How Long Does it Take to Write “A” Novel?

One of the most frequent questions you’ll get as a writer is, “How long does it take to write a novel?” There are several perfectly valid answers, and some that are utter bull-puckey.

1: Bull-Puckey Answer: You can write a bestselling novel in just a weekend according to one coach. Another says you can do it in just 15 minutes a day in 21 days. Beware people selling easy answers. They’re just trying to separate fools from their money.

2: Two to Four Weeks: I can comfortably compose 1200 words per hour. If I have a good idea of what to write, and if each scene works successfully, it will take 80 hours of hard work to write a 100,000-word novel. Shorter books take less time. A huge book takes longer.

But it normally requires an hour or so just to get into a deep enough meditation to actually compose, and not every scene works as well as I’d like. So that 80 hour quickly doubles.

I can crank one out a novel in about three weeks. It might not be well thought-out. It won’t have much in the way of interesting twists or thunderous prose, but I can compose a piece of excrement about as fast anyone.

In fact, if you’re an excellent stylist, your piece-of-refuse novel might even be superior to much of what passes as popular literature.

3: Inspired Novels Go Quicker: Sometimes lightning strikes in the form of a stimulating idea. It hits at a time when the writer is able to get into the writing zone and has the time and inspiration to work on it. Generally, if it all happens well, you can get the first draft of a great novel in four weeks. Several classics have been written that quickly.

Shakespeare took about four weeks to compose each of his plays. He’d be acting and putting on plays during the spring and summer, would write for a couple of months in the late fall (creating three new plays), and then go home for Christmas and New Year. So “Hamlet” took a month. So did “King Lear” and a “Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

But then again, were they really written that quickly, or just the first drafts? Shakespeare would revise his plays for years afterward, often re-writing scenes late at night after a performance. The works got better.

4: You Can Write Quicker When on Drugs: One of the bestselling novels in its genre was written under the influence of meth in about four weeks. Those who have tried meth report good results once, but tell me that it “fries your synapses” so that you can never write as well or as easily again. Don’t try this.

5: A Great Book May Take Years!: JRR Tolkien was officially hired to write Lord of the Rings in 1937. He got writers block for many years and worked as a professor but finished a first draft in 1948. Then he had to write the “Appendices” over the next few years, so his first volume was not published until 1954.

You might say he took 17 years—except that he kept going back and revising even after his first edition. An upgraded version came out in 1965, and Tolkien went to work on The Silmarillion, which had further effects on LOTR. In fact, I suspect that Tolkien never officially finished Lord of the Rings. 

If you dig up Tolkien’s grave, you may find him like a wight in his barrow, scribbling away on his appendices with bony fingers.

Tolkien once composed a story about writing, “Leaf by Niggle.” In the story, various elf-like creatures go about creating the world, and one of them, Niggle, spends an entire lifetime perfecting a single leaf while others create entire groves.

Yet when the world is finished and populated with vast forests and jungles, birds and insects, it is the leaf by Niggle, with its beautifully articulated veins and perfectly symmetrical edges, that is honored as the most beautiful creation of all.

It’s interesting that this story came out of Tolkien in 1937 as he contemplated his epic.

You may have books like that in you, too.

I’m finishing up a novel now that I’ve been working on for ten years. Yes, I wrote other books in-between. My novel In the Company of Angels took 18 months to research, three months to compose, and won a Whitney Award as best book of the year. And my novel Nightingale also won several awards two years after Angels. I’ve published a number of anthologies in the past few years, too. But I’ve been grinding away on A Tale of Tales for almost a decade.

Writing it presented a number of challenges. First, it is unlike any other book I’ve seen. I can’t just look at a model of “similar” books and try to top them. I don’t know of a similar story. I suppose I could crank out a quick tome and call it good, but that would be soul-destroying.

I want the story to be unique, and I want it to be powerful. I want it to express my vision, not anyone else’s.

Over the past few years I’ve had all the usual challenges—writer’s block, huge financial upheavals, and a couple of near-fatal illnesses.

Of course, I hear from “fans” that I’m taking too long. My wife is the most vocal of them.

People who want immediate gratification are like toddlers who smell a cake baking in the oven and demand to have it NOW. You could spoon out the molten glop, but it wouldn’t be what you envisioned.

You don’t have to rush every novel, and you’re being short-sighted if you try.

So how long does it take to write a novel?

A Lifetime. Every novel that you write is the sum of all your learning and experiences. I’m 62 years old, and when I finish this novel in a few weeks and people ask how long it took to write, I will answer, “62 years.”

I can’t wait to finish my first 100-year novel!



The Compleat Writer

We are getting the new “Compleat Writer” program set up. We recently discovered that our server couldn’t take more than about 300 people viewing videos at the same time, so we are going to a new service. I’ll be giving out video tips for the Compleat Writer, so here is a sample of our first video.


This month I’ll be adding a new seminar to the program, too: “Five Tips for Writing to a Massive Audience.”
Because it is Christmas Season, the Compleat Writer Bundle is on sale for $139 per year, but just for the next couple of days. You can purchase it with the Superwriters’ Bundle here: http://mystorydoctor.com/online-workshops/

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