How Long Should It Take to Write a Book?

how long to write a book

Today’s guest post is by author Merilyn Simonds (@MerilynSimonds). Her newest book is Refuge.


Writing a novel requires the creation of a living, breathing, fully populated world. Deities can pull off a trick like that in six days, but how long should it take to write a book?

William Faulkner wrote Light in August in seven months, a slog compared to As I Lay Dying, which he wrote in less than six weeks while working the night shift at a power plant. Jack Kerouac spent seven years on the road, but the actual writing of that iconic book took less than a month, typed on a single, taped-together roll of paper. Anthony Burgess wrote A Clockwork Orange for money and churned it out in three weeks. John Boyne gave voice to The Boy in the Striped Pajamas in a breathless two and a half days.

Surely years, not weeks or months, is the norm. A quick glance at the oeuvre of writers like Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, and Louise Erdrich suggests that writers devoted to their craft can manage a new work of fiction every two to four years.

It used to bother me that I took twice that long, sometimes longer, to finish a manuscript. Am I lazy? Word-challenged? Easily distracted? Or just plain slow?

I drew solace from writers such as Junot Díaz and Margaret Mitchell, who took a decade to write The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Gone With the Wind, respectively. J.R.R. Tolkien labored twelve years over Lord of the Rings, one of the bestselling novels of all time. Alistair MacLeod, with whom I often commiserated on being a slow-mo writer, worked on No Great Mischief for 13 years before his editor wrested it from his hands.

When I started Refuge, my latest novel, I was determined to shorten my writing time. Three years, I told myself sternly. Four, max. And I met that deadline. Exactly four years later, I submitted the manuscript to my agent, who sent it to my editors at McClelland & Stewart and W.W. Norton. I scheduled some minor surgery, imagining myself recovering on my couch, eating bonbons and contemplating the six-figure offers.

“It’s not a novel,” my editors said. My agent sent the manuscript to other publishing houses. Editor after editor rejected it. Many offered suggestions. Put the last chapter first. Focus on the son. Focus on the sister, on the time in Mexico, on New York, on the love story.

I was devastated. I put the novel away amid gloomy thoughts that I would never write again. I started a literary festival. I started a biweekly books column. I started a gardening blog.

That was in 2008. I had laid down the bones of the story of Cassandra MacCallum, a 96-year-old who had made a sanctuary for herself on a small island behind the farm where she was born, in my 2004 notebook. Now this smart, feisty woman refused to stay in my bottom drawer. Every so often, I’d get an idea of how I might rework her story and I’d haul out the manuscript, mess with it for a few months, then give up as her sharp, sassy voice was drowned out by my editor’s pronouncement. It’s not a novel.

I am stubborn by nature. Put an obstacle in front of me and I’ll wear myself to the bone trying to find a way around, under, over it. But no amount of thinking could break through my idée fixe of how this story should be told: a woman’s life from birth to death, the reader knowing Cass MacCallum in a way we almost never get to know anyone in real life.

Four more years passed. I tried not to count. Then, in 2012, I was a guest at the San Miguel de Allende Writers Conference with a Famous Writer friend. We never talk writing: we talk gardening, and life, and books. We laugh. Sometimes we sing silly songs in Edith Bunker falsettos. But sitting over coffee one morning, our conversation turned to how many drafts of a book we typically write. Fifteen, she said. My usual is also fifteen, which somehow gave me courage to add, “But I’m having real trouble with this one.”

“Tell me about it,” she said. So I did.

“It’s the story of a woman who is the ninth daughter of an amateur naturalist/inventor who dies of tuberculosis. She contracts the disease and recovers in a sanatorium where she is inspired to become a nurse…”

“Stop!” she moaned. “This is like being on a bus and someone sits down beside you and opens their photo album and says, This is a picture of me in Paris, this is a picture of me in Rome, this is a picture of me in London. In ten seconds you want to slit your wrists!”

She was right. Recounting the story out loud, even I was bored.

“You need a shish-kebab rod to hang those stories on,” she said.

Refuge by Merilyn SimondsThat was the prod I needed. Within a week, I had my story rod. I printed all the scenes I’d written so carefully over the years, cleared a space on the living room floor, and started moving the shish-kebab bits around. Instead of a rigid chronology, I had a mosaic that could be worked and reworked a thousand different ways.

Three more years passed. Finally, I had a final draft—my 22nd. The story was still the same, but the way it unfolded had changed dramatically. My agent loved it. An editor bought it.

When someone in the audience asks, how long did it take you to write this book, I say, “Fourteen years.” But of course that’s not true. I wasn’t writing during all those fourteen years: I worked on the manuscript in bursts, the pages languishing for months and sometimes years while I gathered my thoughts for the next revision.

Carl Honoré, author of In Praise of Slow and guru of the Slow Movement, had his wake-up call to the North American obsession with speed when he caught himself admiring a book of one-minute bedtime stories. Refuge was my epiphany.

I no longer think that a book should be written in a prescribed amount of time. I’ve stopped beating myself up for coming to a structure slowly, for needing to get to know my characters as gradually as I get to know people in life. I welcome the pauses in the work, knowing that my thinking deepens in that time away. I don’t worry that I’ll change over the years it takes to finish a novel because I know the story is growing, too, becoming more layered, more nuanced. And yet, miraculously, the heart of it stays the same. The opening paragraph of the published novel is almost identical to what I scribbled in my notebook 14 years ago.

