How Long Does It Take to Write a Novel?

Since my last post, 2 things have happened which have taken my mind off the global pandemic, at least for a little while, namely:

1. On Sunday, I went out in my car (essential shopping, not a jolly!), for what should have been a 25-minute round trip and got stuck in the snow!

It’s hilly around here, so on the way home (in what had suddenly changed from ‘light snow’ to a huge snowstorm), as I tried to navigate a very sharp bend, on a steep hill, the car stopped and I couldn’t get going again!

I did manage it in the end, by clearing the snow around the wheels and inching up the hill but it was scary, driving in those conditions. Hmm, I won’t be doing that again in a hurry.

2. This morning we had a wasp (!) in the bedroom, on the Velux window (see above) and I called my OH in to let it out (he is the insect remover in this house) which he did by swinging the Velux window up and hitting me so hard on the head with the other end of it that I fell over! Ouch.

Novel Writing

The second draft of my novel has finally left the building – phew – and I have a little rest until I get the verdict.

It’s taking me a long time to write this novel so I have been investigating how long it takes other people:

Marian Keyes (who writes HUGE tomes) admits that ‘she’s a slow writer at the best of times, taking around two years per novel’

But that’s nothing compared to Donna Tartt, who publishes one of her brilliant novels once a decade.

One of my favourite wartime novels, ‘Their Finest Hour and A Half’, by Lissa Evans, took her 7 years to write. She says in this interview, “I write incredibly slowly and I re-write ruthlessly as I go along – honing, polishing, moving, cutting, changing – stripping back the sentiment, trying to nail the humour and crisp up the dialogue, aiming above all for clarity.”

Hurrah! Not that I’m comparing myself to the brilliant Lissa Evans but that’s sort of how I write too. And it’s exactly what all the textbooks and experts tell you not to do.

She also admits that she has a short attention span. “If I glance at the clock and five minutes have gone by, I count that as a record-breaking feat of concentration.”

Frances Quinn, author of the recently-published ‘The Smallest Man’, her debut novel set in the time of the English Civil war (and which is definitely on my ‘TBR’ list) told me on Twitter when I asked her, that it had taken her four years to write.

And in this article, she says she wrote 7 drafts and from the first to the last, only about a third of the words are the same, which I found very comforting in one way (but. erm, does that mean I have to do another 5 drafts?!)

But not everyone is slow! I’m sure it’s pure chance that all the ‘slowies’ I’ve quoted, including myself, are women and the speed-demon I’m about to talk about is a man, but bestselling author Robert Harris wrote the bulk of his latest novel ‘V2’ in the first lockdown, spending ‘four hours every morning, seven days a week for fourteen weeks’.

His editor read his manuscript in weekly instalments and made comments, so in a way there were two of them writing it (That’s what I’m telling myself anyway). I know all this, by the way, not because I asked him on Twitter but because my OH had the book for Christmas and it’s in the acknowledgements at the back.

Between you and me and the gatepost, OH’s verdict (and he is a BIG fan of RH), is that it’s good but it’s..shhh.. ‘not his best’.

So there you go, I rest my case. He should have taken much, much, much longer to write it.

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24 Responses to How Long Does It Take to Write a Novel?

  1. Wendy Clarke says:

    This is really interesting. The time it takes to write a novel will, in most instances, depend on your publisher. Most of the examples you’ve given are standalone literary fiction with traditional publishers and you need to compare like for like depending on what you write. Genre fiction (rom com, psych thriller, crime etc), especially with the digital publishers, is often a whole different kettle of fish. I had the luxury of around eighteen months to write/edit/submit to RNA NWS etc. with my first novel because I didn’t have a publisher at that time. Once you have a publishing contract (often with a two or three book deal) everything changes and you no longer have the luxury of time. I am with a fabulous digital publisher and recently signed my third two-book dealwith them. Before I signed, I negotiated my own contract so that I could have seven months to write each novel (six months to write and one to edit before sending to my editor for several more months of work). During the editing process, I am already writing, or at least planning, the next novel. Compared to other genre authors I know, this is a long time frame… some can write a book in just a handful of months! Many digital publishers like to see two, or sometimes even three, of their authors’ novels published each year. Once you’ve signed on the dotted line with a publisher, what might have felt a bit like a hobby becomes serious and part-time writing can easily become full time. I say that from experience. Having said that, yesterday, I received my author paperback copies for book four in readiness for publication day next week and it made me realise that despite my life being very different now, I wouldn’t change it for anything! The moral is, only accept a timescale you’re comfortable with. Phew! Sorry to have waffled on, Helen, and good luck! x

    • Thanks Wendy, this is all interesting stuff! I suppose it boils down to..(should I be so lucky to have the option, at some point in the future).. do I want to write full-time?! And I’m not sure, to be honest!

