Books Take Time

by Dianne Van Dien

Books—good books—rarely come together overnight. In the words of University of Utah Press author Jerry Spangler, “The best books reflect a passion years in the making.”

In the recent survey I sent to the press’s authors, I included several questions under the heading “How long did it take?” I wanted to find out how long authors spent on different phases of the book process. While I thought my questions were straightforward (and on the surface maybe they were), answering these questions turned out to be quite complicated. For many authors, nailing down the precise amount of time spent on certain facets of writing was impossible because their process did not follow a formula of (1) decide to write a book, (2) develop the book concept, (3) do the research, (4) write the book. All the authors did these things, of course. They just didn’t do them in such a cut-and-dried order.

Let’s take a look at what some of the authors said.

How long from when you first decided to write the book until you finished your first draft? For this question, most authors provided an estimate, with answers ranging from one year to twenty years. The most frequent answer (from six of twenty authors) was five years; the average was 5.8 years. Note that some authors’ books incorporated writing and/or research that had been done before they decided to write a book.

These two responses explain why answering this seemingly simple question can be complicated:

Jerry Spangler, Nine Mile Canyon and others

This question presupposes that I always intended to write a book. And maybe I did, but the decision to actually sit down and write the book varied immensely. The first book, Nine Mile Canyon, was comparatively easy because I was synthesizing twenty years of field work and research. The Crimson Cowboys was the most complicated, involving repeated trips to the Peabody Museum at Harvard, multiple backcountry trips to retrace the routes, etc. It took more than five years to complete the baseline research before I even started writing. Last Chance Byway was the quickest (about two years).

Corinne Heyning Laverty, North America’s Galapagos

That depends on what constitutes a first draft. I had the basic outline done after about twelve months, but then I fleshed the story out with additional research, including delving into “how and when North America was first populated.” Thus, the book evolved in layers, with each layer being a kind of first draft. These were the layers: (1) the basic who went where, when, and what did they find, (2) character development, (3) archaeological story, (4) insertion of materials gleaned from scientific papers that resulted from the Channel Island surveys, (5) museum context. To put all that together took about six years.

How long did you spend conceptualizing the book before you started?

Only half the authors tried to quantify this. Their answers ranged from a few months to thirteen years.

Cover image for Wonders of Sand and Stone. A starry night time sky against an arch.

Frederick H. Swanson, Wonders of Sand and Stone

This book grew out of an adult education class I taught at the University of Utah’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute on the history of Utah’s national parks and monuments. After teaching these classes, I realized I had amassed enough notes and research material to begin a book. In checking bibliographic sources I was surprised to find that there were no overall histories of Utah’s national park lands, so it appeared I had a project.

Cover image for Immortal for Quite Some Time. A clock face with the numbers 12, 3, 6, and 9 showing.

Scott Abbott, Immortal for Quite Some Time

I began writing Immortal For Quite Some Time in 1991 after my brother John died of causes related to AIDS, but I had no sense at that time that I was writing a book. Rather, I saw my writing as a form of “fraternal meditation.” I wanted to know John better, wanted to remember him well, wanted to learn from his life. At some point, four or five or six years later, I first thought maybe I had material that could be fashioned into a book.

Melissa Darby, Thunder Go North

It grew organically. At first I was exploring the ethnographic similarities between Native groups on the Oregon coast and the people Sir Francis Drake encountered when they landed in their ‘fair bay’. When I found that the archaeologist Zelia Nuttall had theorized Drake was farther north than San Francisco, I decided to write up a historiography of the question. It was through that research that I discovered that Nuttall had been shunned and her work sidelined by the White male historical establishment. I looked closer at the discovery of the Plate of Brass and the man who authenticated it as an artifact from Drake’s sojourn on the coast, and pretty soon became highly suspicious that Bolton himself had created the Plate of Brass. I remember thinking that no one else will look into this, it fell into my lap, and I had to pursue that lead as far as it went, even if it came to nothing. It did come to something; I busted a hoax and a hoaxer. Once that was finished, the book concept became whole.

How long did you spend researching material before you started writing? Or did you research and write simultaneously?  

Theodore Manno, The Utah Prairie Dog

Prairie dogs were studied in Bryce Canyon National Park by professor John Hoogland (author of the foreword) for over a decade of springs and summers, and I was his assistant for two of those field seasons (2004, 2005). While building further expertise, I wrote peer-reviewed articles and conducted other documentary research on prairie dogs sporadically over the next eight to nine years before the book was published.

Cover image for The Spiral Jetty Encyclo. An aerial image of the land art piece known as the spiral jetty jutting out into the Great Salt Lake.

Hikmet Sidney Loe, The Spiral Jetty Encyclo

Research for what would become my book began when I undertook research for my master’s thesis in art history in 1995. I did that research for a year, then never really stopped. The Spiral Jetty Encyclo was published in 2017.

Cover image for Frank J. Cannon. A portrait image of Cannon. The Utah state capital behind him.

Val Holley, Frank J. Cannon

I always research and write simultaneously, but I don’t think I could assemble entire chapters until I completed three to four years of research.

Laurie J. Bryant, A Modest Homestead

I researched and wrote simultaneously. Then went back and did more research, visited as many of the homes I was writing about as I could, and with every discovery was stimulated to dig deeper into a home’s history, design, and builders and owners.

Cover image for Giant Sloths and Sabertooth Cats. A close up image of fur.

Donald Grayson, Giant Sloths and Sabertooth Cats

I have worked in the Great Basin, and on extinct Ice Age mammals, for my decades-long career, and it took those decades to develop the concepts, and sufficient knowledge, to think of writing this book. The answer to the second question here—about researching and writing simultaneously—is a decided “no.” I have never done that and couldn’t if I tried. For all of my work, whether an article for a scientific journal, a popular article, or a book, I start with an idea or a set of ideas, or a question or set of questions. Then, I do all the research and spend a lot of time—months and months—thinking about what I want to say and how I want to say it. For an article, by the time I start writing, the whole thing is in my head and writing goes quickly. For a book, the chapters, and outlines of those chapters, are in my head before I start writing. By the time I start writing the first chapter, that whole chapter is in my head, waiting to come out. Ditto for the next chapter and the chapter after that. For a book, I write everything in the order in which it ultimately appears, except for the introduction, which I always write last.

How many hours do you estimate you spent writing the book?

Three authors estimated 2000 to 3000 hours, but most said something like “impossible to quantify” or simply “thousands!” To get perspective on what thousands of hours looks like, compare it to the number of hours you work each year if you work a typical 40-hour work week: 2080 hours (if you don’t take any holidays or vacation time).

How does one make time for thousands of hours of book writing, especially while working and/or dealing with other life priorities? That will be the topic of our next installment!

Dianne Van Dien began working for the University of Utah Press (UUP) in 2010 as a graduate fellow while earning a MS in Environmental Humanities. Later she shifted to her current role as UUP’s freelance marketing associate. She lives in rural Missouri, from where she also writes and edits for the Missouri Department of Conservation.

1 Comment
  • Da Quanisha
    Posted at 12:07h, 25 January Reply

    This was so inspirational! One day I’d like to write a book. As a graduate student, it is reassuring to see that book writing can be organic, structured, or the product of the years of research.

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