How Long Should a Novel Take to Write?

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It’s another chapter in the “How long should…” series of blog posts. I saw this question on a writing forum and immediately thought, “Should, could, would…” It’s the kind of question that someone who has never written a novel tends to ask and makes me think they want to get in and get out as quickly as possible. Boy, are they going to be shocked when they realise that’s almost impossible.

In almost every one of the “How long should…” series, I bring up the piece of string and then go into guidelines that might help somehow. But that’s unlikely when we’re talking about how long it should take to write a novel. Because it’s not like roasting a chicken or completing a school year or watching a movie, all of which will come to an end within a reasonably predictable time frame.

But here are a few things to consider about the sort of commitment it takes.

Examples of Books That Were Written Quickly
If everything to do with writing was logical, then it would make sense that the longer a book takes to write, the better it would be. But writing is more likely to be head-scratchingly frustrating than logical. I can’t comment on the quality of these quickly-written books as I haven’t read them but they are generally considered classics or classics in the making.

On the Road by Jack Kerouac was written in three weeks, although perhaps it’s more accurate to say that it was typed in three weeks. It was preceded by three years of road trips that inspired the story, copious notebooks full of research, several abandoned versions of the novel and a two-page manifesto on “The Essentials of Spontaneous Prose”. The book was then written single-spaced on one long roll of paper without paragraph breaks or any consideration of grammatical correctness. It makes sense that breaking most of the rules most other writers have to follow would really speed up the process.

John Boyne took an entirely different approach when writing The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas in just two-and-a-half days. He did no research, no planning, nothing. He just wrote. He barely slept. Except that’s not the full story either. After that first manuscript was submitted to the publisher, there were “a good seven or eight drafts” and “a lot of rewriting”. So why aren’t those months of additional work included when we talk about how long it took to write? I guess it ruins the mythology.

The Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo took just two weeks to write and the author explained that was partially because the story was already in his soul. I think it was also partially because at 45,000 words, the book is closer to a novella than a novel.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark took one month to write, the main character of which is a fictionalised version of one of the author’s teachers. I think I’m starting to see a pattern in which novels written quickly cut corners in some way – by doing huge amounts of research over many years before writing, by conveniently ignoring the huge amounts of rewriting and editing that need to be done afterwards, by writing significantly fewer words than a standard novel generally requires to earn the title, and by co-opting the lives of other people and thinly veiling them in order not to have to create them from scratch, a process that can take some time.

Examples of Books That Were Written Slowly
The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien took twelve years to write, Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell took ten years and Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton took eight years and all of this makes sense to me – creating entirely new worlds, sweeping historical sagas and minute scientific details.

The story of the writing of The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger is somewhat similar to the story of On the Road. The characters appeared in earlier shorter pieces. A previous version of the book was submitted and withdrawn. The difference is that Salinger admits that the novel took ten years to write. So all those things that were conveniently overlooked in the mythology of the quickly-written books were admitted to in this case. Still, the length of time it took to write this book shocked me. I’ve read The Catcher in the Rye and it’s one of only two books I’ve ever given 1 star in a review and that was only because the Goodreads rating system wouldn’t let me give it no stars. Which just goes to show that tinkering with a book for years and years doesn’t always correlate with it being good.

How Long It Takes Me
I did some quick calculations on how long it takes me to produce a book:

*Enemies Closer, my debut novel, took about four years to write but I was completing a master’s degree and working a full-time job at the same time.
*Black Spot, my upcoming novel, took six months to write the first draft and even though I’ve yet to publish it, it’s substantially the same. Still, I’ve spent more than two years doing minor rewrites and polishing it – not consecutively but a month here and a month there as I take the months in between to refresh and reconsider.
*Trine, which I still haven’t finished yet, has so far taken me more than three years and I’m hoping to have the final 20,000 words written in the next year.
*Project December: A Book About Writing and Project January: A Sequel About Writing both took about six months.

From what I can tell, six months is about the time it takes me to write a first draft – as long as I’m not working a full-time job or getting distracted by other writing – and then the next six months is consumed by rewrites and editing and publishing and marketing. So it ends up being roughly one book every year.

This is partially due to Project October. If you’ve read Project December: A Book About Writing, you’ll know it’s an intensive writing month I undertake, usually in October, with a target of 30,000 words. More recently, though, I’ve been trying to do it twice a year. Last year, I did it twice, although once in April and once in November because I was working in October and it just didn’t happen. If you want some suggestions on intensive writing, the Project October chapter in Project December can help you out.

NaNoWriMo
If you’re looking for an even more intensive writing process with plenty of help and support, NaNoWriMo might be for you. A contraction of National Novel Writing Month, it takes place every year in November and the challenge is to write 50,000 words over thirty days, either a short novel or the first 50,000 words of a longer one. Planning and extensive notes are permitted prior to November to enable writers to achieve the average of 1,667 words per day and the focus is on length, not quality.

I’ve never done it myself – I don’t like working to other people’s arbitrary deadlines, only my own, and writing is an intensely private and solitary journey for me – but there are hundreds of thousands of people who have undertaken it. Wool by Hugh Howey was a NaNoWriMo novel, as was Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen.

The Verdict
Ultimately, it takes as long as it takes to write a novel. If you’re working a full-time job, raising a family, generally having a life, then that will impact the amount of time that can be devoted to writing. If you write slowly or quickly, then that will impact the length of time before the novel is finished. If you’ve done all your research, you might be able to write quickly. If you haven’t done any research, then doing it along the way will likely take longer. There is no single answer to the question of how long it takes to write a novel.

And it shouldn’t really matter. If you want to write a book, then surely it’s more important to write well than to write quickly. You can’t – or perhaps I should say you shouldn’t – put a deadline on that.

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