How long does it take to write a book?

I tried to add up how long it took me to write my current book. The answer was quite a long time.

Seagulls flying over the beach on a sunny day

How many drops of water are there in a drink bottle?

How big is a tree?

How many clouds are there in the sky?

How hot is soup?

How many dragons are there in a flock?

I have lots more meaningless questions, but I’m sure you get the idea. I can’t tell you how long it takes to write a book, but I’m getting closer to knowing how long it took me to write my current book.

Let’s pretend you care about that, and I’ll tell you.

The planning stage of writing a book

Some people are struck by the lightning of a brilliant idea, sit down the next morning, and pants their way through to the end.

This is not me.

I start with a spark, then I brainstorm, search, let ideas coalesce like streams into a torrent, hit a concrete wall, and start over.

I planned this book for six months before I started to write. I had index cards and everything. They were beautiful.

Index cards for revising
I added one scene to each card. No, all the different colours mean is that I didn’t have enough cards to make them all blue.

(Naturally, the first draft didn’t work and the beautifully coloured structure had to change.)

The first draft

I like to think I write my first drafts fairly briskly. If I have some idea what I’m going to write, in a good hour-long session I standardly write a thousand words.

My best days come in at over 5000 words.

But let’s say an average of 1500 words per day, and assume my first draft is 120k words. That’s 80 days, or nearly three months. From recollection, that’s pretty accurate.

The structural editing stage

And by this, I mean the stage when you read your book, decide the story doesn’t hang together, and have to change, well, everything. I’ve decided this for myself, and I’ve had beta readers tell me. More than once.

This stage took me about seven years, most of which was taken up by despair.

The hard part wasn’t seeing what was broken, but knowing how to fix it–and then killing the beautiful and suspenseful scenes that no longer had a place in the narrative.

My characters have been through so many lives off the page. Sometimes I think of those deleted scenes as happening in parallel universes. The events did happen–somewhere, sometime, just not in this world.

I keep a file of scenes I’ve cut. It’s currently 216,481 words long.

Yes, considerably more than the length of the book.

I believe (I hope) I finished this stage a few weeks ago. Every scene was (I hope) in the right place, and all that remained was to perfect the content of each scene (I really really hope).

The scene editing stage

That’s probably not what other people call it, but the name works for me.

I’m doing this now and I love it.

I read the scene, check its arc. Does it have a unique reason for living? Enough conflict? Does it start too early? End too late? Are point of view, location, and relative time clear from the start? Do the characters sound like themselves? Does the setting feel real?

Do the big emotional points hit hard enough? Can I rephrase anything to improve clarity, rhythm, or feel? Have I used five words where three will do? What did my cat just type while chasing popcorn across my keyboard?

How does it sound?

I finish by listening to the scene using text to speech. It mispronounces nearly all my character names, but other than that it’s great. Listening, I usually find a couple of sentences that could be smoother, and occasionally a typo or missing word.

My spreadsheet tells me I’ve edited the first 24k words and it has taken me 39 hours. At this rate, the whole book will take about 255 hours.

So my question for you is…

How on earth do some authors write a book every few months?

A first draft every three months? Maybe, if I already know what’s going to happen.

But a finished product? Not a chance.

My fond hope is that I’ll get faster with practice; or at least spend less time in the “despair” stage.

How do your speed and process compare? Any tips for writing a first draft that doesn’t need so much restructuring?

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Author: A.S. Akkalon

By day, A.S. Akkalon works in an office where the computers outnumber the suits of armour more than two-to-one. By night, she puts dreams of medieval castles, swords, and dragons onto paper.

6 thoughts on “How long does it take to write a book?”

  1. Out of curiosity, I looked at the editing time Word reports for some of my WIPs, and calculated the “words per hour”. (I can’t help it, I’m an engineer 😉

    Over the past year and a half, I’ve done pretty much all my writing in Word. I start by noting down ideas, then expanding on it with the skeleton of a plot, then fleshing it out with written scenes, deleting the notes as I finish each section, so for the recent work it’s a reasonably approximation.

