How long is this going to take?

How long should it take to create an original work?
How long should a book take to write, for example?

A successful author herself, Louise Doughty published A Novel in a Year: A Novelist’s Guide to Being a Novelist (2008) based on a column she originally wrote for The Telegraph newspaper (UK). Despite the title, she also said in her column that one of her own (longer) books took three and a half years to write and also admitted that “Your novel will take you as long as it takes you – but I’m going to stick my neck out and say that if you haven’t written a book before and are really serious about it and have a job or a family or – heaven forbid – both, then you are looking at around three years from start to finish.”

That was over ten years ago. Are expectations still the same? There appears to be a huge pressure on writers now to be prolific, in ‘literary’ and in particular in genre fiction, at least where they are successful and need to keep feeding hungry fans.

Certainly, genre writers tend to be hugely productive. And it’s not necessarily the case in popular fiction alone. For instance, author Ali Smith will soon complete her ‘Seasonal Quartet’ of stand-alone novels (Autumn, Winter, Spring and the forthcoming Summer), all written and published in four years to positive critical reviews with Autumn being shortlisted for the 2017 Man-Booker Prize.

Whilst a genre writer, Georges Simenon was (is) an admired one, and he had 500 novels and novellas in publication—somehow finding time between a reported (by himself I think!) 10,000 lovers. He claimed to be able to turn a book around in 11 days (eight for composition then three for corrections). At his most productive in the 1830s, Dickens is said to have written at least 15,000 words per month, produced for what John Updike called “Victorian word-eaters.”

Dickens: ‘word hungry’ audiences are not new

As ever in creative writing, there is much advice on how to be productive – write a book in 100 days, in 30 days, or perhaps even three days (ref. the 3-Day Novel Contest running since the 1970s). Then nanowrimo of course, encouraging writers to write a novel (or at least to draft one) in a month (November). In the end, we’re all pressed for time, right?

The other end of the scale is harder to gauge. There are many famous gaps between publications, but we don’t know whether those authors kept starting and setting aside their writing, or perhaps returned to a previously abandoned work. One example is Arundhati Roy, whose second novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (2017) was published twenty years after her acclaimed and prize-winning The God of Small Things, having begun the former around ten years in. In the meantime though, she also published a lot of non-fiction. Similarly with Marilynne Robinson, who did not publish fiction for nearly 25 years after her first novel Housekeeping (1980) but has said it took only eighteen months to write her next, Gilead.

Audrey Niffenegger is on record as taking four years to write the (admittedly lengthy) The Time Traveler’s Wife then seven for follow-up novel Her Fearful Symmetry. “Slow works for me,” she said in an interview for nanowrimo, “I have all the bad habits my fellow writers warn you not to fall into: I procrastinate. I write a bit and wander off to think…” It makes you like her a bit more, doesn’t it?

In The Art of Slow Writing (2014), the late writer and editor Louise DeSalvo gave examples of a number of famous and successful slow (or at least gradual) writers. DeSalvo advised that that the creative process takes time, and “Trying to work too quickly, trying to work in too polished a way too quickly, expecting clarity too soon, can set us up for failure.”

Going back, Virginia Woolf spent seven years creating first novel The Voyage Out, revising it at least eight times. So what appears ‘slow’ may represent a fast writer being particular about their working and embarking on many redrafts before they are satisfied. The prolific D.H. Lawrence produced a number of complete re-writes of Sons and Lovers, as another example.

Such variety exists, of course, across the creative zones. George Seurat worked a meticulous two years on Un dimanche après-midi à ‘Ile de la Grande Jatte (A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte)—well it is large, and all those dots! In contrast, in one manic period Van Gogh was said to have produced about seventy paintings in roughly the same number of days. In terms of repeat attempts towards artistic satisfaction, Edvard Munch produced at least four iterations of his best-known work The Scream (Skrik). And so on.

All in all, whilst expressing scepticism that few of us could, in fact, produce a completed novel in one year, Doughty was probably correct to say “[it] will take you as long as it takes you.”

Do you create quickly or slowly? And does speed have a bearing on the quality of the final work?

