How long does it take to write a book? Hmm, tricky question. And the answer probably depends on who is asking.

If you are a fledgling writer, the answer is, “How long is a piece of string?”. It might depend on how much time you have available, your style of writing and the book genre. If you are writing fantasy or paranormal you’ll need to do lots of world building and most genres need research, historical fiction requires boatloads of research.

How Long Does it Take to Write a Book? – Ask George R. R. Martin

Perhaps you are a reader, waiting impatiently on the next instalment from your favorite author. Sometimes an author’s celebrity status will put a brake on the writing process. For example, George R.R. Martin has been working on the next instalment of A Song of Ice and Fire, since 2011. But he has had to fit the writing in between personal appearances. By all accounts The Winds of Winter will be both a blockbuster and a doorstopper. Martin’s latest advice to fans is that he’s cleared his calendar for 2017, so fingers crossed.

How Long Does it Take to Write a Book? – Ask Hilary Mantel

Personally, I’m desperate for Hilary Mantel to finish, The Mirror and the Light, the third and final instalment in her trilogy about Thomas Cromwell. The first two instalments, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies were published in 2009 and 2012 respectively. The following years must have been busy for Mantel: the two books were turned into an amazing BBC series, which aired in 2015, and she shared the writing credits. Then she consulted on a Broadway production of Wolf Hall. In an interview in early 2015, Mantel said The Mirror and the Light might hit the bookstands in “eighteen months.”

Screenwriting and theatre consulting notwithstanding, you can’t blame her taking her time, I mean both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies won the Man Booker Prize, so the pressure must be immense.

The Writing Process Takes Time or Does it?

Anyway, writing is only one part of the process. There’s re-writing, revising, editing – structural and copy – and of course, proofreading. So it can take a long, long time to produce a book, at least a book of quality. Or not, as the case may be.

Books That were Written under a Month

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in six days. He had help from cocaine which he took as an invalid. The fact that it’s a novella is really neither here nor there: he would have averaged 4,482 words per day, except he actually wrote the story in three days, his wife burned it so he wrote it again, taking another three days. First draft and re-write if you like.

Stevenson isn’t the only writer who could churn out a classic in a short time. According to Mentalfloss.com, in an article to promote National Novel Writing Month, aka NaNoWriMo, the following novels were also written in under a month:

  1. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne
  2. On the Road by Jack Kerouac
  3. A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  4. The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins
  5. The Gambler by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  6. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

However, if you check out the background to each book you’ll find that there was a lot going on before the author sat down to write.

Books that Took Decades to Write

At the other end of the scale, there are the books that took more than a decade to complete, and I’m talking single volumes here, not trilogies or series. Victor Hugo spent 12 years on his epic masterpiece, Les Misérablese. Both Catcher in the Rye and Gone with the Wind took ten years to write, despite very different word lengths: Rye is 73,000 plus words and GWTW is over 400,000 words. Mitchell had plenty of time on her hands, she wrote it during a long period of recovery from a car crash. The only thing that comparison tells us is that word length is probably no guide at all.

Even if some books take a shorter than average time to write they may have gone through a long period of gestation. Let’s take, for example, Jodi Picoult’s novel Small Great Things. It was published in October 2016. I can’t find an actual word count but the print version is 480 pages. It’s a substantial book, but thanks to a head-cold, and time on my I hands, I read it in just over two days.

In an extensive ‘author’s note’ at the end of the book, Picoult explains that early in her writing career, she read a news story about the death of an undercover policeman at the hands of his colleagues. The story had racist overtones and she wanted to write about it. The reason she didn’t go ahead was that she had “trouble creating a fictional character that rang true”.

Fast forward twenty-years, Picoult is an established author with many bestsellers under her belt. The idea is still there but so is the doubt. Then another news story pushes her and she starts researching so that she will be able to create a “character that rang true”. Picoult doesn’t say exactly how long it took to write Small Great Things – but the gestation period was a long one.

But back to my question and who is asking it. Author Ann Charnock recorded, via spreadsheet, how long it took to write her second novel, Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind. As she told Writer’s Digest, “I wrote my first novel, A Calculated Life, over the course of several years with frequent breaks of many months…Life kept intervening. When I started my second novel…I vowed that I’d keep a detailed record of my progress.”

She discovered that the writing took exactly one year and hopes that what she learned from keeping a log will help speed up the process for future projects. Though she did note that, “Each writing project throws up new challenges—there are new writerly problems to solve. And, as I keep reminding myself, it’s not a race”.

So, to answer my question, “how long does it take to write a book?” The answer can only be, “as long as it takes.”

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