jack kerouac

How long does it take to write a novel?

How long does it take to write a novel?

I'm coming up on the finish line for the first draft of my new work, and, given that it's National Novel Writing Month, I've been thinking a lot about time and writing. How much time is enough? Too much? Does a good novel take more time than a subpar one? Is ten years better than ten months--or even--ten days?

THE AFTER GIRLS took me, all in all, probably three years. I'll leave it to you to decide if it's quote-unquote good or not. How much was on a first draft or a second or a third or revisions, I cannot tell you. That novel was such a discovery all the way through, that I doubt I could pin down any real start or finish. But I'd ballpark three years.

My first manuscript, which was fairly autobiographical and is better suited to my eyes than the general public's, took me four months for a first draft. Let's just say I was a rather prolific twenty-three year old. But that novel wasn't near as ambitious as THE AFTER GIRLS, and I think that's one of the reasons why it went so fast.

Now, my current project looks to be finished (first draft-wise) soon, which would put the total first draft time at around ten months. I chalk up the speed to an extremely detailed outline, a fully formed idea (the whole plot came to me around Christmas last year, in a 2 a.m. burst of inspiration), and the joys of Scrivener. That said, it is in need of a deep revision, and I'm not sure how long that will take.

So the answer, for me at least, is twelve months, if I average four months, ten months and twenty-four months (I'm guessing two years for the first draft of THE AFTER GIRLS). But what about others?

The Sun Also Rises Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway wrote a draft of THE SUN ALSO RISES in just two months, while Donna Tartt took about ten years for THE SECRET HISTORY (I once read an interview where she said she enjoyed every moment of those ten years, and didn't want it to go any faster, and I have a hard time believing that).

On the Road Jack Kerouac

On the Road Jack Kerouac

ON THE ROAD apparently took Jack Kerouac less than a month (and one taped-together strip of 120 sheets of paper), while NO GREAT MISCHIEF, by Alistair MacLeod, took thirteen years to write. That's a middle school child.

So the answer, I guess, is ... however long it takes you ... and for many of us, it will take longer than a month. Though I admire NaNoWriMo for giving many writers a much-needed jolt, and perhaps some people do find success through it, I've never been able to make it work for me. The daily word counts were simply too stressful. There are many days when I exceed the suggested NaNoWriMo count on my own, but there are days that I don't. I average about 1,000 words a day, but I don't necessarily write every day (yeah yeah, I know EVERY piece of writing advice says that you should).

Furthermore, I think it would be great if we all could let go of the speed goal and just focus on the writing, itself. There are countless Google searches for "how to write a novel in a month" and "how to write a novel in 30 days," but, I gotta ask, what's the rush. If it's really the story you're meant to tell, why the need to pack all the fun into just 30 short days?

Fellow writers, how long does it take you to complete a draft? Have you ever had any luck with NaNoWriMo?

The One-Chapter Curse

Some writers write really fast. Some write really slow. Jack Kerouac apparently took just weeks to write On the Road while most people take years. I've never done NaNoWriMo--I tried once and I ended up making it like two days--but I do know people who it's worked for. Just not me. I guess I fall somewhere in the medium-paced category of writers--my problem is what I'm deeming the one-chapter curse.

It also has to do with my least favorite aspect of writing--plotting.

I'm currently working on writing something new, but I keep getting stuck after the first chapter. It's not necessarily even the first chapter, just a chapter. Sometimes I have an idea--pretty formed--sometimes I just have a first line, and I build the character from there: "She was the kind of girl who cared about firsts." That was one that came to me recently, as I was organizing my jewelry box and came across one half of the first pair of earrings my boyfriend ever bought me. I feel bad that I lost one of them, and how I'm bad about preserving things like that, and then the line came to me, and all-of-a-sudden there is a love triangle and two teenage best friends, and I'm writing again, and it's great.

But then I get somewhere between about three and ten pages, and it just kind of halts. I just don't know how to get to the next scene. I get the character, I get why they're upset, why they're happy, maybe even a little bit about what they want, but I don't know what they'll do next.

There are a lot of writers who are plot-masters, and a lot of them take a lot of flak for not being literary and being too commercial. Especially genre, like mystery and crime thrillers and all that. But in defense of plot-heavy works, plotting is really hard. I can make up characters all day, and I hope I can make them feel real. I can describe a setting, and I actually really enjoy writing dialogue, just jotting down what I imagine two people would say if they were talking.

But WHAT DO THEY DO NEXT?

It's something that for me, I can't sit down and think up--it kind of just has to come. Sometimes, I'm feeling especially frustrated, and I do silly things like look up plot generators. Here's one (you have to pretend to be a 6th grader to get it to work). After a few spins, I have this: "Write a letter to a sunburned spider monkey who finds an undiscovered island."

I know writers who have the opposite problem, who have fully-formed plots but trouble getting them down, building the world, etc. I guess we just all have our strengths and weaknesses. And I suppose if I keep on writing (not about spider monkeys), the characters will eventually do something. The whole story will come, as it always has before. That's how Joyce Carol Oates does it, and she's written a LOT.

Needless to say, any advice on plotting would be much appreciated.

Above: Jack Kerouac via Poetry Scores.