Tuesday, April 15, 2014


ONE OF THE MOST common mistakes that novelists (both new and experienced) make is underestimating how long it's going to take to write the book. And a big reason for that is that it looks like such a deceptively simple calculation to make.
   For instance, when I'm writing suspense, a polished first-draft manuscript is going to be about 97,500 words long. I don't know why they end up that length, but over the years, that's where they've been. A thriller is usually considerably longer for me: say, 115,000 words. And my best consistent daily word count is 1,000 words; I can write more than that per day if I need to, but to maintain what I consider acceptable and publishable quality, 1,000 words is the maximum to which I can commit.
   So ... 115,000 words divided by 1,000 words is 115 days, or just under 16.5 weeks. 
   And that is how most writers calculate how long it's going to take to write the book.

Except I don't write at all one day a week. I take a sabbath away from the keyboard and, in the example we have going, this adds a little over two-and-a-third weeks to the process. So, rounding up, we are now at twenty weeks to finish the book.
   Another big revelation is that, to write a manuscript that I will be proud to turn in the publisher, I'm not going to write 115,000 words; it's going to be more like 150,000. Doing the same math we've done above, now we are pressing nearly half a year: almost exactly 24.5 weeks.  
   Now ... realistically ... am I going to write six days a week nonstop? 
   Probably not. Somewhere in the process either my wife, or I, or both of us, will go a little stir-crazy, a situation that can only be remedied by a week or two on a cruise ship, if we can find a truly great deal, or a ride to South Florida if we cannot. And if I want to avoid alimony, I am not writing during that vacation, so add two weeks to the gestation period. 
   Now we are at 26.5 weeks ... past half a year. 
   Relatives come to visit and want us to take them to the theme parks (we live in Central Florida): scratch another two weeks. The septic field decides to remind us it's out there, requiring a visit from the service people and the sort of olfactory experience that drives one screaming from the keyboard ... this happened just last month and eliminated anything that looked like productive writing for a week. And figure at least another week expended for doctor visits, vet visits, friends' kids' weddings, you name it.
   Now we are at 30.5 weeks to write the 150,000 words. But we don't want 150,000. We want 115,000. So we edit, which for me is a slower process than writing. Say I'm on a roll, and I can get it done in 90 days: that's roughly 13 more weeks, bringing us to 43.5 weeks all totaled.
   But we're still not done. The book goes out to beta readers, and I give them a month to read it, during which I write the back-cover blurb and the marketing copy, and clean up the style sheet and all the other stuff the publisher is going to need. Then, when I get the comments from my readers, I'm looking at about a month-and-a-half of work to read their comments, decide if I see a trend among them, fix the manuscript and re-polish it. 
   If you've been keeping track, the book that simple math said should be done in 16.5 weeks has actually taken 54 weeks. That's two weeks more than a year.  And that's assuming everything goes smoothly; for me, a comfortable gestation period for a good, readable novel is actually more like 18 months, sometimes longer, and sometimes considerably longer.  In High Placeswhich was very well received by readers and critics alike, took me every bit of seven years, writing on again and off again (mostly off again).
   Your mileage, as they say, may vary. Some people claim they can write 5,000 high-quality words of fiction a day, every day. Frankly, I'm more than skeptical. 
   And if you really want the novel to sing, even a thousand words may be stretching it as a daily goal. Remember, Hemingway was happy with just 600.
   I'm not telling you this to scare you. I'm telling you this to prepare you.
   So ... next time you do the simple math to figure out when the novel will be done, remember to factor in the elements that aren't so simple.
   Like time to make the writing something of which you'll be proud ...
   ... and time to live your life.

1 comment:

  1. Words of wisdom, Tom. Anyone who writes 5,000 good words in a day has already spent weeks (or months) thinking about those words. Writing is about more than typing. The thinking time counts. When I write rough drafts, I can average over 1,000 words per day, but only after months of thinking about a story worth telling, pulling the details together into some kind of reasonably well considered structure (aka, a plot). Including that, it takes me a year at least to write a decent novel. Sometimes it takes two. And leaving the story for a month or two, and then coming back to it fresh, is the best way to edit and rewrite objectively. So as you say, that year (or two) of plotting and writing is often spread over a much longer period.