While griping about never getting anything done and how all my creative efforts are for naught, my brother Daniel says, “Well, you’re on your fourth book, so you are getting stuff done.”
I nearly spit out my tea, but manage to sputter, “Wait, what? Fourth book?!”
He looks at me like I’m dense. “Yeah, there was that book you wrote for the Dark Crystal contest, which totally counts. There’s Courting the Moon, and then there’s Ravens and Roses. Even if that isn’t quite fully finished yet it’s, like, 98% done, and now you’re working on a fourth. Give yourself some credit.”
I’m stunned by this revelation. “Wow, what a great way to reframe that. Thank you!”
Of course then I got to thinking…
How long does it take to write a book?
The answer is… well, it depends. It took J.D. Salinger ten years to write The Catcher in the Rye (which is not a very long work at all). One of my favorite authors, C.S. Friedman, spent six years writing The Magister Trilogy. That’s roughly two years per book and seems to be about the average time between installments for most writers. Then you have John Scalzi, who wrote a book in two weeks (although he does NOT recommend it!) But what does it really mean when a writer says that they took X-amount of time to write a book? What does that entail? What is included under the phrase “writing a book”?
Does it include…
. . . just the first draft?
. . . the time spent editing?
. . . the numerous following drafts and their rewrites (and if so, how many)?
. . . the span of time between idea and execution?
. . . research?
. . . when the project sits idle while the writer deals with life or tries to regain inspiration?
. . . after the writer hands off the manuscript to the publisher until it reaches bookstores?
Now, I know that I shouldn’t really be trying to compare my output (or lack thereof) to other authors. After all, everyone is in different circumstances. Some writers work at their craft full time, others have to squeeze it in between job and family. Some work at a steady rate while others go through fits and starts. Some spend a lot of time thinking about the story and get it ready in their head so when they sit down to write it, it comes out relatively easily. Others start with only a vague idea (or no idea at all) and just go where the story takes them, promising to “fix it in post.” There’s infinite reasons why a writer does or does not get their books done in a certain amount of time. There is no magic number of days or words or pages that will magically give you “a novel,” especially when each project is different.
- I’ve “written a book” in 3 months. That took a month of planning and outlining, followed by two months of frantic writing and a single brief editing run-through.
- I’ve “written a book” in 18 months. This one went through a month of outlining, a year of writing the prose, and another five months editing and polishing it to a final draft form ready to submit to agents and publishers.
- I’ve “been writing a book” for anywhere from 9 to 13 years. If you include the four-year span between the conception of the idea and actually getting it to the prose, then it’s thirteen. After about three years of solid writing, the project has sat around gathering dust while I give it the occasional poke to make sure it’s still alive. If you include all that idle time between the end of the writing spree and now, it would still be nine years. And even after all of that, the manuscript still isn’t complete.
In the end, “How long does it take to write a novel?” is one of those questions that will drive you crazy if you mull it over for too long. There are too many factors at play, too many forces at work, both internal and external. There is no “right way” or “right amount of time” to write a novel, and it’s much better to focus on quality than quantity.
That being said… with the number of projects waiting in the wings, it would be really great if I could crank out a finished novel every two years! ^_^;; Guess that means I should get back to work.