Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road in less than a month. Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel took only two months to write, and William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying was written in six weeks, the same length of time it took Charles Dickens to write A Christmas Carol. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet, was written in just three weeks.
So why has it taken me over three years to write my book?!
Nearly every day for the last year, I have worked on my book, a travel adventure memoir about when I lived in Paris and got to participate in a bunch of adventures (that readers like you challenged me to do).
In the last six months, I rewrote the first three chapters eight times. These weren’t just revised drafts. I actually started from scratch and wrote entirely new chapters eight times. My editor jokes with me, saying I should publish a book of just former first chapters.
While I feel like my latest version will probably be the final, it’s hard not to feel dissatisfied with it when I re-read it and want to start again. As I attempt to focus on revising the later chapters, it’s scary to think, “I may have to rewrite the first chapters and start fresh all over again.”
In the midst of these endless revisions, I often think, “What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I just finish this book?!”
This Is the Process, Not a Pitfall
A few days ago, I finally listened to Malcolm Gladwell’s new podcast, Revisionist History. I listened to every episode—and I highly recommend them all—but the one that changed the way I think about my creative life is called “Hallelujah.”
Gladwell talks about a theory of creativity by economist and art lover David Galenson, who says there are two types of writers and creatives:
Type 1: Conceptual Innovators
Conceptual innovators execute a concept. According to Gladwell, they:
- Peak early in life, doing most of their best writing right out of the gate
- Make a plan before they start and then follow it
- Usually write very quickly
- Have “specific ideas they want to communicate,” and “can articulate those ideas clearly”
- Margaret Atwood, who says she never suffers from writer’s block.
- Jonathan Safran Foer, who began writing after taking just one creative writing class in college, and then published Everything is Illuminated when he was just twenty-five.
- Jack Kerouac, who took seven years to research and take notes for On the Road, but then wrote it in a month on a single roll of typewriter paper.
- Ian Fleming, who took eight weeks on his first James Bond novel, but then shortened that to six weeks for each book thereafter.
Type 2: Experimental Innovators
The second type of writer is called the experimental innovator. According to Gladwell, they:
- Do not have a clear, specific idea
- Work very slowly, with endless iterations
- Are always unhappy with their work
- Write with trial and error, trying to figure out what works
- Take a long time to understand what they want to say—sometimes as long as a lifetime
- Often peak much later in life
- Ernest Hemingway, who rewrote the ending to A Farewell to Arms forty-seven times.
- F. Scott Fitzgerald, who rewrote The Great Gatsby for the rest of his life, long after it was published.
- Mark Twain, who took seven years to write Huckleberry Finn because he kept rewriting the ending.
Which Type of Writer Are You?
Are you the early success who has clear ideas and a solid plan for bringing those plans to life? Or are you the “tortured novelist,” the experimental innovator who writes draft after draft, suffering all the while?
After you figure out which group you belong to, the trick is to avoid comparing yourself to the other type. As an experimental innovator, I have to work very hard not to compare myself to the conceptual innovators and wonder why I can’t write a book in just a few weeks.
On the other hand, if you are an experimental innovator, you might find this freeing. It feels good to know you’re not crazy, that your endless drafts aren’t procrastination. They’re part of your process.
I rewrote the first three chapters eight times because I couldn’t help it. I’m an experimental innovator. I can’t help feeling unsatisfied. I can’t help rewriting again and again. I’m looking for perfection, but I have no idea what that will look like when I find it.
Rather than thinking I’m doing something wrong, I need to embrace the process, give it more time and energy, not less. I need to keep experimenting.
And you? Which type of writer are you? A conceptual innovator? An experimental innovator? Let me know in the comments below.
Conceptual innovators spend more time planning. Experimental innovators spend more time trying new things in iteration after iteration.
Today, I want you to do the opposite of your usual bent. That means, if you are a conceptual innovator, take an old practice or some other section of your writing and create a new iteration. If, on the other hand, you are an experimental innovator, take fifteen minutes to plan out a new story idea without writing your story.
Enjoy getting out of your usual comfort zone, and happy writing!