  2. I started plotting my first one in October 2007 and finally published it in February 2016. Having said that, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing when I started and had to do a huge amount of rethinking and rewriting. The next two only took two years each. (This is why I like self-publishing – I think working to someone else’s deadline would drive me to distraction!)

  3. Patsy says:

    It’s not just how many months or years it takes to write the novel we should consider, but what else we’re doing in the same period. My first took ten years, but I was working full time, moved house (and jobs) twice and was attempting to crack the women’s magazine short story market.

    I’ve got quicker, but that’s at least partly because I’ve concentrated more on the novel and less on other things.

    Many women writers, even full time ones, have children or elderly relatives to care for, housework and shopping to do or will regularly be interrupted by family members which tends to happen less with men. (Not all men – I know!) I wonder how many women can guarantee four uninterrupted hours once a week, never mind every single day for three months.

    • Yes, that’s a good point, Patsy about the ‘four uninterrupted hours a week, never mind every day’ (Robert Harris does thank his wife Gill in the acknowledgements, for allowing him to do that!) Perhaps we all need a wife!

  4. Amanda says:

    Thanks for this reassuring post, and sorry to hear about your misadventures. If I were ever presented with a genie’s lamp I’d wish for the ability to write more quickly!

  5. Sharon boothroyd says:

    I think once you’ve signed a contract, most publishers within a general best- selling genre, expect you to churn out a book a year. I hate to say this, but I feel sometimes the quality of the novel has dropped because of this. Authors are under pressure to meet that deadline, and it’s this pressure that can affect the good high standard they set out with. There’s 2 well- known chick- lit type of novelists that I loved, but now they’re under the ‘1 book a year’ rule, I’ve felt that they’ve lost their sparkle. So they lost me as a loyal reader. To me, publishers ought focus more on the creative side instead of the money making one. As for me – well, I couldn’t handle that kind of pressure at all!

    • I agree with all that you’ve said, Sharon. Must admit, as much as I’d like a publishing deal, I’m also worried about being on the ‘treadmill’ and expected to produce novels quickly!!!

  6. pennywrite says:

    Ooo do you think that was a Queen Wasp?? They’ll be a bit bigger than ordinary wasps, and out early looking for nesting sites… sorry about your bump on the head!
    All I can say about time (for anything!) at the present is that everything seems to take ages longer than usual. If (If!) I were Donna Tartt it might be worth it :-), I love her writing.

  7. kathmcgurl says:

    I’m currently writing two a year. I no longer have the day job, the kids are grown, I have no elderly parents to care for, and we just moved to a small, easy to maintain house. All of which helps with time. I aim to write around 10,000 words a week when doing a first draft. In theory the draft is then complete in about 9-10 weeks, so that leaves plenty of time for edits and research. In practise it’s more stop/start as edits for the previous book come in. Lockdowns in theory should make it easier – more time to write – but I think we are all finding that is not the case. Everyone works differently and it’s never good to compare yourself with other writers!

    • Two novels a year is good going, Kath. I’ve heard of other writers who are contracted to do that (eg: Jo Thomas, who came to talk to us when I was on a writers holiday in Wales a couple of years ago). It must be bloomin’ hard work, so I take my hat off to you. And yes, I agree, it’s not good to compare. That’s why I’m focussing on finding writers who are as slow as me. Makes me feel better!

  8. Linda says:

    Sorry to hear about your scary driving experience – that must have been very frightening. Hope you are recovering from your bang on the head. One of the books I’m working on first came to me as an idea when my boys were at nursery – they’re now 19 and 17! I have written other stuff in between though as well as bringing up my family, looking after a house and working. I certainly couldn’t get four uninterrupted hours – I struggle to get that even when I’m doing the paid job working at home. Lockdown does has its advantages, no social obligations for one, but its hard to find a quiet space in the house with everyone in it. I’m just glad that I don’t also have to home school children!

