Thursday, July 24, 2014

Q&A: How long does it take to write a book?

Writing in bed has a long and honorable pedigree
Before I ever sat down to actually try to write a full novel, I had written quite a bit.  From very early age, I was writing little stories.  I recall specifically stories I wrote in grade school about a boy and his friend that was a griffin, and the story of a man who could turn invisible and ended up being killed by the government.

Through the years I wrote different little stories, often little more than a sequence of short scenes and events that I expanded on as I thought about them.  I wrote and drew comics, several books worth, and have always made up stories in my head as I try to go to sleep.

When I considered writing a book, I was always intimidated by the work I imagined it would entail.  I knew writing took time, from personal experience, and I knew that to have a worthy book you had to go through multiple layers of editing and rewrites.  The whole process sounded like less fun and more misery than I cared to go through.

So I put it off for years, decades even.  I knew I could write fairly well but the prospect of all that effort didn't seem worth the end result.  I know that this is not unique to me, though.  Many people who might be willing to write are intimidated by the thought of the time and effort involved.  How long does it actually take to write a novel?

Of course the answer to this kind of question is always "it depends."  It took JRR Tolkien nearly 20 years between writing The Hobbit to publishing The Return of the KingGone With The Wind took 10 years to write.  Atlas Shrugged is considered Ayn Rand's greatest work, and it took her 6 years to finish.

On the other hand, some authors can knock off a book pretty fast.  Authors such as Steven King and Robert Parker could churn out two books a year or more.  Isaac Asimov wrote over 500 works, starting in 1934 and ending in 1992; that's just over 8 works a year, on average.  

How long it takes to finish a book depends a lot on its size, how much research is involved, your familiarity and comfort with writing, experience, motivation, distractions, and so on.  If you struggle with your health, it will take longer to finish a novel.  When Lauren Hillenbrand wrote Seabiscuit, it was a struggle for her as she fought her Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.  By the end, she was bedridden for months and it took her five years to finish.

If you're very familiar with the content, need little reasearch, and are a comfortable, quick writer or typist, you can finish a novel quite rapidly.  It took me about a month of writing to finish each of my first two books (although I can't write long each day).  I average just under 100k words a book, which is short for modern fantasy novels which can be several hundred thousand words each.  The Lord of the Rings was intended to be one gargantuan book, but the publishers wisely broke it up into a trilogy.

You can reasonably expect to be able to finish a novel in a few months, but should not feel bad if it takes longer.  A book that requires a lot of research such as my current work in progress necessarily requires more time to study and learn - while I was doing the main writing there were many days that I did 2 hours of research for every 1 hour of actual writing.

Some works are more of a challenge than others.  My first book, Snowberry's Veil, I deliberately tried to write something simple and comfortable to me, and as an experiment tried to write a fantasy based on Louis L'Amour's style and themes.  It went very easily which is good for a first book.  The current book I started even before Snowberry's Veil but I realized quickly that I wasn't going to be a good enough writer to do the concept and story justice, so I set it aside.

I'm still not sure I'm a good enough writer, but I was able to finish the first draft in a manner that at least did not depress me.  But that meant the book took nearly six years to write, in effect.  When I finally sat down to really finish the book it still was several months of effort because of the challenge I'd set before myself and the research.

The thing is, when you're writing, you'll probably find what I did: I don't really notice how long its taking so much as frustration that I can't write more and faster.  The ideas pour out and the story progresses to the point I feel a burning excitement any time I'm at the keyboard and still think about it and work out plot and character issues in my head when not.  Its a sort of infatuation, and when you're in that stage, the length of writing really does not even come up.

Why can't my beta readers hurry up??
The rewrites and editing I'll write about at greater length in a future piece, but in brief: they aren't as bad as you expect.  The toughest part for me is waiting until the various editors and readers get the book back to me.  Its like being 7 years old and waiting for Christmas.  I deliberately leave my book untouched when someone else is going over it to proof or edit, because I am trying to distance myself from the book to come at it fresh when it gets back to me. But its tough to wait.

Overall it takes me about a year to get a book out, from first word on the page to finished published book.  That's much faster than a traditional publisher usually works, but its still some time.  The thing is, that isn't bad.  One book a year is a decent rate - much longer than that and your readers will move on and forget you (especially if you're writing a series, they will get annoyed and frustrated at you for taking too long to get to the next book).  And a year isn't too bad because you aren't spending that entire year day after day on the book.

You take days off for other things like vacations and personal matters.  Every author ought to take a day off once a week to rest and let their mind relax.  Many of those days are waiting on editors, cover design, and so on.  A lot of those days are part timers, where you get the cover done and do something else, or upload it and wait on the site to respond.  If I was to work 8 hour days full on I could crank out 2-3 books a year, but I don't have it in me.

The thing is, the last thing you should worry about, if you're a real author, is how long its going to take.  What you should concern yourself with is how good its going to be and how well you're writing.  If you do a good job, enjoy yourself, and produce something worth reading, how long it took just really does not matter.