As the author of 14 novels, this is a question I’m asked over and over by hopeful writers: how long does it take you to write a book? I understand why you’re asking. You’ve got that burning itch to tell your story, but you know writing takes a long time, and you’re worried about how you’re going to fit it in with your job, your education, or your family obligations. If that’s you, you might be asking yourself if it’s really even possible for you to achieve your goal.
The satisfying answer is: Of course it is! If you can think about doing something, then you can do that thing. But to the question of “How long will it take?” the unsatisfying response is: it depends. However, it’s entirely possible for even a busy person to write a good book in a matter of months, if you have a good idea and you stick to your plan.
Of course, that’s also a cop-out of an answer. All you need is a ‘good idea’? Really? Well, why didn’t you say so? Every writer wants to start with a good idea, so me telling you that isn’t exactly helpful. But it is very important that you spend some time fine-tuning your idea before you sit down and start writing, so I’m not just trying to give you a glib response. (I swear!) The concept should be ironed out before you start typing, if you plan on writing this book quickly.
One good way to do this is to write out the action of the story, or the arc of the narrative (in the case of non-fiction), in the form of a simple outline. Just describe what happens in general, simple terms. This document doesn’t need to be more than a couple of pages, though it can be longer if you want.
Once you’ve done this, go over each step or point in your outline. Does one logically follow another? Did you leave anything out? Now is a great time to answer these questions, rather than when you’re halfway through writing your book. Later, you can use this outline as your road map. It will give you a clear set of steps to follow as you’re writing, and you’ll know exactly how far along you are at any given moment.
National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) takes place during November of every year. The idea is that participants will buckle down and write a 50,000-word manuscript during this time, and afterwards they can take the necessary time to revise, rewrite, and edit. While 50,000 words in a month is a pretty grueling pace, remember the idea here is not to create a finished sculpture, but the block of marble from which you will make the sculpture later. NaNoWriMo could be the kick in the pants you need to get going. Learn more at https://nanowrimo.org/
How do you know if your idea is any good? There may be no objective way to answer this question. Sometimes, an idea in and of itself doesn’t sound like anything special. If you take some of the most famous stories of the last thirty or forty years, to hear their plots explained, they don’t sound like much. But it’s not the job of the story idea to entertain people. It’s the backbone of the whole thing, so it just needs to make sense. The magic comes in the telling.
So, don’t worry if your idea doesn’t sound brilliant or special or even very original. Just worry about whether it makes sense. Later, while you’re writing, you’ll find ways to make your book uniquely yours… and your readers will thank you for it.
So, how do you actually write this book, then?
My advice is to set aside a block of time every day for writing, and to keep that appointment with yourself no matter what. Maybe you get up early and spend an hour writing before you get ready for work or school. Or, maybe you skip watching television in the evenings and use that time to be creative instead. Maybe you crank out your words on your lunch hour while sitting in your car. Different plans will work for different people. You need to find what works for you. But let’s be honest: you may need to make some sacrifices here. You might need to stop sleeping so late. You might need to get better at managing your time. These are good things, right? So, we could also look at this book-writing thing as an exercise in self-improvement!
What about once you get going? How much work should you expect to put in? Can you finish in a month? A year? Five years? There is no hard-and-fast rule about this, either. Again, it depends on a multitude of factors. Are you a single person with no kids and plenty of spare time? Then you might find it easier to put the hours in than a single mom of two kids who works or goes to school full-time. Then again, maybe not. You might have all the spare time in the world, but if you’re not great with self-discipline, you’ll still get nothing done. By the same token, your entire day might be filled with obligations from morning until night, but you’ve gotten so good at organizing your time that you can make things happen quickly and efficiently.
Some of the best writing advice I ever received came in the form of encouragement from an old teacher of mine. He said that if I write a page a day, at the end of a year, I’ll have a full-length manuscript. This is a great rule of thumb to keep in mind. One typewritten page is roughly 250 words. If you can write 250 words in a day, then you can write a book in a year.
How long should a book be, anyway?
