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How Long Does It Take To Write A Novel? by Onil Lad

I’ve stopped beating myself up over how long it is taking to finish my novel. It’s counterproductive and, anyway, there have been so many obstacles in the way. Just when I build up a head of steam, I get super busy at work, or I get roped into training for a marathon or some new challenge pops its head up.

Word counting is off the agenda as well. I’ve tried to write a novel in a month or fifty thousand words in fifty days. The one time I forced myself to write regardless of what came out, I ended up with a mess. The time was wasted, there was next to nothing that could be salvaged and it took me a long time to pick up the pieces and start again.

With a short story it’s easier to keep the motivation going, as I always have a work in progress that is nearing completion or something sent off and awaiting feedback. I feel like I am in the mix; there isn’t enough downtime for the doubts to set in and one failure doesn’t make me want to give up altogether.

Writing a novel can take six months, a year or, in my case, longer. The thought of throwing in the towel grows greater as the years roll by. If I was to call it quits now, I don’t think that I‘d have the heart to start again.

When I’ve spent so much time on one project, I want my story down on the page, but there’s less chance of that happening if I try to force it out. Also, I’m conscious of the fact that I need to get this one right and include all the things I ever wanted to say.

So, I’m not rushing it. I’ve gone back to the beginning and started re-writing my early chapters. I know that it is only a first draft and a fair chunk of it will have to be cut at some stage but, as I rewrite, I keep refining my manuscript.

To keep my motivation up I’m considering sending the first few chapters out for review. I’d like to make my first fifty to a hundred pages as good as possible instead of waiting for a complete first draft.  As I go back and work on my earlier sections the middle chapters are becoming clearer and are ready for some serious work.

I recently came across an interview with multiple Hugo award winning author Vernor Vinge: When asked why the time between books is so long, he claimed that he has had writers block since 1960 and he finds it hard to write first drafts. He says “Once I have an initial draft, I can work much more efficiently.”

This gives me hope. On the other hand, I’ve also read a discussion on the Authonomy community board where one writer has been trying to write fantasy for over thirty years without finishing one project. Gulp.


Onil Lad’s bio page

Rotten GodsThe Stone DragonThe Fortunes of Ruby WhiteTo Die ForShattered SkyBeneath the Dark Ice

Writing Novels in Australia

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. rosannedingli #

    Doomed to remain an aspiring novelist, I reckon. Writers do not run marathons, they don’t get super busy at work. They sit down and write. Stop doing everything else. I have not washed a car since 1985. Because I’m a writer. My fourth novel comes out in July. I have five collections of stories out, and a poetry collection. It takes, time, diligence, attention, determination, guts, staying power, writing skills, energy, wilfulness, courage, persistence, research skills, grit, stamina, creativity, resourcefulness, and pluck.

    April 19, 2013
    • Novel writers can have other interests. However, writing novels is a big time commitment.
      A first draft generally takes months rather than a year or more, once someone has a firm story idea, knowledge of their subject matter and is serious about writing the manuscript. Typically, once these things come together, a writer is driven to make the novel a high priority and get to the end of the first draft.
      The default schedule for working novelists tends to be a novel a year (including research, drafting, rewriting, editing, proofreading, etc, as well as doing interviews, articles, book signings, talks at literary festivals, etc). Of course, different novelists work to different schedules.
      It is often when the first draft is complete that a writer really understands how their novel fits together and what choices will work for a lot of the small details.

      April 19, 2013
  2. When I gave up thinking measurements of time and instead accepted that each of my works-in-progress will be ready at just the right moment, then my focus once again returned to the act of storytelling and not the process of producing a product.
    I am sure that, no matter how long it takes, when your novel is finished you will have no more thoughts of how long it took to be born. Don’t rush. Enjoy now, when the story is yours alone.

    April 19, 2013
    • Good post. I don’t think it’s anyone’s place to judge your methods (Roseanne). Fast drafting is great, but it’s not the definitive way to write a novel. If you’re making progress and it feels right, then you’re on the right path. I mean, Hemingway would only write and polish a single page a day.

      What I particularly liked about this post is that it shows how much mental fortitude is required with novel writing. I think it was very brave of you to share your struggles with us and I wish you luck with your manuscript.

      April 19, 2013
      • Absolutely. Writing is not the sole activity in a writer’s life and maybe not even the main activity.
        Writing one great novel is better than writing several mediocre novels in the same timeframe.

        April 19, 2013
  3. Meredith Blake #

    Really liked this article. I’m having trouble, myself, and am constantly thinking about when I want it done. But the reality is, I write slowly. I can’t do fast drafts; I mean, I know the whole story but it’s an outline. Mostly, I spend a lot of time figuring it all out, knowing what I want to write, writing it and rewriting it.

    I can’t remember which article it was; I found it on Write Practice, but it talked about the different methods: some writers are fast drafters, others slow. I felt a little better after that.

    April 20, 2013
  4. virtuefiction #

    Great article, Onil.

    It only takes a quick search through the Twitter writing hashtags to see how different people approach their manuscripts. Unless you’re under industry deadlines or trying to ride a trend such as dystopian fiction, there’s certainly no rush. Like Meredith, I spend time figuring out what I want to write, writing it, and then rewriting/editing what I’ve written.


    You said that writers (read: “real writers”) sit down and write. That’s exactly what I do between full-time work and raising a two-year-old in a foreign country. Maybe I should stop washing my car too so I can get to the end of my manuscript, or am I doomed to be an aspiring novelist like Onil?

    Not to be petty, but some “writers” would have certainly completed more than 4 novels, a bunch of short stories and poetry in 30 years, so I can’t exactly see how you are in a position to judge. If you’ve figured out what works for you then all the more power to you, but something more constructive than truisms and synonyms would have been gone down better, don’t you think?

    April 20, 2013

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