When I google, ‘How long does it take to write a novel?’, the first result says this: ‘A good rule of thumb is to allot at least 4 months to write a book.’ The article proposes a year as the maximum timescale. This guidance doesn’t quite align with my experiences in the writing community, so I’ve decided to unpack the question.
A Clockwork Orange took three weeks and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone took six years. Good and great novels have been written in various timescales, but when you’re setting out to write a book it’s important to have realistic expectations.
Good and great novels have been written in various timescales, but when you’re setting out to write a book it’s important to have realistic expectations.
It took Donna Tartt nine years to write The Secret History. It’s a long book, but that’s still not many words per day. Would the novel be as rich, as gorgeously written, as successful, if she’d written it in a year? In an interview with Town & Country, Tartt describes her process, saying it starts with establishing mood – ‘The mood is important to me first. With The Little Friend, even before the story took shape, there was that dark, dank Mississippi mood. And The Secret History was much the same: It began for me with winter, cold.’ After this, Tartt researches and researches, visiting locations and developing her ‘filing system of descriptions and dialogue’. Those were not nine years of halfhearted work but nine years of dedication.
Your book won’t require as much research if you live in the city where it’s set, work in your protagonist’s industry, and have experiences mirroring the novel’s story arc, but this won’t be the case for most writers, and research should be a part of your process, regardless. You need to experience a location to write it and understand an idea to explore it.
As well as establishing mood, you have to find the voice of the novel. Even if you’ve established your writer’s voice in previous books or short stories, you should recalibrate it for this novel. If you’re using a close POV, you’ll need to develop the character’s voice. This can usually only be done by writing and writing, then deleting most of the content! Author Colette said, ‘Put down everything that comes into your head and then you’re a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff’s worth, without pity, and destroy most of it.’
Delving into a first draft, some writers will have a plot outline driving them forward and others will be reliant on inspiration. Either way, the situations in your own life and the world around you will enter your headspace and you’ll either resist the pull to write about them or lean in and see where it takes you. Chances are you’ll make many false starts and detours. As much as these will feel like a waste of time, they’re not. You had to go down those roads to find the novel that wants to be written.
Chances are you’ll make many false starts and detours. As much as these will feel like a waste of time, they’re not. You had to go down those roads to find the novel that wants to be written.
It’s impossible to say how long a first draft should take to write. Even if you don’t have a day job, you can only get out so many words each day before your brain turns to mush. It’s important to rest and avoid burnout. Stephen King believes you should write everyday and get the draft done: ‘The first draft of a book — even a long one — should take no more than three months, the length of a season.’ I agree that it’s important to build a sense of momentum when drafting, but a three month deadline won’t work for everyone.
Once you’ve completed a first draft, there are a number of editorial processes you need to go through, and it’s worth taking a step back and getting some distance from the work before each one.
First, whether you were drafting with a template or not, you need to make sure the structure is solid. Look at the big picture before the details. Is there a clear story goal? Are the stakes high enough and exposed at the right points? Does the climax occur towards the end of the novel (but not in the very final pages)?
Other big questions to ask in your first edit: Is this the most effective POV and tense? Do I have an idea of the audience who would want to read it and the genre expectations?
A STORY AND CHARACTER EDIT
Once that’s all fixed, you’ll want to return to the story. While drafting, you’ll have discovered what the story is really about and who your characters really are. Now, make sure the themes and characters are consistent and work on improving the reading experience. Could you do with more conflict from certain characters? Should a certain sub-plot be cut?
While drafting, you’ll have discovered what the story is really about and who your characters really are.
A PROSE EDIT
Only once you’ve looked at all the larger issues should you start refining the prose. I struggle to follow my own advice here and end up wasting time by polishing sections that need to be scrapped. Make sure you do a decisive edit after all the others, cutting wordiness, increasing specificity, showing rather than telling, improving the rhythm of each sentence and checking grammar.
FIRST FEEDBACK EDIT
After your three-stage self-edit, you should be ready to get a second pair of eyes on the manuscript. When you’ve been living in a story for this long it will be hard to look at it objectively, so it’s important to ask someone else to, whether it’s a trusted reader or a professional editor. You may also decide to join a writer’s group and share feedback chapter by chapter. Depending on who you go to, you might need to wait from a week to a few months to receive the feedback, then you should allow a week to process it and at least a month to implement the suggestions.
When you’ve been living in a story for this long it will be hard to look at it objectively, so it’s important to ask someone else to, whether it’s a trusted reader or a professional editor.
SECOND FEEDBACK EDIT
One extra pair of eyes is not enough. Also, the revisions you made in the first feedback edit may have created new problems. Most writers will go through the previous process again, perhaps a number of times, and then think about sending this draft to friends and family for a more instinctive response.
The next month or so will be spent tidying up the prose. You’ll have written more messy sentences when responding to feedback so should work through the full manuscript again, polishing sentences and looking for anything you missed the first time around. Make sure the formatting is in line with industry standards. Draft in your favourite script font, sure, but now it’s time to go Times New Roman!
Some writers will need to receive a copy-edit at this stage. It’s a good idea if you know you struggle more than the average writer with grammar, punctuation, etc., or if you’re planning to self-publish. Most literary agents will forgive the odd typo, but in an increasingly competitive industry this will still be a wise step for some writers.
THE ACTUAL ANSWER TO THE QUESTION
Phew. That was a lot of steps! My conclusion is that it’s possible to write a good novel in four months if you quit your job, forsake rest, and have trusted readers at your beck and call, but generally I’d worry a novel written in this timescale would be rushed. The process described in this blog post is not necessarily complete. Many writers will submit a draft, receive rejections, decide to get six months or so of distance from the novel and then rework it before finding success.
Many writers will submit a draft, receive rejections, decide to get six months or so of distance from the novel and then rework it before finding success.
That said, you don’t need to anticipate a decade of work. Many writers complete a solid draft in one or two years. For your first attempt at writing a novel, two years might make a good personal deadline. For a follow-up, you could aim for a year. (Many writers who sign two-book deals face a deadline of less than a year for the second book, and though most struggle with this it’s obviously considered achievable!) And if you have the creative genius of Anthony Burgess, try it in three weeks.
Don’t let anyone hold you back. Do NaNoWriMo. Set yourself deadlines. Just don’t demand a finished product of yourself too soon. Setting your expectations too high will affect your engagement with the novel and disrupt your process. Don’t compare your timescale to that of other writers, whether it’s a Twitter friend, someone from your writing group or your favourite novelist! The key is to draft fast and edit slowly.