How long does it take to write a novel?

Happy New Year! Slightly late, but there’s been a lot going on lately. I’m back from the brink of deadlines and travelling now, ready for a new post for 2013.

I’ve noticed over the past couple of months, as I make some rather big changes and meet new people in my writing life, certain questions crop up over and over again. For the next couple of months I’ll take some of these questions and discuss the various answers. The first one is ‘how long does it take to write a novel?’

How long is a piece of string? That’s one answer to the above. Some people take years to finish a novel. Sometimes, even when you think your novel is finished it can go through a series of rewrites until you hardly recognise it. Some people write a novel in 30 days. Some people claim to be able to write a novel in a weekend.

For the purposes of this article, ‘write a novel’ means ‘completely finish writing a novel’. National novel writing month (nanowrimo) is an example of the ‘write a novel in a month’ mentioned above. I’m rather late to the critique party on this one, as it was heavily discussed on Twitter late in 2012. The main criticism was that it was impossible to write a fully formed, polished novel in 30 days. However, nanowrimo does not claim that this is possible. The 30 days allowed provides a window to write 50k words to a target. It’s about getting the words onto the page, and developing daily writing habits.

At the end of the thirty days you are left with a 50k first draft, to which you will likely add another 40k words to make a full length novel. Then, it’s time for revisions. I like to do a spell check, then a first read through on my Kindle. I do a second read through, to pick out any further errors. I correct what I have found, then read the whole piece out loud. I call this process revision, as the editing can only begin when someone else has read and critiqued it.

When I am satisfied with revisions, I send my novel out to beta readers, who may take up to two months to read and reply with comments. I then do the edits from the notes they have produced, and have another read through. Only then am I approaching the end of the writing process. By this point I have usually thought of several ways I can improve the plot or pacing. This review comes with a little distance from the text, where I can think about how the story hangs together. This may lead to more changes, or even some chapter rewrites.

So, even with the motivation of 30 days to write 50k, this process would take a while. This includes a ideation period before I start to write, and the gestation of these ideas to finalise the plot and characters. Then there is the initial research and the necessity of a Pinterest board and a Spotify play list.

Although I only use nanowrimo for practice writing these days and take much longer to write around 90k words, I feel that the criticism levelled is a little unfair, as the aim is not to produce a finished novel in 30 days, but to get words onto the page that can then be modelled and shaped into the final draft. With practice comes professionalism and knowledge of the industry, and anyone who has ever read agents’ websites with a view to submitting work must have noted that the novel must be finished and polished. This is a natural baseline for ‘completely finished’ as it is an agreeable state for both the writer and the person who must sell the novel. Obviously, this does not apply to self-publishing, where the author must inevitably negotiate this baseline themselves.

The real beauty of nanowrimo is the confidence gained by completing 50k words for someone who has never written every day before, or the reintegration into the writing habit for experienced writers. Also, there is the sense of camaraderie in the otherwise fairly isolated world of writing. I’ve met some wonderful people, both online and in person, through nanowrimo, and been allowed an insight into other people’s writing habits.

Which brings me back to the original question: How long does it take to write a novel? Like most things, it depends on a complex mixture of many things and it’s difficult to measure both the beginning and the end of the process. I’d be interested to hear from authors how long this process takes for them, and the stages they encounter on the way.