The Time It Took to Write Famous Books

How long did it take to write my books?

That’s hard to say. The first one took at least a few years. It was an on-again-off-again process. The second book took a little less than two years. That’s from start to turning in the manuscript, with idle time in between.

I’m always interested in the writing processes of other writers and authors. An infographic by printerinks titled “How Long Did It Take to Write the World’s Most Famous Books?” caught my attention.

In some cases, classic literature and bestsellers were written in very little time. All I can do is bow to these master storytellers.

Here are many of the books listed:

Fitzgerald’s classic took 2.5 years to write.

2.5 days: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne

6 days: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

3 weeks: A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

3 weeks: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

6 weeks: As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

2 months: Casino Royale by Ian Fleming

3 months: Twilight by Stephanie Meyer

8 months: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

9 months: Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

1 year: 1984 by George Orwell

1 year: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

1 year: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

1.5 years: The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling

1.5 years: David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

2 years: The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

2.5 years: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

2.5 years: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

3 years: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

4 years: The Time Travellers Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

5 years: A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

5 years: Lord of the Flies by William Golding

6 years: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

10 years: Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

10 years: A Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

12 years: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

16 years: Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tokien

That was fun. Now we better get back to work.

Erik Larson on Narrative Nonfiction

In recent years I’ve been a student of narrative nonfiction, with a focus on history. It’s what I love to read and what I’ve learned to write. In fact, while my two books published by St. Martin’s Press are in the sports/golf category, I also think of them as historical narrative nonfiction.

ErikLarson
Erik Larson.

Now I’m happily working on another nonfiction book that has nothing to do with golf or sports.

Bestselling author Erik Larson (Isaac’s Storm, The Devil in the White City, Dead Wake and other titles) is a master of historical narrative nonfiction, as are Laura Hillenbrand, Daniel James Brown and others.

Larson has shared a lot about his craft in interviews. This is my opportunity to preserve some of his wisdom where I can find it and hopefully guide others with similar interests.

On Story

In an interview with Creative Nonfiction, Larson said, “If the story doesn’t come alive for you, it’s not going to come alive for the readers.”

Larson’s agent David Black challenged the author to keep refining his proposal  for The Devil in the White City (eight drafts, to be exact) and “concentrate on what makes a powerful story.” A few of those nuggets, according to the author:

“Where is the conflict? Where is the suspense? We’re not talking about making things up; we’re talking about where the story is in real life. Who are your characters? Find the right characters and you’ll have your story.”

The characters don’t usually just show up. You have to look hard and, if you’re Larson, you dig deep in the archives, in places like the Library of Congress.

Chronology

Chronology is simple and powerful in nonfiction storytelling.

“The detailed chronology is my secret weapon,” Larson said. “Because chronological order is the key to any story. If you simply relate a historical event in chronological order, you have done much more than most historians do.”

Choose and organize your material well and also add some foreshadowing when possible.

‘A Viable Book Idea’

In an interview with The Rumpus, Larson discussed his criteria for settling on a book project. The following is paraphrased.

One, he has to be interested.

Two, it has to have a built-in, organic narrative engine, or arc. (Beginning, middle, end.)

Three: You can have a great narrative, but it also needs enough fine-grained personal detail to tell the story. For Larson, this means a deep, rich reservoir of primary materials–letters, diaries, artifacts and more, because that’s what makes the story come alive.

Lastly, find an idea that has barriers to entry, an approach Larson said he learned when he worked at the Wall Street Journal. In other words, an idea complex enough that no one will do the same book.

The Primary Goal

Larson wrapped up his Rumpus interview with a gem for anyone who writes about history.

“I always try to get across that my primary goal as a writer is not to inform, necessarily,” he said.

“My primary goal is to produce as rich a historical experience as I possibly can. So readers can sink into the past and feel like they’ve spent some time there. That they’ve lived another life, however briefly.”

Writers Gather for 10th Regional Conference

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Yours truly and Kim Leigh Martin on the blogging panel on opening night.

This past weekend was the 10th edition of the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference at Hollins University. I have been to most of them. Dan Smith is stepping down as director, but, as he told me in an email, he will still be on the scene when we gather at future conferences. That is good news.

Dan Smith.
Dan Smith.

Dan was honored on opening night for his vision and leadership. There wouldn’t be a Roanoke Regional Writers Conference without Dan. He felt the love. It even brought a tear to his eye.

“Dammit,” he said. The words got stuck in his throat.

The highly capable and affable Liz Long will take the reins from Dan.

Following are some of my notes and highlights from the conference.

In her class about how to make editors happy, Carol Alexander, editor of Shenandoah Living, encouraged careful listening in 2017–listening to clients (editors), to readers and to sources. She said, “Be a servant, not a diva.” She also said to expect corrections and make them cheerfully.

Author Rod Belcher had great anecdotes and tips during his session on science fiction and fantasy. “The biggest career skill is tenacity,” Rod said.

Cara Ellen Modisett led a class on travel writing and essays. “Chattanooga is travel for Chicago,” Cara said. She encouraged us to write about our hometowns. Personal writing (memoir and essay) is reporting on yourself. It’s a document of the individual mind at work and play.

Roland Lazenby had a slew of personal stories and observations during his session about not violating the trust of sources. “The deeper you dig,” Roland said, “the more you get to a truly human story.”

I also enjoyed sessions with Terry Maggert and Diane Fanning, and was sorry to miss others. Finally, I always love the conversations in the lobby and the hallways and at lunch, renewing acquaintances and making new ones.

I can’t wait until next year.

