I’m so used to this question by now that I usually just reply ‘About four weeks.’ Because that is the simple answer. I can look at the average amount of time a first draft takes, and that is, for me, how long it takes to write a novel. But there is a much more complicated answer, because the question is in fact not how long does it take to write a novel, but how long does it take to finish one. And that is where the real variety seeps in.
Personally, when I get embroiled in writing I roughly finish a novel draft in about a month per 100,000 words. You can figure out other averages from that, but it doesn’t help to say I’ll do a certain number in a day. Because I won’t. In his book On Writing, Stephen King says he writes a few thousand words each day without fail, and any fiction writer should aim to do the same. I don’t subscribe to setting word goals per day. In the space of my novel writing month there’ll be days, sometimes even whole weeks, where I step back and gestate. Sometimes the brain needs time to work things out away from the screen.
There is something to be said for setting deadlines, though. In the early 20th Century, pulp-fiction was churned out at incredible rates to regularly satisfy their reading public. Lester Dent, for example, wrote the majority of the 159 Doc Savage pulp-fiction novels in the space of 16 years. Numerous works of classic literature have been written in similar time-constraints.
Dostoevsky wrote Crime and Punishment at a relentless pace for serial publication, released over the course of 1866. The first draft was written a year before, and subsequently burnt, completely redrafted in a different perspective. With deadlines for publication, Dostoevsky completed Crime and Punishment at an intense speed. And in that time, he also wrote The Gambler in just 26 days. And he’s not the only one to produce classic literature in a tight time frame.
Other novels have taken notably longer to write. Finnegan’s Wake is a particularly telling example, which took James Joyce 17 years to complete, even with occasional serial publication and a rapid work ethic. Joyce was obsessively thorough with his writing, and faced numerous personal troubles in the long road towards publication. This example also shows an author can be inconsistent in how long it takes to write a novel, though: Joyce’s monumental work Ulysses was serialised in the space of 2 years.
The difference mostly comes in the edit, though. If Dostoevsky hadn’t written so quickly, he would have starved. Joyce had the luxury of time to be meticulous. The speed of their novel publications does not reflect their personal writing speed, but extraneous factors – in both cases, who they were writing for (a paying public versus an army of literary critics). How long it takes to write a novel depends more on how long you can afford to dwell on it than how quickly you can write.
This is true when answering how long does it take for me to write a novel. The ability to get published, and finding people who want to read my writing, massively speeds up finishing a novel. I wrote The Bayeux Enigma in 2003, and redrafted it about twice a year between then and 2010. This was more because I could not find a publisher than because I was unhappy with what I’d written. It took me about 4 weeks to write, about 7 years to stop editing it, and (if we’re on track!) about 10 years from writing it to publication. Now that I’ve got the ball rolling I expect to be far less discerning with my edits before pushing out my other novels. This is not to say the quality will suffer, merely that my edits will occur in a more timely fashion, and with more professional overseeing, than they previously have.
I am also working on serial publication myself now, too, for example publishing Pilgrimage of the Damned as I write it, for the Jukepop Serials website. It will likely take me longer to write the whole story, but when it’s up it’s done – no 7 year editing period there.
I’d love to hear other writers’ and readers’ ideas – how long does it take you (or do you think it would take you) to write a novel?