Writing a novel takes as long as it takes, no more and no less. Yes, that's an annoying answer – but then it is one of those piece-of-string questions!
Seriously, it's impossible to be specific because there are too many variables involved...
Speaking of thin and fat novels, you're probably wondering how long a novel is, precisely...
Short answer? A typical novel is somewhere between 80,000 and 100,000 words (for atypical novels, the range is more like 40,000 to 250,000 words!).
For the longer answer, check out this article (then click the back button to return here).
If you search the Internet for writing guides (and I do that a lot – checking out the competition!) you frequently come across some course or program claiming to show you how to write novel-length fiction in as little as 30 days.
If you write 3,000 words per day, the argument goes, you'll have a 90,000-word novel sitting on your desk by the end of the month. Which is total garbage, of course.
Trouble is, a lot of new writers believe that it is technically feasible to write a novel in such a short time. After all...
That's what National Novel Writing Month is all about. Isn't it?
Actually, no. "NaNoWriMo" is about writing a first draft in 30 days. Indeed, the organizers themselves are quick to point out that it takes a lot longer than a month to write a complete novel...
Also (if your inclination is to hurry) think about why you would want to write a novel so fast...
If it's because you need the money, fair enough. But there are smarter ways to raise cash in such a small amount of time. And besides, the more you hurry your writing, the less likely it is that the novel will be publishable.
If it's simply to "get the job done" so you can cross it off the list and move on to the next thing, you've really got to question whether creative writing is for you at all.
If it's because you relish the challenge of creating something as monumental as a novel (or at least a first draft) in such a short space of time, that's understandable...
Personally, I think that writing a novel is challenging enough without burdening yourself with an incredibly tight deadline. More than that, I don't see why you would want to rush something so enjoyable and rewarding...
You wouldn't want to cram your vacation into a single day, or try to eat a wonderful meal in five minutes flat. Why try to write a novel in a month?
That said, I totally get that, for some folks, the only way to get anything done at all is to slap a deadline on it. But I don't get why you'd want to make it as tight as 30 days.
I'm sure that it's possible to write a novel in three months, maybe less if you know what you're doing and you really push yourself (and don't have the inconvenience of a living to earn). 12 months, though, is a more realistic minimum, and maybe a few years if you're just starting out and haven't yet learned your craft.
You don't become a doctor or a lawyer in a few months. You don't become an expert in anything in such a short space of time. Why would it be any different with writing fiction?
The answer is anywhere from a few weeks (the late romantic novelist Barbara Cartland comes to mind) to the best part of a decade (I can't remember who off the top of my head, but I read an interview with a famous writer who had taken that long).
If a professional writer brings out a new book every year, they are said to be prolific. A new novel every two to three years is about the average, with a four- or five-year gap not uncommon.
So where does that leave you?
Well, the thing to remember is that professional novelists, at least the famous and successful ones, have the luxury of being able to write full-time.
(Yes, I know they do other stuff besides writing, like going on book tours and writing newspaper columns, but they still don't have a day job to go to.)
Also, they are good at what they do and have years of experience behind them. And the more we do something, the quicker and more efficiently we can do it.
If you are writing a novel for the first time and you do have a job, you have neither experience on your side nor plenty of hours in the day – meaning that the two to three years I recommended as a comfortable target might be tougher to meet.
Only you know your circumstances and the particular novel you have in mind, and only you know if you are prolific or one of life's tortoises. So only you can make a guess at how long writing fiction to a publishable standard might take.
I'm just trying to warn you against setting unrealistic targets – or setting targets at all, actually.
My best advice is to...
Write as often as you can, and be as productive as you can during your work sessions. But don't put added pressure on yourself with a ticking clock. It will only make you rush. And rushing is unlikely to make your novel any better.
Above all, don't forget to enjoy yourself. Your livelihood doesn't depend on you finishing your novel to a deadline (at least, it shouldn't – making money from your writing is a fine goal to have, but not if it's your one and only motivation).
In fact, the healthiest way for newcomers to view novel writing is like a hobby with great prospects. And what is the point of a hobby if it's a drag?
Wondering how long it takes to write a novel is a useful question. But there are two questions that will help you reach the end much faster...
Get the answers to those right and the bigger question takes care of itself.
