Rachel Lebowitz and Anakana Schofield on taking 10 years to write one book

Last Thursday my fiction professor David Chariandy decided to take us on an impromptu field trip to the Rhizome Cafe to hear Vancouver-to-Halifax transplant Rachel Lebowitz read from Cottonopolis, her new book of  prose and poetry, with a special a guest reading by Vancouver writer Wayde Compton (we missed the first part of his reading but his work was pretty intriguing).

cottonopolisI must confess that I generally don’t like readings, or at least, don’t like the idea of readings. I worry that if I don’t like the work I’ll be depressed and wonder how on earth this person managed to be published, or if I love the work, I’ll be depressed and wonder how on earth I will ever have anything of worth to contribute. Lebowitz and Compton put my feelings in the latter camp of course; however, the evening as a whole was surprisingly encouraging and I think it has to do with actually meeting published writers, instead of just being scared (or jealous) of them.

13237125Prof. Chariandy (whose 2007 debut novel Soucouyant was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award) is never one to miss a learning opportunity and shortly after the reading he was able to commandeer the time and attention of not only Rachel Lebowitz but Ireland-to-Vancouver transplant and author Anakana Schofield as well (Schofield was recently the recipient of the Amazon.ca First Novel award for her book Malarky). Both Lebowitz and Schofield seem to take time very seriously in their respective processes, i.e. both writers worked for years on their respective books. Upon learning that we were an undergraduate writing class, Schofield joked that she and Lebowitz would give us their top ten tips for taking ten years to publish one book, but between the two of them they actually came up with a great list.

So here, in no specific order and paraphrased/remembered only to the best of my abilities, I give you Rachel Lebowitz and Anakana Schofield’s “Top Ten Tips for Taking Ten Years to Publish One Book”:

  • Read, and read widely. If YOU aren’t reading, how can you expect your work to be read by others?
  • Don’t publish work that isn’t good, even if it’s “publishable”.
  • Take time to NOT write. There’s no reason for the constant pressure for writerly output if you’re just spinning your wheels–time spent on your family, your interests, yourself will find its way into your work.  To be a good writer you have to actually LIVE life.
  • Choose your “influences” carefully. Your influences should be artists (from various disciplines) that you believe to be the best of the best. Your influences should inspire you to be better. Your influences should be truly excellent at their craft, rather than writers that write at the level you’re already operating at (i.e. your influences should not be your peers, necessarily, unless your peers are jaw-droppingly good).
  • Don’t condescend to your reader. Writing to the lowest common denominator because you think it will increase your chances of being published does not a good writer make (see point about not publishing work that isn’t good). Assume a readership that is as intelligent as the work you are trying to create.
  • If you find yourself consistently writing around the same locale or idea, that’s fine, so long as you continue to challenge yourself in your writing. As long as you need to write about a certain thing, write about it. Once it’s out of your system, you can write about the next thing that haunts you. To put it another way, there’s no need to write about something outside your scope of knowledge, interest, and experience just for the sake of it. The fact that a subject is “new” for you doesn’t necessarily make it more worthy, unless you have genuine passion and interest around it.

Find those first six tips helpful but need more advice on how to stretch out the writing process to ten full years? Schofield rounded out our top ten with some time-spending techniques:

  • Lose parts of your manuscript all over your apartment.
  • Get a guinea pig.
  • Don’t kill your teenager (presumably keeping both guinea pigs and teenagers alive is more effortful and time consuming than killing them off).
  • Stay off the cheese (I’m not sure if this one is meant to speed you up or slow you down actually. Either/or I guess, depending on how much you like cheese).

Of course my list is no replacement for meeting these warm and talented writers in the flesh but I found their conversation with us so darn nice and useful that I just had to record it for posterity. I apologize profusely if I’ve misrepresented either Lebowitz or Schofield–I did my best to get the gist of a pretty fast-paced conversation, but obviously some things were lost in translation.

I was able to purchase Cottonopolis from Rachel Lebowitz that night (and get it signed too, woot!) and will hopefully be able to get my hands on a copy of Malarky soon. I’m certainly intrigued and appreciative and looking forward to some good reading.

[For more about Rachel Lebowitz’s process, you may want to check out Lebowitz’s 2010 interview with Desk Space. For more of Anakana Schofield’s informative and hilarious musings, visit her website at anakanaschofield.com. Particularly the “About” page and her blog.]

2 thoughts on “Rachel Lebowitz and Anakana Schofield on taking 10 years to write one book

  1. I’ve been working on the same project for three years now. I ended up dividing the whole thing into three separate books to allow different styles of storytelling to take place. Sticking with story for 3 years has been hard. Can’t imagine a decade.

    • I know, right? I can only imagine the dedication Lebowitz and Schofield must have felt for their projects. Schofield said she actually wrote a whole separate book first, then scrapped the whole thing and started again to get “Malarky”.

      This is why I like short fiction, maybe.

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