Tuesday, April 13, 2010

How Long?

There are a lot of factors that determine how long it takes to write a novel. How fast do you write, how long or short is the book going to be, how strong is your coffee, do you have any toddlers at home?

According to my research, most novels fall anywhere between 80,000 and 120,000 words, probably a good average being around 90,000. That makes about a 350 page book, depending on font size, margins, etc.

Remember back in grade school when you had to write a two-hundred word paper? Yikes!

My mom teaches fourth grade at a little private school. I've gone into her class a couple times to talk about writing. One time I brought in a printed draft of my second novel. I pulled out this huge ream of paper (485 printed sheets, double spaced, one sided). The book was just over 100,000 words.

"Whoa! That's huge!"

"So," I said, hefting the pages, "how many words do you think are in this book?"

Hands flew up. "Three thousand! One thousand and twelve. Ten thousand!" The kids laughed. Who is this dork who thinks it's ten thousand words? Nobody could ever write ten thousand words.

I wrote the guesses on the board then wrote the actual amount beneath them and circled all those zeros.

The dork smiled.

Writing a novel is something that only insane people should attempt. If you are not insane and you do attempt to write a novel, you should be warned that should you finish the novel, you will become insane.

So let's say you are a fast writer. You can type forty words a minute. Hey, how hard can this be? I'll be done writing this thing in under fifty hours. That's like one work week. No big deal.

If you think this, then at least you have the first requirement to writing a novel: You are insane.

Forty words a minute quickly diminishes to twelve a minute when you write that first page and then . . . uh . . . then something big and important happened here and, uh, and I think maybe I need to do some more outlining or something.

Second requirement to writing a novel: Ridiculous imagination.

I'm not talking about simple daydreaming. That might get you fifty pages through a novel, a cool 10,000 words. But you have to be insane, and full of ridiculous ideas to go all the way. You have to be willing to take your characters way off the deep end, into the uncharted and then beyond.

Can you imaging flying? Is it easy to envision man-eating aliens roaming your city? Do you create weird/humorous back stories about random people you see on the street? Good. You might have what it takes.

Third requirement: Ruthlessness.

You have to be brutal. If you manage to create strong, likable characters, you have to be able to put them through the worst possible scenario imaginable.

"But I like Sally too much to do that to her."

"Too bad. The story will be much stronger if her dog is run over by a truck."

"But she loves that dog!"

"Exactly. That's why it needs to be run over."

"You're sick."

And Sally had a dog and she loved that dog and nothing ever happened and she lived happily ever after with her dog and nobody cared.

There are more requirements to writing a novel, but we'll stick with these three for now.

You're insane, you have a ridiculous imagination, you are ruthless, and you've read half a dozen books about how to write a novel, and you've subscribed to Writer's Digest, and you've read thirty bestselling novels in the genre you want to write, and you are willing to close your door to the rest of the world and take a long, lonely journey of heartache and joy, and pour out all of your blood and your tears and risk carpal tunnel to tell a story that might never get published.


So . . . how long will it take you?

Let's suppose that you are like me. You have been thinking about a book idea for months, maybe years. Over that time, you have tweaked the plot in your head, you have added and taken away characters, you have a good idea how it will start, the half way twist, and the big ending. You sit down and write a three to five page synopsis of the story. This will take you about a week, considering that you also have a life and a job and a family and you have to sleep.

With synopsis in hand, you will start a schedule of going to bed at 10:30 PM and waking up at 6:00 AM. While the rest of the house sleeps, you will sneak away to your office and begin the journey. After a week or two, you will fall into the groove of the story and start pounding out about 1000 words an hour. Your goal will be 2000 words a day. Some days you will get more, some days less.

By 9:00 AM your writing time is finished and the house is awake and you are needed elsewhere.

If all goes well, you will have a completed first draft in your hands in three or four months. It will look huge. Almost 500 pages of copy paper. You will have written that. You will smile and feel like a king.

You will then let your spouse or your trusted "First-Reader" look at the book. This is the first time you have shared it with anyone. You will be tempted to watch them read every page. They will mark it with a red pen. You will ask them what they thought about certain scenes. You will go crazy waiting for them to get to the end.

Since they love you, they will read the book in less than a week. They will tell you that it is great, wonderful, amazing . . . but there are some things that need to be changed.

"What!? But it's perfect! I edited it! I wrote it!"

Then you will come back to reality, see that they are right, and dive into the second draft. There is no way to say how long this draft will take you. You may have to do like I did for my third novel and rewrite nearly 50,000 words of the 100,000 word book. That will hurt.

Or it may be that you actually did do a fine job and the second draft edits will only take you two weeks. Who knows. It's always different.

After that, you will send it to your agent. She will read it as soon as she can. She is very busy and you aren't her only client. In the meantime, you should start writing something else.

Your agent will send you some notes when she is done. "It's great, it's wonderful, it's amazing . . . but there are some things that need to be changed."

You will come back to reality, you will take her suggestions, you will rework it again.

When you are happy with it, when your spouse is happy with it, when your agent is happy with it, she will start to shop it around.

Yes! Finally! The world will see your genius!

In the meantime, you should start writing something else.

By this time, you will have invested approximately six months of your life into this project. You will be exhausted, exhilarated, and likely a little shaky from too much coffee and not enough sleep.

You will check your email and phone messages every day to see if you agent tried to contact you to tell you about the big book deal she's landed for you.

In the meantime, you should start writing something else.

Then, one day, FINALLY, your agent will call, and you will almost drop the phone in excitement, and your agent will say--

I'm not sure what she'll say. I let you know when that happens.

In the meantime . . . well, you know.