How long should it take to write a novel?
There’s no right answer to this question. In general, I ascribe to Chuck Wendig’s maxim on writing speed: it takes the time it takes. That’s a tautology, but a helpful one. Some writers write quickly, others are more plodding—and even within this personal variation there are weird exceptions, authors who usually spend a decade on every novel whose last book flowed from their fingers in the space of a few months, or prolific writers who release a new book every year who suddenly find that they have to slow down and really take their time on a new project.
A lot of writers I know can bang out a first draft of a novel in 3-6 months. For a long time I thought this was average, but then I started listening to Otherppl, a podcast in which Brad Listi interviews writers—mostly literary fiction writers—and I discovered that I was very, very wrong. These writers tend to talk not in months, but in years: 2 years, 3 years, 5 years spent on a single book. Min Jin Lee I think said she worked on her novel Pachinko for something like 10 years, which is just such a long time—but then again her novel is great and was just longlisted for a National Book Award, so look at the results. Hanya Yanagihara, another drop-dead amazing novelist, said she wrote her novel A Little Life quickly…in a year and a half. (OK, that’s actually pretty fast, considering how long A Little Life is.) Speed is relative, I’m saying. It takes the time it takes.
Still, there are implications to writing quickly or slowly, and I’ve been thinking a lot about those implications lately as I pursue a fiction project that has me working in a completely new way. I used to be one of the fast writers; now I’m going more slowly. How has it changed my process?
Well, with the caveat that everyone’s different, here’s how it works for me:
When I write quickly, I rely on momentum to get to the end of the manuscript. Speed is a way of guaranteeing that I finish. In the early days of my writing practice, this was important; I thought that if I lost momentum, the book would be lost too. And for a long time, it worked. There was an immediacy and urgency to the way I worked, and I’m sure that immediacy and urgency came through in the work itself. I kept running back to my desk every day with the burning question, what happens next, what happens next, what happens next.
But writing quickly had its disadvantages too. Sometimes in the rush to just finish already, I’d flub things. Make a wrong turn and not realize it was wrong until 100 pages later when I was already hopelessly lost. This was never exactly the end of the world for my work-in-progress—that’s what revision and editors are for. But there’s a thing that happens when you make a mistake in a first draft then build a lot of story scaffolding on top of that mistake: you start to become invested in the mistake. You start to think it’s not a mistake, but a good thing. Maybe it’s not ideal…but it would take so much work to fix, there’s so much built on top of that mistake, that you start to rationalize the problems. Worst of all, you don’t even know you’re doing it. “I meant it that way!” you say, when someone points it out—and you might even believe yourself. Does any of this sound familiar?
How about writing slowly? Well, there’s no guarantee against making bad writing decisions—but in my limited experience, going slowly is sometimes exactly what a project needs to help head mistakes off at the pass. The new book I’m working on now, I’m going much slower than usual—maybe 500-700 words a day, 3-4 times a week. That’s still a pretty good clip; all told I get about 2,000 words a week, which will get me to average novel length in about 9-10 months, not quite counting yet in terms of years. But for me, compared to past works-in-progress, it’s slow.
And let me tell you: it’s completely transformed my relationship to the work. Where before I’d be rushing ahead, never stopping to think, just going and going and going to hit my words for the day, now I’m slowing down to really think my way through this thing, feel my way through it. Would this character really do that thing in this situation? What does this protagonist really want? That plot point I’ve got at the end of act one—is that really how it would go down?
Sometimes—and this is huge, for me—I’ll even write a chapter and realize that it’s all wrong, that I’m about to make a wrong step that will lead me far from where my novel is meant to go. And because I’m giving myself the time to actually think rather than simply hacking away like a jungle explorer who’s so busy cutting brush that he barely has time to consult his map, or his compass, I’m actually figuring out that I’ve made a wrong step before I’m miles from my destination, already hopelessly lost in a hostile story wilderness. (Stupid metaphor—but do you kind of get it?) I’ll move the story forward, then sleep on it, and wake up the next day realizing in my bones that the move I’ve just made is all wrong and then just…take it back.
