Monday, July 26, 2010

How Long Does it Take to Write a Novel?

People come up to me all the time and say, "Unreliable Narrator?"

"Yep, that's me," I say.

"How long does it take to write a novel?"

What they really want to know is, How long will it take me to write a novel: "If I start tomorrow. Or, no, not tomorrow, I'm busy. Saturday. From Saturday to--?"

It takes as long as it takes. It's taken me years to write my novels. I'm not going to divulge just how many years because it's hard to pin that down. I started writing a novel last fall. But before I even typed Chapter 1 and pressed Enter I made notes and created backstory and character biographies for about four years. It started as one type of story and changed over time. So, does that mean I've been writing that particular novel for nine months? Or four years and nine months?

What I really want to tell all these people who ask how long a novel takes is this: It takes years. Get ready for the mountainous long haul. Start writing today. Not tomorrow; not next Saturday. Now. Because it will take longer than you think. It always takes me longer.

Then when you think you're done go write something else for a few months, maybe even another year. After that, come back to your manuscript and start again. This is when the real writing begins. This is where the progress can be measured, where the beautiful sentences start forming, where the images and sharpness of character and plot come together scene by scene. 

Sure, some writers finish a book in a few months. And they may be good books. May be great books. But I'd argue that they would be better books if the authors spent more time on them. Time away gives you the fresh perspective needed to trim the excess and add the good to the good, mix it, bleed and spit into it, inhabit it, transform it, pump in life, and let it breathe on its own.

For more perspective, read Susanna Daniel's account of the ten years it took her to write and publish her novel Stiltsville, where she also invokes Junot Diaz' famous seven years to write The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

On the other side of the argument is the fact that John Steinbeck famously wrote The Grapes of Wrath very quickly after traveling the country during the Depression so that the subject would be fresh. A great book many say (including Pulitzer), could it have been greater if he had spent years on it instead of months?

Well, this we'll never know.


Cynthia Sherrick said...

Thank you for this post. I feel like I spend too much time working on a novel, however I do want my books to be the best they can be. :)

Robin said...

"Hi, Unreliable Narrator! It's me -- Ms. Procrastinator. You're absolutely right. Writing takes time. I wish I had more of it. Thanks for a great blog!"

Neil Everett said...

It took Stephanie Meyer a total of 3 months to write Twilight from conception to first draft and I heard she sent it out to publishers almost immediately. JD Salinger spent roughly 9 years writing Catcher in the Rye (and published segments of it along the way). It doesn't hurt to make a lot of notes along the way. As far as how long writing a novel takes, well it really depends on your work ethic. It's probably similar to asking 'if I go out today and buy a keyboard, how long will it take me to master Chopin's Nocturne op. 9 no. 2?'. Could take 3 months, could take 3 years. It depends on how much you put into it on a day to day basis. Aptitude and process have a lot to do with it too.