The Time it Takes

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.

Write on!


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About Reavis Wortham

Two time Spur Award winning author Reavis Z. Wortham pens the Texas Red River historical mystery series, and the high-octane Sonny Hawke contemporary western thrillers. His new Tucker Snow series begins in 2022. The Red River books are set in rural Northeast Texas in the 1960s. Kirkus Reviews listed his first novel in a Starred Review, The Rock Hole, as one of the “Top 12 Mysteries of 2011.” His Sonny Hawke series from Kensington Publishing features Texas Ranger Sonny Hawke and debuted in 2018 with Hawke’s Prey. Hawke’s War, the second in this series won the Spur Award from the Western Writers Association of America as the Best Mass Market Paperback of 2019. He also garnered a second Spur for Hawke’s Target in 2020. A frequent speaker at literary events across the country. Reavis also teaches seminars on mystery and thriller writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to writing conventions, to the Pat Conroy Literary Center in Beaufort, SC. He frequently speaks to smaller groups, encouraging future authors, and offers dozens of tips for them to avoid the writing pitfalls and hazards he has survived. His most popular talk is entitled, My Road to Publication, and Other Great Disasters. He has been a newspaper columnist and magazine writer since 1988, penning over 2,000 columns and articles, and has been the Humor Editor for Texas Fish and Game Magazine for the past 25 years. He and his wife, Shana, live in Northeast Texas. All his works are available at your favorite online bookstore or outlet, in all formats. Check out his website at “Burrows, Wortham’s outstanding sequel to The Rock Hole combines the gonzo sensibility of Joe R. Lansdale and the elegiac mood of To Kill a Mockingbird to strike just the right balance between childhood innocence and adult horror.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review) “The cinematic characters have substance and a pulse. They walk off the page and talk Texas.” —The Dallas Morning News On his most recent Red River novel, Laying Bones: “Captivating. Wortham adroitly balances richly nuanced human drama with two-fisted action, and displays a knack for the striking phrase (‘R.B. was the best drunk driver in the county, and I don’t believe he run off in here on his own’). This entry is sure to win the author new fans.” —Publishers Weekly “Well-drawn characters and clever blending of light and dark kept this reader thinking of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.” —Mystery Scene Magazine

21 thoughts on “The Time it Takes

  1. I don’t remember how long the first book (a mystery) took – probably around 5 years – but as I tried to find an agent for it, PC landed in my lap – and it took me the next fifteen years of my life to get the first volume of my mainstream literary trilogy written and published. Learning to write is non-trivial – and learning to publish has a lot of steps. The second volume took seven years; I’m hoping the one I’m working on now will take less than five, of which it’s already consumed one.

    It takes what it takes to get it right (or abandon the effort). I don’t get much choice of when my brain is available to write – chronic illness does that to you – and try not to waste the ‘good time.’ What else was I going to do? Knit?

    • We all invest the time in the things we want to do, and find excuses to avoid what’s hard. Real writers will get busy while others simply talk about it. Thanks for checking in!

  2. Good advice, Rev. There’s so much pressure to produce lightning fast but still keep the same quality. Fortunately, my last two novels took eight weeks apiece. Another two to three weeks of edits/rewrites (long days though). Not sure how I accomplished that, other than this series seems to be pouring out of me. I’ve set aside four months for the next one. Maybe I’ll get lucky again and the words will continue to flow. We’ll see…

    • Isn’t it interesting what writes itself? I’ve loved the process in creating all my novels, but some come easy while others seem to take forever, but they always get done, because I stay at it.

  3. I advise those who want to write and make dough to figure out how many words they can comfortably write ina week, then up that by 10% and make that their quota. This is a profession, not a swing in a hammock.

    To those who complain they haven’t got the time, I say, a page a day is a book a year. A page is about 250 words. A ficus three can do 250 words a day. Do you want to be shown up by a ficus tree?

