How Long to Write a Novel?

The answer is: it depends on the writer and the story.

I generally have spent about 4 months writing each novel.  I’ve never written every day on a particular story.  I may do several days in a row and take a few days off, or other days interspersed with days spent on something else.  Partly this is when life’s events intrude, less often is mood, and more often it’s because I’d rather not rush a novel and the pace I’ve chosen tends to work for me, and I can still create one in about 4 months.

I usually write in 2-4 hour shifts, between 1,000 and 5,000 words.  I typically prefer to write an entire chapter if possible, or one or more scenes if that’s more feasible.

Every writer is different, though.  Some literary authors will craft their prose in the way a poet creates a poem, considering and balancing the taste and weight of every word within each sentence and the overall whole.  Some authors are dedicated toward a disciplined approach and either write each day with a specific time or a specific amount of product in mind before stopping.  Stephen King discusses the various approaches at length in his excellent book On Writing, and there’s little need for me to add much more – his anecdotes about styles are also highly entertaining.

I usually mull an idea off and on for a month or two before beginning a novel.  Stories I’ll often write cold (other than research for a locale if needed).

I’ve mentioned in a previous post that I need to have insight into what my main character is feeling before I begin a work.  I sometimes have a very rough idea of an opening scene, and an idea of the main challenges facing the character and whatever friends she ends up making along the way.

For Glowstar I had a strong image of a young woman being pulled from the icy Hudson River – only she isn’t dead.  I liked the idea of the Gatherers (Light Gatherers and Dark Gatherers) and an exploration of what makes us human as well as what enduring love really means.  The opening chapter is here.  It took around 3-4 hours to write the first chapter. I did the opening scene one evening and the closing scene the next evening.

Glowstar took 4 months from early December 2010 to early March 2011 to complete.  Revisions followed. The first one I began about a month after finishing, and it took a week or so off and on to clean up a few scenes, tighten language, and fix typos (typically missing or misplaced words).  I did a second revision a couple weeks afterward which took another week or so.  After that, I only made a few  tweaks here or there in a few places when I re-read.

The Winter Fade series was envisioned with a distinct story-arc that naturally fell into three works.  I wrote them back-to-back since I had ideas for each.  Not full-fledged plots, but general ideas and a strong sense of feeling for the character at these stages in her life.  The first book (Winter Fade) was written between April through July 2008.  The second book was from August through mid-November 2008, and then I took a couple weeks to put the first book through its first revision.  The third book is actually the shortest of the three but the one that did involve some plotting – especially for the first half – and took a little longer, from December 2008 through June 2009.  Part of that was interspersed with revision work being done on the first two books to ensure continuity.  I’m not a fan of doing contortions in retconning something after the fact.

The first story of the Becomings collection, Isabel, took four days in mid-April 2010 (7,500 words).  Darya took two weeks in late April and early May (18,000 words – just under novella size).  Katharine took three weeks in late October through mid-November 2010 (15,000 words).

I tend to intersperse writing with research into settings and other fact-finding that I want to use to inform my writing.  And revision work happens in-between as well.

I don’t like to parallel-write two works at the same time – although I have jotted down scenes for upcoming works while working on a current one.

Start-to-finish – writing through iterations of revisions – is usually about 6-8 months per novel.

When I speak of research informing my descriptions, as I’ve mentioned before I will do considerable research to gain a feel for what I’m looking at, and then use only the smallest amount needed to describe it.

For this scene:










I researched how immigrants arrived to New York City in the late 1940s (the Queen Mary was a very common mode – especially coming from Great Britain).  I looked into dates and times of arrivals to the harbor, as well as viewed pictures and videos and floorplans of the ship.  Very little of that appears in the writing; there’s a mention of the cramped tourist-class cabin deep within the ship, and the teak decks.

Every writer finds their own way to describe scenes and how much research they want to utilize, or whether to weigh more toward imagination.  I do a lot of research because I can research and absorb a considerable amount of information in an extremely short span of time – something that came handy in college.  I do that partly because it helps me begin to connect with a scene, and also because I do not regurgitate tons of data back into my writing.  I use research sparingly on the output end of things.

But I also do a lot of research because I simply love to read and to learn new things.  That’s exciting for me, and the excitement spreads to my own writing.

There are some fine writers who do no research – or virtually none – at all.  Stephen King has said that he not only doesn’t outline or pre-plot, but that he wings pretty much anything he writes and doesn’t bother with research.  He’s frankly amazing in that manner – he noted once that he had thrown in a mention of a dirty-comic version of certain animated characters in The Green Mile and was pleased and surprised when a fan discovered and sent him a copy of a similar comic that had actually been done during that time period.

These are my own methods and pace for writing, and every writer has to find what works for them.  A lot depends as well on whether one is able to write only part-time or full-time, plus life events creating challenges for dedication and discipline.  One thing that a person takes away from Stephen King’s On Writing is the level of dedication and discipline that he has taken with his craft.  The biographical first half of the book drives that point home, as one comes to realize all that he faced throughout his career.

For the record, I always highly recommend King’s book.  Although many others – such as Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life also have a lot to offer a writer for perspective (and Dillard is an especially gifted writer with some really beautiful prose – showcased in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek), King’s book comes off the way he has always written – direct and intimate, conveying his points in just the right language that you understand what he’s trying to say.

3 thoughts on “How Long to Write a Novel?

  1. Interesting post. I think many factors contribute to the pace of our writing, many of which you mention here. In the end, it’s about creating and we can’t always predict how that will evolve. I set targets and make steady progress, but even still the timeline may need adjusting.

  2. I think your brain power and speed would be envied by more than a few writers. I write much slower than I would like for the most part and, like King, I often have no ideas for how a story will go until I sit down to write. I will research as I go, switching from the document to the internet until I find what I need and then carry on.

    I write, and then double back to add character, description or whatever when I review. Many writers seem to write like they put up a tent: get all the bits, lay them out, and then put them together. I write prose like a modern artist paints – slapping it around until it looks right. It’s messy, it’s chaotic, and I never know what it’s going to look like until it’s finished.

    Poetry? Sometimes, hours to craft – although my record is about two minutes for a near-final draft of a four line poem.

  3. Writing that full novel is a scary prospect and a great many people give up purely for the fact that they haven’t figured enough of a structure or plotline out. Its a tricky thing to do so finding the right way to do it is hard.

    You’ve come up with a well thought out post that backs yourself up and to be honest you’re showing a lot of grit and determination which will be hard to match. Its definitely going to be interesting to see if I can put some of this advice into practice and I’ll endeavour to do so. Thanks for this.

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