How long should it take to write a novel?

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.

Just 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!)

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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 interrogating a new novel, he would list all of the books by the author, along with their publication years. 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 novel 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 for writing a novel?

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6 Comments

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  1. 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!

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  2. Thanks for the follow Ed.
    My first novel took six months to write including ongoing revisions, and another six months to edit – approximately 5/6 hours per day. With little experience, this was from a standing start. But the book had been fermenting inside me for about 3 years, since I first had the idea. By the time I decided/had to write the first draft, it was bubbling up and would not be contained.
    I am now on the noble path to literary enlightenment
    Write effort, write speech, write action etc. and hopefully, write livelihood :0

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  3. I’d say it depends greatly on the ‘world’ you are building within the story. I heard Tolkien spent a decade building the world before even penning..
    Stephanie had a dream and woke up and wrote it down..
    I think it takes as long as it takes to appease the author! 😉

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