Looking at how long it takes to write a novel

Last week I wrote about the ups and downs of writing. Sometimes I am cranking out the words and other days I am struggling to find time to write.

As I read about the experiences of other authors, I hear about authors who write thousands of words a day. And while it is good to have a writing goal and to be actually writing, is it worth it to write a lot of not so good words or should you strive to write quality writing? Do you want to cut a lot of what you write?

Well, I guess that is right, but I do hate deleting a lot of what I write so my writing is slower as I strive for quality passages verses a high number of words. And of course, I do edit as I write so that takes longer to write. But I am getting off the topic here.

Today, I wanted to talk about how long it takes to write a novel, and how you should take it with a grain of salt when other authors say they crank out books every month, every other month or how ever often they say they write a book.

If you ask 10 authors how long it takes to write a book, you will probably get 10 different answers. For some it takes 10 years or 4 years or 1 year or 6 months. It can take a long time to write a novel if you have research, complex plots or if you spend a lot of time fine-tuning sentences. How often you write and for how long, your level of writing experience, the genre, and length of novel also play into how long it takes to write a novel.

This is that grain of salt thing I mentioned when listening to how long it takes authors to write a book. Here is a list of books and how long they took to write. Note the word count, some of these books are short. I could certainly crank out more books if my stories were 28,000 or even 53,000 words.

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess – 3 weeks (67,000 words)

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens – 6 weeks (28,000 words)

Twilight by Stephanie Meyer – 3 months (112,000 words)

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte – 9 months (53,000 words)

The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling – 1 ½ years (19,500 words)

The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien – 2 years (95,000 words)

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee – 2 ½ years (99,000 words)

A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin – 5 years (293,000 words)

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling – 6 ½ years (77,000 words)

Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell – 10 years (418,000 words)

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo – 12 years (655,000 words)

The argument for writing books faster is that your readership grows exponentially with each book. Fans of your first book will often read your second one. And readers who find you later on, if they like your writing, will go back and read your other books. If you take too long to publish your next book, there is a chance readers will forget about you. (Or so the thinking goes among some authors.)

But cranking out sub-standard books is also not a good thing which sometimes happens when authors rush their stories.

So, when aspiring or newbie authors ask how long it takes to write a novel, it really takes as long as you want or need it to take. And that is different for all of us.

The importance of tension and pace

This post is the tenth in a series about writing a novel. You can check out the list of past topics at the end of this post.

Before we get into writing your novel, I wanted to talk about two important elements – tension and pace. Understanding both of these will help you write better scenes in your story.

Tension

Tension is the element of a novel that evokes worry, anxiety, fear or stress for both the reader and the characters.

One way to think about it is you are raising the stakes for your character, so he or she has to work to get what he or she wants. And this shouldn’t be easy. Basically, you want to keep saying no to your characters so that the conflict appears unsolvable. The more at stake for your character, the more emotions he feels about situations and events.

Tension can take many forms.

  • Anticipation of conflict
  • Unexpected events– sometimes the reader knows what is coming, but the character doesn’t and sometimes both are surprised by what happens.
  • Fear of secrets revealed
  • Impending doom/sense of urgency

It is the author’s job to figure out how to produce these in the story.

Often once one obstacle is conquered, another one crops up. But while good fiction is full of tension and suspense, it needs to vary throughout the story. You need to turn down the intensity for short periods. How much you slow down the tension will depend upon your story needs and the demands of your genre. But just because you slow down doesn’t mean the momentum stops. This may simply be the calm before the storm.

Tips for creating tension:

Short sentences – short, choppy sentences with active verbs signal tension. Think of your sentences matching your protagonist’s racing heart. Avoid long sentences filled with adjectives and adverbs.

Show, don’t tell – rather than “He was nervous.” Write: “His hands trembled.”

Cliffhanger – leave them hanging

The stakes in fiction matter because the stakes create tension. Your protagonist’s happiness and perhaps even his life, depends on the outcome of the story. If the stakes in the story are low, then the tension will be weak.

It is the stakes of the story – the tension – that keeps many readers hooked to your novel.

Pace

Pace is the speed in which events happen in your novel. You need to balance the pace of your writing. If your scenes drag on and on (slow pace) then you lose or bore readers. If it is too fast, you will leave your readers unsettled and it won’t be a comfortable read.

The trick is to get the balance just right. And there is no one out there that can tell you what that balance should be.

A lot of this will depend on your style as a writer. It can also be influenced by your genre and your readers’ preference. A young-adult audience might require a faster pace than adult novels. A short story might quickly jump into the action while an epic tale might be told at leisurely pace, speeding up from time to time during the most intense events.

Ideally, your pace will vary throughout your novel. You will have fast-paced scenes followed by slower ones. This will allow the reader to have a break (and perhaps catch their breath) after your action-packed scenes.

Many new writers make the mistake of believing they need to have a very action filled plot to keep the readers’ attention from beginning to end but this is not the case. It is actually the varying of pace that will keep readers hooked to your story.

So what determines the pace?

