How long does it take to write a novel?

So how long does it take to write a novel?

National Novel-Writing Month – NaNoWriMo, to the initiated – is in full swing and I hope those of you that have joined this year’s challenge are getting along swimmingly. I’ve never tried it myself. Nothing against it; I’m just happy with my own way of working and don’t feel the need for this sort of mission.

The aim of NaNoWriMo is to write a novel in a month. Possible? Yeah, I guess. But to write a good novel takes longer. That’s because getting words down on the page is only a fraction of the whole task, and not the first one either. The NaNo organisers themselves advise that you prepare by getting some idea of where you want to go in your story. And that work can continue on the project long after the onset of December.

So how long does it take to write a novel? Well, I’ve been working on Night Shift for two and a half years now –

Except that’s not actually true. It’s been two and a half years since I first started typing the first draft. But that was only after I’d abandoned a hand-written attempt. And that itself was after the hours spent lying in bed thinking about the damn thing in the first place. So… maybe three or four years, that’s how long I’ve been working at it.

Chivalry’s been longer. That’s had around six years of work. The only good thing is that you can work on more than one project at once, alternating between drafts.

The actual creation of the first draft is a relatively speedy process. Night Shift only took something like a month and a half to bring to life (63,000 words in its initial form). Just think – something from nothing in under two months. That’s kind of magical, and the act of creation has to be one of the most exciting, wonderful things a human being can do.

But a first draft is nothing. Unless you’re a staggering genius, a first draft will have massive errors and little of merit except its own potential. So it’s back to the forge, hammering and smelting and folding and annealing, testing and sharpening all the way. And it’s always important to emphasise how useful putting the damn thing away and working on something else for a while is to the process. You know what you’re trying to do; what you need is a bit of perspective to help identify where and why you haven’t quite got it right.

Night Shift is now hovering around the 78,000 word mark. Those extra 15k didn’t come from nowhere (and by way of comparison Chivalry’s been cut from 150k to around 137k); the changes have come because they’ve helped make the story more rounded and satisfying. And that all takes time, and the will to improve your work.

I don’t want to be spending my whole life working on the same few projects, endlessly rewriting and polishing and never getting it out. There are many other novels that I want to write. So it’s my hope that what I’m learning on the journey are the sort or tricks and tools that help shorten the process. I think instinct is often the word we give to experience. Knowing what works and what doesn’t, what ideas have depth and what are resoundingly non-stick, is a question of this experience.

So how long does it take to write a novel? God knows. I’m still to finish my first.

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