If you want to know the average time it takes to write a novel, you might be disappointed. Any article out there on the internet might try and give you the short answer: three weeks, three months, or three years. But this is real life, and there isn’t a short answer. In this article, Bryan takes you through step-by-step to figure out how long it will take YOU to write, whether it’s a short story, a debut novel or you’re a seasoned pro on your way to a new book deal.
The time commitment to a novel and how long it will take to write one belongs in the top five unanswerable questions of all time. I have witnessed a handful of writers who completed one in a few months. I know of one who took five years, and of course there’s NaNo (National Novel Writing Month).
How long it will take is a question that isn’t going away. For many it doesn’t feel it should take that long. You have an idea, you’re fully committed, you love the idea and the people you created. How hard can it be?
Well…let’s dive in and find out how long the entire process will take…
First Step: Getting Started
Are you a first-time author?
Let’s pretend that it is your first book. You’ve spent months thinking about it. You have a mile of notes. You’ve talked and listened. You bought a half dozen how-to books and promised to read them all someday. At least once a day you’ve managed to talk yourself out of it but an evening with friends, combined with drinking and dancing, have managed to talk you into it.
With hesitations and hangovers out of the way, you are ready for your first page. At first it’s easy. The story explodes out of your head. The people, the places, the plot works like a charm. The idea that this is going to be time consuming is ridiculous.
But the second act arrives, allowed by the third and before you know it two weeks have passed. The characters are standing still, the story slows to a grinding halt and soon, without notice, a month has passed. Now what? Is the book dead before it starts? This is becoming hard work.
You’ll often have the most momentum at the beginning of writing your novel, but the pace usually slows as you progress.
Researching your novel
If you’re writing sci-fi or history, your book will need to be accurate even if you’re making stuff up. A simple book idea is a good start, but it needs depth. Readers will call you out on it and you do not want that. If your plot involves French Cuisine or changing a tire or operating a hot air balloon, you will slowly discover how long research will take. You will have to create a system that works using documents or scribbled notepads. Organising before you start will take time and once you dive in you could be at this all week.
You might be tempted to say “good enough”, but remember, as a reader you expect accuracy in things you’re reading. Nothing is worse than a lazy research book. All of this time spent researching will eat into the amount of time you can spend writing.
You worked past the beginning and survived the third and fourth draft. Sort of. Researching took a lot of time, causing your book to move forward at a snail’s pace and now you have discovered a new wrinkle: Your damn characters are acting odd.
Some of them write themselves (at least your main character should) but others are holding back and they are the ones who need to drive the story. You need them but they’re acting like they don’t need you, and now your story is slowing down so much it has caused you to take a long deserving break.
By taking time off you hope the troubled characters will figure it out and write themselves like the others. Problem solved. Right???
The Writing Process
How much time can you spend per week writing?
You will discover that a lot of time will be spent planning and researching and rewriting. You may also discover something else: A realistic schedule.
You might have two hours in the morning or night or a window of time during the day. Whatever it is, you realise it’s a good idea to stick to it or you’ll never make it to the finish line. A minimum of five hours a week will be needed if this novel is going to have a life of its own.
What’s the best way to organise your writing time?
Consistency is your friend. By blocking out a time each day over and over you will create a habit. Habits take about a month, some more or less, whatever it is this will organise your time and once this is set in place your priorities of researching, character development and finishing the first draft will be complete in a decent time.
If you’ve got less time on your hands than you want…
Sometimes your day job is going to take centre stage, or you have family members to take care of. Sometimes life just gets in the way.
The one thing I would stress is quality over quantity. Find out what part of the day is your mind the sharpest. If your mind is at its peak in the morning but your time is limited you’re going to have to be creative but if your goal is to write your best, morning it is.
Sometimes you’ll have to space it out. A little in the morning or at night. Most of all, be realistic. Find a plan that works and stick to it. If you don’t, none of this matters.
What is your writing speed?
Everyone writes at a different pace. Some people will shoot out a first draft in a few weeks and then spend a long time editing, whereas others will take more time with each chapter or paragraph. Unfortunately, there’s no average speed for writing and there’s no right or wrong answer.
If you want to calculate how long it will take you to write a book, watch how many words you are writing in each writing session, and divide your target word count by that number to see how many writing sessions you’ll need to finish your first draft.
NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month)
National Novel Writing Month is November. The aim is to write 50,000 words within the month, which should take you to at least half way through your first draft! If you just want to get the damned thing written, taking part might be a good idea, especially if it’s your first novel. Some people even write their whole book this way: it’s said that Antony Burgess wrote A Clockwork Orange in just three weeks.
Next Step: The Editing Process and the Second Draft
Using beta readers
A good beta reader will point out the good and the bad. Plot holes, compliments to your work… you name it, they have a chance of doing it. They may explain how wonderful a character was when you gave little effort to writing them. An excellent beta reader has the ability to take your work to the next level but remember: It may take time for them to read your book and there is nothing you can do about it. If you want good feedback from beta readers, you’re going to have to be patient.
Tips for editing
There is a good chance you will edit on your own until the end. The notes from betas, conversations back and forth and so on will add another layer to your edits. You might discover one of your betas is your ideal reader. If that happens you’ll need to listen to them, but most of all you’ll want to keep them close. They are rare and valuable.
When your book is complete and your own editing is exhausted you will need to hire a professional editor and when this happens it’s going to take months to complete.
Looking at your page count
After all this time working on your novel there’s a good chance that word count will not be a big deal. You will probably overwrite, but if you underwrite (50K or less), you will not have what is considered a novel.
Something to consider with word count: are you hoping to pitch to traditional publishers? Or is self publishing the goal? I ask this because there are usually limits on word count (that vary by genre) if you want to be picked up by a traditional publishing house.
If you’re a new author, you might not realise that you need to think about these things, but you do. Traditional publishers are after something specific, so if you want to go through the traditional publishing process you will need to take this into account.
The good news: time spent on rewrites, betas and editing will even out your word count, but numbers shouldn’t matter until the final draft.
The goal when you are complete is to have a full manuscript in the 80K to 100K range. Warning: You don’t want your first novel over 100K. Those are hard to sell as a debut novel.
If you’re going to self-publish, you can be more flexible.
So there you have it. A whole bunch of everything.
Writing a book is easy and requires no time at all if the only reader is you and a kind friend who doesn’t want to rock the boat. But if your goal is to write an entertaining novel that will be read by people you’ll never meet, to sign a contract with an agent and/or publisher, it’s going to take months, maybe a year or more to complete.
Writing a book is a long term relationship where not only your book, but you, will change for better or worse. The time it takes will make you a different writer. Notice I didn’t say better. It may be the last thing you ever write, or it will increase your appetite for the next book.
My message to you: Be ready. You’re in for a long and fascinating journey, but time has a way of speeding up when you’re doing something you love.