My Mail Goes to Greensboro

(My mail commentary appeared in the Roanoke Times last month.)

Mardi Gras revelers trek to New Orleans, cliff swallows return to San Juan Capistrano and my mail goes to Greensboro. By way of Roanoke. From my post office in Floyd (Virginia). That’s two cities and two states to send a letter within one town of 450 people that’s less than a square mile in area.

This doesn’t pose a significant problem, but it does make me grin. My mail might travel farther than some of those wintering birds, for all I know. I could probably deliver it myself, on foot, in 15 minutes.

I think about this as the holiday season commences and my local post office on East Main Street faces that annual avalanche of cards, letters and packages. There’s Wanda and Jack at the counter and the rest of the dependable personnel who provide mail service to my town and county. They’re helpful and steady. They don’t crack under seasonal pressure.

When I send a Christmas card to a friend in town, it will be put on a truck to Roanoke, and then put on what I expect is a bigger truck to Greensboro. The card will come back the same way, a round trip of about 270 miles. And then it will be delivered to a mail box less than a mile from where it started.

This isn’t new. The mail headed to Greensboro beginning in 2015 when the Rutherford Avenue processing center in Roanoke was consolidated with operations in North Carolina’s third-largest city. At that time, the Roanoke facility was one of 82 mail-processing centers in 37 states targeted for consolidation.

The Greensboro plan was designed to save money. The U.S. Postal Service saw a 25 percent decrease in mail volume since 2007. Annual revenue had dropped by $10 billion. Drastic measures were needed.

What makes smart business sense is odd for the customer, though. I’m still not used to seeing that Greensboro postmark on my mail.

This A to B via C and D routing would not work well for other things. For example, if a friend asked me to give him a ride in town, he would not appreciate a side trip to Roanoke, Greensboro, Roanoke and then to his destination in Floyd. That would be far too lengthy and flat out ridiculous.

The truth is, as long as I’ve lived here, my mail has gone to Roanoke. Yet I never gave it much thought. Shoot, I go to Roanoke. A lot of people in Floyd go to Roanoke, for one reason or another. It can be a regular trip.

But Greensboro? Not only is it two hours away, it’s in another state.

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against Greensboro. It’s a hospitable city. I’ve eaten good barbecue there. Obviously, my mail spends time there. I also want to stress that I appreciate the USPS. I value its long history and am amused by its personality and delivery quirks. I still depend on the mail.

So, during these holidays, with good cheer, I’ll bid farewell to cards mailed to folks in my little town. “Have a nice trip to the big cities. Hurry back! We’ll be waiting for you right here, in Floyd.”

A Thank You to My 2016 Clients

Many thanks to these clients and people who worked with me this year.

In alphabetical order:

Clearwater Paper (via Digital Kitchen)
Cornell University Law School (Kristen Burke)
Digital Kitchen (Karen Weber-Millstein and Angela Wittman)
Gorton Community Center (Heather Chamberlain)
Heritage University (David Wise)
Leisure Media 360 (Kurt Rheinheimer)
Oster Golf Houses (Rick Oster)
Puget Sound Bank (Brad Ogura)
RJD Creative (Bob Diercksmeier)
Roanoke Times
TKA (Thomas Koontz Architects)

Sagebiel Thanksgiving 2016

Our Thanksgiving, as described and photographed by Beth Sagebiel (my daughter).

El Sage Blog

My family began the tradition a couple of years ago of celebrating Christmas on Christmas Eve. It started out of logistical necessity – my grandparents used to live in California so we’d often fly out on Christmas Day to see them – but continued out of our growing appreciation for having the actual holiday to relax, do nothing, and enjoy our new presents.

This year we decided to apply the same principle to our Thanksgiving celebrations. So while all of you are undoubtedly fasting and putting on your most comfortable pair of jeans, the Sagebiels are sitting around the kitchen table eating Sally’s famous homemade cinnamon rolls and trying to recover from last night’s culinary event. (Actually, it’s just me eating. My dad is running, my mom’s doing dishes, and my sister is vegan.)

IMG_1699.JPG These are the cinnamon rolls. Seriously, how am I the only one eating these right now?

And don’t…

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‘SHOWBOAT: THE LIFE OF KOBE BRYANT’ By Roland Lazenby

8f35161680f5fe05cb87208bebf2964dOctober 25 was the publication day for SHOWBOAT: THE LIFE OF KOBE BRYANT (Little Brown and Company) by Roland Lazenby, the bestselling author of MICHAEL JORDAN: THE LIFE and numerous other basketball and sports books.

“With the publication of SHOWBOAT: THE LIFE OF KOBE BRYANT, it is high time we recognized author Roland Lazenby for what he has become: the finest sports biographer of our time,” said Peter Golenbock, author of 10 New York Times bestsellers. “First with the astonishing MICHAEL JORDAN: THE LIFE and now his having written an incredibly researched, beautifully written biography of this enigmatic Laker superstar, Lazenby has entered rarified air: one is wowed by what one learns and at the same time you can’t wait to read what comes next.”

That’s the highest praise from someone who knows the genre and the craft. And other stellar reviews are rolling in.

I’ve read Roland’s biographies of Michael Jordan and Jerry West. They’re excellent. As I’ve said before, Roland digs, reports and provides rich context and revelations about these complex sports icons, weaving it all together in a page-turning narrative. What more can I say?

I’m very much looking forward to reading SHOWBOAT.

In addition, I know Roland as someone in our region who is wonderfully generous when it comes to mentoring and encouraging writers and authors. I’ve seen and experienced it firsthand. We are lucky to have him.