt, a place called Leviathan State University, and a few other shared story elements. But it was very different in a number of ways, and I was a not happy with it, even after reading every bit of Gothic literature I could find for inspiration. I had to let it simmer a bit, and come back with a fresh perspective.

Taking this more expansive view, the true “production time” on 1NG4 goes from two weeks to at least five years, Teufelvelt’s goes from six months to six years and Vespasian Moon’s goes from one month to ten years.

And then, of course, there’s The Directorate. I’ve discussed this before, but to recap: In 2002, I tried making a stop-motion film with action figures about a station, accessible by a space elevator, that had an ulterior purpose unbeknownst to most of the occupants. In 2007, I made another animated film around the same theme. In 2012, I wrote yet another outline of the same plot, but eventually abandoned it.

I essentially kept playing with the same idea for fifteen years before I finally told the story in a way that satisfied me. I didn’t realize this until after publishing The Directorate, but in retrospect, it looks as if I was on a schedule where I would try telling a new version every five years. That wasn’t deliberate, though; it just worked out that way.

In summary, while the time from when I began writing might seem short, in reality there is a much longer, less obvious stage of storytelling, during which ideas get generated, examined, changed, and in some cases, thrown out and replaced with new ones. 

This isn’t a huge revelation. Indeed, it may seem quite obvious to creative types. But to their audiences, it may be completely invisible. This, incidentally, is probably why sequels are almost never as good as originals, and why artists so often “burn out” at some point in their careers: they amass a stock of ideas they work on in the back of their minds for years, and finally are able to mold them into a coherent whole, which they are able to show to the world. And if their work is popular, people immediately want more, not realizing that what they have just enjoyed is the result of years, or perhaps decades, of the creator tweaking various aspects of a concept. 

It’s commonplace to hear of creative people being “out of ideas” or feeling like they’ve lost their creative energy. I wonder if this is actually because it’s not obvious, even to them, how long it takes their mind to create ideas. I know I didn’t realize how long I’d worked on some ideas until I made a conscious effort to remember. An analogy: if you were used to going out to harvest the crop from a flourishing garden, and then one day you arrived to find that it was all gone, it would be kind of a shock, especially if you’re not aware of how the growing process works.

Generating ideas—for stories, for music, for art, for new inventions—takes a long time. There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that our brains do it best when it’s not their primary focus. The idea of a flash of inspiration is largely an illusion—but it’s a powerful illusion, because the moment the “missing piece” clicks into place and you have a great idea is so exhilarating that it feels as if it just came to you all of sudden, rather than being the last step in a long, laborious process.

So if you’re having trouble coming up with ideas, a good cure can be to revisit old ideas you hadn’t thought about in a long time. If you’re a creative person, and I think everyone who reads this blog is, you very likely have some. In fact, you might even have some you didn’t remember you had. While I was working on this post, I suddenly remembered the existence of a short story of mine that I had completely forgotten about. It’s an uncanny feeling, reading something you know that you wrote, and all the time wondering Why did I write that? 

But uncanny is good.  It means you’ve found something interesting. Which is why it pays to revisit your old ideas—it’s the best way our minds’ have of looking at something from the perspective of the creator and the audience at the same time. 

11 Comments

  1. When I first started writing, it came fairly easy and when I read about writers taking years and years to finish something, I was happy to think “not me.” But even with that, Bridgeport took me a year to write the first draft, another year to reconsider the story and rewrite it. And then it just sat there because self-publishing wasn’t quite a thing yet. Meanwhile, I was able to write dozens of short stories relatively easily and quickly. So, on some level, I still didn’t understand this concept of years and years from start to finish.

    And then the dark years arrived …

    Everything I’m working on now has been a work in progress for at least five years and, in some cases, close to ten years now. It’s what happens when you descend into the hell of perpetual writer’s block. So, yeah, years and years and years … not that difficult to imagine anymore.

    1. Yep. The good news is that eventually those years and years will pay off. BTW, I just downloaded “Shady Acres” and it’s on my TBR list, though it might be a while before I get to it. Said list is kind of huge at the moment, but I am looking forward to it.

  2. I agree — the incubation period is absolutely necessary. The trouble is, once you write and publish something, there’s pressure to complete more and more works. The well runs dry and output, or at least quality, declines. Advice such as “Write every day,” or “The more books you have out there, the better your sales,” aren’t always helpful. Right now, I’m definitely in incubation mode, cranking out a story every few months. The plan is to publish a collection in 2020.

    1. Well, I don’t want to be one of those voices adding pressure, but I am eager to read your collection! Take your time, though. I often refer to the line from the movie “The Agony and the Ecstasy” when the Pope asks Michelangelo as he’s painting the Sistine Chapel, “When will you make an end?” and he replies, “When I’m finished!” You can’t rush art.

  3. What many writers don’t realize is the affect of stress on the creative process. Deadlines are deadly. it took me years to write Optimus because I could only create over the summer break. Once I retired and didn’t have the stress of the classroom I churned out ideas and stories rather quickly. E-publishing and a computer instead of electric typewriter helped lots too. Good post parting the veil of your creative process.

    1. I can’t imagine what trying to write a whole novel on a typewriter must be like… and yet many of the all-time great novelists did just that. It’s awe-inspiring to think about, really.

  4. For me there are times when I mull over an idea, or write snatches of a story, over very long periods of time. I started writing The Unpublishables in 2003 and didn’t finish it until 2019, for example. But I also thought of a short story on Monday and wrote the entire thing on Tuesday. My process is a mystery to me.

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