How long should it take to write a novel? Sometimes it feels like an eternity.

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.

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?

18 thoughts on “How long should it take to write a novel? Sometimes it feels like an eternity.

  1. It takes as long as it takes. I’ve been working on mine for 8 months- the difficulty I have is apportioning time ( apart from work/kids/life etc. Good post

  2. Something I’ve learned the hard way, “Great works of art are never finished. They’re simply abandoned.” Not to say I’ll walk away from it, but you have to reach a point where you’re willing to say it’s finished. Otherwise you start playing with different scenarios, and so on.

    As some of you know, I’m finishing up the Lawman. I was really tempted to play with the ending. It might certainly have introduced one character as a continuing villain, Kind of give Will Diaz, and the rest of the “The Regulators”, their own Lex Luthor of sort.

    But I decided to leave it alone. If I did that, then I’d have to write more back story, and the downside of it all would be I’d start tinkering with the book and it really didn’t need tinkering with. In short, it would be so much fun exploring what could happen, the book would never get done.

    Like it or not, we are in a business. And if we don’t produce a product, we don’t make money.

  3. Love this post! Very interesting read.
    Stephen King once said you should never spend more than 3 months on the first draft. However, life doesn’t always roll that way.
    I’d been working solidly on my novel for a couple of months back in 2015, then stopped for the whole of 2016 due to a number of reasons, including physical and mental health.
    I’m back on it now and would like to finish my first draft over the summer as I work full time, and my second year of uni (alongside my full time job) starts again in September.
    A year seems like a nice amount of time to work on one novel, but I guess it’ll always depend on so much; the story, the writer and simply life!

  4. My debut novel, from first word typed to final revision submitted, took about 14 months. My previous efforts I tried to cram through faster. I’m guilty of being impatient. I recall seeing an interview with Umberto Eco in which he says something along the lines of “I don’t understand people who write a book in a year. You lose the pleasure of spending 7 or 8 years growing your story.” My reaction at the time was, that must be easy for him to say! I’m trying to launch a career here! So I echo the common advice: as long as it takes. I do find, though, that for me one part of the process cannot be rushed, and that’s developing the idea. When I have an idea for a novel, I always wait at least six months before starting to write. Saves me a lot of unfinished manuscripts.

  5. Haven’t published anything yet, but it takes me 6-12 weeks to write a rough draft. Editing? Over a year on the story I’m working on. Not all in a row, but editing, walking away for fresh perspective, then coming back again.

  6. Mine is actually a memoir…and, well, I have taken a haitus…like an extended one. This is exactly why I’m your new faithful follower..need some serious inpiration!! (no pressure) 🙂

  7. I was able to write five books in one year’s time, but perhaps it was because they were all bottled up in there! I don’t believe in artificial deadlines, which is another reason to self publish. The idea of how long it takes to write goes hand in hand with how long the book or story should be. I stop writing when the story has been told to my satisfaction, and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. This gives me the freedom to enjoy the whole process, because I write for myself first, and if it becomes a chore I will stop. Thanks for a great post!