Are You Tortured Because You're A Really Slow Writer?
It’s Okay To Take Forever To Finish Your Novel
If you are one of those lucky people who can write and publish a book in less than six months, then delete this email now or move onto another article. You don’t need this.
My first novel took twenty years to write. Granted, there were nine years in that period when it sat in a drawer, fermenting, but it was still many years of effort.
The first eight years (and six drafts) took me to the point where I realised that I had a lot to learn about novel writing. It turns out that a f**ked up imagination and reasonable command of the English language weren’t sufficient qualifications to write a story that worked for a reader!
Then came the nine years in a drawer, though I kept studying the art of story structure and I wrote the first draft of another novel purely as a learning exercise.
Finally, I decided that the time had arrived when my magnum opus had to see the light of day. It was another three years before it was available to purchase.
Towards the end of that cycle, I wrote the first draft of the sequel. That got parked while I did the final edits on the first book and learnt all about self-publishing. Last year I finally got around to doing a first edit on the sequel but I know there is more work to be done on it. I’ve also written an extremely crappy first draft of the third book in the trilogy which will need a LOT of work before it is finished.
Hopefully these remaining two books won’t take another twenty years but, for me, it isn’t a quick process!
There’s a lot of learning to be done with a first novel
One of the writers in my local writers group took eighteen years to get his first novel written and published. He later conceded that it needed to take that long because he had a lot to learn and it would have been a rubbish book if he’d published it sooner. His subsequent novels have only taken a year or two to produce.
When we embark on the long-held dream of writing a book, most of us have no idea what it will entail.
A pleasing story has structure. There is something that kicks off the action, the hero finds themselves in a position that tests them, they might resist doing anything about the challenge until they are forced to then they will encounter a series of trials and tribulations. They will be pushed beyond their limits, reach a point where they want to give up and then finally, after a mammoth struggle, they win through.
The story is really about how the character changed when they found themselves in this situation, not just an explanation of what happened next. As a writer you have to learn about these plot points and practice getting them right.
There is also an art to how you portray dialogue. It isn’t the same as how a conversation might go in real life. As your characters develop and you get to know them better, you have to go back and fix all of their dialogue so that it is consistent with who they really are.
Then there is the technique that took me most of that twenty years to even begin to understand – show don’t tell.
You can’t say that your character is angry. You have to show them slamming a door or tutting when their partner speaks or describe the vein to the side of their right eye that begins to twitch when they are getting riled.
All of this takes time to master.
Ideas take time to marinade
Maybe your story is unusual.
Maybe it’s emotionally difficult for you to write.
Maybe it took three drafts before you discovered what the story was ‘really’ about.
Maybe you’ve realised that one of the side characters has become far more interesting than who you thought was the main character. Now you have to go back to the beginning and rewrite the whole thing from their point of view.
Maybe you just can’t make the words fit your idea.
Sometimes you end up in a cul-de-sac and it feels like all your effort has been for nothing.
It can take a while between drafts to let the story settle and go back and read it with fresh eyes. Stephen King recommends leaving it for at least six weeks.
When you have a draft that you are happy with you might show it to beta readers or an editor. Their feedback will also take time to process and could create further rewrites.
You might have to do research, though bear in mind that Steven Pressfield says that you can only read three books before you start writing or resistance will keep you at the research stage forever.
You have to face your demons
Speaking of resistance, although writing a book might be an exciting endeavour that you’ve always wanted to do, it will also cause you to face your inner demons. There is nothing scarier than an empty page.
As artists we leave the world of certainty behind, plunge into the unknown, pull out an idea and then figure out what the hell we need to do with it. Even though you love your characters, you might already be worrying about what other people will think of you for writing about that.
This can be a very daunting process and you will be knocked off course on multiple occasions.
You might discover a life and death reason why you have to count the paper clips in your desk drawer! Alternatively, you might get waylaid by that inner gremlin which sits on your shoulder, whispering in your ear that everything you are doing is a worthless waste of time.
You have other stuff going on in your life
Most writers have a day job and other responsibilities, so fitting in a few hundred words a day means that it could take months to write a first draft.
You may have periods in your working life where it is so busy that there is no way that you have the energy to wrangle with the difficulties in your novel. It will have to wait until the project is live or the end of term before you can even think of getting back to it.
You may have children, or have elderly relatives whose deteriorating health suddenly demands more of your time.
It takes a lot of emotional investment to write a novel so you might need a recovery period in between drafts. You only have so much energy to invest at any given time so, again, the writing takes longer.
Lots of writers take years to produce a book
I listen to a lot of writing podcasts and there are plenty of writers, particularly in the self-publishing world, who can knock out a story in a matter of weeks and publish several books a year.
However, most writers are not that quick. Literary novels take on average three years, and that’s with experienced authors.
Margaret Mitchell took ten years to write Gone With The Wind.
Catcher in the Rye, by J D Salinger, took the same amount of time.
J.K. Rowling spent five years to create and figure out the details of the Harry Potter world before she started writing Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. It took several re-writes to get the opening right and apparently, she realised that she had given away the plot of the whole series so had to rewrite it again.
The Great Gatsby took F. Scott Fitzgerald two and a half years and J.R.R. Tolkien spent sixteen years on Lord of the Rings.
It is hard to write a book
I once saw a very telling anecdote on Twitter. An author recalled a time at a party where she was chatting to a doctor who said that he might write a book when he retired. She replied that she might become a brain surgeon when she retires.
Of course, that sounds ridiculous but her point was that people seem to think that writing a novel is easy, something they dash off when they finally have the time.
But it isn’t easy. It can take years to learn the craft of constructing a good story just as it takes years to master the skills of any other job.
That’s why most people don’t achieve it. Many people will talk about writing a book but few will start and even fewer will get to the end of a first draft. And fewer still will revise and revise and revise until the book is ‘right’.
It is okay if it is taking you a long time to get your novel done. Keep going. It is worth it to get to the end. It is worth it to finally reach the ‘truth’ of your story and know in your heart that it is right. You’ll hate yourself if you stop. And you’ll have nightmares that your characters will torture you for not getting them out of trouble!
It is wonderful to finally hold the book in your hand and have people enjoy reading it.
But it might take you a lot longer than you think to get to that point.
Photo by Grant Durr on Unsplash
If you liked this article, please share it. It might be just what another writer needs to read.
You might find these articles useful too:
Writing A Novel Is Like Doing An Archaeological Dig
Why It’s Hard To Write Even If You Really Want To
What are your top tips for staying the course when slogging your way through writing a novel?
Would you like to support my work financially? I’m running a 20% discount on paid subscriptions until 9th May. Upgrade now (and join the monthly Ask Me Anything Zoom call)
It takes the time that it takes. All things in the right time. But whew some moments are easier with that than others! Now if I could just convince my boss of this reality, lol.
I'm both. I can draft a novel very quickly sometimes, but I also have a dozen or so that aren't yet complete. I try to visualize it as a workshop or garden—some contained area wherein all my projects reside in whatever stage or state they're in. And I get to them when and how I get to them.