References
‘Fiction Takes Its Time’, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/may/27/arundhati-roy-fiction-takes-time-second-novel-ministry-utmost-happiness
‘Marilynne Robinson’s Lila – a great achievement in US fiction’ in The Guardian
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/nov/07/marilynne-robinson-lila-great-achievement-contemporary-us-fiction-gilead
3-Day Novel Contest http://www.3daynovel.com/
Nanowrimo https://www.nanowrimo.org/

Images
Manoar Rahman
Negative Space

 

42 thoughts on “How long is this going to take?

  1. I couldn’t write to a deadline. I have written a lot opf wordsa altogether including many short stories and blogs, but I couldn’t rush a novel, even if I did nothing else at all!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As Geri the toy cleaner said in Toy Story 2 (okay, but I have kids!), ‘You can’t rush art.’

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I would consider myself a slow writer. I tend to go in micro-bursts. I also re-write as I go, which is against the grain, but it works for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Micro-bursts! Love that. I also edit as I go – and agree, if it works for you…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I consider myself to be a very slow writer. It can take me a month just to write a blog post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, but it’s worth the wait!

      Like

  4. I’ve been loitering around this blogging ‘back-water’ for a year or so and increasingly the workings of the ‘writing’ process fascinates me, some days I’ll sit facing a blank screen and think to myself ‘I’m done with WordPress and writing’, other days I’m energised and ideas pop up from know where? HOWEVER I don’t consider myself a proper writer in the sense you’re talking about. The Dicken’s observation was interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. But what is a ‘proper’ writer – writes for one’s own pleasure? And is read by others? Is proud, at least sometimes, of what they have written? Blogs, and online publishing more broadly, democratise writing – for better or worse!
      Hope you continue blogging and the combination of thought, images, politics, biography, and occasional downright smut.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. If there’s one lesson I have learned, its to create for one’s own pleasure or what’s the point?

        Liked by 2 people

  5. Great post. 11 days – sounds absolutely sick 🤪🤔 but I know that Dostoevsky wrote some his novels in 14 days 🙂 so, I guess, some ppl just CAN! (usually – men lol cuz they don’t need to clean, cook & such) 😉
    About myself: I did write so far ONLY 1 book 🙂 but I’m going to publish 3 😂, because 2 of them based on my posts/ absurd short stories & funny reviews/ = I just have to edit them, I don’t need to write 🙂
    The novel took 2 weeks for the first draft – about 20,000 words. And then 2d draft – 1,5-2 months (cuz I’m lazy 🤫🤫). Third draft – I sent to editor – to fix the flow. Then – editing 2 more times (English natives, diff editors). All in all… took 9- 10 months. And it’s only for 42-45,000 words 😂
    I actually re-read it. It isn’t perfect, but…I have no time for being perfect 😂👻

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I guess having the raw material ready helps cut the time. Still, 9-10 months is impressive. I think some people do wait for ‘perfect ‘ so don’t let go of their work for years, if ever.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I don’t know, I see so many authors typing 2 books (full length) a YEAR!!

        Like

      2. We shouldn’t wait for “perfect”, it never is

        Like

  6. 2-3 years for a full length novel (65-85,000) – is a norm I think

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Eek, that seems a lot, presumably for a ‘literary ‘ work.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Maybe but I think it’s personal for everybody: some can in 6 months, some in 3 years. Depends on research as well

        Like

  7. a great thing about blogging on Wp – we can blog our stories or novels – & then pick all chapters & create the book :))

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yup, and good for them; it’s their original work and took time to create when added up.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I’m also a slow writer, and edit as I go. I could see writing a 1st draft of a manuscript in a year, but not a finished, polished, ready-to-publish novel in that amount of time.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I guess it’s all about a. What works for us individually, and b. The end result.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I don’t write fiction, but it depends on the work and the influence.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Very much, and in fiction and factual there is the research to factor in.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Writing a book in 11 days – I would love that – my book took me over a year to write and over 3 years to fine tune – don’t know how many to find an agent 😊

