How long does it take to write a book?

A question came up the other day during interview about my book Convicts – New Zealand’s Hidden Criminal Past. It was off-record, but I thought worth putting it on record myself, because it’s apposite for writers. The interviewer said he’d heard it takes five years to write a book. I write more than that. How?

It took me a moment to think about it, and I’ve had time to ponder it since. I have trouble understanding where ‘five years’ comes from. It’s an awful long time. You can get respectable post-graduate university degrees in less. Maybe it’s because many authors of history books are not trained writers and don’t write enough to get proficient – they are learning how to write a book, while they do it.

I also think the real motive for many who end up writing a history book is discovery; they’ll spend months and years joyfully poring over archives, many of which aren’t relevant to the final text, or their understanding of the topic.

It is, I suspect, the people who view writing as tortuous and slow who come up with the idea that ‘prolific’ (as in somebody who publishes more than they do) equates to loss of quality. Sadly, that particular allegation is often used as a put-down. Interesting. How would a writer who’s slower than I am like it if I classified them as ‘lazy’?

Besides, as professional writers will tell you, it just isn’t true that writing which is faster than popular mythology imagines must also be slap-dash. Sure, some writers knock out tripe at Mach = 3. But professional writers write with quality – and the pace that works for them may well be faster than a pace that works for others. Look at Isaac Asimov, who was a brilliant writer at all times – and colossally prolific. The trick is being able to keep the structure and content in your head – to the scale of a book.

How’s that done? Writing is a learned and practised skill. One training ground for quality, professionalism and speed is journalists’ deadlines. That said, the skill set needed for book length text (35,000+ words) is different from what is required for articles or short stories. In particular, book writing demands that the author integrates an argument over the length of the text. I use ‘argument’ in the philosophical or mathematical sense – it includes such things as character arcs and plot for fiction.

One of the ways I tackle multi-book writing is through forward planning.  I don’t work on one project at a time. Instead, I’ll come up with an idea and sell it to a publisher well in advance.  Books stack; I’ll research one while writing another and maybe working on the editorial of a third.

It’s called professionalism, and all these skills, it seems to me, are essential for anybody who wants to write seriously. Certainly for anybody who wants to make a career out of it.

What do you figure?

*** Don’t forget – I’m appearing on talkback interview with Graeme Hill, 11.15 am Sunday NZT, talking about Convicts on RadioLive. Tune in! And my Convicts contest closes today, 28 July NZT. Winner announced Monday.***

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

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6 comments on “How long does it take to write a book?

  1. When I was writing my first book, I really felt like I was learning as I was going. While I did have an idea of how to write a story, there was more that I learned during the process. That should help me as I get started on my second book, along with the planning that will go into it. I’m not going to be as spontaneous as I was with the first one because I’m more serious now, and more importantly, I have a trilogy to write. So there will a lot of organization this time around.

    • There’s no question that book writing is a learned and practised skill – and like everything, you get good at it after a while. I remember, during my Honours year, being told that the hard part about book writing was sustaining the argument across a book length. This from Peter Munz, my history professor and himself a student of Karl Popper and Ludwig Wittgenstein. His class laughed at him (except me). In fact he was absolutely right. The time needed to learn how to do that varies from writer to writer – my guess is that determined writers have a ‘eureka’ moment, after which everything clicks together and books become ‘obvious’ (never ‘easy’, of course). I know I did.

  2. How long does it take? To a first draft, as little as 30 days. I’ve done it every November since 2004: it’s called National Novel Writers Month. That leads me to say you’re absolutely right about the Practice, Practice thing and the skill sets required.

  3. Practise is definitely the key. And being able to write swiftly yet with quality is the key to success for journalists – and for freelancers. Which then translates to books. Certainly that’s been my experience.

  4. Ken E Baker says:

    It look me about a year to work the first draft, but that was holding down a day job and all the stresses that come with it. I honestly think a story arrives when it wants to, and will only really be finished when it is done. Could be a few months, could be a year for it to fully evolve. I think it also depends if you are writing a standalone novel, or looking at a full-blown Jordan-style series…

    • A year sounds about right – certainly that’s the sort of time I end up putting into a book. Sometimes it’s on-and-off as I’m managing other projects. Sometimes I can do a book more quickly, depending on what it is. And some books take a little longer. But I don’t think I’ve ever worked on a book for five years.

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