None of this is to say that I’ve happened upon the right way to write a novel, the right speed—see, again, the disclaimer at the top. And there’s no guarantee that my plodding pace will result in fewer mistakes in this novel, ones that I’ll drag my heels to undo at the behest of some annoyed editor someday. (Editors are great, they really are!) All I’m saying is that novels sometimes have minds and personalities of their own: some want to be born quickly, others slowly. This one wants to come slowly, and for the time being, I’m letting it. And having a blast.
How quickly do you write?
I started Designed to Write because I believe that everyone can and should have a fulfilling creative practice that makes them happy. And because I think a creative problem solving method called design thinking can help more people get there. Design thinking has been used by individuals and organizations in business, nonprofits, and government to solve wicked problems, and it can help you design a writing practice that lasts!
The first step in the design thinking process is defining the problem you’re trying to solve. For the task of designing a satisfying and productive writing practice, defining the problem requires you to answer a basic question: What’s currently blocking you from establishing a fulfilling writing practice?
This turns out to be a difficult question to answer. When you’re struggling with your creativity, it can be hard to know exactly why. Just think of the things you might tell yourself when you try and fail to start a writing practice.
Gravity problems and negative mindsets
Here’s one thing you might tell yourself when you’re getting stuck:
Ugh, writing is hard.
Well, that’s true. Writing is hard. But there’s no design solution in the world that is going to make writing less hard. Writing is hard is what some design thinking experts call a gravity problem: in other words, a problem that can’t be solved, like gravity. Gravity, at least on planet Earth, is a constraint that must be accepted. Designers and engineers creating the next generation of spaceships can’t erase gravity; they can only work with it. Similarly, the fact that writing can be hard sometimes is a constraint that you’ll have to accept. The task of designing your writing life is not to make writing less hard. Instead, it’s to establish habits, tools, processes, and mindsets that help you deal with that constraint.
Here’s another thing you might tell yourself when you’re struggling to establish a writing practice:
Nope. You don’t suck. You’re finding your voice, practicing your craft, working toward mastery—but you don’t suck. I suck isn’t the problem that’s keeping you from designing a fulfilling writing life. Rather, it’s a negative mindset that will prevent you from accurately defining your real design problem. Same deal with I’m no good, I’m lazy, I have nothing to say, or any form of negative self-talk that creeps into your head when you’re writing (or not writing). These false narratives will blind you to what’s really going on, and prevent you from designing a writing practice that works for you.
What’s the real problem?
So how do you blast past false narratives and gravity problems to get to the real root of the problem? How do you figure out what’s really keeping you from the creative practice you’ve always dreamed of?
Think about the last time you sat down to write. Was there any point where you felt engaged and energized? Moments when you felt disengaged and exhausted?
Try writing about it. Keep a design thinking journal, and write down notes after every writing session. How did it go? If it went well—write about why it went well. If it went poorly—then write about why it went poorly. Keep track of the times you felt disengaged and exhausted. And especially note all the times that you felt engaged and energized—the times when you got caught up in the task and looked up to find that a whole hour had passed. What caused you to feel that way? What was it that made this particular writing session good or bad?
It’s important to really dig deep with this exercise. You need to get curious about what’s going on under the surface. If you don’t, then your insights won’t be actionable. You won’t be able to do anything with them. Insights like I really felt inspired or the words just wouldn’t come might be true, but it’s hard to do anything with them. How can you design a process to feel inspired more often? To help the words come more quickly? That’s the goal of this exercise, and to get there you’re really going to have to go deep with your insights into your writing process.
Still stuck? Try framing your insights in relation to the following 4 categories:
1. Setting: When and where were you writing?
2. Mindset: What assumptions or beliefs about the task of writing informed your efforts?
3. Tools: What tools did you use?
4. Process: What process did you follow?
These 4 categories can help you get more specific with your insights, and help you get to the heart of what’s causing you to feel disengaged and exhausted when you’re writing, and what’s preventing you from becoming more regularly engaged and energized as you practice your creativity.
Here are some examples of some insights you might have when practicing this design thinking exercise:
- The coffeeshop I was writing in was too loud and busy. I couldn’t focus.
