How Long Does It Take To Write A Novel?

Prague-Astronomical_clock-Clock-Old_Town_Prague-Prague_Astronomical_Clock-originalI think most people assume that a novel takes ages to write, likes it’s the sole domain of retirees and full-time writers.But most first novels are written by people in some other full-time employment. They fit the writing into stolen moments in the evening, early mornings, Sundays.

The actual answer to the question, ‘how long does it take?’ is impossible because it depends, but anything which takes a long time to complete usually requires persistence, dedication and focus. In fact, in life, most things that are worth something are often attained by these three values as well.

When people say they haven’t got time, they just mean that they don’t want it enough and are choosing to do something else with their time instead. That’s fine but don’t use time as an excuse for not starting.

One thing that fascinates me is the perception of time. We all have exactly the same number of hours in the day and yet some seem to achieve so much more than others. I think when you get to the end of your life, your most proud of those moments where you used time effectively. How you use time reflects upon the size of the legacy you leave behind.

A novel is a sizeable investment of your time, so is training for a marathon, and both need to include a plan of how you’re going to reach the end. I own a coaching business aside from my “glittering” writing career and the most important thing I tell people is to focus on what they want to achieve. Without knowing where you’re headed it’s unlikely you’re going to find it, and how will you know anyway.

So, before you crack on with your new novel I think it’s a good idea to have some kind of expectation in your head of when you’re aiming to finish it. When you run a marathon, you don’t say, ‘I’ll just keep running and see what happens,’ (unless you’re Forrest Gump). It’s important to allocate a time to it subconsciously.

Because the answer to the question is completely unscientific, the only way to calculate it is by looking at previous evidence. So, I’ve tried to make a list below of some famous authors who I could find that disclosed this vital piece of information.

  • Annie Dillard – 3 years per book
  • Arthur Miller – Death of a Salesman – 6 weeks
  • JK Rowling – Philosopher’s Stone – 6 years
  • JK Rowling – Entire Harry Potter series (7 books) – 17 years
  • Isabel Allende  – roughly a book per year
  • Jonathan Franzen – Freedom – 9 years
  • Sue Monk Kidd – The Secret Life of Bees – 3 years
  • Kathryn Stockett – The Help – 5 years
  • Danielle Steel – writes up to 5 at a time – 2.5 years per book
  • Sara Gruen – Water for Elephants – 1st Draft 4 weeks
  • Anthony Burgess – A Clockwork Orange – 3 weeks
  • Ray Bradbury – Fahrenheit 451 – 9 days
  • Georges Simenon – Inspector Maigret books – less than 2 weeks average
  • Robert Louis Stevenson – The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – less than a week
  • Michael Ondaatje – The English Patient – 6 years

What’s the conclusion? A book can take as long as you want. Parkinson’s Law, ‘Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion’. Set a target to work to and your productivity will increase. If you still need help to come up with a realistic expectation then use this handy calculator which I found on the PowerUp website.

Until next time…


9 responses to “How Long Does It Take To Write A Novel?

  1. My first two took about a year each, while working my day job full time.

  2. Great article once again!

    I’m in what I hope to be the final “pre-submission” revision of my first novel. I began work on it back in 2011. It’s a “portal fantasy”, so I had to do some world-building up front.

    World building and story boarding (I’m an outliner, of sorts) took roughly 2 months. Writing the first draft took 90-days, and it weighed in around 160k words. I finished that first draft on Thanksgiving weekend of 2011 and I’ve been revising ever since. (It peaked at 180k words, and I’ve since wrestled it down to 115k words).

    Just like you mentioned, I work in stolen moments and days when I can get them. It’s the only way, until I’m able to do this full time.

  3. That is an interesting list. I have come to think sometimes of writers as falling into two groups, those who write first drafts that do not need much work to reach their potential, and those writers whose first drafts need a lot of work to reach their potential. Writing complex mainstream fiction (Pynchon, McCarthy) probably requires a lot of rewriting. The journalist A. J. Liebling reportedly once bragged “I can writer faster than those who write better, and better than those who write faster.” What a great gift to be able to crank out a good first draft quickly, at least for genre writers trying to make a living, and thus needing multiple books. George Simenon’s simple and short little novels, mostly atmosphere, certainly should not have needed more than two weeks each. But how did Faulkner write his brilliant As I Lay Dying in six weeks?

  4. It’s a naive question, suited to the budding writer or to those who might never write anything. The time factor doesn’t come into it for me; a piece of work is finished when the pen is put down or the pc is shut down. The rewrites are the stages along the way and sometimes whole chunks of written stuff never gets to the final draft, either because they need to be put aside, or because they may be, for example, dialogues between characters, done so I can understand them more.
    Keep on keepin’ on!

    • The question is indeed pointless for some writers, those for whom the novel itself is the point. That presumably is everyone who writes “mainstream” or literary fiction (and maybe people hoping for the big Hollywood deal). On the other hand, I imagine that people for whom the novel is just a means to an end, especially the rent money, time is an important factor. Someone writing a novel for the money, and presumably writing a throw-away genre novel on current fads (time-traveling teenage vampire romances?) with a brief shelf life, it might be important to know if the same amount of money can be earned in less time by hourly wages. I deduce from your remark, Jerome, that you are writing serious fiction. I hope so, and wish you well. You probably know that the poet Valery once said that a poem is never finished, it is abandoned: make it as good as it can be before putting down the pen. You and I probably agree with that as applied to fiction, too.

      • Thanks Stephen.

        I wish I could be as artistic as you and Jerome. It would take a load of pressure out of the commercial side.

        An ‘abandoned’ project would keep me up at night. The lack of closure would destroy me, I think. 🙂

      • Michael, I think that when Valery talked about abandoning a poem he did not mean stuffing it, unfinished, in a drawer. I think he meant that the writer finally abandons the attempt to make it even better. The poem reaches a point at which further revision is pointless. A novel is “finished” when the writer says it is (especially these days, when agents and editors aren’t making suggestions for revision), even though probably any long work could be improved here or there. We all know that from reading our own “finished” work from a few years ago and see clearly what might have made it better.

      • Oh, that’s a relief, and it makes much more sense as well. I completely agree with the idea that all projects are abandoned in some way or another. Thanks for educating me.

    • Jerome,

      Thanks for your comment.

      The question’s unanswerable in any scientific way. How long’s a piece of string? However, I’d be surprised if most writers, regardless of genre, have the luxury of an endless amount of time to perfect their work. Although I agree with your sentiment, I still think it’s necessary to set your mind to finish at a particular point in the future. With anything of this nature it’s very hard to have an absolute end point. You could preen and polish a novel for thirty years but would that make it a better book? If you’re building a bridge then it gets to the other side and you’re done. Books aren’t like that. Perfection doesn’t exist.

      The post is aimed at new writers who, in my opinion, need to set realistic expectations on themselves for when they are going to complete their work. There’s a great energy in completing a project and moving on to the next.

      I agree with almost everything you say apart from the time factor. Deadlines are important, or at least they are to me. 🙂

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