Now, I'm not a time-management guru, and I lack just as much self-discipline as the next man or woman. But for what they're worth, here are a few snippets of advice that have helped me carve out those precious chunks of time...
"I had no time to write – zero time. But I figured I could make time if I carved out little segments. I knew it would be a slow process, but I didn't care because I was in no hurry."
– John Grisham
I've always believed that we can find the time to do anything if we want to do it badly enough, no matter how busy our schedules. Indeed, if we don't do something then it probably wasn't as high a priority as we thought.
For me – and hopefully for you, too – the time to write is definitely one of my priorities. Despite having to earn a living (and run this website!), I always manage to set aside 30 minutes a day for writing.
Well, most days!
And I recommend that you aim for something similar. Whether you have half an hour to spare, like me, or several hours (lucky you!), carve those creative work sessions into your schedule like the unmissable appointments they are.
And understand this...
It's much better to write in short, regular stints than long and irregular ones. So if you have only three or four hours a week to work on your novel, try to do it every single day for 30 minutes, rather than doing the whole lot on Sunday. Here's why...
Daily writing stints will keep your creative writing muscle in peak condition, too.
(Yes, becoming a writer is just like getting fit: the first day of jogging is torture, but it doesn't take long to get into shape. But if you run (or write) just once a week, your "shape" will have all but disappeared in seven days.)
And get this...
Small doses of hard work are a lot more manageable than long ones. Writing with intensity for 60 minutes isn't so tough. Try to do it for four hours straight, though, and you might come down with a bad case of writer's block.
"My own schedule is pretty clear-cut. Mornings belong to whatever is new – the current composition. Afternoons are for naps and letters. Evenings are for reading, family, Red Sox games on TV, and any revisions that just cannot wait. Basically, mornings are my prime writing time."
– Stephen King
If you don't have a full-time job (or other commitments), you will have the luxury of being able to choose your own writing hours. If you do have to work then you must somehow magic time out of thin air. But how?
Creating time by cutting back on other pursuits is fine in theory, but in practice it's tough to make it stick. And so the best bet, for most people, is to write when you would otherwise be in bed...
If you're a night owl, go to bed a little later. Learn to treasure those 30 or 60 minutes at the end of the day when the house is quiet and you can wind down by escaping into your imagination.
Personally – and this is true for most writers I speak to – I find that early mornings are best. The agony of getting out of bed an hour earlier is over by the time the coffee has brewed. And most people's minds are much sharper then than late at night.
But whatever works for you is what is best.
You may have dreamt of becoming a novelist for years. But dreams don't come true all by themselves. Sooner or later you need to get real, and that means putting in the hours whether you feel like it or not.
Hopefully, you will feel like working. Hopefully, you'll be so juiced up about your novel that you'll beat the alarm clock out of bed every morning!
Meanwhile in the real world, though, there will still be days when the prospect of writing fiction doesn't exactly make you start whistling Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.
You've still got to do it, though.
If you planned to work on your novel for an hour before breakfast or 30 minutes after dinner, that is what you must do.
Full-blown emergencies give you a free pass. Everything else can wait. That is the discipline you need to become a novel writer. And you need it day after day (except on scheduled days off!)
If it's any consolation, the buzz and sense of achievement that you get from having worked creatively for an hour always far exceeds the energy you had to put into it.
Okay. Having decided that writing a novel will be more of a marathon than a sprint, and that the way you will reach the finish line is by getting up at six o'clock every morning instead of seven (or whatever), there are two more things you must do...
You've heard the line about a journey of a thousand miles beginning with a single step.
It's not bad advice. In the case of novel writers, the journey is the planning and writing of a long work of fiction. And for that you need a map.
Fortunately, you have a great map – this website in general and, more specifically, the section on How to Write a Novel Step by Step.
Study the map closely before you set out, and keep referring to it along the way. It truly tells you everything you need to know to write fiction to a professional standard.
The single steps you take along the way – thousands and thousands of them – are like the individual work sessions you will spend at your writing desk.
The most important thing? Focus...
That is what I mean by working smart.
Sure, you sometimes need to spend a writing session looking at the "big picture" – how far you have come, what tasks you need to do next. That is like stopping to study the map.
For the most part, though, ignore the overall journey and concentrate on achieving just one small task today. It's amazing how they stack up over time.
And incidentally, it's much better if the task you set yourself each day is easily manageable within the working session...