Fast pace is all about action. When something is happening, the pace is brisk. Slow pace is more on character reflection of past experiences or wondering about the future. It can be scene descriptions or even the passing of time – sometimes months or even years pass in a single sentence.

To speed up pace:

  • Have lots of action
  • Less description
  • Shorter sentences (and paragraphs)
  • Dialogue is short and to the point
  • Cut adverbs and adjectives to a minimum
  • Use strong, active verbs
  • Omit or limit character thought

To slow down the pace:

  • Longer sentences
  • More description
  • Less action or slow action such walking or making tea
  • Dialogue is more relaxed/conversational

Now your story can be paced very fast all the way through or even have a slow pace through most of the story but often it is best to use a mix of both forms. Using variety enhances your story and can keep the reader engaged.

Previous topics

#1 – Deciding to write a novel – Writing Myths

#2 – Three areas to develop before starting to write a novel

#3 – Finding a Story Idea and How to Know if it “good enough”

#4 – Developing Characters for your Novel

#5 – Major characters? Minor Characters? Where does everyone fit in?

#6 – Developing the Setting for your Novel

#7 – The importance of developing conflict in your novel plot

#8 – To Outline or not to outline 

#9 – The importance of a story arc

The importance of developing conflict in your novel plot

This post is the seventh in a series about writing a novel. You can check out the list of past topics at the end of this post.

In my series, I recently listed three aspects of your story that you need to develop before writing – characters, setting and plot. I have already covered characters (and a second post on characters) and setting. Today, I want to focus on the plot.

I touched on plot in my earlier post in this series called “Developing your story idea and making sure it is “good enough.”

So, what is a plot? It is a sequence of linked events that revolve around an attempt to solve a problem or attain a goal.

Basically, this means your protagonist (main character) wants something. She wants to fall in love. She wants to stop a war. He wants to escape an abusive relationship, or he needs to survive after his plane crashes in the mountains.

If whatever they want is easy to achieve, then there is no story. You cannot have a story without some sort of conflict. Your characters should not lead carefree, happy lives. They should face problems. They should search for something they cannot reach; they should strive for a goal but be prevented from reaching it.

Conflict is what compels the reader to keep reading to find out what happens next. Whether everything comes out right in the end or not, it is the chance things can go wrong that spurs readers to keep reading.

Since conflict is so essential to your plot, we are going to discuss first internal vs external conflict and then the five types of conflict.

Internal Conflict

An internal struggle is the part of the protagonist’s personality that prevents him from achieving whatever goal he is after. If he wishes to reconcile with his estranged father but feel his father should make the first move, his pride is the internal conflict. This type of conflict can reveal a lot about a character. Do they give up easily? Strive for what they want? How do they react when met with opposition?

External Conflict

An external conflict is something physical that gets in your protagonist’s way of reaching their goal. It could be the antagonist or an avalanche. When creating your antagonist, develop someone with just enough strength to present a solid challenge for your protagonist. Your hero might eventually figure out the bad guy’s flaws, but he is going to have to work to put all the pieces together. It is these plan disruptions that create the conflict in your story.

You don’t have to choose one or the other. There can be both internal and external conflict in your story.

Five Types of Conflict

Character struggles against another character

This type of conflict, also referred to as man vs. man, is the most obvious form of conflict. This is when a character struggles against another character in the story. This type of conflict can come in the form of arguments, conflicting desires, or opposing goals. The classic “good guy” vs. “bad guy” scenario is an excellent example of this type of conflict.

Character struggles internally

Sometimes you don’t need an outside force to provide the drama and tension in your story. Your character can struggle internally with their choices. This is also known as man vs. self. This is where your character faces moral dilemmas and emotional challenges. They can be facing a fear or deciding between an impossible set of choices. This could be a moral conflict of having to choose between honoring family verses ones own desires. It is an internal conflict with your character’s conscience.

Character struggles against nature

Sometimes there isn’t a bad guy in the story. Sometimes the struggle is to overcome nature. This type of conflict, also referred to as man vs. nature, is all about dealing things outside our control, whether it is the weather or a virus threatening to wipe people out. Stories about the triumph of human spirit over adversity never go out of fashion.

Examples of this could be your character is stuck in a desolate place (mountainside with no shelter, deserted island) or being attacked by wild dogs, birds or insects. They could be dealing with a plague, famine or virus outbreak. This is anything where your character struggles to survive.

Character struggles against society

When someone’s beliefs go against the societal norms, there will be conflict. It could be discrimination or being repressed by societal pressure. In this type of conflict, known as man vs. society, a character or a group of characters fight against the society in which they live. Examples of this could be fighting for your freedom or rights, which are being denied by society. It could be a struggle with poverty, political revolution, or social convention.

Character struggles against the supernatural

This one is usually found in certain genres such as fantasy, horror and science fiction. This is where the character struggles against poltergeists, robots, aliens, magic, or supernatural villains. The main character must have the strength (either internal or external) to defeat the fantastic enemy confronting him or her. Included in this area would be man vs. technology (such as computers or machines) and man vs. fate (fighting against destiny).

