How long does it take to write a novel?
THE MOSAIC by Chris Keaton and Rick Taubold is now available in both print and e-book formats from Amazon. Click the cover link on the right of the blog. You can read the first four chapters in the Kindle preview.
How long does it take to write a novel? One answer is 7 years.
But November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo).
The goal of NaNoWriMo (in case you didn’t read the Wikipedia article) is to write a novel of 50,000 words or more during the month of November. Some succeed, but not all do. Even those who don’t find it a rewarding experience and some go on to complete the novel.
I don’t know of anyone who realistically writes a publishable novel in that time frame. The goal of NaNoWriMo is first draft, but if we’re to believe Ernest Hemingway, “The first draft of anything is shit.”
However, in a recent article I read on bad writing advice from established writers, Hemingway’s quote was among that bad advice. The author of the article said that maybe it was true for Hemingway, but it’s certainly not true for every writer. Many writers perfect and polish as they go along so their “first draft” will read like many second or third drafts. The fastest I ever heard of any writer completing a decent novel is about two months (“Little Brother” by Cory Doctorow). I’m sure other writers have done it, but this is the only one I’ve heard about. Here’s what Doctorow said about that novel (quoted from the introduction of the free download):
“I wrote Little Brother in a white-hot fury between May 7, 2007 and July 2, 2007: exactly eight weeks from the day I thought it up to the day I finished it (Alice, to whom this book is dedicated, had to put up with me clacking out the final chapter at 5AM in our hotel in Rome, where we were celebrating our anniversary). I’d always dreamed of having a book just materialize, fully formed, and come pouring out of my fingertips, no sweat and fuss—but it wasn’t nearly as much fun as I’d thought it would be. There were days when I wrote 10,000 words, hunching over my keyboard in airports, on subways, in taxis—anywhere I could type. The book was trying to get out of my head, no matter what, and I missed so much sleep and so many meals that friends started to ask if I was unwell.”
I do recommend this novel. It’s short and well written.
The point is that this sort of thing happens rarely. Even a few seasoned authors who seem most capable of cranking out novels in record time rarely don’t put out more than two or three a year.
Chris Keaton and I took seven years from start to finish for The Mosaic. Why so long? Well, for one, we didn’t work on it continuously. I was in charge of the early writing because Chris was a screenwriter and had little novel-writing experience when we began, and I had other projects going on at the time. Still, I did crank out a first draft in about nine months
Now, consider also that Chris had already spent a year or two writing the original screenplay (about 100 pages) before he and I ever met. When one compares a screenplay to a novel, the screenplay is not a dense format (his word count was around 20,000 words). In this regard, his screenplay essentially amounted to little more than a detailed outline of a novel. The finished novel comes in around 88,000 words. To get to the finished novel we had to expand the screenplay, expand the main plot and subplots, add subplots, add descriptions, build the characters, add a lot more dialog, and build the world. Although the core story did not change, we made a LOT of changes as well from the original.
I first read the screenplay in late March 2009 and had a first draft (about 70,000 words) of the novel done that December. We both knew it was a rough draft that needed to be expanded and polished.
We had originally expected it to take us at most three years to complete. Don’t get me wrong, it’s been a wonderful experience for both of us, and we’re hugely proud of the finished product, but it took time and many drafts, along with opinions from beta readers, to get the job done.
During that time, Chris’ writing skills expanded from screenwriting and he produced a side work called Pieces From The Mosaic. This is a collection of short stories based on the Mosaic universe he created. “Pieces” will be released later this year or at the start of 2017. Chris has also developed some pretty mean novel writing skills and turned out a rough draft for the second Mosaic novel, which is currently untitled.
Had Chris and I had nothing else to do but write the first novel, we might well have finished it in 2-3 years. Would it have been as good as what we ended up with? Probably not. Over the years we spent working on it, new ideas came to us, and we refined both story and characters. We added a few characters as well. As we made changes and immersed ourselves in this universe, we both grew as writers. The interesting thing is that I believe the delay actually has helped us. The self-publishing world has grown and changed a lot since we began. If nothing else, the quality of indie-published books now being produced gave us the incentive to work that much harder to produce a quality product.
One of the things that put us behind was designing a cover. At first we tried to do it ourselves. While we came up with some great ideas, they all fell short in one way or another and we were in a bit of a rut. This is not a testament against doing it yourself. Our problem was we simply couldn’t come up with the right cover. So, we engaged professionals to bring in some new ideas and nailed a final design.
Four years ago (which only seems like one or two) on this blog, actually, but it seems like decades), I did a three-part series on Novel Writing for Beginners.
Since then, Scott and I have expanded on various techniques, and these articles can be found under the “Novel Writing” category of the blog.
What I’m trying to convey to you is that art takes time, and writing is art. If you rush it, you may end up with an inferior result, or at least not the best result. I’m sure you’ve seen the result of hastily published books. I do want to point out that I did most of the editing, with Chris and a few other readers spotting things I missed. Chris and I alone went through the manuscript MANY times, each time catching more mistakes, and I went through it twice after that to try to catch all the little things we’d overlooked. I have no doubt that we still missed some, hopefully not more than a handful. The nice thing about self-publishing is that if more are found, we can upload a corrected version.
Even after you finish writing a novel, there is a clear advantage to not rushing it to publication. Putting it aside for a few weeks (as Scott and I have said before) puts distance between you and the manuscript and gives you a better chance of catching errors missed peviously. The fresher the look you can give it, the better.
If you know your grammar and punctuation, you can edit your own work, but it’s still difficult to do it properly by yourself. It helps to have a couple of outside readers to spot what you overlooked or have become blind to.
Most of the conventional wisdom surrounding self-publishing says that you can’t do it all yourself. The truth is that you can, but only if you have all the requisite skills. Very few writers are good editors, and not all can design good covers (even though many try). I consider myself a good editor, but I freely admit that editing my own work is a challenge because I’m too close to it. Yes, in time I can catch every error. It simply depends on how much time you’re willing to spend.
This brings me back to the title of this blog. How long does it take to write a novel? The real answer is that it takes as long as it takes to do the job right, and that’s not always about writing the story. It’s about making that story presentable and readable. There’s a common saying: Writing is rewriting. That’s always the case. Writing is the easy part (most of the time). It’s the revising, polishing, and cleaning it up to make it the best it can be that take the time.
If you have all the pieces in place to begin with, you can write a novel quickly. But making it a good novel and ready to be published is another matter.
Over the next weeks I’ll be talking more about polishing and editing your novel. I will also—finally—get into advice about cover design and advising you how to know when you can do it yourself and when to recognize (as Chris and I did) that you need outside help.