"I am not at all in a humour for writing; I must write on till I am."
– Jane Austen
Sorry, but checking your e-mails doesn't count. Neither does reorganizing your stationery drawer, dusting your keyboard, or making stick figures from paper clips.
We do these things while waiting for inspiration to strike. But trust me, it never does – not on its own.
Like I said, you've got to sit down to work whether you feel like it or not. So if your small task for the day is to draft a particular scene, just start writing it.
This usually means forcing the words out at first. But you should soon find that your inspiration starts to flow.
Of course, you don't always have to be turning sheets of blank paper into pages of beautiful prose when you are at your desk. You might spend your writing time...
Just make sure that you always work on some aspect of your novel for the full time you have allocated.
Finally in this article, the solution to a problem that's been bugging me for years. Let me rewind a bit...
I'm a big believer in planning (or outlining) fiction. Why?
The reason that most first novels end up at the back of drawers, never to be finished, is that the writer hit a dead end. They started out in a great burst of creative enthusiasm but then, a couple of chapters in, they had no idea how to keep moving forward.
Proper planning would have prevented this. But the problem is that the planning process can takes weeks or months, and it can get tedious to spend all that time working out your story in theory but not doing any actual writing.
The solution, of course, is to do both. Spend part of your working day planning and the remainder writing...
They say there are two sorts of writers...
If you're a natural pantster, the challenge for you will be to put the necessary work into your novel's outline. There's no point in telling you to write for at least ten minutes every day, because you probably couldn't stop yourself if you tried!
If you're a planner by nature, force yourself to put that outline aside and write for ten minutes a day, even if you're perfectly happy spending the next six months of your life doing nothing but planning the twists and turns of your novel.
Why is that important? Two reasons...
The hardest thing about writing – or doing any demanding job, for that matter – is getting started.
Once you get going, the job is rarely as tough as you thought. But that doesn't stop your brain looking for any excuse it can find to put the job off in the first place.
John Steinbeck put it well...
How the mind rebels against work, but once working, it rebels just as harshly against stopping. I don't know why this should be. It's a dumb brute, the human mind.
If planning a novel really isn't your thing, but you can nevertheless see the sense in doing it, do it anyway – but only in ten minute bursts.
The same thing applies to writing...
If a blank sheet of paper fills you with dread (and you're not alone if it does), write on that sheet of paper anyway – but only in ten minute bursts.
Ten minutes every single day is do-able, even if the task is a difficult one. An hour is a lot tougher – so much so that you're far less likely to even make a start.
The neat thing is that, once you've got started, you may not want to stop. If that's the case, fine – keep going for an hour or two if you like. But never tell yourself in advance that you "need" to sit down to write for two hours.
Here's the unbreakable rule...
Every day for ten minutes you will sit down to write (or plan if that is the task you hate doing). If you exceed ten minutes, great. But you don't need to. Once you've clocked up your ten minutes, that's it – you're free to stop.Of course, writing will be difficult if you don't yet have any idea what your novel will be about. But that's no excuse...
The "ten-minute challenge" needs to start today (or tomorrow if it's late), and it needs to continue every single day, forever.
If your goal is to write every single day for two hours, you'll never stick to it. But "ten minutes" is such a low bar to clear that it's ridiculously easy to succeed.
Don't worry about the quality of the writing – first drafts are supposed to be clunky! Just write, even if the words suck.
If you can't get going, start your pen moving by deliberately writing as badly as you possibly can.
And don't worry if you don't know what your novel is about yet. You will do soon enough – and then you'll be able to write about characters from your story.
In the meantime, write anything. So long as it resembles prose and dialogue in a novel, it's fine – even if it's the worst prose and dialogue that has ever been written. (You'll probably never use it, anyway, so who cares?)
It sounds obvious to say it, but writers write. The sooner you can get into the habit of writing, and keep the habit going, the better.
Professional writers plan, too. So if planning is your weakness, start getting into the habit today – but only for ten-minutes at a time.
Bottom line? The mammoth task of writing a novel ultimately boils down to establishing a routine that works for you, and then sticking to your writing time whether you feel like it or not.
With practice, both laziness and hard work can become habits. But only hard work can be fun.
Bottom bottom line? If you still find it tough to show up at your writing desk every day, despite everything above, you're probably in need of some extra motivation. This article provides it!