I worked on my first book for three years. And at roughly 45,000 words it wasn’t exactly War and Peace. But there were reasons for the length of time it took. It was my first book for a start so I was learning a lot. On top of that, it had to be put into stasis more than once due to my day job, house moves and various changes in my life. But still, it seemed (to me) to be a rather extensive amount of time and it made me think (or rather worry) – was it too long?
What the “professionals” do
Some well-known writers bash out piles of books a year, although how much someone like James Patterson actually writes of his books is up for debate. On the other side, some authors have considerable gaps between books; 10 years for Donna Tartt and over 40 for Harper Lee. That can build clamouring levels of interest but can also mean you’re forgotten about or even resented (looking at you George R.R. Martin). And that’s baring in mind that “professionals” (well some of them) are primarily writers ie they spend most of their time doing the writing thing. Time which many of us (“professionals” included) simply don’t have.
Quality is king
So why was I worried? I think it was a combination of first time nerves coupled with the ever-present impostor syndrome that all writers suffer from. Because I was naturally inclined to write, I reasoned, I’d find it straightforward. I had a plot and character outlines too, so no chance was I going to lose my way right? Ha. Hahahahahaha. To paraphrase Mr Martin “you know nothing Wordlander”. Books (and the characters in them) don’t work to a pre-planned timetables.
At the end of it all quality is king. It has to be. Do books that take longer have more depth, or ones written quickly have more passion? Frankly who cares? Is it good is the question to ask, is it true to your vision? Unless you have a deadline, you’re beholden to no-one but yourself (although setting your own deadline can sometimes help).
Take as much time as you need
It’s normal for writing to feel hard sometimes. It’s normal to think about giving up and to question yourself. In many ways you have to be critical to get the best from yourself. But you have to be careful not to hurt your creativity. If you’re not sure where you’re going, take a break. Should the story pull you back, I’d say you’re meant to finish it. And if it takes you five years or even ten, so be it.
Accepting the above, a final caveat
There is such a thing as overworking the dough – that is editing and re-editing in the vain hope you’ll hit a sweet spot. But usually that doesn’t happen. Even after you publish (should you choose to), you’d probably still find things you’d want to change. So whilst you should take as long as you need, I’d suggest at some point, showing someone the fruits of your labours. That fresh pair of eyes will help you narrow down your final stopping place.
What’s the longest you’ve taken to write a book? Or indeed the shortest? Please share in the comments.