    • Hi Linda, thanks for your comment. Yes, I agree, it must be very hard, having to home-school children. There are lots of people reporting on Twitter from the ‘home school front’, with comments like “Everybody cried today”. Am very grateful that I don’t have to do that.
      I had an idea which took me 15 years to actually put into a story (the serial I wrote for People’s Friend) so I know exactly what you mean about having an idea for many, many years! The danger with that, of course, is that someone else will have the same idea and will get there first!

  9. philippabowe says:

    Oh dear, wasp, head-bang and snow, that’s some unpleasant stuff. But to focus on the positive: well done for getting out your second draft, that’s such an accomplishment!
    I’m definitely a slowy, I started my novel on Nanowrimo in 2013 – and it’s only on the first-and-a-bit draft. But that’s in between work, kids and all the other obligations of life, not to mention discovering a penchant for flash fiction. 😉 Even now with the kids grown up and not much work due to Covid, four uninterrupted hours is hard to do. But I’m feeling a shift from writing as being “the thing I do when everything else is done” to “the thing I do” – which is fab!

    • Prioritising our writing is a major battle, isn’t it? (And, ahem, re. Robert Harris, is probably something that men find easier….!). I would actually struggle to sit there for 4 hours and be creative. I can do it if I’m editing (ie: tinkering!) as it doesn’t take quite so much brain power and concentration!

      • philippabowe says:

        Yes, a MAJOR battle! Including against an insidious, subconscious feeling that you’re being somehow self-indulgent by focusing on your writing rather than doing all that other stuff – and I think women writers probably do suffer from that more than men. I have started using the pomodoro technique to stay focused, it’s very simple but pretty effective I’m finding (25 minutes dedicated to a task, then a 5-minute break, repeat three more times than a 15-minute break).

      • Philippa, yes, I love the Pomodoro technique. I’ve been using that recently too. Nice, bite-sized chunks of time, aren’t they? Not too overwhelming but you do feel like you’re making some progress! And of course, the breaks are most welcome!

  10. Ninette90 says:

    Hi Helen…well done. I guess the question is not how long does it take to write a novel but how long does it take to write a novel and get it published? I have written one novel and 47,000 words of another one and it took me five years for the first and a couple of years for the second. I am now writing a memoir, which is almost finished and has taken me a year, (if you don’t count all the notes I made ten years ago). I would love to get a publishing deal but worry about the pressure of having to produce more books within a specified time frame set by someone else and not me. This is why I’m considering going down the route of self-publishing. Being in control of what I write and how long it takes to write it. Always love your blog posts…xx

    • Thanks, Ninette. (Are you still in France, by the way?) I know what you mean about not wanting to ‘dance to someone else’s tune’ (I’m paraphrasing!). The only thing that puts me off self-publishing is all the promotion you have do to yourself. It’s hard to get the book known and ‘out there’, isn’t it? But, you do have all the control (and all the profits, if there are any!) which is a Good Thing.

  11. Really interesting post, thanks for sharing. As many have commented, it’s less about getting the thing written and more about getting it published. Apparently ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ took two and a half days but I always think these things can be misleading – surely that was to write the first draft. That’s the easy bit (well, relatively speaking). I’ve found that coming back to my book after about a year meant I did a much more ‘complete’ edit and am much happier with it now. So if I count the actual ‘time’ spent on it then it’s about six years, but I took huge breaks in that time. Do you have time away from your books?

    • I didn’t know that about The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas but as you say, that would have just been the first draft, it’s also very short and John Boyne had probably been thinking about it for a long time before he put finger to keyboard. I have the first draft of a novel that I haven’t looked at for at least a year and I should probably go back to that now and I’ll hopefully see where it needs to be edited, changed and tightened up. I agree with you that distance from your work really helps but I suppose, once you’re in that cycle of agent-publisher-edits, there isn’t time to leave your work to ferment for weeks or months at a time because there’s always someone waiting for the next bit! Aaagh (*quietly panics*)

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