Thursday, August 6, 2009

How Long Does It Take to Write a Novel?

A little over a year has passed since I finished a draft of my manuscript. At that time I predicted one more year to revise, edit, incorporate suggestions from friend-editors, and finalize a version worthy of shopping around to agents and publishers.

Due in part to unexpected hiccups in my planned work schedule plus a long motivational slump over the winter, I have, since then, managed to revise (and to a greater extent re-write) a little over one quarter of the book.

I'm quite happy with the changes, but they're not exactly coming at a breakneck pace.

Just goes to prove a personal theory, a truth that is comforting, superbly annoying, and easy to suppress and forget over and over again: This book has a life of its own, and will get done in its own time.

A number of friends have recently inquired of the book's status. Reporting on such has become a source of mild embarrassment, but in the course of listening to myself offer the same confession several times, a curious realization struck me. As far as I can recall, beginning from the day I started writing it, I have always predicted I am one year away from completing the book. Truly, I believe this has been a constant for five years running.

If true, this phenomenon yields an unsettling, yet zen-like, question: If, from the day you ask him, Jim always has one more year of work on his book, does the book ever get finished?

Of course, amount of time spent completing on a novel varies greatly and depends on the writer and the work. If in self-flagellating mood, I can find models for comparison which are devastating. When more rational, I can reassure myself by recalling writers who exhibit inhuman patience when it comes to completing their masterpieces.

On the one extreme, we have machines like Nora Roberts who, at her most prolific, publishes 15 books a year or more, putting even the NaNoWriMo nuts to shame. For a less commercial example, take John Updike, who wrote roughly one book of dense, artful prose over the course of his career.

On the other end we have James Joyce who, time line be damned, took 17 years to write Finnegan's Wake, which from what I understand is about how long it takes to read.

I was especially comforted recently when I met Joseph O'Neill at a reading and signing for his book Netherland, which it turns out took him seven years to write --- and we're not talking an especially lengthy book here. That puts me two years under the wire.

After a long rain delay, the warmth and sun of summer have finally emerged in the Boston, and the contended mood they inspire allow me to go a little easy on myself, at least for a while. For now I can brandish the license given me by Joyce and O'Neill, and take my sweet friggin' time.

As if I had a choice in the matter.