blog about reviews writing

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

English Teachers Actually Don't Put More Thought Into A Novel Than The Author

Today I'm going to share something that bothers me.  It's something I've seen and heard before, both in school and on the internet.  And it is so blatantly and obviously wrong that I don't know how people even got this idea.  I am going to prove it wrong.  Here it is: 

Let's take a moment to calculate how long it takes to write a book.
Planning time: 5 hours
First draft: 75 hours (75,000 words, 1000 words per hour)
Revision: 25 hours (calculated in an non-mathematical way called estimating)
If that were the case, it would take an author 105 hours to complete a novel, from start to finish.
Okay, who am I kidding?  Some days, I can't pull off 500 words in an hour.  And I think I spent much more than 25 hours revising.  Also, the planning time doesn't take into account all those showers spent thinking about the story, those random daydreaming of the story moments throughout my daily life.  The planning time also doesn't account for time spent staring at the blank screen, deleting half your day's progress and starting again, etc.  It's impossible to quantify the amount of time an author spends on a novel, as a novel is part of the writer's being and sense of self, and you can't measure that in minutes or hours, or even years.
105 hours is a very, very low estimate.
Still, let's go with it.  In order for this "teenager post" (what does that even mean?) to be true, a teacher would have had to spend more time on this book than the author.
Show me a teacher who spent more 105 hours (that's almost nine twelve-hour days, by the way) thinking about/working on a book, and then we'll talk.  If you can't, get out. 
So where did this idea come from, then? 
I understand the frustration that some students feel while analyzing a book.  It's not a frustration that I share, actually, but I can see where it comes from.  They feel like a teacher is reading way too much meaning into a seemingly insignificant turn of phrase or event in a novel.  They feel that, by analyzing it, it's being blown way out of proportion. 
A common example is something like this.  What the teacher thinks the author meant: "The blue curtains symbolize the main character's deep and underlying depression.  They stand for the heartbreak that this character has gone through, and foreshadow future calamity, etc."  What the author actually meant: "The curtains were blue."
While it's quite possible that the author didn't intentionally add all this subtext, writers don't write meaningless things into their novels.  When I write, and say, for example, that someone's bedspread has red and white stripes, I don't necessarily mean anything deep by it.  But I don't do it randomly, either.  For whatever reason, I thought this character was the type of person who would have this kind of bedspread. 

The number of words an author can use to write their novel is not infinite.  At first glance, you'd think we could take up as many words as we want to write our books.  In truth, though, few people want to read 1,000-page novels.  We can use as many words as we want up to the point of boring the reader, and sometimes it seems like this point is actually quite low. 

Because of our limited word count, writers can't afford to add random things that don't add anything to the story.  Every word has to do its duty; none can be in the story without good reason.  And when everything that's there is there for a purpose, everything has meaning.  It may not be a deep, philosophical meaning, but it is still meaning nonetheless. 

This is why I can't stand this "English teachers put more thought into a novel than the author" idea.  Because, for one, it isn't true.  It also shows an obvious misunderstanding of how a novel is created, which saddens me.  Novels aren't something that you can just throw together. 

Writers, next time you hear someone say this, you need to tell them the truth.  Explain the number of hours that go into writing a novel.  Enlighten them.  Prove them wrong.    

Side note: Please don't actually point swords at people.  It's considered rude in most cultures.
PS: If you want to hear more about this topic from an actual published (and bestselling) author, Maggie Stiefvater blogged about it today.  So it's not just me.

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  1. True. Very true. I just spent a month rewriting the first draft of my novel. And this second draft still needs a month before I can even look at it again. But I'm still editing it in my head. :D

    1. Good luck with your editing! I hope it goes well.


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