How Long Does it Take to Write a Novel?

How long does it take me to write a novel, from start to finish? As long as it takes, which might be, and usually is, several years. How many drafts go into a novel? Another unanswerable question because I pick up and drop WIPs, and pick them up again, for all sorts of reasons, or no apparent reason at all. My writing life is in a perpetual state of disorganization, flux, chaos, whatever you want to call it, and it works for me.

Ideas are always running through my head, against a background of unanswered questions about this WIP or that, even the ones that I’m not currently working on. Out of this mess comes the answers — usually. All this came to the foreground this morning as the solution to an ongoing problem with Bentham’s Dream came to me with no warning.

The question: Why would the warden of a secretive prison sit down with the first inspector to invade the premises in the 40 years of the prison’s existence, and reveal all (or nearly all) to him? I fooled around with motives like trust: for some reason, he knew that this inspector would keep everything to himself. The long-pent up doubts about his position and the whole concept of total solitary confinement, and no longer concerned about the possible consequences of his revelations. Well, there were others, also, but none of them satisfactory. This morning’s solution is truly the solution I’ve been looking for. It unites two ideas that my mind had kept totally separate, for some reason.

It’s a mystery why I couldn’t have seen the obvious need to combine them much sooner, but mystery is a good part of creative writing. Maybe I’m just trying to justify my lack of discipline, but it seems to me that you longer allow a piece of fiction to simmer and develop, the more chance there is of finding the best solutions. Not the solutions that let you zip through several thousand words a day or produce several novels a year, but the ones that bring characters to life, that result in a plot that seems inevitable rather than manufactured.

In today’s dominant emphasis on building a career, on treating writing as a business, taking the long path to a finished novel can look suicidal. It can certainly dump you in the waste bin called hobby writer, ignoring that, by those standards, many of the past’s great writers were mere hobbyists.



5 thoughts on “How Long Does it Take to Write a Novel?

  1. Absolutely loved this post, just forwarded it to twitter. (Well, I suppose I would love it, being now on the secondlast draft of a novel whose first draft was written in 1963.) Seriously, though, you haven’t lost your writing touch.

    1. It was actually your 1963 novel that inspired the post. As well as Alicia’s years of ongoing work on her trilogy. We’re all dreadfully out of tune with the current writing trends, which, as far as I’m concerned, is a *good* place to be.

  2. “As long as it takes” is really the only answer, at least for those of us who care about character and motivation. I’ll leave the completely plot-driven, formulaic books to others. It can be frustrating to realize how leisurely the creative process can be, but I believe social science research is now catching up with those of use who use the percolation method. Now even business schools and other bastions of productivity are suggesting that the most efficient way to solve problems is not necessarily to keep focused on the problem without a break, but rather to take time off to let your mind go elsewhere.

    1. That “elsewhere” is where serendipity resides, I believe: the unexpected bits of inspiration from a word, a phrase, a concept, a book or article, any of which, when looked at objectively have nothing at all to do with your work.

  3. I’m sorry I didn’t see this sooner!

    I’m stressing out over finding the next place in my life where I will live, and feeling some nostalgia for the place I’ve spent 36 years, and where I worked, and then lost work, reared three children…

    Things take as long as they need to take – because something is working down in the basement of your mind when you’re a writer, and the solution will come when whatever lives down there figures it out.

    If you push it, you get shallow solutions. If you eat stew before it’s ready, the meat will be tough. C’est la vie – and I’m glad to see you chewing on the work again.

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