Is it OK to take a long time? Yes. Writing a book is like a lasting friendship. If you don’t abandon it and periodically give it “quality time” your book will become stronger.
Over an extended period of time, you evolve, both as a writer and as a person. Writing itself makes you more skilled as an author. Not only should you consciously attempt to learn the craft, you will inevitably develop a greater sense of command and strengthen your voice. And, assuming you grow wiser as you age, your point of view toward your subject will shift, too.
What are the negative consequences to writing a book over a long period of time?
Developing greater knowledge, skill and style as a writer is good, but over time, because you evolve, the result can be an uneven draft. The later chapters are likely to be much better written than those at the beginning. You may simply forget what came before, or what you intended to write, resulting in factual and story line inconsistencies. Sometimes it seems the book was written by different authors!
How can I benefit from taking more time, and do this right?
If you are working in fiction, you will grow more comfortable with your tools: characters, setting, and action. As your skills and style evolve, you can imagine ways to improve every aspect of the book. These are all variables, and a change in the plot can mean a change in the dialog of your characters. And if you change one scene, other scenes may need to change as a result.
In nonfiction, in addition to the craft of writing, your knowledge of the subject matter is likely to change. Most people don’t stop their research, and they continue to discover new information to incorporate into the book. This new knowledge should bolster the content, and clarify some of the speculation and generalizations common to early nonfiction drafts.
Should I go back to the beginning each time I’m away for a while?
Rereading, and revising as you go along, can feel like a way of reconnecting with the material. Yes, you should reread, but only as much as you need to answer the question, “What do I do next?”
There are good reasons not to revise when you reread. We often see manuscripts where beginning of the book is painfully overworked. It has been tweaked to the point of inconsistency, and it doesn’t connect well with the more natural style of the rest of the book. The solution? Make a note in a separate document of the problems you see when you review the parts already written, and resolve to fix them later, along with everything else, once you’re done with the draft.
What if I never revisit my earlier material, and resume writing where I left off?
Picking up where you left off saves time. After all, the goal is to get the draft finished. Writers who have a regular, disciplined schedule seem to be able to keep it all in their mind from session to session, and resume writing the content and style seamlessly. Yet after a time away, some review is necessary. Your earlier writing is a model of your style, and rereading can be a helpful reminder.
Even better: make a habit of leaving notes for yourself, at the end of each session, to review when you resume the project. This provides continuity, and can be a helpful shortcut rather than rereading the draft text itself.
How can I make my pieced-together book cohesive?
With a full draft in hand you can finally revise or rewrite where necessary to create a uniform style throughout. Insert “patches” of new material, and cut repetitions and digressions so the story flows easily from beginning to end.
This is the one time in the course of writing a book that you don’t want to walk away for too long. Revise with one mind, one style, in one time frame. Tackle it all at once, and you’ll be consistent. If you have to, rewrite those passages that reveal your earlier, less knowledgeable self, to bring them up to your current style. Your editor can help, identifying which parts need revision, and which you may need to rewrite.
It can be challenging to get started again after a long time away. This often has to do with your attitude, so don’t feel guilty – your book, like an old friend, will always be happy to have you back! Let go of any unrealistic expectations about deadlines and remember how much you enjoyed the project before. Your “quality time” will be better spent.