Non-Blog | Channing Whitaker

How Long Did It Take You to Write?


Though my first novel has been out for only a year, I’ve already noticed there are a few questions that seem to arise over and over again from the prospective readers I meet while promoting the book. “Where’d you get the idea?” “Is it a series?” “Where is it set?” All are straightforward questions which are easy enough to answer. I believe, going forward as an author, I should expect to answer those same questions every time I step out into the world intending to push my stories onto the public. But then there’s another frequent question: “How long did it take you to write,” which isn’t quite so straightforward to answer. If you’re an author, is this one you hear often?

It’s not that I can’t remember when I first sat down and opened that new Word file which would become my manuscript, or that I can’t calculate the length of time between then and when the book came out. That’s simple. The difficulty in answering is in the implication the question gives of the asker. It is almost certain that they have an idea they’ve been harboring for their own novel, but have actually written little or nothing of it, and they’re trying to gain perspective on the work ahead of them if they move forward with it. Like a person standing at the bottom of a big hill, shouting to another who’s standing on top: “How far is it up?”

Knowing that a mountain of work lies ahead when one undertakes writing a novel, I feel obligated not to mislead a prospective writer, nor do I want to dissuade them. Writing a novel is likely to be measured in months and years, not days and weeks. On top of that, for a first time author, after they’ve finished they’ll likely spend more months, if not over a year hunting for a publisher, and should they find one, their publisher will likely spend months, if not a year, preparing the material and the book’s marketing before it is finally released.

That said, not all months are created equal. One author might spend 18 months writing their novel, but still be working a day-job at the same time, while another author might spend 6 months writing their novel, working on the book full-time. Sometimes the writing process involves waiting time. An author might finish a draft and have to put it down for a few weeks, or a few months, to return to it with fresh eyes. An author might also be using the services of an editor or a critiquing group between drafts, and be subject to weeks or a month, waiting for those notes, before digging in on the next draft.

I am personally working away on my next novel, with the intent of working on it full-time, but I find that having another book already out means organizing and traveling to personal appearances every few weeks, interviews, blogging and keeping up with social media to cultivate my audience, plus reading and reviewing fellow authors, which all take time. Thus, even full-time writing only allows for a part-time schedule of actually composing the words on the pages of my next manuscript. All of this makes telling that eager but inexperienced writer “a year,” “eighteen months,” “two years,” at best incomplete answers.

“How long did it take you to write?” Recently, I’ve stumbled on a relatively simple way to answer which fellow authors might find helpful to respond effectively, and which might truly impart accurate perspective to the asker. Measure the effort in hours.

I spent about 1,500 hours on my first novel, from page one of my first draft through the end of the polished manuscript that actually found me a publisher. (Though that is not the end of the process, mind you.)

Of course every author and every project are different, but now the prospective author can calculate a realistic approximation. If they can spend 40 hours a week on their manuscript, they might expect about 8 or 9 months for writing a novel similar in length to mine. If they can spend 50 or 60 hours a week, they might cut that down. If they work full-time elsewhere and raise a family, and can only spare 10 hours a week, they might realistically expect the project to take 3 years. In any case, hopefully the process will streamline with successive books.

To all you prospective authors, it’s a lot of work. I hope this helps. Good luck.

To all you established authors, how do you answer this question?

Originally Posted on "Marilyn's Musings" blog, March, 2015.
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