- At the end of the day, my brain is too tired for writing. I ended up watching TV instead.
- Playing some relaxing music on noise-cancelling headphones blocked out the world and helped me get lost in what I was writing.
- My perfectionism isn’t helping me. It’s hard for me to put down a single sentence without judging myself.
- I’ve always assumed that the best writing came from making things up on the spot—but some advance preparation could have been really helpful.
- Giving myself permission to write a shitty first draft helped me get some words on paper!
- I sometimes have trouble finding the right word. I need a thesaurus next time.
- I thought I’d like writing by hand, but it turns out I can’t stand looking at my awful handwriting!
- Scrivener (or Microsoft Word, or Google Docs) has functions that help me be more creative.
- Freewriting at the beginning of my writing session really helped loosen me up.
- I spent way too much energy trying to figure out what to write next. Tomorrow I’ll try a loose outline instead.
- Trying to fix writing errors as I go is preventing me from making any progress. Next time I’ll ignore mistakes and catch them in revision.
By the way, it’s not just beginning writers who have to go through this exercise. Even experienced writers get stuck sometimes and have to figure out why it’s happening. Even after designing a writing system that works for me, I still spend a lot of time and effort redesigning!
Defining the problem is half the battle
Okay, so now you’ve got a list of insights. Hopefully somewhere in that list is the problem that’s keeping you from the writing life you’ve always dreamed of—or several problems! That’s great.
Of course, you’ve still got the rest of the design thinking process ahead of you—coming up with ideas to solve the problem, and testing those ideas to see if they work. There’s a lot of work still ahead.
But defining the problem to be solved is half the battle. Far too many people waste time solving the wrong problem—or struggling against gravity problems that simply can’t be solved.
Starting next week on the blog, I’ll be digging into each of the categories—Setting, Mindset, Tools, and Process—to talk about different problems and design solutions you might discover in each category.
In the meantime, I want to hear from people who did the problem-identifying exercise I laid out above. How did it work for you? What did you discover? Did you happen upon any insights that surprised you?
But I think all writing advice should come with a disclaimer.
This is what worked for me. Maybe something else will work for you.
Look, writing is complicated. There’s no one right way to write a novel. The undertaking is so complex, so involved, with so many moving parts, that there’s just no formula you can follow to get it right. A novel isn’t an IKEA coffee table; there are no instructions for putting the thing together. The process of writing a novel is more of a chemical thing: combine the complexity of the undertaking with the unique way your brain is wired, and you get…what, exactly?
Well, hopefully a way of writing a novel that works for you. Your own unique, idiosyncratic creative process that brings you joy and keeps you working, and which you will write about some day in your own writing-advice book to enrage and befuddle the aspiring writers who come after you. (Karma!)
The fact that there’s no one way to write a novel is totally liberating. Or is it totally terrifying?
It can be either, I suppose. To the beginning writer, it’s usually the latter. Because while the experienced writer has learned what writing methods and processes do and don’t work for them, the beginning writer has little or no experience to draw from.
The beginning writer doesn’t know what works for them. Not yet.
To illustrate, how about a story?
I was so confused
Back when I was just starting out as a writer, I devoured writing advice. I got it from blogs, from message boards (remember when those were a thing?), and, of course, from books. I was a connoisseur of writing advice. I read more writing advice than I actually wrote. Reading about writing was fun—writing was not. (At least not at first.) When I was reading about writing, I was so inspired by everything I read. I could do this! But then, when I went to the empty page to apply everything I’d learned, the words didn’t flow nearly as easily as I thought they should in the heat of inspiration.
Also some of what I read confused me. One writer said one thing, another said the exact opposite. I still remember reading an interview with crime writer James Ellroy in which he claimed to create detailed outlines of his novels that were more than 100 pages in themselves—almost as long as some novels! But others didn’t outline at all, didn’t plan at all. Ray Bradbury, in Zen in the Art of Writing, said he just free-associated his way through his stories, which was totally mystifying to me. My writerly free-associations resulted in nonsense; how could all of Bradbury’s science fiction stories have leapt fully-formed from his subconscious? I didn’t get it.