Now your story can have more than one type of conflict in it. Your main character may have an internal conflict on whether they should fight against their adversary. Just remember you need some type of conflict to move the story forward and to give tension to the plot. With no conflict, there is no story.

Previous topics

#1 – Deciding to write a novel – Writing Myths

#2 – Three areas to develop before starting to write a novel

#3 – Finding a Story Idea and How to Know if it “good enough”

#4 – Developing Characters for your Novel

#5 – Major characters? Minor Characters? Where does everyone fit in?

#6 – Developing the Setting for your Novel

What to do when you are stuck or a scene in your book just doesn’t “work”

I am always on the lookout for topics to write about on my blog. Recently, I was working on my latest work in progress (tentatively titled Blood Bond).

Now part of my process of writing is not to just plow through the first draft and then come back and cut/fix all sorts of problems that might crop up from writing with just a rough outline/idea of a story. I write and edit at the same time. So after I write a few chapter, my husband reads and comments on my WIP. I then typically go back and tighten/expand/fix sections while I am continuing to write the rest of my initial draft.

My husband is forever asking for character motivation (Why would she do that?) and so as I write, I typically am trying to guess what comments he is going to make and address them in advance.

About a week or so ago, I wrote a scene. I often spend the time while my son is at soccer practice or when waiting for my kids to get out of school re-reading scenes. I read this one and it wasn’t quite right. So I changed the order of events. Nope. Still not flowing. I expanded a section. Nope. Not right. I rewrote part of it and dang it, I was still not happy with the beginning of the scene.

bang-head-against-brick-wallThis is when I decided that I would write about what to do when you just can’t seem to get the scene to flow “just right”. Because sometimes the more you work on it, it just doesn’t get any better.

So here are some tips for when you reach the point where you are stuck and can’t seem to get pass the scene you are working on.

1.) Step Back – Take a break. Go for a walk. Read a book. Watch a movie or even just listen to some music. Basically take some time to free your mind up. Now this break could be 30 minutes or it could be a day or two but don’t step away for too long. There is no use losing all your writing momentum.

2.) Keep Writing – Instead of finishing the scene you are working on, go on to the next one and resolve that you will return to the troubling scene later.

3.) Reread/revisit other areas – It might be time to go back a chapter or two and read what you already have written. Reading what is working might just be enough to get you through the problem area.

4.) Examine for an underlying problem – Maybe you have hit this roadblock because of deeper issues in your novel. Or maybe we are trying to force the action to be what we want rather than let our characters live out their own lives.

5.) Let someone else read it – Perhaps the problem is not as glaring or as big as you think. Give it to a friend or a writers’ group member whose opinion you respect and see if they spot the problem or if they possibly can spark an idea on how to fix it.

Just realize that all writers will at sometime be stuck on a scene and that you will get pass this. My solution to my own problem was to keep writing. I finished out the next few scenes and then went back to my problematic scene and corrected it.

How to stay motivated while writing your novel

No matter how excited you are to be writing, there will probably be a time when motivation lags. Or maybe it will hit when you are revising or editing your work. Knowing that this could happen can make it easier to combat that lack of motivation.

You need to remember that writing is a job. While it can be fun, challenging, and rewarding, it is like any other job. Sometimes it can seem like a chore. Here are some things you can do when the motivation slips.

Take a break

When motivation disappears, you may no longer feel like working on your story. Sometimes this urge to set aside your novel can be a good thing. A break from writing (or editing) can ensure that you return with “fresh eyes.” You’ve been close to the work for such a long time that a little distance can help.

Set a deadline

If you have finished the first draft of your novel, a break may be in order for the reasons stated above. But if you do so, make sure you mark on your calendar when you want to get back to it. You may want a few days off, a week’s break or maybe even a month. But just don’t make it too long, or you may find it too difficult to return to the book at all.

Re-read

When unmotivated to write, I often find it helps to go back and re-read what I have already written. Often that inspires me to keep writing. If you have already finished your first draft, then your next step (after taking a few days/weeks off) is to re-read your work. This is a good time to make a list of things you want to correct. (Don’t forget to congratulate yourself on those things that did go right.)

Woman reading book while lying down uid 1072633Read something else

Though many writers don’t like to be distracted by other books while they are writing, sometimes reading something else can spark your imagination and motivate you to keep working on your own masterpiece.

Break down what you need to do

Wooden hourglass uid 1326634Overwhelmed by revising or editing your novel? Consider breaking it down into smaller manageable steps. Or perhaps use a timer. Set it for 15 to 20 minutes and then get to work. Often you will find that once you are working, you don’t want to stop. But hey, if you do, just take a break and come back to it later.

Write something else

Maybe your creativity is at a standstill, or maybe it is that your motivation to write is just hiding. Whatever the reason, sometimes if you write something else – perhaps last night’s dream or a conversation you had with a friend – it can kick start your motivation. Try some free association or just make your own journal entry. It doesn’t matter as long as you are getting words on to paper.

Whatever method you try, just realize that all authors at one time or another feel a little less motivated to write. The main thing is to keep your goal of publishing a book in mind and work through that lack of motivation.