Writing a novel is a very personal process — and one that, for the bravest aspiring novelists among us, becomes very public when the decision is made to publish. It cannot be rushed.
But there has to be a middleground between cranking it out too quickly and sitting on it for years without doing anything, right?
The ultimate question: How long should it take to complete that novel?
Unfortunately, this isn’t so cut and dry. The answer: it varies for each and every novel.
Not the answer you wanted to hear, right? Sorry about that, but it’s the truth.
Like the writers putting pens to paper, each novel is unique in its own right. To provide a formula for timing the crafting process would be about as useful as creating a formula for writing the novel in the first place. (Sure, I know many writers use formulas for brainstorming purposes, but we want to think outside the box here!)
And let me also note that writing a unique novel is important. Find your own voice. Don’t rely on commercial, overused story conventions and clichés. Write a book that no one else on the planet could write but you.
Okay, back to the length of the process.
For my first novel, the entire process took about one year — and that includes the writing and revising. That said, I know people who have taken three or four years on one book, and I know people who can write four or five books in one year — and usually pretty well.
One of the English courses I took at the University of Michigan was taught by a brilliant professor named Peter Ho Davies. Each week as we would start on a new novel to interrogate, he would list all of the books by the author, along with their publication dates. Part of trying to understand a novel is also trying to understand the writer, and this activity helped us gain a better understanding for each author’s writing process. Many times, we would be able to find a loose pattern.
One example was Ian McEwan as we started reading Atonement. McEwan wrote his 14 novels in a 38-year span — averaging one novel every two or three years. Sure, he once published books in back-to-back years, and he once also took six years to publish a new novel, but taking the overall picture helps you to understand his general writing process.
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But even that exercise is not a science. Look at Cormac McCarthy, for example. You could take the number of novels he wrote and calculate the average amount of time he works on a book, but it would be a little misleading. He took seven years between Blood Meridian and All the Pretty Horses, as well as between Cities of the Plain and No Country for Old Men. But he also followed up that book with The Road one year later (and has yet to publish another book since 2006).
So here’s the best piece of advice I can offer: do not rush the process. It’s okay if you’ve started several novels but cannot seem to complete one. We’ve all been there. It’ll come. Just stick with it. Let the process dictate itself.
I’m curious about other writers’ takes on this. How long is your process — inception to publishing — for writing a novel?