The writing advice that influenced me the most came from Stephen King’s On Writing, which came out in 2000, when I was a senior in high school and just beginning to dabble in fiction writing. That book is still the best book on writing I’ve ever read—but a lot of the advice I gleaned from that book turned out to be dead wrong for me. (Emphasis on for me.)
Some advice should be discarded
I learned plenty from King’s book about grammar, about setting, about characters, about story—and about the life and vocation of a fiction writer. But the pieces of advice that stuck hardest were the pieces of advice I most needed to get rid of later.
The main piece of advice I had to discard was the idea that if I wanted to be a serious writer I should be writing 1,000 words every day. 1,000 words a day! Even now I can’t quite believe where I got this idea from. Looking back, King never said that I had to do this. What he said was that he generally manages 2,000 words a day. I guess I figured I could do safely do a little less than a man who wrote for a living, and aimed at 1,000 as a nice, round number.
This turned out to be exactly the wrong advice for me. I spent years chasing that 1,000 words a day. It became my white whale, and ended for me just about as well as chasing Moby Dick did for Captain Ahab. The goal of 1,000 words a day had me thinking for years that I was no good, that I sucked, that I had no dedication, no willpower. It wasn’t until later that I realized I should set my sights lower, much lower, at least to get started and develop a writing habit. Not 1,000 words a day but 250, and not every day but 4 or maybe 5 days out of the week.
The paradoxical outcome of setting my sights lower was that I got more done, felt better about my efforts, and was finally on my way to developing a sustainable writing practice. Instead of beating myself up for not hitting my goal of 1,000 and then quitting, I was patting myself on the back for meeting—and often exceeding—my goal of 250 words. I was gaining confidence, practicing my craft. Now, with some experience, I do generally hit 1,000 words a day (still not every day of the week, though!). But it never would have happened if I hadn’t allowed myself to mentally add a disclaimer to the advice I thought was infallible, and come up with my own personal rule—one that was designed to work for me and for where I was in my development as a writer.
It’s all about design
It may seem strange, my telling you to take writing advice with a grain of salt on a blog dedicated to writing advice. But the point of Designed to Write isn’t to give you infallible rules, writing commandments, formulas or instructions you can follow to achieve your writing dreams. The point is to give you the tools you need to think critically and non-judgmentally about your own creative goals, your obstacles to achieving them, your unique strengths—and then to build a writing habit that’s designed to work for you.
About a year ago, a friend of mine asked me, “How do you commit to writing every day? I want to write more, but I just don’t have the willpower to keep it up.”
I responded by telling them that they shouldn’t think of writing as a willpower challenge, but as a design challenge.
They gave me a funny look. I suppose I can’t blame them. What does design have to do with writing?
“Design is how it works”
To understand how design can help you write more, first you have to expand your understanding of what design is.
When we hear the word design, most of us think of how a thing looks. Graphic design, or interior design, or fashion design.
But design is a lot more than that. As Steve Jobs once said: “Design is not just what it looks and feels like. Design is how it works.”
Consider these examples of good design.
Graphic designers design book covers to make people want to pick up and buy the book.
Product designers design smartphones to function well and be pleasing for users to interact with.
Interior designers design rooms for socializing, or collaboration, or quiet contemplation.
UX designers design e-commerce websites to move users quickly and effortlessly from the decision to buy through purchase and checkout.
Managers design teams to take advantage of each person's skills, leading to productive teams and happy team members.
Operations managers design processes to efficiently arrive at outcomes that are beneficial for businesses and organizations.
Looking at these examples, it’s clear that design is way more than just looks. Design is any arrangement of elements that were put together that way on purpose in order to bring about a desired outcome.
Design your writing life
So why did I tell my friend to think of writing as a design challenge, rather than a willpower challenge?
Because willpower is fleeting—as anyone who’s tried to stick with a diet, a workout program, or any beneficial habit for more than a few days at a time will tell you. Willpower comes and goes. You can grit your teeth for a while and power through, but eventually your willpower will fail.
