Character Development, Oldsters, Self-Publishing, The Writing Life

What I learned from Steinbeck

I always marvel at the speed with which writers seem to churn out books these days. Of course, most of these are self-published, so the only obstacles are those you put in front of yourself. But even some well-known authors in traditional publishing houses seem to write so – well so fast, and I wonder why such a race to the finish line?

Of course, I’m sure generating revenue is at the top of that list. Especially for those writers who have gained enough critical acclaim to keep them hungry for more. The leg up they have though, is a team behind them, including editors who make sure the words are in the right order and the story makes sense. Unfortunately, I’ve seen some self-published writers eschew either the editing process altogether or depend only on themselves in that role. The result isn’t always pretty.


I started to wonder how long it took some of our favorite authors to grind out the classics that have been read over the past hundred years or so. I myself am a slow writer, and I like that about my method. I can ruminate about a chapter for days and think it through multiple ways before actually putting it down on paper. Or I may write it long-hand in a notebook during lunch to see what it looks like on the page, making sure all the individual scenes are in order, that my characters belong there, that the dialogue seems alive and that it fits between what just came, and what’s up next. Most of the time, this works for me – because once I’ve put it into my computer, in its place within the manuscript – it normally fits perfectly and I don’t do a lot of second guessing.

Of course, the only deadline I have is self-imposed and I also work a full-time day job and a 17-year-old daughter, who believe it or not still requires my attention. I’m not in a race to get the book published, I just want to be 100% proud when it’s done.

Recently I read East of Eden, by John Steinbeck. Parallel to that, I read Journal of a Novel, The East of Eden Letters. I wanted to see how he worked, and these letters he wrote every day to his editor and friend Pascal Covici gave me the insight I was looking for. Mind you, this was the book Steinbeck considered Of Mice and Men, and The Grapes of Wrath just practice for the story he’d always intended on writing. I would guess that of the three, Eden is the least read. Sad, because now that I’ve read all three, and as much as I loved M&M, Eden is easily now my favorite.

Every day before he sat down to write Eden, he’d use the left-hand side of his notebook to write a letter to Covici. I’d say about two-thirds of them spoke to where he was in the book, the problems he was having, how he intended people to think about the book. The other third had to do with his life – problems he was having with his son, parties he and his wife attended and his never-ending projects (usually painting or building things).

Steinbeck wrote 27 books – 16 novels, six non-fiction and five collections of short stories. He set out to write a first draft of Eden in about a year, and he succeeded. He missed very few days, although he wrote of procrastination frequently. Maybe just writing through it, and calling it by name, prevented the problem from taking real form.

What did I learn? Mostly, I recognized the same thing I recognize in other writers, including myself: he believed in his story, he sometimes doubted his own ability to make that story come alive, and despite the fact that he knew that critics and readers may not understand his reasoning for the particular endeavor, he craved their enjoyment of it. Over and over, he told his editor he didn’t care how long it took him to write the book, he could not worry about deadlines – the story had to be crafted in excellence. There wasn’t another choice.

How would Steinbeck work in today’s sonic-speed environment? I don’t think he’d change one bit. And that’s the lesson I was hoping to find. I don’t want to be someone whose goal is just to say I published a book. I do understand that desire, but maybe it’s because I use to be a journalist, and I’ve had my name published – so I’ve already accomplished that. The truth is anyone can be published today, and that’s a real step forward in technology. But the down side is that it’s harder to sift through what’s out there to find a gem. I want to be that gem, and I will write and re-write, edit and edit again, until my characters finally scream at me and say “let us go!” That day is coming sooner than it was a day ago – and it will be closer tomorrow than it is today. But who’s counting?

write on…

1 thought on “What I learned from Steinbeck”


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s