Excellent question. The short answer is: probably at least 60,000 words for a full-length novel. That’s actually a little on the short side, but what really matters is the quality, not the quantity. 250 words a day for a year will get you over 90,000 words, so if you just come close to that, you’ll have a manuscript of a very respectable length. Anything over 100,000 words is considered fairly long… maybe too long for some readers. Again, it depends: on your genre, on your market, and on what your readers want.
250 words a day is not much. You can do that, right? And remember… that year is going to pass anyway, whether you’re writing or not. You might as well make it count!
Of course, these need to be 250 good words, not just any old words.
This is where the strength of your idea comes into play. If your idea had holes in it, then after you’ve started writing, you might need to take the time to go back and fix those holes. That can be very frustrating if you thought you were finished. If only you had spotted those errors sooner, you wouldn’t have to do that. Well, so what? It’s not the end of the world. You shouldn’t be in a hurry to finish your book. Slow down and enjoy the process, because there is a lot to be learned from it… and very few things benefit from being rushed.
But what if you’re really in a hurry, and you need to have that book written sooner? Maybe you have a contract to write something about a time-sensitive issue. Maybe you have a great idea, but you need to be the first one to write about it, because there are other writers wanting to write about the same thing.
In this case, it becomes a simple math problem. Can you write two pages a day? If so, you can have that same book done in six months. If you can do four pages a day, then you can have it done in three months. Eight pages a day means six weeks to completion. Six weeks! Very few award-winning novels have been written in six weeks, but plenty of books whose audience was clamoring for more have been written in less time than that.
The real problem with writing isn’t the word count. I can easily knock out 1,000 words in a morning without breaking a sweat. The problem is, how many of those words are going to get cut? Probably at least half. That’s right–I edit myself that much. When I’m writing a first draft, I’ll often just blurt out any old thing that’s in my head, and fix it later. This isn’t because I’m lazy or rushed. It’s because I know how important it is to get something–anything–down on the page. Don’t worry about it being perfect the first time. That’s what the following drafts are for.
Which brings me to my next point: revisions. Most of writing is actually re-writing. So, if your book needs editing or revising once it is done, then you need to take that into account.
You may be thinking, “Well, I’m just going to be really careful the first time around so I don’t have to do any editing! It will be perfect once I’m finished!”
I applaud you for your enthusiasm, but I want to caution you with some more words of experience: every writer, no matter how good they are, needs an editor. Your book, once finished, will be a first draft, and no first draft should ever be published. This means that it will probably contain a number of things that you missed and which really ought to be fixed if it’s going to be as good as you can possibly make it. These could range from tiny spelling errors to huge logical conflicts.
So, if you want to be as efficient as possible, you should have someone else helping you edit your work as you go. A good way to do this would be to send them a chapter at a time. A chapter can be short, no more than two or three pages. Once you finish a chapter, send it off to your editor and have him or her go over it, mark it up, and send it back. If you use Microsoft Word or Google Docs, or any other modern word processor, it’s easy for them to make inline comments, and you can then simply accept or reject them with a few mouse clicks. If you prefer to do things old school and do your writing by hand or with a typewriter (the way I started out doing things in the 80s), then it will take longer, of course.
Now, let’s ask a question we haven’t touched yet: should you really rush something as important as writing a book? After all, what’s the hurry?
In my experience, rushing something is always cause for regret down the road. A book is going to be out there forever, and it’s always going to have your name on it. This means it’s worth taking every bit of time required to make it as good as possible. So, just because you can write a book in a short time doesn’t mean you should.
But, again, different people have different reasons for what they do. Maybe you don’t even care if someone reads your work or not–you just want the thrill of having written a book. Maybe you’re part of a fan-fiction group, and you want to produce something for the other people in your circle to read and critique, but not necessarily publish. There are all kinds of valid reasons why you might want to produce a book in as short a time frame as possible.
It’s not for me to say what you should and shouldn’t do. Writing is an art, and you can’t rush art. But you can still be extremely efficient at it without sacrificing artistic integrity.
- Come up with an idea between now and November 1
- Use NaNoWriMo as your writing time
- Spend December onward revising and rewriting until finished
- Read this article series to find out how you can do a beautiful job of producing a professional-quality book without spending any of your own money
- Next year, do it all again!
Before you know it, you’ll have a bona fide writing career well under way.