Wednesday, August 21, 2013

How Long Does it Take?

I'm gradually loosening up the neck. Dance last night seems to have helped, and I didn't even have many problems with turning. I really hope to be better by next week or else driving to San Antonio is going to be painful.

One of the most frequently asked questions I get related to writing is how long it takes to write a book, and since that flows naturally from setting goals, I thought I'd address it.

This really is a big "it depends." It depends on the book itself, the deadline, what else is going on in my life, the time of year and a host of other things. I usually time my writing sessions, so I have a sense of how many hours it takes to produce each book, but even that doesn't tell the whole story because there's a lot of thinking that goes on before I start doing anything even resembling writing, and that pops up in random bits and pieces that are impossible to track and quantify. There's also the fact that a book may be produced in stages, especially once you can sell on proposal. You may do some preliminary research and develop a proposal, then work on something else while waiting for the proposal to sell, then go back to writing in earnest. Then things may go much faster when you have a firm deadline you have to meet. That's wonderfully motivating.

I'll give a few of examples from my experience:

I got the very first spark of an idea for my Enchanted, Inc. series in early 2002. I played with that idea off and on over the next year and a half or so. I'd think about it, add a few details, then forget about it for a while. By the summer of 2003, I had a pretty good idea what the story would be about, enough to pitch it to an editor at a conference when she asked me what I was working on. I somehow added a lot more details while talking to her. I started doing real research and development on the idea in August and early September. In late September, I started doing character development and some plot outlining, then took a research trip to New York. I started writing actual words in the second week of October and finished the first draft about a week before Christmas. I did a revision pass (though I'd been revising as I went) in early January and submitted to an agent. After getting an agent, I spent about a week doing revisions based on her suggestions. So, if you asked me how long it took me to write that book, would it be the approximately 2 1/2 months it took to write the first draft or the more than two years between the time I got the idea and the time the book was ready to be submitted to publishers? When it came time to write the second book in the series, I wrote a draft in about five weeks, then took about three months to do revisions. In that case, I didn't have to do a lot of research and development because I was building on existing characters and settings, but the story didn't come together quite as perfectly for me and took a lot of reworking. I think the books in that series all seem to take about four months to write, but it varies whether the bulk of the time comes in the first draft or in revisions. Strangely, the first book was the easiest, but that may be because of all the thinking that went on before I went into writing mode, or else it may be because it was less complex since it was introducing the world and the characters rather than doing a lot of further development.

For my upcoming book, a young adult steampunk fantasy, I came up with the first spark of an idea in the fall of 2009. I toyed with the idea off and on, discussing it with friends and doing some preliminary research and some reading in the genre, until the summer of 2010, when I started researching in earnest. I spent that summer doing extensive research, then late in the summer I started outlining and doing character development. I started writing in September and sent a proposal (the first 100 pages or so and a synopsis) to my agent in October. Since I was having fun with it, I kept writing, and I think I finished a draft, after doing a few revisions on the proposal, in early 2011. There wasn't a lot of positive response in the adult fantasy market, and after discussing it with my agent, I decided that it would make a good young adult novel, since the characters were pretty young and it focused on some coming-of-age themes. I spent the fall rewriting the book, and it first went on submission to the YA market in 2012 before finally selling in early 2013. I don't even really know how to calculate how long it took me to write that book. I think the initial first draft took about 3 months, but there was a lot of research time, and I did still more research before the rewrite.

I've got a book going out on submission that really wins the marathon prize for me. I   don't have a clear "this is when I got this idea" moment, as it seems to have started with a vivid mental image I was trying to find the story in, and then it picked up other story and character fragments that had been rolling around in my head for a very long time (the main character had been living in my head since I was in college, auditioning for almost every story I wrote but never being quite right until this one came along). I finally decided to write it in the summer of 2009. I did a lot of research and made a research trip that summer, and I was also doing some brainstorming along the way. I have a notebook full of freewriting of just playing with who the characters were and what was going on. I started writing in the fall, took a break while working on something else, worked on it again in the spring and early summer. I had a full draft by that point, but wasn't happy with the ending, and changing the ending meant tinkering with everything else, so I put it aside to work on the steampunk book. I picked it up again every so often and finally reached a point this spring that I was happy with it. It took me at least four years from research to submission, but I also wrote four other books in the meantime.

I guess the bottom line is that writing a novel takes patience, and there's a lot more to it than typing. I find that the more time an idea has to develop in my head, the faster the writing goes -- except in the odd book that has to find its own shape once I write it. I write faster when I have a deadline. Some books seem to spring from my head, fully formed, while others are more of a struggle and need a lot of rewriting. I don't think readers can tell the difference in the finished product. Generally, count on at least three to four months from the research and development phase to a finished product, and probably longer. For another way of calculating that, it took about 150 hours for me to write Kiss and Spell, the seventh book in the Enchanted, Inc. series. That includes some research and the revision work but not the general thinking about it stuff, and I didn't have to do a lot of character development or world building because it was the seventh book in a series.

If you're trying to set a goal, look at the amount of time you have available and how much you can accomplish in a certain amount of time. You may have to adjust along the way, depending on whether this book fits your pattern. Once you get to the point where you have to set a deadline with a publisher, you'll probably have a better sense of how long it will take you -- and then pad that a little. If you're writing without a contract, you can be a little more flexible with your deadlines, but it still helps to have one to hold yourself accountable.

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