    • I’ve used that page a day suggestion with all would-be authors and they nod, but I wonder how many will carve out that time to sit and knock out those 250 words. If you make time to swing by the coffee shop and order an expensive cup of black water, you can find the time to knock out a few sentences.

  4. I read comments on other forums where authors are releasing a book a month, and I’m sorry, but I have to wonder about the quality. I used to get my first drafts done in about 3 months, but the current wip is refusing to cooperate (and I’m not pushing back hard enough), but at 68K I’m looking at wrapping up the myriad dangling threads I’ve created and turning it over to my editor.

    • I think quality comes with practice, experience, and dedication. I’ve found my work doesn’t suffer from working fast, maybe its the subconscious, because Hard Country is getting outstanding reviews and flowed from my fingers as I watched the story unfold on the screen.

      I’m the same way with plots, fast or slow. These westerns began as simple plots and exploded with threads that becomes complicated. In my case, they always come together and again, that’s the subconscious working for me.

      Thanks, Terry!

  5. I’m finding mystery novels is taking me longer than my fantasy to write. A lot of the difference is the learning curve involved in writing a mystery, and also the intricacy of playing four-dimensional chess when plotting.

    I drafted my first urban fantasy novel, “Empowered: Agent,” in six weeks, and then had it completely finished, after a massive voice rewrite ordered by my editor, in five months total. Five to six months was the pace for the Empowered series.

    It took me two and a half years from starting the outline for my first mystery to publishing it—but that included three versions, with the third being largely “blank drafted” (only about 10K of the 75K in the book are from early versions), and that was finished in four months, from draft start to proof reading.

    I’m with Sue, there’s a lot of pressure to write quickly—you have to find your own pace and rhyme, and that can depend on you and the particular book.

  6. I can finish a first draft in 4-6 months. Totally finish a book? Ahem…I’ll keep you posted on that. LOL!

    I wonder what most people’s reaction is at talks like that when you basically tell them it takes as long as it takes. I would imagine if they have the fire to write, they won’t let it hinder them.

    • That’s the objective. Get it down on paper first, correct in post, and polish. As I said in an above post, you write if you want. It’s those who always talk about their project are the ones who have a harder time finishing their book.

  7. BTW–Thanks TKZ–I’ve noticed recently that the comments are popping up much faster now which is awesome. There for a while (at least on my computer) it took eons for the comments to show up. Whatever the issue was, it seems to be resolved. Thanks!

  8. I wrote my first in a year, but the 3,653 edits took more years. Hate editing to this day, so write as clean as humanly possible now.
    My goal is 500 clean words a day – but I write EVERY day, so it takes about 8-9 months.

  9. My answer is always it takes what it takes for our first novels. We’re not only writing a story, we’re figuring out what we’re doing and need to be doing. Most of us are stunned about how little we actually know.

    People who have never written think creating a novel is like baking a plate of cookies. We work from a recipe then plop the raw dough into the oven for a short time, and we’re done. This also means anyone can do it. These people are wrong.

    • Absolutely.

      That first novel is a journey, an exploration. It’s like your first job, and after that initial learning curve, this get easier. We all have to find our own way, and pace.

  10. Good discussion, Rev. Thank you!

    When I first started writing/publishing, I thought I had to do it the way the “successful” authors did it. I learned differently here at TKZ.

    My first 3 books were published in 3 years, short story collections. Then, my first novel took-from start to finish-about 4 years. The second novel, due out October 1, took about the same.

    I no longer think I have to write like others; I just need to write like me, because there’s no one else on the planet who can.

    Happy Saturday!

    • That’s the perfect answer.

      People always ask me how I do it. How do you come up with those ideas? How can you do it every day. How do you write so that we feel like we’re there.

      I answer. “I don’t know.”

      We find what works for us, and then we launch.

  11. I always wonder if the answers are the first draft or all the revisions and editing? When someone says their first book took five years, I hope they included revisions. When they say they write a book in three months- I hope that’s just the first draft! I could do a first draft in three months. I could never draft and revise sufficiently in three months.

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