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.

5 comments:

Chris said...

I started my blog to develop a web presence right around the time I expected to finish my book. I figured another couple months, and I'd be shopping it around.

That book took another year.

The second one went quick (for me, given the full-time job and all) at 13 months. The third one, well, I'll tell you when it's done. But there's one lesson I seem doomed to learn over and over again: they take as long as they take. Each one is different, and fretting over the timeline ain't gonna help.

If you realize your goal of publication, you'll be staring down deadlines for years to come. This is the only one that, during the writing process, you're beholden to no one. Push aside the expectations of others and enjoy it...

Amanda said...

So far as I was aware this is a hobby, a pleasant pass time which could (hopefully)lead to more. Kick back and enjoy the ride, but always remember you have to be doing it to enjoy it.

Jub said...

Max is exactly where he's suppose to be. His story will be done when the last person, place or thing has worked its way into your mind for inspiration. Max will not have it any other way.

Braver said...

I agree with your writing/editing timeline. Mulling over ideas and putting the pen to paper (fingers to keyboard) it took about a year to do all the research and get the ideas organized (into one amazing plot!). And its been about a year doing revisions and rewrites. I hope to finish up in the next couple months which would put the entire process under two years... but that's not including all the work it takes to find an agent/publisher and actually set it in print. For that, it will take years. Finding an agent will be a miracle in its own right. Good luck!

Nick Arnold said...

It is interesting to hear from a writer about the writing process. As for me and many of my more technically inclined friends, writing is a means to an end, an objective that need to be completed quickly while still getting the job done. Prose on the other hand, is much more organic, and as you put, takes on life of its own. From this I can only assume something that takes life must be given time to grow, and I encourage you to be patient, and allow the gifts you know you have to speak. Good luck with all your future writing endeavors!