Last week I laid out some of the basics for getting started on novel writing. Here, I’m going to discuss how long it should take to write a first draft, and some troubleshooting for when that draft takes longer than expected.
So, How Long Will It Take Me?
First drafts take time, though how much depends on your writing schedule. Assuming that you’re able to write 1000 words a day (on average) and you’re shooting for a 75k manuscript, it would hypothetically take a little over two months to draft the entire thing. That said, once you account for slow days, distractions, and time spent tweaking the story, it often takes a bit longer than this. 3-6 months to a first draft is a pretty reasonable expectation, though if you’re vigilant, keep to a schedule, and don’t allow yourself to edit as you write, you may be able to do this more quickly. If you revise as you go, change your plans for the story, or write a bit more slowly, it may take longer.
While I don’t like to use my work as an example, this may help people situate themselves. Most of my manuscripts end up around 100k. Sometimes I can start a book in November and finish the draft by the middle of January. On the other hand, I started my current work in progress in June and I’ve still got another month or two of work left on it (since I’ve been throwing out as many words as I write which, as I discuss below, is a bad practice for this exact reason). My first novel (65k and not particularly good) took almost a year from start to finish, but a majority of the book was written over the course of a couple weeks. The takeaway here is that writing a novel may take longer than you expect, but you shouldn’t be discouraged by the time commitment.
Note that this is time to a first draft, not to a polished, publication-ready novel. That timeline is quite a lot harder to pin down.
But I’ve been working on my novel for five years and I still don’t have a first draft. Am I really bad at this?
No, hypothetical reader. This does not mean that you’re bad. It does, however, suggest that you may be running into one of the following problems.
Not Making Time
A lot of would-be novelists complain about not being able to find the time to write. The thing is, most of us have a full schedule. Almost no one has an abundance of time to sit down and write. That time needs to be taken from somewhere else, whether you’re losing an hour of sleep, pulling the time out of another hobby, or scrounging up the wasted minutes that usually slip through the cracks. Finding time can be hard, but it’s also one of the best things that you can do for yourself as a writer, and for your book.
Fortunately, there are some great post out there about things that you can do to make time.
Revising as you go
Sometimes as you write, the story changes. You may realize that the plot doesn’t go the way you thought it did, have a great idea for a new character, or just want to clean up some loose ends. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and sometimes small changes will help your story along in the long run. However, editing as you write necessarily makes the writing process take longer. It’s also easy for this to slip into an endless cycle of revisions that can stop you from getting to the end, because there will always be something that can change. Often, the most productive thing that you can do is to turn off your inner editor and write through to the end. Even if you don’t love your first draft, it means that you’ll have a finished document that you can refine and build off of.
A close cousin of over-revising, magpie syndrome is what happens when you find yourself abandoning one project after another in order to chase after something new. It’s not always bad to abandon a project—sometimes you’re legitimately working on the wrong novel and you come up with another idea that has real potential. The key here is that with magpie syndrome, this is a repeated occurrence, and you never get very far into one project before losing interest and starting a new one.
If you notice that you’re doing this, you may need to pick an idea and force yourself to stick it out. This doesn’t mean that you have to scrap the other ideas. Get comfortable putting things on the back-burner and keep a file of notes so that when you finish you’re first novel, you’re ready for the second.
This problem is also related to the (similarly poor) practice of only writing when inspired. Inspired writing can be excellent, but inspiration doesn’t always strike, especially when you’re shlogging through some of the unsexy connective tissue in your novel.
Some people just write slowly. This may just be your process, and that’s okay. If its hard for you to put down more than 500 words a day, it might be enough to just budget in the extra time and keep chipping away. Your novel will get finished.
If it’s hard for you to put down even that, it may be worthwhile to reevaluate your writing habits. Again, this might just be your process (and it really does work for some people), but it could also be a sign that you’re overthinking things, being too critical of your own work, or experiencing writer’s block. It might be useful for you to free-write for a bit, and to give yourself permission to write imperfectly. It might also help for you to draw up an outline of your work so that when you write, you already know what has to happen in the scene.