What does it Cost to Write a Novel?

I have now been writing my novel for 580 days. How many hours would that make? I haven’t counted, but given that there are 13,920 hours in 580 days, a rough estimate must yield a number in the thousands. A sobering thought…

With my business background and Chinese heritage, I can’t help thinking about what people in business call ‘the opportunity cost’. In other words, what else I could have done in that time, and how much more income I might have generated.

In a year and a half, the total package garnered by a senior manager working full-time could come to a few hundred thousand pounds (if we included bonuses, healthcare and pension contributions). I chose to leave the corporate world, and I don’t for one nanosecond regret that decision. Not because I hated it, but because in my time, I survived two life-threatening illnesses. Writing was integral to my recovery (see blog-post The Miracle of Writing), and I believe I need to continue telling stories for my well-being.

While I would love to be commercially successful as a writer, I have to be realistic: I’m writing historical fiction, not Harry Potter. My aim is to be both accessible and literary at the same time. In the process, I hope to entertain many, and to touch a few. Although my novel is historical, it carries themes of contemporary interest, such as the invisible cost of cultural assimilation – what it means to lose a heritage, and the ongoing tension between modernity and tradition.

It took me twelve months to write the first draft of this epic drama. That is fast, I’m told, for 150,000 words. (In comparison, the average book now has 100,000 to 120,000 words). Once I started, I couldn’t stop. I worked like a fiend. It helped that I could work at my second job from home, which gave me plenty of flexibility to write. I also had a wonderfully supportive partner who agreed not to speak to me before 3 pm each day. Although this was the subject of constant jokes amongst our friends, I can happily say there is no substitute for discipline.

At that whirlwind speed, I expected to be finished in no time. But my editor shook her head after the second draft. Nope, not ready yet, she told me in no uncertain terms. It is only now, well into my third draft, that I fully appreciate how much work has to go into polishing each and every word. I sit thinking about tenses and grammar. I stare at commas and semi-colons, the presence or absence of which could subtly change a sentence.

When I gave the second draft to a book-loving friend for a lay-person’s opinion, the work had grown to 170,000 words. I’m very grateful to my friend for her patience and her many comments. But what is a writer to do with wildly opposing feedback?

The bone of contention: the fact that my characters talk like Malaysians. (By that, I mean the dialogue between characters, not the narrative flow itself). Here’s an example. Instead of saying “How can that be?”, a Malaysian in real life might say, “Like that, how can-ah?”

To me as a Malaysian, the words written in that way simply jump off the page. I can hear the sentence, “Like that, how can-ah?” in all three of Cantonese, Malay or Malaysian English (Manglish). While creating the dialogue between my characters, I realised that when Malaysians speak English, we often just translate from our own languages.

By changing the order of the words on the page, I hoped to convey some of the cadence and intonation of Malaysian speech. It would have been easy to stick to the tried and tested Malaysian favourites: ‘lah’ and ‘ah’ and even ‘ai-yahh’; I wanted, perhaps ambitiously, to capture more of Malaysia’s atmosphere in my novel. If you haven’t been to South-East Asia, this may be lost, and the speech could seem trying. This is why I’ve restricted ‘Malaysian-isation’ to only the dialogue between the characters in my book. A matter of style, but it has already proven controversial. My editor loved it, and my friend hated it. Their reactions told me that other readers were also likely to fall into those two camps. As the writer, I will have to make the final decision.

Writers are always encouraged to read as widely as possible. Yet, while writing my first draft, I found that if I read any work written in a style dissimilar to mine (a story-telling style à la Isabel Allende), my own writing became affected. The sentences would cease to flow. In that period, I was forced to read and re-read Isabel Allende. Not a hardship, since I love her writing. In contrast, reading widely has helped me with my second and third drafts. I’ve read a string of novels recently, including The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, a sad story set in Japan in the late 1700s, in which David Mitchell displays wonderful techniques with dialogue.

Latterly, I’ve discovered a trick I wish I had used earlier. Now that my work is nearly ready to be more widely exposed, I have a number of readings planned. While preparing for them, I began to read passages of my work aloud to myself. That was when I realised I could use reading aloud as a tool to weed out unwieldy sentences. If my tongue couldn’t get around a sentence first time, it was usually because the sentence didn’t work, and I had to change it.  Reading aloud also helps when you’re trying to spot repetition. Gillian Slovo had mentioned this at a writing workshop at the Faber Academy, but once I arrived home, I promptly forgot her advice. She was spot-on though.

Soon, it will be time to think about how to get my work published. I’m not looking forward to the process; why that is the case deserves another blog-post. To return to the question I asked at the outset: what does it cost to write a novel? Answer: many years of a writer’s life. And what does it take to get to the finish line? Discipline, determination and an insane belief that you have a worthwhile story to share with the world.

5 Comments

Filed under Malaysia, Novel, Writing

5 responses to “What does it Cost to Write a Novel?

  1. another aspects of ‘opportunity cost’ of writing is hours/days/months missed of being with the family…which is more than ‘not speaking until 3 pm’ :0) but I agree – it is worth it.

  2. Oksana

    I think many writers mention that they are unable to read fiction when in the process of writing their own novels. That kind of makes sense.
    Good luck with the next step, Selina!

  3. Hello there Selina
    We’ve two things in common. I’m from Ipoh — a former Andersonian when Chong Kok LIm was still alive — and am a writer and a novelist wannabe. (I stumbled upon your blog while researching for everyday life during the Japanese Occupation). Good luck with getting a publisher for your novel.

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