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How Long Does It Take to Write a Novel, Anyway?

During my first-ever book tour, I was surprised by a lot of things, but one thing that surprised me was how often I was asked the question, “How long did it take to write your novel?” 

I thought about it, did the math, and answered truthfully: nine months, almost to the day (I made a few lame jokes about that being a bit of a loaded number…).  I told the audience nine months, and then wondered how this factoid would be perceived.  Was that a “bad” number?  Too fast?  Too slow?  Some literary authors take ten-plus years from one masterpiece to the next, while some mystery (or romance, sci-fi, etc) novelists crank out more than one or two novels per year. 

Of course, I doubt the original repeated question comes from such a judgmental place.  I’m guessing folks are either curious about that strange process called “writing a novel,” or else are newbie writers themselves, and are trying to get a feel for what they’d be in for if they ever started such a project.  How long does the average novel take to write?  It’s a fair question. 

But that’s assuming there’s any such thing as an “average novel.”  As we all know, there are great novels and shitty novels, novels that deserve the Pulitzer and novels that would have been better served if only they had been made-for-television movies instead.  There are also novels you’re not quite ready to write yet, that require the wisdom of age and a lifetime of experiences, and novels that are so ripe in your imagination they are bursting from your brain. 

Speed, in my opinion, is a function of one of two things: (1) How content an author is to quickly bang out sub-par work, OR (2) How ready an author is to write about a particular topic, a particular set of characters, and tell a particular story. 

As concerns The Other Typist, I was ready to tell that story.  I had been working on an academic PhD, researching literature and culture of the 1920s.  I was armed and ready with thoughts and details about the period, and I literally heard my narrator’s voice calling out to me, whispering in my ear, pulling me forward.  What’s more, I was working at a literary agency, digging through the slush pile on a daily basis, couldn’t find the manuscript I was itching to discover, and essentially wrote the book I wanted to read myself (which is not to say we didn't have marvelous authors at the agency, it's only that there was something specific I was hankering to get out of the unsolicited slush pile). 

When I sold Three Martini Lunch (forthcoming, expected sometime in Spring 2016, I’ll keep any blog readers here posted about the details as they develop) to my publisher, I had the energy and flavor of the idea, but not a definitive outline.  In general, I resist outlines.  Too reductive!  Don’t put the cart before the horse!  Listen to the muse, let your characters grow into fully formed humans and show you the way!  So I just sort of had this fuzzy little charismatic short story I felt could grow into a novel.  AND YET, I said to myself, “Well, my last book took nine months… how much longer could this one take?  A year?” 

Okay, yeah… a year.  That sounded about right to me.  A year for a novel.  Totally.  I could do that.  So that was what was written in my contract. 

Did I take a year?  Nope.  I took longer than that.  I’d say, from the moment I scribbled down the first sentence of my novel, to the moment my editor wrote to me saying, “okay, looks good, we’re done” was about three years. 

THREE.  YEARS. 

Three very long years.  There was a number of reasons for this – one of which I blogged about previously: My editor left Penguin for another publishing house.  That put a pretty serious kink in things.  But, there is still a portion of this issue that belongs solely to me, regardless.  I didn’t look at the prospect of writing my new novel with a super critical eye.  If I had, I would’ve realized that it was an ambitious, complicated undertaking.  To begin, there were three narrators – all of which possessed a social identity/subjectivity not my own – and a new time period in which to immerse myself.  It wasn’t a novel you crank out in a year or less.  I was reaching beyond myself, and to do it right, it required a lot of work, and a lot of time. 

My miscalculation took a toll on me in so many ways.  The first, the most obvious, is the financial.  A lot of people are curious about how writers get paid.  “What’s an advance all about?” they ask.  Or, when I went to procure an apartment here in New York, one broker asked me, “Is that your income, or do you have to pay that back?”  I explained to him how publishing works.  He was fascinated.  (Just FYI, future Manhattanites, real estate brokers in New York get ALL up in your financial business.)  So, for anyone who’s ever wondered, here is a simplified overview of how writers get paid:

The publisher allots them an advance.  No, they don’t have to pay it back.  It is theirs to keep.  It's called an "advance" because they don't get paid royalties until the publisher has recouped that amount from book sales (a surprisingly large number of writers these days never see royalties, only their advances – a sad subject best saved for another blog post).  How much is it?  It can totally vary.  I know a writer who was given $20,000 for her book, and I know a writer who made $700,000.  I’ve read about advances that were more.  And less.  How is it paid out?  The most common breakdown is the publisher pays in quarters.  A quarter of the advance upon signing the contract.  A quarter upon turning in a final manuscript.  A quarter upon the hardcover publication.  A quarter upon paperback publication.  There are always exceptions to this.  But that’s generally how it goes.  So your advance – whatever it is – can be stretched out over several years, a fact it is helpful to keep in mind when negotiating with publishers. 

The other way my miscalculation took its toll is psychologically.  As writing the book (and rewriting the book) dragged on, I began to feel as though it were somehow my shortcoming.  My self-worth took a hit.  A better writer could do this, I silently said to myself, and do it faster.  A mystery author on Facebook posted something about how if she took as long as some literary writers take, her readers would forget who she was and why they should buy her next book (I’m paraphrasing from memory).  Eek!  Should I be worried I had already been out of the game too long?  The Other Typist came out in 2013, the paperback version came out in 2014… and then… somehow time passed and I was still writing the next book.  I went to lunch with colleagues I respected and admired, and had nothing new to tell them.  Oh, you know… same old, same old... still working on the book… I’d hear myself saying.    

There is a cliché about a writer who talks about the book he/she is writing, yet never seems to physically manifest a book. 

The thing was, I knew I wasn’t that writer.  I had written quite a lot of pages – perhaps too many, at one point (a lot of cutting happened) – and I had worked long and hard.  Why did I feel like such a deadbeat?  Worse, and perhaps ironically, my novel had to do with 1950s beatniks who wanted to be famous writers, yet weren’t writing anything.  How’s that for sick and twisted irony? 

In any case, there is so much more to say on this topic, but to make a long story short, I wrote a book that took me three years to write, and now my editor has declared it finished.  There is no way I could have taken less time, but I have certainly given a great deal of thought to how I want to handle the next book.  I will pass those thoughts along here, and now. 

If writing is your trade and main source of income, and you are going to sell your as-yet unwritten book to a publisher, I would say this: Understand how you work, and know your process.  If you are a writer who likes to feel her way towards an idea, allow time for that to happen (and for that to rehappen, during editing).  If you are a writer who can’t keep her eye off the clock, give yourself a chance to embrace whatever research and writing techniques help you get the work done in a systematic manner. 

For me, this means being okay with things I hitherto disdained, like, for instance, writing an outline and detailed descriptions of the characters, from their biggest triumph in life to their favorite color.  I certainly don’t mind when the plot I’ve envisioned goes off the rails and takes on a life of its own, but at the very least, the blueprint is helpful in the beginning.  You see… every book is different, and has a different corresponding set of demands from its author.  I’m learning how to be okay with that. 

My new novel ideas (and if you are a writer, you know you’re always jotting little ideas down here and there, waiting to see which ones will take root and bloom) are ones I’m comfortable talking about and mapping out for other people, even in their most crude state.  I see my new novel ideas as professional propositions, and for some reason, this stance has freed me up to be able to make a better estimation of how long each new book should – and feasibly will – take. 

Oh, if I had known then what I know now!  But I guess that’s the repeated refrain of all people, everywhere, in every phase of life.