I know that you know the answer to this question: it depends.
It depends on the writer, and it depends on the novel. Even so, you’re curious.
How does your writing speed compare to that of other authors? Are you taking an inordinately long time to write your novel? Or perhaps you’re concerned that you write so darn quickly, there must be something wrong with your process.
A Novel in a Month
Every year, thousands of writers take part in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). The goal is to write a 50,000-word novel in November. Arguably, 50,000 words is too short to really be considered a novel since most published novels are between 60,000 and 100,000 words.
Even so, cracking out 50,000 words in a month is no mean feat. As authors who take part will realise, it’s hard work. And probably not a sustainable pace – especially if you have a day job or other commitments.
Those 50,000 words, though, will be in a pretty rough state. NaNoWriMo is all about getting the first draft on the page, without going back and editing and without necessarily following a plan. Because of this, many of these words will be scrapped in the redrafting stage – which comes after that frantic month of writing.
In short, you’re very unlikely to be able to write a novel in a month. But it’s not impossible. If you’ve already meticulously planned your story before you begin writing, you might be able to complete a short novel in one or two drafts.
When I signed with a literary agent, he told me to take my time finishing my manuscript because once that one was published, I’d be expected to produce more books to the publisher’s timeframe – usually one a year. (Unfortunately I took so long over my first novel that I never finished it …)
JK Rowling took six years to write Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, but once that was published, the first four books in the series were each published a year apart.
Someone like George RR Martin, who writes the epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire (average word count per novel: 350,000 words), takes around five years per book – much to the frustration of his fans. It’s understandable, though, when you consider the length and complexity of his novels!
On the other end of the scale, when Anthony Burgess was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 1960, he launched into a writing frenzy in the hope that the royalties from his books would support his wife after he died. He wrote five novels in that first year. When he found out he had been misdiagnosed, he continued writing at speed – writing nearly forty novels. He famously wrote A Clockwork Orange (59,000 words) in six weeks.
John Boyne wrote the first draft of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas in a two-day burst without stopping to sleep. The revision stage takes him longer, though, and he says he typically goes through ten draft.
First drafts come quite quickly to me. I don’t like to plot a novel out too deeply in advance, preferring to start with a basic idea, a character or a theme and let the story guide me. I generally write a first draft over the course of a month, working eight- or nine-hour days, seven days a week, completely removing myself from the world. I know that if I walk away from it during this time, the novel, like an unsupervised souffle, will simply collapse.
John Boyne for The Irish Times
Factors to Consider
How long does it take to write a novel? It depends on the answers to all these questions:
- How long is your novel?A short 60,000-word thriller will take less time to write than a 300,000-word fantasy epic.
- How much planning have you done?If you’re figuring out the plot as you write it, the writing process itself could take much longer.
- How complicated is your novel?A complex plot or an epic story with lots of world building will require a lot of thinking time.
- How much time can you dedicate to writing?We all have other commitments, but these vary from person to person.
- How long do you want to spend writing your novel? Some authors prefer to write and publish fast; others prefer to labour slowly over their writing.
- Do you have a publishing schedule you need to follow? In which case, how long it takes you is slightly out of your hands – you’ll have to do the best you can in the time you’re given!
At the end of the day, there are so many factors that affect how long it takes to write a novel. The real question isn’t ‘How long does it take to write a novel?’ but ‘How long does it take you to write a novel?’ The answer will always be: ‘As long as it takes.’