Saturday, February 14, 2009

How Long Does It Take to Write a Book?

It took me less than a year to write the first draft of a middle-grade manuscript. Revising it, on the other hand, is taking years. The book is now entering its tenth draft, thanks to several rounds of critiques from editors, agents, and this group. Since I started the first draft, the cows have come home, had calves, and raised them too.

What the Dr. Seuss is taking me so long to finish? Part of it is the time needed to make revisions. Part of it is because I'm working in stops and starts.

I try to blame the latter on the two major time-eaters in my life. First, my two young boys, both of whom are cling-ons. Second, my husband’s recent lay-off, which caused me to freelance again, eating up most of my work time.

But who am I to complain about a time-squeeze? Stephenie Meyer has three mom-thirsty spawn, and she’s as prolific at publishing as she is at procreating. Louise Erdrich, author of 20-plus books, had seven, until one tragically died, leaving six. And J.K. Rowling wrote H.P. 1 on napkins in a cafĂ© while her infant daughter napped in her carriage.

Oh, pooh on them.

Hoping to cheer myself up, I searched for examples of how long it took famous authors to finish their books. Some, needless to say, made me feel better than others.

*Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachman), The Running Man, three days
*Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451, nine days
*Barbara Park, Junie B. Jones, five to six weeks
*Stephenie Meyer, Twilight, a few months
*J.K. Rowling, H.P. 7, two years
*Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind, 6 years
*Joni Sensel, Bears Barge In (a pb), 8 years
*Louise Erdrich, The Plague of Doves, 20 years

But my absolute favorite example is how long it took Neil Gaiman to write The Graveyard Book, this year's Newbery winner. In a post-win interview, Gaiman revealed that he started writing it more than 20 years ago. “I read the first page and I thought ‘This is a better idea than I am a writer. So I will put the idea away until I’m a better writer,’” he said. More than two decades later, after many stops and starts, he finally finished it. Worth the wait, doncha think?

I guess the answer to my question is, there is no answer. Some people work fast, some slow. Life gets in the way. Motivation comes and goes. Talent increases. Timing is important.

I read this quote somewhere and it spoke to me: "A novel will take as long as it needs. Give it room and keep writing."


  1. Great post!

    My process is agonizingly slow, so I look at the first part of your list and go "whoa" and feel much more heartened by the end of it!

    I know for me though I don't want to blame my process when I'm feeling unproductive. You really have to work whether you feel like it or not. That's the kicker.

    One of my favorite writing quotes is from Barbara Kingsolver... "The first draft is a work of construction, the tenth draft the work of an artist" (I hope that's the quote, used to have it on my writing desk, but now I have a new desk and can't find the darn source!!!)

    Anyway, I find great consolation in that quote some days :)

  2. But the thing about Neil Gaiman is that during that 20 years, as he tried every now and then to continue with The Graveyard Book, he was constantly writing and publishing other things. It isn't as though he agonized every day for twenty years over one work.

    Now Margaret Mitchell, as far as I know, is another matter. I think she did spend six years with Scarlett, Rhett and co. Can't imagine it. Wonder if she had any notion it was going to be published, or she was just writing away and hoping.

  3. Robin, love the quote.

    Gale, you are absolutely right about Neil Gaiman. I'm a huge fan of one of his many wonderful "interim" books, Coraline.

    Btw, I too am publishing other things right now, just not fiction. :-(

    As for Margaret Mitchell, I read that she never published another book after GWTW because she lost interest in writing. Ten years after it was published, she was killed in a car accident, so she didn't have much time lef to change her mind.

  4. um, make that "much time left"...

  5. Writing for me is slow, sometimes painfully so. I'm encouraged to read about other writers' experiences with the process. Thanks for this post.

    svz (from the blueboards)

  6. Sharon: You're welcome. I'm encouraged by your comment as well. :-) Thanks for stopping by.

    Hi Bish: So glad you like the quote. I never thought of it as being Zen...until now. Cool.

  7. I'm the opposite. I draft in fits and starts. I'll write tons for a few weeks, than nothing for a few more. On again. Off again.

    Revision, on the other hand, I relish. I can keep going on a revision. Then, it's on again, on again, on again as the manuscript really takes shape.

  8. J.A., I prefer revising too. It's just that it's such a long road. Each round of critiques results in a new draft. Each new draft means more stops and starts from the reasons I mentioned. I'm just anxious to be done--for better or worse!

  9. About a million years one of the first One On Ones I attended another writer (member of our group and commenter on this post) was paired with Gail Levine right after ELLA ENCHANTED was made a Newberry Honor. This friend relayed to me that Gail Levine said something like, "in the years it took me to write Ella..." and the friend and I were APPALLED that it had taken her years.

    Like I said, it was about a million years ago and that friend and I are now taking years to write our novels (neither of us thinking any of our work will ever be a Newberry Honor).

  10. Okay, so another reason why I'll never win a NEWBERY...
    I can't spell it!

  11. Meg: What's an extra "r" between friends?

  12. Btw, Meg, your comment cracked me up.