How Long Should it Take to Write a Novel?

How long should it take to write a novel? There’s no answer to that question, of course. Unless you’re writing purely for money and you need to churn out as many novels as you can in a year. So if I tell you that I’m drastically rewriting two novels, one that I wrote in 2009, and also one that I wrote in 2012, you’re likely to think that I’m the type of writer who suffers endlessly over every sentence, every vocabulary choice, every bit of punctuation, trying to achieve an unattainable perfection. I’m picky when it comes to all those details, but I also have a pretty good handle on them, so they aren’t what keeps me whacking away at novels that are, technically, complete.

In the case of Gift of the Ancien, it took someone else’s eye to make me see that a character I considered the protagonist just wasn’t very interesting, and that two other characters, to whom I’d given short shrift, needed to be more fully developed. In the case of The New Serfdom, the entire story got away from me and turned into something completely different from the original concept. So both novels demanded major rewrites, with The New Serfdom being the most difficult to deal with. It’s also the most challenging and, therefore, the most interesting.

Back on the shelf with you, Ancien. Welcome to a front row seat, Serfdom.

The thing is, that when we talk about someone taking years to finish a novel, we do think about it as an obsession that sweeps everything else out of its way. The author will never write another thing until this one masterpiece is good enough to be revealed to the world. That might have been true in the old days (whenever those were), but not today. Even if we only take into account the time differential between starting over from scratch with pen and ink every time you want a clean copy, and doing it on the computer, I don’t think it’s a true picture of the long-promised novel that never seems to get finished.

Enter multi-tasking. Or maybe serial-tasking. What I read about more lately, and what I practice myself is the creation of several (many) WIPs, any one of which the author may be working on, either simultaneously with others or in a random or planned switching back and forth from one to the other. That’s how I work most of the time. Novels are long, development takes time, and powers of concentration burn out, so there comes a time when abandoning one story temporarily and switching to another keeps the production cycle going.

So it may take years to complete a novel, but there are others also coming along. And because they probably all take different amounts of time, if you have enough WIPs in the hopper, you might eventually find yourself finishing more than one, or even two, a year. It’s sort of like juggling. When you’re just learning to juggle, two balls is easy, the third is difficult, and the fourth is impossible. But once you’ve mastered the skill, you can have all four balls in the air at once. And impress the hell out of everybody.

I’m still working on that.


4 thoughts on “How Long Should it Take to Write a Novel?

  1. I never started out that way, but I find that’s how I operate now. Perhaps it’s a function of being in the business a certain length of time, so that in the end there are numerous pots, all at different stages, perking away on the hot plates.

    1. Doing NaNo for several years in a row should have locked me into being more organized, but it didn’t work that way. Not sure whether I’m grateful or sorry, but plowing through an entire novel while neglecting everything else just doesn’t fit me very well. I guess that’s why I had such a hard time sticking with the 2012 novel, and pulled out less than halfway through last year. Doing NaNo was great for motivation and discipline, but more of a distraction once I found my own working method.

      Love that metaphor,

  2. “The author will never write another thing until this one masterpiece is good enough to be revealed to the world. ” You got me.

    I don’t write short very often, and when I do, it usually comes out in one piece – and I don’t touch it much after that because what it has going for it is that breathless quality that comes from just letting it out.

    I couldn’t do Nano anything, so that’s just another way we’re different. Which is interesting – but not important. Even my blog posts tend to go on forever, possibly because I don’t write them until my brain thinks it has a new chunk that needs organizing.

    Whatever floats your boat.

    1. When that was written, I believed I was through with NaNo. I’d learned everything I could from it, and taking an entire month off from everything else seemed like too much. Another instance of “How wrong can you be?” NaNo is the only time I get a novel written from start to finish, in a reasonable length of time. But once a year is enough! I have two possibles lined up for this year. So it goes.

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