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.
(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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