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November, mostly known to Americans as That Time When the Family Gets Together at the End of the Month to Awkwardly Eat Lots of Food Revolving around a Mythical (and Most Likely Inaccurate) Meeting of Two Cultures, is also a season for writers. Yes, you're correct: along with raising awareness for not shaving, banana pudding lovers, and sweet potatoes, November is National Novel Writing Month.
Interested in writing a 50,000-word novel and you're intimidated by the time limit? You're not alone. Thousands will join you in the pursuit and feel as though their fingers cannot chitter-chatter at the keyboard quickly enough. It's nerve rending.
Unless, of course, you regard those writers among us that take a helluva long time on their work. With your permission, I'm going to explore some of the leisureliest (yep, that's a word) writers that decided to grace the page, either by pen or typing contraption.
Let's begin. Permission granted?
5. Alistair MacLeod – No Great Mischief – 13 Years
"I take a lot of time thinking about what I’m writing," MacLeod said about his work in a New York Times review of his life. "And so I say to myself, ‘Well, now this has to happen,’ and I make little notes to myself." This mindset truly fits for the man who would famously say he would only churn out a novel every 60 years. No Great Mischief, published in 1999, is a Nova Scotian, multigenerational, literary exploration of an orthodontist, his alcoholic brother, and their family—all which took MacLeod 13 summers to complete. That said, summer was the only season of the year this notable professor emeritus of English left to writing. As The New York Times put it, he was "a novelist in no hurry." MacLeod passed away earlier this year, leaving behind a glowing reputation and a story that was the product of a, shall we say, relaxed writing process.
4. J.R.R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings – 16 Years
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was a Lord of the Backstory—the immense time he spent on his 481,103-word genre-defining epic essentially proves that. Over the many years it took to write, edit, and publish the book, Tolkien compiled his manuscripts with revisions and scraps of small details, including sketches, maps, whole languages, and so on. According to Philip Marten at Blue Zoo Writers, Tolkien even "charted the separate travels of groups of characters, and wondered if he had gotten it all right, so that the phase of the moon that one party was looking at on a given night was the same as that which another party saw elsewhere on the same night."
Feel confident you can write 50,000 words in a month yet?
3. Michael Crichton – Sphere – 20 Years
Over one fifth of a century, Mr. Crichton embarked on an underwater sci-fi thriller that's vaguely the mash-up of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Published in 1987, the novel was originally supposed to be a companion piece to Crichton's 1967 breakout bestseller, The Andromeda Strain. As Crichton put it in his interview with the Chicago Tribune, "I didn't know where to go with it." That I-didn't-know-where-to-go factor led Mr. Crichton astray on his geometric oddball for two decades. Though let's give him credit: he did write nine books between 1967 and 1980.
Hmm, that might not be encouraging to you. Buckle up. We're taking a converted Jeep into a primordial land full of books that were years (and I mean YEARS) in the making.
WARNING: THE FINAL TWO WRITERS ON THIS LIST WILL MAKE YOU FEEL VERY CONFIDENT ABOUT PENNING A SIGNIFICANT AMOUNT OF WORDS IN 30 DAYS' TIME. PLEASE BE ADVISED.
2. Helen Hooven Santmyer – …And Ladies of the Club – 50 Years
Santmyer is the legendary writer who famously penned her historical fiction across the span of 11 boxes of ledgers and 50 years. She claimed that much of the "hoopla" over the 1982 book was that she was so darn old on its publication. Now it's the quintessential "Holy crap! 50 years is half a century, Helen!" novel that warms writers' hearts, knowing that even in the eclipse of their lives, they might still push out that American Reconstruction classic about proto-suffragettes who start a literary club and invariably investigate the complexities of small town life.
Which is, you know, what …And Ladies of the Club is all about.
1. Patrick Leigh Fermor – The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos – 78 Years
What constitutes the act of writing? Some might venture to say that the planning stage of a book is very much part of a writer's, um, writing process. Based on this assumption, our friend, Sir Patrick Michael Leigh Fermor, lovingly known as Paddy Fermor, took nearly 80 years to write the third volume accounting his yearlong trek across Europe.
In 1933, our bloke Paddy, after being expelled from The King's College for handholding with a girl, decided he would venture from Holland to Turkey. Housed by shepherds and aristocrats alike along the way, Fermor kept several diaries of his experience. His first was stolen in a German hostel. Others diaries were lost in his time as an officer during World War II. From his material, he did publish a 1962 article ("The Pleasures of Walking") and the first two volumes of his masterwork (respectively A Time of Gifts in 1977 and Between the Woods and the Water in 1986). Yet, the ill-conceived third volume, which started in 1964 as a 5,000-word essay titled "A Youthful Journey," was good ol' Paddy's bane. According to The Telegraph, it indicated "a writer's block that dogged him for the rest of his life."
Only in 2008 did Fermor begin again the final account of his 1933 trip towards what was then Constantinople. However, in 2011 at the age of 96, Paddy Fermor passed away. His literary executors prepared and published The Broken Road earlier this year.
It was still incomplete.
My Grand Conclusion
I do not admonish writers for taking their time in gathering the pages of their manuscripts. Keep in mind that the books on this list have won dozens of awards as well as general acclaim for their mastery of language and humanity.
But if you're aiming to whip out a frenzied novel in four weeks, every little feeling of optimism helps. Happy writing! And happy banana pudding eating!
Alex Grover (@AlexPGrover) writes in New York. He does not shave in November.