What is impossible for a writer to predict is the world their novel will be released into. In 2008, this story would have been an anomaly. In 2018, its exploration of who we give refuge to and why is part of one of the most important conversations of our time.

It isn’t easy to embrace writing as a long game. I’ve learned to smile when I answer the well-meaning queries of family and friends with, “Yep, still working on it.” I don’t force myself to write a certain number of pages a day or set a deadline for each draft. I work at the pace the story needs. I still rail against the way life can sabotage my writing time and I still struggle to find the best way into a story. But I’ve stopped feeling guilty and inadequate, afraid that I’m not a real writer because of the pace at which I work.

I’m halfway through a new novel called ~then~. I have no idea when it will be finished. Within my lifetime, I hope. My mantra is simple:

Write. Write well. Write to the end. Take as long as you need.

Posted in Creativity + Inspiration, Guest Post.

Merilyn Simonds is the internationally published author of 18 books, including The Holding, New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice and the Canadian classic nonfiction novel, The Convict Lover, a finalist for the Governor General's Award. In 2017, Bookmark Canada unveiled a plaque to honour the place of The Convict Lover in Canada’s literary landscape. Her most recent nonfiction work is Gutenberg’s Fingerprint: Paper, Pixels, and the Lasting Impression of Books. A former adjunct professor in the University of British Columbia Creative Writing MFA program, she mentors emerging writers across North America, dividing her time between Kingston, Canada, and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

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Deborah Lycas
Deborah Lycas

Brilliant! And so very timely. A writer friend and I take turns talking each other off the ledge and today is my turn to inspire her to stay the course. First, I’ll send her this blog post (such a silly name for such a wonderful piece of writing) and then I’ll bookmark it for the next time when it’s me ready to throw years of work into the trash bin. No. I’ll add it to my reading list and make it my mantra, my daily read, my coach over my shoulder. Thank you Merilyn, and Jane for bringing her wisdom… Read more »

Elizabeth West

Oh Lord, thank you. I’ve been revising and working on something for a long time–many edits and four major revisions, this last one almost a complete overhaul. I even wrote another book in the meantime! I just can’t quite let go of it–I feel like I’m so very close.

This makes me feel better about being so slow.

Kathryn Orzech

The same for me, Elizabeth. One book took six months but the book I started first, often interrupted by life, took 30 years to complete. No matter what happened in life, the characters and their story kept coming back to me. I reached a point where I had so much invested of time (decades) and historical research (from the library’s hand-cranked microfilm reader to Google), I would not stop. The idea comes back to you for good reason—it needs its story to be told. Don’t give up. It will get done. It will be great.

Judy Penz Sheluk

Simply fabulous. Sharing with my Sisters in Crime in Toronto!

John Patrick Grace

If Merilyn Simonds needs four-plus years and 22 drafts to finish a novel that wins a book deal, what hope is there for the rest of us? I’m a nonfiction editor that has occasionally edited romans a clefs, and novels I’ve edited have been accomplished in many different time frames. Curiously, I never grilled the authors about “what number draft is this?” though I have put authors through redrafting, at least of selected chapters. My guess is that, as the column suggests, novels—even good ones–have been done in any number of different timeframes; there seems to be no rule. Tell… Read more »

Linda MacConnell
Linda MacConnell

This is very comforting and confidence-building for any writer. I can certainly relate to it.

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Wendyl
Wendyl

Excellent article. Now I don’t feel as pressured to finish my WIP. Thank you!

Margaret Piton

I have only written one so far unpublished novel–it took several years. A nonfiction book I co-authored took less than a year when I also had a full-time job.
I’m starting to think I should concentrate on writing plays, which take a lot less time than novels. A friend of mine has been working on her novel for about 10 years.
It’s good to know that even published novelists may need a long time to finish a book.

K. Kris Loomis

LOVE your mantra!

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

This is exactly the advice I need to help pull the biography of my father together. I have been struggling to avoid the plodding step by step narrative.
Have to run now, I’m off to find a shish kebab!!

Glen Russell
Glen Russell

How I needed this. It couldn’t come with more synchronicity; a cosmic caretaker. It’s not only for me , but my daughter, the doctor, who has this gift that I think she needs to work on. If not for an audience than for her soul; her creative and aesthetic side. For both of us, this article-mandate, points away through the labyrinth of issues and concerns confronting all of us; one of the first major hurdles after calling yourself a writer. Thank you Jane for Merilyn’s piece. Thank you Merilyn. And, thank you fellow writers.

JazzFeathers

Thanks so much for sharing this. It depresses me to no end that the most given writing advice today is ‘publish as many books as possible’. I’m more a writer like you. It takes me years to write a novel. And yes, the novel graws with me just like you said, and I think this is aa added value that very few novels written in a month will have.

I will never be a successful indie writer, I’ve coem to term with that. But I’m fine with it 🙂

Liza

I am hanging this mantra on my wall.

Jeanne Ainslie

Inspiring! A true writer.

Kathryn Orzech

Thanks, Merilyn. Good to know it’s not just me. I too experienced breaks of three, four or more years. My longest break was seven years. With juggling two time periods in a multi-generational saga, I was beyond confused, so a lot of wasted time with re-starts. But I never gave up and after thirty years (not a typo) I’m pleased with the final product. My next book took six months. Whew!

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[…] Simonds ponders how long it should take to write a book, while Daphne Gray-Grant reminds us why we should resist following the rituals of famous […]

danny johnson

well said…if one was in the same hurry to piece together 300 pages as he was to live his life that way, he’d be dead at 30…