Next Question, Please, a guest post by Pete Hautman
At nearly every school visit some kid will ask me, “How long does it take to write a book?”
It’s a fair question. In middle school I’d have asked the same thing. But, for me, it’s a tough question to answer. I could tell them I wrote the first draft of INVISIBLE (2005) in five weeks. Or that SWEETBLOOD (2003) took me twenty-five years to finish. Of course, neither of those things are 100% true. SWEETBLOOD sat in a drawer, on and off, for most of that quarter century, and INVISIBLE went through several additional drafts over a one year period.
To really talk about how long it takes to write a book, one must decide what “writing” is, and when the process begins. The origin of my latest book, THE RAT QUEEN, occurred when I was eight years old, not long after reaching what the Roman Catholic Church calls “the age of reason.” It was a recurring nightmare from my childhood:
I am in a house with many bedrooms—more bedrooms than the house I actually lived in. In one of those bedrooms is a Very Bad Thing. A foul, shameful, monstrous, disgusting, sinful, unforgivable Thing, and I am responsible for it being there, and I can’t remember what it is.
It terrifies me, but I am drawn to it. Something compels me to open the door, and—
—and I wake up screaming.
How many times did I have that dream? I don’t recall, but it was many. And it stuck with me. Was that writing? It was a story, of sorts, and a product of my imagination. But it was writing only in the sense that finding a nickel in your pocket is shopping.
Decades later I was still remembering and trying to understand that dream. I never found out what exactly was in that room, or if I did, I’ve repressed that memory. But I knew the feeling of it, the horror and shame and humiliation it represented. I’ve come to believe the Thing was every awful thing I had ever done or thought. My own Original Sin.*
Two millennia ago, the Roman poet Ovid advised, “Be patient and tough; someday this pain will be useful to you.” I carried that dream for years like a pebble in my shoe. I sensed that one day I would build a story around it, but what sort of story would it be? An anecdote to tell at parties? A poem? A song? An autobiographical essay? It wasn’t until about ten years ago that I began to imagine it as a novel—but what sort of novel? My first thought was that it would be a horror novel, a genre I had never explored.
I began to dream up characters, situations, scenes. I had no words yet, just ideas. Things to think about at night as I drifted toward sleep. The story formed, foggily, then began to change. The eight-year-old who was originally at the center of the book, became ten-year-old Annike. Three-year-old Sammy became five-year-old Arthur. Formless, invisible entities became Rodents of Unusual Size. Litvania, a mouse-shaped country so tiny and obscure that it is omitted from most maps and globes, moved from the Pyrenees to the Baltics, and its king became a queen. Several fairy tales crept into the narrative.** And the scary bedroom morphed into a locked basement containing…well, I won’t spoil the surprise.
But was I writing? I say, Yes! Every writer is different. Some begin with the words themselves, their imagination powered by keystrokes, or the sound of a quill pen dragging across a sheet of parchment. My process is to live in a story for quite a while, sometimes years, before turning it into words. Frank Lloyd Wright once claimed that he had to imagine a building in every detail before allowing himself to touch pencil to paper, because once the architect draws a single line they are constrained. That can be true of writing as well. The first sentence one writes is like setting the first fencepost—everything follows from that, even if that first line is later deleted.
Six years ago, when I finally began putting words on paper, THE RAT QUEEN had evolved into something that was not the horror story I had intended, although there were certainly horrific elements. It became more of a fantasy, a fairy tale, a confession by proxy. Also, I hope, an adventure, a mystery, and what Graham Greene might call “an entertainment”—because if a story fails to entertain it will not be read.
So…how long does it take to write a book? Six years? Sixty years? Kid, I got no idea. Ask me something else. Next!
*These days I am no longer a practicing Roman Catholic, but I am Catholic nonetheless
**My favorite part was researching and writing the fairy tales. I wrote about twenty original tales. Only nine of them made it into the book. I enjoyed writing them so much that, briefly, I considered making the entire book a series of fairy tales.
Meet the author
Pete Hautman is the author of more than thirty novels for adult, teen, and middle-grade readers, including the 2004 National Book Award winner Godless, 2011 Los Angeles Times Book Prize winner The Big Crunch, and 2019 Edgar Allan Poe Award winner Otherwood. He has written three New York Times Notable Books and won four Minnesota Book Awards.
His novels genre-hop from science fiction (The Obsidian Blade) to mystery (Blank Confession) to contemporary drama (Godless) to romantic comedy (What Boys Really Want). Recent books include the middle-grade novels Slider and The Rat Queen.
With novelist and poet Mary Logue, Pete divides his time between Golden Valley, Minnesota, and Stockholm, Wisconsin.
Learn more about Pete Hautman on his website: www.petehautman.com , his blog http://petehautman.blogspot.com Follow him on https://twitter.com/petehautman and https://www.facebook.com/Pete-Hautman-187947704574606
About The Rat Queen
From National Book Award winner Pete Hautman comes a mysterious modern-day fairy tale about developing a moral compass—and the slippery nature of conscience.
For Annie’s tenth birthday, her papa gives her a pad of paper, some colored pencils, and the Klimas family secret. It’s called the nuodeema burna, or eater of sins. Every time Annie misbehaves, she has to write down her transgression and stick the paper into a hidey-hole in the floor of their house. But Annie’s inheritance has a dark side: with each paper fed to the burna, she feels less guilty about the mean things she says and does. As a plague of rats threatens her small suburban town and the mystery of her birthright grows, Annie—caught in a cycle of purging her misdeeds—begins to stop growing. It is only when she travels to her family’s home country of Litvania to learn more about the burna that Annie uncovers the magnitude of the truth. Gripping and emotionally complex, Pete Hautman’s inventive yarn for middle-grade readers draws on magical realism to explore coming of age and the path to moral responsibility.
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Publication date: 10/11/2022
Age Range: 9 – 12 Years
Filed under: Guest Post
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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