Someone recently asked me this question: how long does it take you to write a book? I paused for a moment before answering, because I was pretty sure the other person expected a pretty straightforward answer. Something like, “three months, two weeks and four days, give or take”.
Of course, as anyone who’s done any kind of fiction writing knows, the answer is way more complicated than that.
Every book is different
For a start, the answer is different for each book I’ve written. And in some cases it doesn’t even have anything to do with word count. Some books just write themselves – they come quickly and relatively easily (I’m cautious about using the word “easy” when it comes to writing!) and before you know it, you’re typing “The End”.
Other books make you struggle for every word. Or they start off fine, and then the muse up and disappears after chapter three. Then, six months later she’s back, whispering in your ear, “Hey, remember that story we abandoned? Well, how about...”
You can’t really count the time in between as writing time. Although obviously, somewhere in your subconscious, it’s still been kicking around, working itself out. So it still kind of counts!
What do you mean by “finished”?
As we know, there isn’t one finish line when it comes to writing. Typing “The End” on your first draft is really a beginning, just as much as a finishing. There’s editing, redrafting, rewriting, restructuring...
And then, when your story makes it into the hands of a publisher there’s a whole new finish line ahead. Editorial/structural edits. Then line edits. Then author alterations. Then, THEN, finally, your book is done and off to the printing presses (or equivalent e-book formatting!).
“I never finish anyway...”
I know a lot of writers who struggle with finishing their stories. A lot of agents and publishers only want the first three chapters for submission, so there is a temptation not to bother with writing the book much past that. And, let’s face it, the first part of a book is usually the easiest – we’re still in love with our characters and the novelty of our story is still fresh and exciting.
I’m a bit of a believer in the school of thought around the law of attraction. It basically says that your attitudes and behaviours have a lot to do with the kind of opportunities life sends your way. And I think if you only ever write three chapters, you’re kind of putting it out there that it’s okay that no one ever asks you for more than that. Not to mention the fact that you’re really not giving yourself the full experience of being a writer. Writing the opening of a story is relatively easy. Seeing it through to fruition, watching your conflicts play out, keeping the tension alive, avoiding the “saggy middle” – they’re all writing skills that you’ll never use if you never go past the first three chapters.
And, on a very practical level, when the right editor does hit upon your work and asks to see the rest, if you’ve already written it (or at least most of it) you’re in a fantastic position to do some polishing, some final writing and send it off quick-smart before they forget about you! Responding quickly as a writer is important (even if responding quickly as publishers and editors is practically unheard of!).
So what’s the answer?
How long is a piece of string? How long it takes is up to you. As with so much in writing, there’s no right or wrong answer. The only misstep you make, I think, is in not meeting the challenge to reach “The End”.
Emmie’s latest book is a novella, Spellbound. She thinks it probably took about three weeks to write, three months to polish, and three years to get published.