How long does it take to write a book? Writing the first draft of a book is a grueling, intimidating process. But it doesn’t have to be a slow process.
Ask one hundred writers how long it takes them to write their first drafts and you’ll get one hundred different answers. There is no perfect length of time to spend on a first draft.
You will find, though, that the writers whose answer is closer to a couple of months than to a couple of years are most likely more successful.
A Tale of Two Books
I wrote my first book in a month. It was horrible and short for what was supposed to be a novel (48,000 words instead of the standard 65,000). I didn’t revise that book, as it was a project that was more cathartic than one that I wanted to share with the world. This manuscript is languishing somewhere in my basement gathering dust. And good riddance.
My second book took me three years to write. About a year and a half to write the first draft, and the rest was revisions. I’ll be publishing that book later this year.
One would think, given the poor quality of my first, that my second would be stellar. It’s not. I’m doing yet another revision as I prepare to publish the book this year.
So why isn’t my second book much better than the first? There are a few different reasons.
1. I learned
I learned a lot about writing in those three years. I was writing and publishing short stories throughout that time, had joined an online writing community, and read every book on writing I could find. Learning, getting valuable feedback from peers in my writing community, and seeing exactly what editors were looking for by submitting short stories changed my writing drastically.
2. I got bored
I got bored. My enthusiasm for the project waxed and waned throughout those years. I mean, three years is a long time to work on something.
3. The story changed
The story kept changing. Life happens, and in three years a lot of life can happen. Writers use their experiences in their craft, and my experiences kept swinging my story back and forth. I wanted to say different things at different times. In short, I had trouble keeping ahold of the base meaning of my story.
That second book may be getting published this year, but after working with a developmental editor, I’m doing yet another fairly major revision on it. The editor helped me focus on my core ideas. In going through the book for what feels like the seven hundredth time, I’m seeing just how many tangential scenes there are to cut and how many plot holes need filled in.
My Third Book
I wrote the first draft of my third book in three months in The Write Practice’s 100 Day Book program. While I was writing, I didn’t reread what I’d written so far. I just wrote.
When I was done, I let the manuscript sit for a few days and then took a deep breath (and cringed a lot, if I’m honest), then sat down for my first read-through.
I read the book in one sitting, hiding in a dark hole. I planned to keep the book to myself until I’d done at least one more draft. I expected horrible writing. I expected plot holes galore. I expected the characters to waver in their development and make horrible choices that made no sense.
I almost cried when I finished that last sentence.
The book wasn’t horrible. At all. In fact, I gave the raw, typo-ridden first draft to my husband to read as soon as he got home from work. And he didn’t think it was horrible either.
I feel extremely confident about editing this third novel. I know I’ll be able to get it ready for publication in the typical three drafts I do for my short stories. It’s not going to take me anywhere near three years to finish, and that puts me over the moon.
The Argument for Writing Fast First Drafts
After writing my first book at breakneck speed, I was skeptical about writing fast. The muse would come when it came, I thought. A real writer works when inspiration strikes, I thought.
Turns out inspiration is a fickle beast, and if you wait on it, you might feel more like a “writer” (perhaps the cliché one who drinks espresso in coffee shops while considering the human condition all day), but you won’t actually be a writer. You’ll be a procrastinator.
There’s a general rule of thumb about writing short stories: Write in one sitting because it will be read in one sitting. Obviously, unless you’re a superhero or on drugs, writing a novel in one sitting isn’t going to happen, but the concept still applies.
Why? Your story will come out smoother and more coherent if it’s written continuously. You’ll also have an easier time keeping up the enthusiasm.
(Note: I’m not saying you won’t hate your story some days. That’s normal. I’m saying you won’t hate your story as much overall.)
How to Write a Fast First Draft
Okay, I’ve maybe convinced you to try writing a fast first draft. That’s great, you say, but how do I write that fast? There are plenty of little tricks out there, like writing sprints, that will get you mentally moving faster, but the following five tips are the basis of writing a fast first draft.
1. Set deadlines.
Deadlines are your friend. I know I’m taking all the magic out of this writing thing, but it’s true. You need to set deadlines. And you need to meet them.
Being a writer is all about deadlines: When to submit short stories; when to get your latest draft to your editor; when to release your book. The industry is riddled with deadlines, so get used to them. Learn to love them.
Set a weekly word count deadline for yourself and hit it.
2. Develop a writing routine.
I’m not saying you have to write every day, but definitely need to carve out time as often as possible. I’m talking at least four days a week for a couple of hours each day.
Don’t let anyone mess with your writing routine. Guard it like a child.
Don’t reread or worry about typos, grammar mistakes, etc. Just write. If you can’t think of a word, make a note and move on. If you need to do more research, make a note and move on.
Your goal with a first draft is to get the basic story down, not to produce profound prose write out of the gate.
4. Get accountability.
Get some accountability. Tell people you’re writing a book. (This also helps when you’re protecting your writing time.) Tell everyone.
They will ask you how it’s going periodically. The shame of possibly not finishing and having to admit that to the world will keep you on track.
5. Join a challenge.
NaNoWriMo is a good place to start. It’s free and gets you that finished first draft feeling quickly.
If you’re looking for something slightly slower and less manic, try The Write Practice’s 100 Day Book program. Challenges expose you to other writers. That’s not only great for networking, but lets you talk shop with other writers, gives you support when you need it, and keeps you accountable.
Breakneck Speed Isn’t For Everyone
How long does it take to write a book?
I know NaNoWriMo isn’t for me. One month just isn’t where my writing shines, as evidenced by my first book.
Three years, though, also isn’t for me.
Ultimately, you need to find what works for you. How fast do you need to write in order to finish a book that’s not riddled with random tangential scenes? How slow do you need to write to keep your sleep schedule and sanity? Three months seems to be where that sweet spot is for me. You have to find your own writing sweet spot.
Just please don’t make it three years.
Do you write your first drafts fast or slow? Let me know in the comments!
For today’s practice, set a timer for fifteen minutes and write. Write as fast as you can without editing or even rereading the previous sentence.
Need a prompt to get you started? Write about a woman who just lost her job.
Share your writing in the comments so we can all check it out. Also let us know how many words you wrote! Don’t forget to read and comment on your fellow writers’ work!