Novel-writing, fast and slow

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?

Also published on Medium.

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