This is one of the questions I get asked most frequently by young writers when I visit schools. As we’re in the middle of NaNoWriMo, and I’m just finishing my latest book (technically, sort of …), now seemed a good time to answer. Here is one writer’s experience so far.
First of all, for those of you who went NaNoWHAT? just now, I am pleased to inform you that this is National Novel Writing Month, which is when you are encouraged to Write a Novel in a Month. (And the month is November, which is what I though the original No stood for, but I was just confused.) It’s an actual, doable thing – as long as you don’t stop too much to think about it.
So there’s answer number one: a month. You can write a book in a month if you try. Not necessarily a publishable book, but a first draft, which is a long way down the line, so woo! Go you. (If you want more info about how to go about it, the website is full of helpful tools, ideas and support. I believe that the Nation in question is the US, but we’re allowed to join in too, and so far they’ve generated nearly two billion words in 2012. Which is a lot of people trying to write that novel.)
OK, so that was the short answer. The long answer is ‘years’. YEARS, people. Many, many years. It took me four years of thinking through the themes, the characters and the possible plot points of Threads before I wrote my first book for children. I wasn’t actually writing it down at the time, but all of those thought processes were very important. I then spent three months trying to write the opening chapters, and hating the way it turned out on paper, and changing it. Then I had a breakthrough with the voice of my main character, Nonie, and I wrote the first draft in three months, which felt quite quick.
So that’s the medium answer: three months of working quite hard on it, three or four days a week, once all the ideas are in place, and you have a voice, and it’s all coming together. Followed by another one/two/several months of working on it alone and/or with an editor (if you’re very lucky) to make it much, much better.
Assuming nothing goes badly wrong, I would say it usually takes me about six to nine months for me to write a book, including editing, but that must be preceded by several months of thinking about the characters, themes and plot – which takes me to just under a year per book. If I don’t do the thinking beforehand, I end up having to do several drafts, so it ends up taking longer, probably.
The process is shorter for series fiction, because the characters, voice and themes are already there. Woo hoo! For this reason, and many others, I highly recommend writing a series if you want to.
But … I did say ‘assuming nothing goes badly wrong’ and at some stage, for many writers … something goes badly wrong. It’s taken me nine months from initial idea to second draft of my current work in progress, ‘You Don’t Know Me’, and that was preceded by three months trying to write a different story that I had to give up on completely for a while – although I’m hoping to go back to it now. Although the idea made me buzz with excitement and the characters felt strong, the story fought me all the way. It’s been incredibly difficult and time-consuming to make the words on the page reflect the images in my head. It’s driven me crazy, and I still have a final draft to go. How long does it take to write a book if it fights back? As long as you let it.
You hear anecdotes sometimes about bestsellers that were ‘written in three weeks’ by their authors, in a fit of wild inspiration. (Don’t quote me, but I’m sure I was told ‘The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas’ was one of these.) Any editor will probably tell you, however, that the first draft was then carefully worked on for months afterwards, to get it right. You hear other stories about masterpieces that took years and years and years, like Flaubert’s ‘Madame Bovary’.
Some of the amazing authors on this site are a lot better at it than me, as they’ve written dozens of books already, and I truly envy them their discipline and skill. The truth is, it doesn’t matter how long it takes you to write your book. What does matter is that you see it through. Writers are people who finish that book they started. To quote Neil Gaiman (and I often do): “Writer advice..Write. Finish things. Go for walks. Read a lot & outside your comfort zone. Stay interested. Daydream. Write”
I wonder how long it takes him to write a book …?