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How Long Does a Novel Take to Write?

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I binged this past weekend. Not on reality TV or chocolate or martinis, but on writing. I booked a cheap off-season condo in Maine and wrote 17,822 words.

Were all of those good words? Not necessarily. Despite the fact that I'm following the synopsis I pitched to my wonderful editor at NAL/Penguin, who expects delivery of the manuscript for my new novel, Haven Lake, by early July, I still found myself blundering through scenes when the characters did something completely unexpected.

Like this moment, for instance: a teenaged boy steals a truck and runs away. I knew he was going to do that, because I'd mentioned it in my own synopsis of the book -- hey, I'm not completely clueless -- but I sure didn't expect this kid to steal a damn lamb and take the animal with him for a joy ride. Jeez Louise. What was he thinking?

Wait. Only one person can know that: Me. The Author. Or, as my characters know me, God.

That's the amazing, frustrating, blissful, hopeless, terrifying, invigorating thing about creativity: you just never know what might happen once you give yourself over to the process. You just have to trust, as I do, that the real magic will happen in the revision stage of your manuscript.

These days, I'm following a remarkable trajectory as a novelist. It's one that I never expected to have happen to me, of all people. It took me nearly 25 years to sell my first novel. Now I'm publishing one book every year. Last week, my editor asked if I would consider delivering the novel after Haven Lake -- a novel I don't even have a title or a synopsis for yet -- even sooner! That means writing the book in less than nine months.

Can I do it? I mean, I did have a baby in less than nine months, but a novel?

In April, I had the honor of attending a terrific panel discussion at the Newburyport Literary Conference. Moderated by O Magazine editor Lucy Kaylin, the panel consisted of Jenna Blum, Andre Dubus III, Wally Lamb, and Richard Russo. When asked how long it takes them to write novels, you know what the answer was? Between four and 10 years.

Yep. You read that right. And the thing is, I believe it. It can take a long time to write a novel, if you're doing research or you get stuck, or if you're fine-tuning sentences or having trouble with point of view.

On the other hand, other writers, like author Jane Green, whose newest novel, Tempting Fate, is a NYT best-seller, writes her books in six months. So does my friend Toby Neal, a best-selling mystery novelist.

Maybe that's the answer, then: Writing a novel takes as long you want or need it to take.

What kind of author am I? It took me three years to write The Wishing Hill, and a year each to write Beach Plum Island and Haven Lake. But that's just the starting point. After I turn in the first draft of a manuscript, my editor and I go back-and-forth during the revision process, as she gets me to push the emotional envelope of whatever story I'm telling, fix chronological boo boos, ditch unnecessary back story, etc. In other words, having to write a novel in a year for an editor really means you get at least eighteen months. So I said yes to her nine-month deadline, knowing I'll have that safety net.

The argument for writing books faster -- and any indie author like Toby already knows this -- is that your readership grows exponentially with each book. Fans of your first book will be more likely to read your second one, and readers who discovered you with your third book will, if they liked that novel, go back and read your other two. If you take too long to publish your next book, there's some chance your readers will forget all about you -- or so goes the thinking among those marketing books these days.

There is also something positive to be said, from a writer's perspective, for being in that writing zone where you just dig in, as I did this past weekend, and live inside your book. Writing a book within a year's time frame means you're less likely to get stuck, because you become your characters during that time. It's much more difficult to achieve that intimacy with your characters if you dip in and out of the book over several years.

On the other hand, those who write their novels too fast, without the necessary revision and editing steps, are in danger not only of alienating readers who are disappointed in the end product, but also at risk of losing themselves as authors and artists. We must, as novelists, block out the critics and the media, the fans, and even our own editors, if we're going to have the courage to put ourselves on the page. That means forgetting about whatever arbitrary deadlines we may have so that we can write stories that ring true and go deep enough to satisfy our own creative process.

How long does it take to write a novel? As long as it takes to write a good book for readers and to satisfy yourself as an artist. Nothing else matters.