During a recent book talk, a lady raised her hand. “How long does it take to write a novel?”
Oh boy! I got to use my high school freshman teacher’s taunting question right back at her. “How long is a piece of string?”
She frowned, as did almost everyone in the audience. And like Miss Adams, I had to explain. “My piece of string isn’t the same as yours, or hers, or his. They’re all different.”
“What does that have to do with my question?”
“My first novel took years. I wrote it whenever I had a few minutes, and I’d be willing to bet that most authors will have a similar story. Few of us were able to sit down and hammer out our first book out without stopping.
“Then I finished the novel and lost it in an electronic hiccup. Starting over, it only took three or four years after that to write it from memory. Then I carried it around, polishing here, tweaking there, telling everyone I’d written a novel and basking in the glory of having finished it.
“The truth is, I was still tweaking it even after finding an agent. While she shopped it around, I polished it some more, because I’d read that you have to make the stinkin’ thing shine.”
Nods all around.
“So if you’re asking how long that particular manuscript was under construction, I’ll have to say about ten years.”
Her eyes widened and I nodded knowingly, because I came through the other side.
But here’s the fun part for the rest of you to ponder. After it was accepted for publication, I kinda lounged around, being an author in my mind. About ten days after it hit the shelves, my editor reached out. “You got great reviews! When do I get to see pages for the next one?”
“Your next book comes out in about a year. We already have it on the schedule.”
Wait, what? They have another book scheduled and I haven’t even started it yet? What the hell!!!???
I didn’t have a ghost of an idea for another book and my publisher wanted a finished manuscript to follow the first novel. Stunned, we hung up and I sat at my desk and looked around. What am I gonna do? I’m already a failure.
Then I remembered a novella I’d worked on through the years. Would that work?
I dug the pages from our file cabinet and read them. Yep, I could change the name here, add a character here, throw in the two now-eleven-year-old kids Top and Pepper. Cool! I have a jump on the next book! I can change the location and set the whole thing in my fictional town of Chisum, which I’d modeled on Paris, Texas.
I looked at the word count. I looked at the calendar. I looked out the window and examined my fingernails. Then I went to work.
Burrows, that piece of string, came in at 90,000 words and was finished in six months.
The woman at the book signing was giving me the Hairy Eyeball as I rambled on. “In my case, once I finished the second, I got into a rhythm. I shot for five pages a day, which seems like a lot, but by then I’d retired from a long career in education and was dedicating all my time to writing.
“Some folks’ piece of string is only a page a day. Others might be a thousand words, and I’ve heard of authors who hit their personally established word count and stop in mid-sentence so as not to burn their candle too fast.”
I learned, and now with several different series in the queue, I’ve gotten faster.
One novel birthed in a dream wrapped in six weeks.
I just finished a traditional western that took three months.
I’m working on another traditional western that I believe will wrap in eight weeks. I’ve been averaging four to five thousand words a day on that WIP, on these days I can invest the time. Other days come in at two thousand words. I’ve cracked 30,000 words on that one, and in my mind, I’m almost on the downhill side.
So how long does it take to write a novel?
I don’t know.
Looking online at “master” classes, or dozens of articles, you’ll see different lengths of string. One self-publishing site states with authority that you need eight months to write 80,000 words.
Another says your first draft should only take three months.
The truth is, your piece of string is different. Screw what everyone else says. It’s your work, and your own pace.
J.K. Rowling took six years to write the first Harry Potter.
It took Stephen King “several years” to finish Carrie, and then he worked on The Stand for two years.
Don’t let arbitrary deadlines or timelines to drive your work. Write when you can, as much as is comfortable and still keep the juices flowing. But make no mistake, speed, or the lack thereof, isn’t important. It’s the quality of work that makes a novel readable, and successful.