The first two answers that leapt to my mind when I saw the question ‘How long does it take to write a novel?’ were:
- As long as it takes; and
- How long is a piece of string?
Okay, I’ve written 13 books, and have been blessed to have published them all. But if I were starting all over again, I might well wonder how long it would take to write that incredible, wonderful, sure-to-be-a-bestseller idea.
The short answer to the question is (cue drum roll): It takes at least three to six months to complete a first draft.
I want to emphasise the words first draft, because that’s not finishing a novel – it’s merely phase one. Make no mistake, writing a novel is a process.
Let’s take a look at some of the steps along the way, and provide some insight into how long the process might take.
What kind of writer are you?
The kind of writer you are will go some way towards determining how long it will take you to write a novel.
It is generally accepted that there are two types of authors: planners and pantsers.
A planner does their research, creates a full synopsis and timeline, and develops characters in advance. They know exactly what is going to happen and when.
Once they start writing, theoretically, it should be plain sailing. Sticking to a plan can allow you to complete a draft quickly and efficiently.
The second type, the pantser, has a spark of an idea, and wonders… What if? From that point forward, they just write to see where the idea leads.
This method can take longer, especially if the writer hits plot tangles or creativity blocks along the way.
However, it is often as exciting for a pantser to write a story as it will be for a reader to read it. The writer wants to make time to write to find out what’s going to happen next, which can speed the process along.
I am the latter type of writer. I have no idea where and how my tale will end, and I’m desperate to find out.
How much time should you allow to write your novel?
‘Steve,’ my boss once said to me, leaning against the doorframe of my office, ‘if you want something done, always ask a busy person to do it. They will make time, yet someone with all the time in the world will make excuses.’
I think that’s true. I work for a living, and write for a passion, so I make time to do it. And there is the first point: writing a novel will take as long as the total amount of time you are willing and able to put in.
I’d suggest that you make time every day, if possible, and build a habit of writing.
Sometimes the words flow. Other times, you have to take a big stick, threaten the heck out of them, and force them to come.
Either way, if you haven’t set the time aside to put them on paper, they’ll float away on the river of being busy doing other stuff.
How many words should a novel be?
There are four general categories for story lengths. Online consensus loosely defines them as follows:
- Short story: up to 7,500 words
- Novelette: 7,500–17,000 words
- Novella: 17,000–40,000 words
- Novel: 40,000+ words
Can you tell a good story in 40,000 words? Of course you can. But when I think of some of the best books I’ve ever read, they are all somewhere around 100,000 words and up.
All my own works tend to pan out around 100,000 words. I don’t plan them to be that long, but it’s a length that seems to work for me to tell the story I want to tell.
From a writing perspective, it’s obvious that the longer the story is, the more time it will take to write.
Let’s say you set yourself a goal of penning 1,000 words a day, which is feasible and realistic. A hundred writing days will get you to that 100,000-word area.
It’s hardly rocket science, but that’s why I propose at least three months to finish the first draft.
What’s the right percentage of story to character development?
Clearly, there are no hard and fast rules here, but the point I wish to make is that character development is at least equal in importance to the story itself.
If the reader isn’t captivated by the central characters, how can they care what happens to them? And if the reader doesn’t care what happens to the character, how can they enjoy the story, no matter how good it is?
A wonderful adage I constantly remember when I’m writing is: If the story is lagging, put your character up a tree and throw stones at them.
While this shouldn’t be taken literally, the premise is to get the reader to worry what is going to happen next to the protagonist.
They could be facing some threat only the reader knows about – or a rock-wielding author could be about to appear while the character is gathering apples.
So, while racing to finish your novel, remember to spend time on making sure the reader likes, respects, cares for or is interested in the central characters, and keep them in some form of danger.
I don’t mean a constant stream of assassins has to be out to murder them. At the very least, emotional drama is vital to the story.
One author who is a wizard at this premise is Michael Robotham, particularly in his Joseph O’Loughlin series of psychological thrillers.
Robotham leaves me in a state of near apoplexy at the end of each novel, and I am in a screaming hurry to read the next volume and see how Joe is travelling.
I urge any would-be author to read these books as homework – poor Joe spends an awful lot of time up a tree dodging rocks.
My first draft is finished – what now?
Firstly, congratulations. Celebrate! Lots of writers don’t make it this far. I promise you there are not too many feelings better than when you type: THE END.
But… your novel is not finished. Not by a long shot. You may think you’re done, but you’re not. After you savour the moment and enjoy the afterglow, then come the edits and rewrites.
I never do fewer than five drafts. That may sound like a lot, but you will soon come to realise that what you first think is brilliant literature is not. It may become that, but right now, it needs work.
I advise you to leave the manuscript alone for at least a month, maybe longer. Go on holidays, write a short story, paint three bedrooms, remodel the front garden, whatever. Only when you can be dispassionate should you read your novel again.
If you’ve left it long enough, you will now see some of the things you didn’t get right, the elements that require more work or more detail. Maybe your protagonist has to go back up that tree.
When you get to the end, repeat, and again, and again. Don’t read it as if it is brilliant; read it looking for faults. Trust me, you will find them.
Next, find at least three people you trust to be beta readers for you. Tell them you don’t want platitudes; you want them to tell you what’s wrong with the novel, as well as what works.
You won’t agree with everything they say, but the important thing is for you to consider what they criticise.
Lots of authors, including my famous namesake, warn authors to kill your darlings.
If you think you’ve written something amazing, just the finest piece of prose ever, but readers don’t get it – they are usually right, and you are wrong. Go back and do another rewrite.
Being an author is a wonderful thing. To tell a story and entertain people who may be thousands of miles away is a gift. Enjoy it – revel in it, even.
The main point is, when you’re writing, don’t be overly concerned about how long it will take to write the novel.
Focus instead on how good you can make it.