How long should it take to write a novel? - Alice Jolly

How long should it take to write a novel? Well, that's a silly question, really, isn't it? Because everyone knows there is no 'should' in it. It takes as long as it takes. But despite all of that, I have recently had cause to consider this question.

What as writers do we generally expect? Is the equation always 'time spent equals quality of book.' Is it ever possible to work on a book for too long? Does a writer spend the same time on each book?

Ten years ago, I certainly thought that I had an answer to that last question. I had written three novels by then and each had taken about four years. So I thought - ok, so that's my process and probably that won't change much now. It would be better if I could work quicker but I can't. (One book had missed a publisher's deadline by two years).

But then the next novel took eight years - or maybe even more. I'm too embarrassed really to put an exact figure on it. Then came a memoir which probably took eighteen months but I don't really include that because (let's face it) writing a memoir is a doddle compared to writing a novel. You just write down what happened next in your life. So how complicated can that be?

Now I am writing a new novel and it is coming together at terrifying speed. Of course, I should just be pleased about this. But as a writer, I always need to have something to worry about. So now I am worrying about the fact that, given how quickly this book seems to be happening, it can't be any good.

Uuuum? I think it does happen sometimes that a novelist finds that a book just drops off the end of the pen with no real difficulty at all. And if that is currently what is happening to me, then I really must not complain.

But as a general rule - and I'm sure others will vehemently disagree - I do think that 'time spent equals quality of book.' I read far too many novels at the moment which are not much more than first drafts. And I also know that most of the books I really love took the writer years to write. Even if I don't know that as a fact, I can feel it in the writing.

Finally, as writers we ask a great deal of readers. We want them to pay a fair sum for the book and then we expect them to spend two or three days of their lives dedicated to our work.

Personally, if I am going to make this commitment, then I expect the writer to have spent many long hours making that book absolutely as good as it can be. Because, after all, I could have used that time to read a better book. I can't get those hours back again.


Bill Kirton said…
No disagreement from me, Alice. It's not the time it takes to write that first draft, it's the time and patience needed to revisit it and do all the necessary tweaking, proofing and generally turning it from a quick rush through all the possibilities that presented themselves in the writing to a considered, balanced, professional product. I used to take 6 months for a tweaked first draft and another six turning it into something I thought was acceptable. (A lot of that second six was leaving it aside, unvisited, to get the necessary critical distance from it.)
My WIP has taken at least two years so far and I've no idea why. But then, my old mate Flaubert took 5 years to write each of his and they weren't bad.
I have to disagree with you somewhat about length of time and quality of the finished product, mainly because I think a lot of this time involves rewriting to the demands of other people, be they agents, publishers or editors. And all too often, in that process, the project implodes. People often ask me how long it takes to write a novel and it's impossible to answer, because like Bill, I write drafts, and then let them lie fallow while I go away and do something else - so that isn't really novel writing time at all. I took a couple of years over the last one, but that included a lot of research. Then a few months of writing. Then going back to find out all the things I didn't know I didn't know before restructuring the whole thing, which is pretty much the way it goes with historical fiction! But some of my favourite writers have managed to write a great many lengthy novels and all while doing other things on the side. Dickens, for instance, was no slowcoach when it came to applying pen to paper. I do agree, though, that in all kinds of writing, some ideas seem to arrive fully formed, while some involve a bit of wrestling.
glitter noir said…
What Bill and Catherine said. Each book is what it is and takes the time it takes. That said, I've committed to learning to put on a little more speed--mainly by getting the first draft down completely instead of writing 50 pages, revising those, etc. I hope to draft my new mystery in 3 months tops--allowing 6-9 months
Elizabeth Kay said…
I actually disagree, in part. Each book is different, and I've taken varying amounts of time over them.The Divide took three and half weeks for the first 70,000 word draft - whilst teaching part time - because I became utterly obsessed. The sequels took a lot longer because every fact had to be checked against the previous book. On the other hand I've had several books that lay fallow for up to twenty years. But when I was writing really fast - and it's occurred more than once - I didn't have to recap or re-read or try to remember where some small but suddenly important incident occurred. For me, that's the time when I write my best stuff. When the book is almost happening to me in real time.
Nick Green said…
It entirely depends, I think. Terry Pratchett wrote two books a year and they were all pretty brilliant. None were quite perfect (can one say that?) and I often wondered if he could have made them so if he'd taken a year or two on each one... but I suspect that Sir Terry simply couldn't write more slowly if he'd tried, in the same way that most of us can't write that fast. You find your natural pace and most of the time that's it.

If someone takes ten years over a book and someone else takes one, and both books are about the same quality, does that make writer A ten times better than writer B? I don't think it does. Because most readers will never know or care how long a book took to write. The end product is all that counts. I tend to take 18 months to 2 years over a book, regardless of length (interesting, that). That time is getting longer now, as I have less time and energy to write, but I'm trying not to time myself. Who cares, really, if I don't?
Lee said…
Nick, I wish you were right that readers don't care, but obviously some do. Think of the pressure from fans of George R.R. Martin, for example.
Lydia Bennet said…
Books, plays, poems, they emerge at the right speed which can vary massively, even for one author. however I do agree about taking time IF it's needed for the quality of the book - too much poor work out there, poorly edited, and one of my successful writer friends posts blurbs from books on fb, they are frequently hilarious - hopelessly badly written, inaccurate, muddled and often insane - if the writer can't be bothered to do a few sentences for a synopsis and edit that, I'd not waste time and money on the book.
Umberto Tosi said…
I agree. You find your pace - and it seems you've found yours. You might be accelerating. So I wouldn't worry about picking up speed. I find it depends on the subject and type of book I'm writing. Generally, I write quickly, once I've got the story in hand and have done my noodling and my research. Ah, there's the rub. I can take a few months to write what it took me years to figure out, with lots of false starts in between. My hat is off to you for fine work.
Alice said…
Thanks so much for all the interesting comments. As I said, it is a silly question really because there is no answer. But it is always interesting to find out about other peoples' writing process. I also find when I'm teaching that students want to know what is 'normal.' To which the only answer is usually, 'Whatever you are doing is normal.'

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