Still not seeing the connection with writing? I’ll give you an example:
For years, I dreamed of being a writer. I wanted to write fiction, to be published, to see my name on the spine of a book.
There was just one problem: I wasn’t writing.
I knew I needed to practice my craft. I heard Malcolm Gladwell telling me I needed 10,000 hours of experience to master writing; I heard Ira Glass telling me that I had to power through a lot of subpar writing before I could be any good—but I still wasn’t showing up and doing the work.
Why? Because I didn’t have the willpower.
Every few months, I’d recommit myself to writing. I’d get a head full of steam, tell myself that this time would be different, that I’d really make writing a habit this time. And for a little while, I’d succeed. I’d write for a few days, maybe a week, maybe two. I’d finish some work—a couple stories, maybe an essay.
But then, inevitably, I’d stop. My willpower would run out on me.
Then, a few years ago, I tried one more time—and this time, it stuck. I developed a writing practice that lasted. I got an agent and published a book, with more on the way.
How? Not with more willpower. The thing that helped me succeed this time was design.
I kept writing because, almost inadvertently, I’d designed a system that accomplished the desired outcome of keeping me writing. I experimented with different writing tools, tested writing processes and tricks I’d never tried before, and purposefully rearranged my daily schedule to give myself small but regular chunks of time to apply myself to my craft.
My willpower to write was just as unreliable as ever. But it’s a funny thing: because I had designed a writing system, I discovered that I didn’t need willpower anymore. The system helped me keep going even when I didn’t want to, even when things got hard, even when I got stuck and blocked and wanted to quit. The system—the design—carried me through, and gave me the confidence to begin finding my voice and honing my craft.
It can work for you
I designed a writing system for myself almost accidentally. But it doesn’t have to be accidental for you. Designing your life to be more creative, more productive, and more fulfilled isn’t rocket science. Design thinking is a simple process that can help you think critically and non-judgmentally about obstacles to your own creativity—and devise design solutions to help you overcome those obstacles.
I’ve practiced design thinking in my jobs as a project manager, director of operations, and product developer at a creative media company. I’ve also used design thinking to help design a more productive and fulfilling creative practice for myself. I started Designed to Write because I want to help others do the same.
If that sounds like something you’re interested in, I hope you’ll join me. I’m currently writing a free ebook summarizing the design thinking process and you can use it to cultivate a writing practice (or any creative practice, really). If you sign up today, you’ll be among the first to get that free ebook.
Are you designed to write? Then design a life that’s made for writing.
I was almost 30, and I still wasn't any closer to achieving my dream of writing and publishing a novel.
I'd been talking about it since I was a kid. I'd told all my friends I was going to be a published writer someday. And now the clock was ticking. There was just one problem.
I didn't have a book. And I wasn't writing.
But then everything changed.
Having a published book by 30 was an arbitrary milestone. One of those things you tell yourself when you're younger: If I don't have a book by the time I'm 30, I'm going to be really disappointed in myself.
It was arbitrary, but it was enough to get me off my butt and writing. I started in November, which any writer knows is NaNoWriMo. My 30th birthday was less than 6 months away.
I'd done this before, of course. Committed myself to writing, to really doing it this time. Except, every time before, I'd failed. I worked really hard for a couple weeks, then gave up. Let creative resistance get the best of me.
But something was different this time.
I didn't give up. I kept going. I finished a book, then revised it, then sent it out to literary agents. Soon I had an agent representing me—and later (not by my 30th birthday, but not too long after), I had what I'd always dreamed of.
A book deal. A published book, with my name on it.
So, what was different this time?
The answer was simple: Design.
Without knowing it, I'd accidentally designed a system—a handful of habits, methods, and processes—that worked for me. I'd designed a writing practice, without knowing it.
I wasn't any more talented than I was before. I didn't have any more willpower than I did all those times I'd given up. I'd just stumbled into a personal system that worked for me. A system that kept me writing even when things got hard.
Now, I'm here to share what I've learned: that if you just know you're made for writing, but you're still not writing as much as you want to, your problem isn't willpower. It's design.
You haven't yet designed a writing life that works for you.