Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Friday, November 03, 2006

How Long Does it Take to Write a Novel?

by Kerry Blair
(With a whole lot of help from a friend.)

For the benefit of the six or eight of you who may not yet have heard, November is National Novel Writing Month. Believe it or not, tens of thousands people who might otherwise be perfectly sane have committed to write 50,000 words of new fiction. Each. And they’ll do it before they carve a turkey—or at least soon afterwards. A similar Book-in-a-Month (BIAM) event is going on over at Latterdayauthors.

I planned to participate this year. I even bought a poster to motivate myself. (Well, that and I loved the artwork.) But here it is already the 3rd and I haven’t written a paragraph. Sentence. Okay, not even a lousy adjective. (And I’m practically famous for lousy adjectives.) This puts me 5,000 words behind, and falling fast. Ack! There is something about a timer—be it stopwatch, hour glass or calendar—that causes me to freeze in terror. I blame my 3rd Grade teacher. Every day she held a timed test on the multiplication tables. Every day I failed it. I knew what 3x5 equaled at 9:45, but by 10 I couldn't remember my name. Some people don’t work well under pressure. I don't work at all.

But for those of you who are participating in a BIAM—or know somebody who is—one of my favorite authors/editors/people, Jennifer Leigh, has a few words of wisdom.

The Time it Takes to Write a Novel
By Jennifer Leigh

I have had children, I have been a homemaker, as well as many other endeavors and jobs in my life. In every one, except writing, I am the antithesis of a perfectionist. However, when it comes to writing, I never think, “I’m done.” This has made for some long stints writing certain novels. Some of them have taken me years. Here’s what I’ve learned about writing novels.

Anyone who says you can write a book in a month, or in 100 days, or even six months, is nuts. Though you may be able to get a halfway decent first draft (if you’re Maya Angelou, say) there is no way you’ll get a perfected novel in a short amount of time unless you are a true savant, and they don’t happen too often.

Writing a book -- your first draft -- is the first step in many steps. It isn’t so much writing as it is REwriting that defines whether you are a writer or a hack. I don’t mean to be blunt, but this is a delicate thing, writing, and you must approach it with tempered gusto, finesse, patience, courage, and more than anything, time.
Books take time to ‘age’, like fine wine or expensive cheese. If you try to get your book to a publisher or agent before the book is ready, it will stink like cheap wine or lackluster cheese. Some of novel writing means taking time away from that project and letting it sit. You can use this free time to do lots of other fruitful and worthy projects, like clean your house, work your day job, say hello to your spouse and children, maybe even eat a meal with them—the list is endless. Even start another novel! But the time you spend away from your novel is as valuable, if not more so, than the time you spend poring over it AGAIN.

If you submit your novel before it’s ready, all your hard work will be in vain. YOU ONLY HAVE ONE CRACK WITH A PARTICULAR AGENT OR PUBLISHER. So you don’t want to blow it. You can take this particular point of knowledge to the bank. There are no second chances, so your one chance must be perfect.

I submit that the more eager you are to get your book in the hands of an agent or a publisher, the less chance you’ll have to get it published. Books are labors of love, part of your heart and soul, and writing for writing’s sake must be part of your process, or you will rush it, wreck it, and then you’ll HAVE to stick to your day job. I’ve heard from numerous clients of late that they just can’t wait to get their work "out there." Boy, I remember the first time a publisher expressed interest in my first novel, Riding Magic. Sadly, I sent it too soon and so far, that book is still in need of another extensive rewrite, and obviously didn’t generate the publishing contract I was seeking. I’ll get to the rewrite. Right now it’s percolating in my back burner computer files. I wish I’d waited and gotten it right the first time.

Remember, even if you have an agent, or a publisher has said, send me something, they have lots of other clients, and unless your work shines above the rest (and it won’t if you send it too soon) you won’t ever see your name in print, unless you self-publish, and that’s not really what you want or you wouldn’t be eager to submit it to a professional in the first place, right?

Finally, and this is a biggie -- nobody, not your spouse, your writing partners, your professional editor, NOBODY cares about your book the way you do. You can pay someone to edit your work, which is a valuable and worthy and maybe even a required step in your novel’s maturing, but unless you actually want someone to rewrite or ghostwrite your book, you will have to do the hard work of rewriting and rewriting again, because, as I’ve said, nobody really cares about your book the way you do. This is your baby, your passion, and a piece of your soul. The characters are part of your daily life, in one way or another, and nobody is going to have that kind of intimacy with your work the way you do. So, get ready to do the hard work of rewriting, no matter what other professional help you get.

