Wednesday, September 08, 2010

How Long Does It Take To Write A Novel?

How long does it take to write a novel? I get asked that all the time. The answer to that question is “It depends.” In my case, every novel has taken a different length of time, and for different reasons.

Before I wrote my first novel that was published, I produced three others—four if you count totally reworking one of them—and these books garnered a total of forty rejections. I wasn’t particularly thankful for what seemed at the time like wasted effort, but I came to realize later that I was learning the craft while under no pressures of time to do so. It proved to be a valuable experience.

I took my time writing my first novel, the book that was to become Code Blue. It started out as a cozy mystery before morphing into medical romantic suspense. All told I produced at least three versions of that book, each one revised numerous times, before I received a contract for its publication, a year and a half after I first had the idea. But there was no hurry. I had no obligations to fulfill. There were no deadlines to meet. I had all the time in the world. And with each revision I was learning a bit more about writing.

After I completed that novel I started planning the next one. That was something a number of authors told me: always have the next book in the works. I decided to pursue one of my “what if?” scenarios. What if a doctor’s life was turned upside down by identity theft? Could there be medical implications as well as personal ones? It wasn’t long before I’d completed the outline and begun to write the book. This time there were fewer revisions between first draft and final product. I wasn’t under time pressure, so the writing went smoothly, and I finished that novel in about eight months. Abingdon bought that book as well, and it’s just been published as Medical Error.

Medical Error was part of a two-book contract, and the manuscript for the other novel in that deal was due less than six months after the contract was signed. Now I had a deadline. Now there was time pressure. Now things were different. I had an idea in the back of my mind, and I hurried to flesh it out, populate the story with characters, and start writing. As I wrote I alternated between feelings of “this isn’t bad” and “there’s no way they’ll accept this.” I finished Diagnosis Death within the allotted time, and it’s due for publication next spring. Writing under the pressure of a deadline was tough, but one of the things that saved me was the experience of writing those two previous novels (and the four unpublished ones before them). This time the writing was cleaner, and there were even fewer revisions.

So how long does it take to write a novel? It depends on whether it’s the first or a subsequent one. I depends on whether you have a contractual deadline. It depends… Well, you get the idea. It’s sort of like the question asked of Abraham Lincoln: How long should a man’s legs be? His answer was a classic: Long enough to reach the ground.

How long does it take to write a novel? Long enough to finish it, revise it, polish it, and send it off. Any other questions?


Anne Mateer said...

Great post, Doc!

I agree with you, it feels very different to write one from scratch under a deadline! But then it helps that we've written so many in the past, before contracts. The difference I see is not that the actual work time was longer on those old ones, but I didn't have to work at them as consistently as I do now that there is a deadline for their completion.

Crystal Laine Miller said...

I like hearing your personal journey in writing.

Does it help to have deadlines? Do you find the process better or worse with contracts? Or is it just different? Do you second-guess as much as when you're without agent/contract when coming up with a story now?

I really like the premises of your medical suspense. I'm glad you chose to go this route.

Interesting post!

Richard Mabry said...

Anne, thanks for your kind words. I know you've had a similar experience.

Crystal, I've always been sort of an "off my desk, onto yours" person, and deadlines ramp up my use of antacids even more. However, if I were given all the time in the world to write a novel, I'd probably spend a month on every comma and em dash trying to get it perfect. I suppose that having a deadline is a good thing, although sometimes they don't seem like our friends. And having an agent and a good relationship with an editor helps immensely. On the other hand, as I point out in a future post, you're only as good as your current work. Past performance is no guarantee of future returns (as the financial folks say).

terri tiffany said...

I love your answer to the question! That was my biggest problem I just figured out. I wanted to write a book a year and now realize--some might take a little longer if I want it good

Richard Mabry said...

Terri, You write books the same way baseball teams play their games: one at a time. And the amount of time it takes depends on how long you have (contractual deadlines), how you progress with your work, and the ever-popular "other" that comes in the form of family catastrophes, making a living, etc.

Thanks for stopping by, and best wishes with your writing.

Rick Boyne said...


Four unpublished novels, huh? Yikes!

I am in the "getting up the gumption" stage to start on my second novel. I'm still seeking representation for the first one.

I hope to know what it is to feel the pressures of a looming deadline for a subsequent work one day!

Blessings to you and yours!

Rick from Wagoner, OK

Richard Mabry said...

Rick, Best wishes as you continue your writing journey. As for the pressure of a looming deadline, I'm reminded of the saying, "Be careful what you pray for. You may get it."
Thanks for your comment.

Elaine said...

I've been commissioned to write the history of our organization, not a novel, I realize, but a book that must be done on time. The approaching deadline is just about to kill me. I have way too much to write and not enough time. And to make matters worse, the director keeps thinking of things he'd like to have in the book that I don't have time to research. And it MUST be done on time since it is the major part of our anniversary celebration. Any prayer you have time for would be appreciated.

Richard Mabry said...

Elaine, whether it's a novel, non-fiction, or work-for-hire, the imposition of a deadline adds to the stress for a writer. I hope my readers will join me in pausing to pray for focus in your work. Hang in there. Bet you'll make it under the wire.

As for your director's continuing addition of things for the book, I suggest you be very up-front about your own time constraints and suggest that he can have a book as currently projected on time, or if he prefers to add to the project it can be ready in five years for the next anniversary.

Brock S. Henning said...

Thanks for this post, Richard! I'm always interested in hearing how other writers honed their craft and came up with the ideas for their novels. Blessings!

Richard Mabry said...

Brock, Glad you joined in to the discussion. From your profile, it appears you and I have a similar situation--beautiful wives who are our "senior editors." Without Kay's input, I might write faster but with her input I write better.

Brock S. Henning said...

Richard, I like how you said that, and how true! (about writing better with our wives input) Very much the same on this end. (smile)

I also saw that you have been published with The Upper Room. I just passed the first editorial review on a submission, so hopefully I'll hear something about publication later this year. Good stuff.

Thanks again for taking the time to share!

Richard Mabry said...

Thanks for chiming in again, Brock. Congratulations on the Upper Room devotional. I"ll bet they said, "We'd like to hold this for further consideration." It may not show, but they do themes for various issues. Since they put issues together up to a year in advance, you may hear again in a few weeks or several months. But that's better than a quick rejection. Good work.