    Like

    1. Ah yes, finding an agent and someone to publish the work can make writing a book seem the easy part!
      All the best of luck with it.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Thanks so much my friend

        Like

  11. Time is not really the factor here. I believe everyone has his/her own rhythm and method.
    I never start writing until I have the complete story in my head. Plot, opening, end, characters, even many dialogues. (I have an uncanny memory). and I can spend weeks or months on “writing in my head”. Now, a short story? Coupla days. My first novel? 3 months maybe. 40-45,000 words. I’ve had a book stuck half way for 3-4 years. touches a nerve. BUt i know the day I re-take I will spend another 2-3 months writing. One thing: I tend to edit back previous chapters before moving on. That helps the final editing process…
    Thanks for the post, it’s always interesting to see others’ process.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Individual rhythm and method is a good way to look at it. We can sometimes feel an approach is ‘wrong’ because there are so many books and guides on ‘how to write’ now. It’s interesting how many writers edit as they go – in the face of a lot of advice to ‘just press on’ – but it works for us. For me, I already have a job. so writing has to be satisfying if I am spending leisure time on it. But also wow, I didn’t realise you’re a published author! Very impressive.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. No! No! Sorry to have given the wrong impression. Not published. Many books and stories under my belt, but haven’t found an editor.
        After 30 letters to literary agents in NY (Arrogant bunch) I decided they were a waste of my time, and I keep writing for pleasure…

        Liked by 1 person

        1. You sound incredibly productive. I think writing for pleasure is the best way to go, then you’ll always have the enjoyment come what may.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Borges said something like that: “I write for myself, my friends and to sweeten the passing of time”. Of course, he was Borges!
            Me? I wrote for a living for 30 years. Market research. beyond percentages and verbatims, you write a story for the client. What happened (or will) to his brand, his consumers, his advertising, his image… In the end it’s always about a story. 🙂
            A bientôt, Libre.

            Like

            1. Lovely quote. I also write a lot for work, position papers, funding applications, but had always thought them distinct from creative writing – but yes, I see that perspective: a business case, for instance, even a report, is a story.

              Liked by 1 person

              1. Maybe it’s because I have worked at Ogilvy. And he has influenced me a lot. Whatever we write has to be a story. 😉

                Liked by 1 person

  12. I’m fast with the drafting, or, i likee to think I am, despite being pressed for time. But when it comes to the edits and revisions, I start procrastinating. I go over the manuscript more than 20 times (around 30 with my first) before I’m satisfied enough.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow, that’s meticulous. I like to think I go over a lot, and that’s partly true – but I need to learn to go over the whole thing a grater number of times, check on the overall coherence and pace.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Well, I kind of cheat when I’m going over the drafts. Since I’m blind, I depend on screen readers to go over the drafts. So, the first 5 or six times I go over it like everyone else does. The rest, I turn on the automatic reader and listen to the words and the flow. Whenever I feel a part didn’t work, I stop the automatic and correct / alter the part I had an issue with. I keep doing this until I can finally listen to the whole story without needing to change anything.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Hearing the text read out loud sounds like a technique anyone could benefit from.

          Liked by 1 person

  13. Yeah, completing a novel and revising it again and again is so difficult process. I consider finishing a novel as a big achievement as it many times it drains all energy one can have.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is a massive achievement, brilliant! Go over again and again can get wearing though, I agree – necessary, but sometimes you just want to be done with it.

      Like

  14. I used to write a poem a day back when I was twelve or so. Admittedly, these poems were… well, terrible. This continued until I was sixteen. Now, at age 24, I write at least three poems a week. I’ve tried stuff aside from poetry, but they never got finished. My mania and psychosis tend to make me shift from subject to subject too fast to make any novel or short story make sense. I prefer the immediacy of writing poetry, I’ve found. Which is funny because I read less poetry than other formats. It’s an odd asymmetry.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You sound incredibly productive. It’s interesting, we twin reading and writing together for obvious reasons, the interaction with text, and a lot of writers are keen readers. But whilst complementary, they are distinct processes in many ways.

      Liked by 1 person

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