Jennifer Leigh is an author and editor. In her free time she raises registered Quarter Horses and Siberian Huskies. Visit her websites at and

Thanks, Jen! Now what say the rest of you? Do you agree with Jen? On a related topic, does anybody else fear BIAM events like I do?


At 11/03/2006 1:39 PM, Anonymous Jennie said...

Kerry, I both agree and disagree. I think her advice is particularly pertinent for that all important first book, but after that a professional has to learn to slog through uninspired days and accept deadlines. Even when Mommy (the author) thinks her baby (manuscript)is perfect, she needs to be prepared to make changes the editor wants made. There's never been a baby that didn't need changing. I'll agree it's a mistake to submit a manuscript too soon, but I suspect more manuscripts stink from too much stalling and putting off the submission to a publisher than from over-eagerness. Expect to rewrite before and after submitting your manuscript. Most writers need to learn that fine point that marks "ready for submission" between getting it right and fiddling it to death.

At 11/03/2006 1:53 PM, Blogger RobisonWells said...

I think I'm with you, Jennie. Ray Bradbury's first rule of writing was: Write. But his second rule was: Stop Writing. There comes a point where you just need quit editing and over-perfecting and turn it in to the publisher.

At 11/03/2006 7:44 PM, Blogger Keith Fisher said...

Judging from the comments, I think I missed the point. I thought waht you were saying is that it's hard to stand and deliver on cue. I agree with that. I'm not sure who said it, but someone said that writing is easy all you have to do is sit down and open a vein.

At 11/03/2006 8:16 PM, Blogger Kerry Blair said...

Keith, wasn't that Oscar Wilde? James Joyce? Dang. I used to know that one. (And me with no ability to Google. Alas.)

You didn't miss my point. I was talking about not writing a BIAM and Jen was talking about what to do with it when you've written it. :-)

Here's a quote from WH Auden that supports Jennie's and Rob's comments:

"Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy and an amusement. Then it becomes a mistress, then it becomes a master, then it becomes a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster, and fling him to the public."

I guess I'm going to have to create a monster before I can fling it. Sigh.

At 11/03/2006 8:28 PM, Blogger Jeff Savage said...

Yes, you are Kerry and I am definitely looking for that monster. When can I expect it to appear on a bookstore shelf near me?

I agree with the pressure thing. When a book is flowing well time flies and everything coming from my fingers seems to be magic. When it's not flowing, the clock drags and everything I write smells like day-old cheese.

I wish there was a magic way to tap my brain directly to my keyboard, but some days it just ain't there.

As far as editing, I've seen people put too much pressure on themselves to get x number of books out per year or pages per day and the results are not too good. On the other hand, I tend to edit as I write. It takes longer but when I'm done, I'm done.

I really don't like to linger over a book too long or I begin to hate it.

At 11/03/2006 8:38 PM, Blogger FHL said...

Out of curiosity, what sort of insanity does one have to have in order to commit to writing a book in a month?

I ask because I begin to hear the voices in my head myself. Not to actually produce something publishable - that would be asking too much - but to produce ... something.

At 11/03/2006 11:40 PM, Anonymous Jennie Hansen said...

I don't think the book in a month marathon really means to produce a publishable book in a month. It seems to me that it is more a way to establish the discipline necessary to get a rough draft down. It appeals to the participants's natural competitive nature by requiring them to report in each day their progress by number of pages, words, or by some such measuring device. It's also a sort of cheering section to keep a writer focused and producing. It works great for some people, but others like Jeff and me, who edit as we go, get bored once we know the whole plot, interrupt one project to work on another, and have some kind of internal drive that keeps us chained to our computers anyway, don't work well that way. I know many writers who produce really solid drafts during those sessions, then go on to spend six months or more fine tuning and editing before submission. It's a method that works effectively for some, but sounds like torture to me.

At 11/03/2006 11:44 PM, Anonymous Dallas Robbins said...

I've been tempted to participate, but November isn't the time for me. So instead I am making it my Short Story month. Got to start somewhere.

At 11/04/2006 3:43 PM, Blogger Kerry Blair said...

Short stories are a great way to start. And great idea, dallas. I might be able to commit to write a short story myself!

fhl: It's insanity of the highest order, but I DID start a book in a BIAM once that went on to publication. I have great memories of the experience. If you're halfway interested, check it out. There's not a more nurturing, supportive, knowledgable BIAM leader around than Cindy Bezas. She'd love to include you, I know. You can even tell her about the voices. She'll understand. :-)


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