    My highest reliable number is for a short story that’s half-written – I’ve averaged 650 words per hour on that, including editing time (and a bit of “I left the file open while I was doing something else” time).
    I’ve got several other short stories (two in progress, two largely complete) around the 300-400 range.

    My sci-fi novella (23k words) reports 1662wph, but that’s at least double the actual – that story was half-written years ago before I pulled it into Word after it sat untouched for a long time.

    My larger WIPs are 186wph for 135k, 183wph for 83k, and 507wph for 91k. The first two have had a *lot* of editing and revision time put into them. The third I’m still writing the initial draft, though I’m in the last act, but the average will drop markedly when I put some serious revision time into it.

    I know my writing has improved and sped up somewhat since I did the first of the three fantasy novels, so I could definitely write faster than that one. But something around ~200-250 words per hour for a revised & edited draft seems readily achievable, and I’m sure it would increase with practice.

    Then it’s just a matter of the time spent on it. If you were writing full-time, that’s 10,000 words per week, or a 100k+ novel every three months, revised and edited.

    Getting that many hours to spend on it, though… that’s the tricky part!

    1. That’s a really interesting way of looking at things! It’s always made sense to me to count words per hour when I’m first drafting, but I haven’t had a useful way of tracking my productivity in the editing stage. If I spend an hour to cut 100 words, minus 100 words per hour is not a great productivity measure. But if I look, as you have here, at total words over total hours it makes a lot more sense.

      I’ve used Scrivener in recent years (and highly recommend it), but I starting writing this book in something else and I leave my files open a lot, so the stats it gives me aren’t useful. Though recently I’ve started to keep a good record of all my writing-related activities, so hopefully I’ll be able to produce better stats in the future.

  2. How some authors write and publish so fast baffles me. If I wrote and published a book in 3 months it’d be hot garbage! I think they must either have a huge backlog of stories to release or they refined/optimised the writing process for maximum output.

    It took me just over a year to finish my 200000 word first draft and 7 months of planning prior to that. I’ve still got to edit it. and that’ll probably take me another year, maybe longer before I consider it ready to publish. I can’t help feeling a little inadequate when I see how fast some others churn out finished books. Have to keep telling myself we all work at our own pace 🙂

    My best university tutor (the non fiction author, surprisingly) said to avoid lots of restructuring, think about the purpose of each scene in relation to the larger story as you write, and avoid too much unnecessary information. In my first drafts I tended to add way too much stuff about my characters and meander from one plot point to the next, taking the scenic route when I could get from A to B with far less words and much less back and forth. I figure if I learn to get straight to the point I’ll draft faster and have less work to do later!

    1. Your speed seems totally reasonable to me… though a year for editing might be quite quick, especially if you’re trying to cut a lot of words. I feel inadequate at times too, but then I think of the classic authors who only ever wrote one book (I fondly imagine there are some) and took twenty years over it, and I feel better.

      That’s good advice from your university tutor. If only I could figure out how to do it! My problem is that I can’t figure out the story by sitting down and squeezing my brain. I need to write a first draft and see my characters in action to start to understand what they want and how everything relates. Sometimes a lot more than one draft. But perhaps I’ll get better with practice. 🙂

      1. Thanks, your speed seems reasonable too 🙂 It’s entirely possible I’ve underestimated how long editing will take. I’ve never edited a complete first draft before so it’s more of a guess of how long I thought it should take with a bit of overestimating (I thought) thrown in! Sounds like I might have to reassess my idea of what a reasonable editing speed is once I get started. The authors who took a long time but only wrote one book did become classics, so maybe slow is better 🙂

        I struggle with my tutors advice too, it’s like I need to get all the ideas on paper in full prose form to figure out which are good and which are not so good, and I find it hard to see what will work based on a plan. But at least I end up with lots of practice I guess!

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