Slow-cookers have always amazed me. A hodge-podge of meat, vegetables and whatnot gets tossed in the Crock-Pot in the morning. The ingredients simmer together all day. Their flavors blend. Their aromas comingle and fill the house with the tang of possibility. Come dinner time, the medley has been transformed into a savory meal that brings the whole family to the table with anticipation. I love cooking this way.
My novel writing is also slow-cooked. A hodge-podge of ideas, research, themes and characters get thrown into the pot in the beginning. Then they simmer together, for a very long time, before they are transformed into the rich, savory story I want them to become. Slow-cooking a novel isn't nearly as easy as slow-cooking chili, stew or gumbo. Yet, if the mix of ingredients is right, the result can be just as fulfilling.
Not all my writing lends itself to this slow-cooking technique. In fact, most everything else I write comes together far more quickly. As a full-time freelance writer, I've written everything from annual reports, white papers and magazine articles to creative nonfiction, personal essays and short stories. Each is challenging in its own right. Each takes time and thought and effort. None seem to require the slow simmer that my novels do to reach their full potential.
Different types of writing require different processes. Even the type of novel you are writing can have an impact on how you approach the work.
In his book of essays Word Work: Surviving and Thriving as a Writer, author Bruce Holland Rogers addresses the differences between writing commercial novels and literary novels (and he has written both, so he holds no biases for one or the other). In a nutshell, the more a book is action-adventure or plot-driven, the better it lends itself to what he calls the pressure-cooker approach to writing — that is the nose to the grindstone, get the draft down on paper, write fast approach. The more literary or character-driven the book, the slower it must be cooked up. He describes his own "slow-cooking technique" for writing a literary first draft as somewhat nebulous.
"Not everything I'm doing at this stage looks even remotely like work. I'm walking and thinking about my novel, listening to music while I daydream about the novel," he writes. "The trick lies in knowing when to shift gears and produce scenes, when to stop and noodle some more."
I believe the trick also lies in gaining an appreciation for and acceptance of the process that works best for you, no matter what you write.
Some days I truly lament my agonizingly-slow process of novel writing. Part of me enjoys, even thrives on, the pressure-cooker process I utilize to write most of my freelance writing assignments. If only I could write my novels that quickly and efficiently.
Other days, I relish the slow-cooker pace of my novel writing. I'm grateful for the time it takes for the ideas to gel and for the unexpected revelations to come. It's generally worth the wait.
Certain things in life cannot be rushed. If I were to offer up my Crock-Pot meal for lunch instead of dinner, the meat might be tough, the vegetables crunchy, the broth bland. And if I were to offer up my novel-in-progress too quickly, the characters might be flat, the plot predictable, the imagery dull. Far better to let it all simmer, to ensure a rich gumbo of well-blended words and ideas that will bring the reader to the page with anticipation.
This post originally appeared on the Arizona State University Piper Writers Studio blog in 2014.