As an author, one of the questions I am most frequently asked is, “How long did it take you to write your book?” It’s really a very vague question and not one that is easy to answer. I could say six months or a year, but I didn’t spend a year working on it full-time in terms of forty hours a week, fifty-two weeks a year. A better answer would be in terms of hours, but I didn’t keep track of them. An often quoted study by the Brenner Information Group says that it takes 475 hours to write a fiction book and 725 to write a nonfiction book. That’s a very general statement and I am skeptical about whatever process was used to come up with those numbers since I doubt any writer keeps reliable records on the hours he or she spends writing. But those numbers are sufficient to make it clear that writing a book requires a huge time commitment.
It’s possible you could figure out how many words you can write in an hour and then figure out based on your word count how many hours it took you to write the book, but it just isn’t that scientific of a process. Sure, maybe I can type fifty words a minute so that’s 3,000 words an hour and if my book is 50,000 words long, that means it must have taken me about 16.66 hours to write, but the truth is no one could write 3,000 words in an hour consistently. No matter how fast you type, it’s hard to get the words on the page that easily, and when you had those 50,000 words, you’d only have the rough draft done-in what would be little more than two full working days. Even so, if anyone can write a 50,000 word book in two days, I’d sure like to meet that person and learn his or her secret.
I doubt anyone can really keep track of how long it takes to write a book because there is so much more to account for. You have to come up with the ideas-maybe just the beginning or end scene, and then fill in everything in the middle. That takes a lot of thought. It might take numerous walks while you play with ideas, it might take drawing diagrams or characters’ faces on paper, it might take sleepless nights when you can’t stop thinking about the characters, it might take hours outlining and re-outlining your book. It might take creating a five-step formula, or learning a process so you can write about it accurately. It could take hours of research and fact checking, and then there are all the hours of revision. A really good author might have moments of inspiration where he can write several thousand words in a sitting and produce quality work, but most writers are more like Hemingway, who said that for every good page he wrote, he wrote ninety-nine bad pages. In other words, it takes time, and it takes a willingness to be persistent.
People often think, “I’ll take a vacation and write my book in those two weeks I’m off,” or “This summer when I’m not teaching, I’ll write my book,” or “After I retire, then I’ll have lots of time to write.” But truthfully, having all that time to write can be scary and self-defeating. As humans, we like to be distracted continually. Few of us can work for more than a few hours at something without needing a break. If you tell yourself you’re going to spend all day Sunday working on your book, chances are your day will go something like this: 8 a.m. you tell yourself you have all day so you read the morning paper, and then you have to make breakfast, and then it’s 10 a.m. and you think you should get some exercise so you go for a walk. At 11 a.m. you finally sit down to write, but you feel the words aren’t flowing out easily and your character doesn’t do what you want, and then noon comes and you decide to have a snack, and then you think, what the heck, the football game is on at 1 o’clock and I’ll still have eight hours to write after it ends, but then there’s supper, or maybe a good movie to watch in the evening….You see where I’m going with this.
The problem is that too much time is daunting. So is setting an unrealistic goal such as “I’ll have the book done in one month, or three months.”
When people complain to me about not having time to write or feeling overwhelmed with the task, I tell them, “All you have to do is write one page a day and you’ll have a book done in a year.” And that’s a generous timeframe for accomplishing the task since a 365 page book is longer than most want to write, but that allows for days when you don’t get the writing done or you get stuck. If you write 200 pages in that time, you will have done well.
Another good rule is to set a reasonable word count for yourself as your daily goal. I said, “reasonable.” Forget 3,000. Forget 1,000. I think 500 words is reasonable. That’s about the same as a page a day, and it’s very manageable. On a good writing day, I suspect you will be able to write that much in fifteen minutes. You will then feel energized and able to lay aside your writing to feel you accomplished something for the day, or you can keep going while the muse inspires you. On other days, you will find 500 words an onerous task and can count yourself lucky if you get to 300 words in two sittings. Since Microsoft Word allows us to see the word count, even watch it increase as we type-I’m at about 970 words in this essay now-we have an advantage that allows us to break down our goal to the very word. Frankly, I find it fun to look every few seconds or minutes to see what my word count is-I just broke 1,010 words.
Now, the thing to remember is that it doesn’t matter how good those words are. The thing is to get them down on the page. Don’t bother counting the words in this essay because I’m going to go back and revise it, and when I do, the place where I said I had 970 might end up being around the 1,200 or the 700 word mark. You just never know what you will change once you revise, and it doesn’t matter at this point. What matters is that you get the words written. Filling that blank screen or that blank piece of paper is the hardest part of writing. Once that rough draft is done, the rest is all just tweaking. That’s when you might actually be able to measure time and determine that you can revise 4,000 words an hour or proofread 9,000 words an hour or what have you.
The point is to set a reasonable goal for each day, and also to set a reasonable time. If you have a full day and won’t be able to sit down until midnight on Monday, then it’s okay not to write that day, so long as your goal to write every day is compensated for on Tuesday. Maybe Tuesday you only have half an hour between work and supper to write, but in that half hour, you can do your 500 words, and then on Wednesday you have the whole evening so you decide to write 500 words before supper and then 500 at 10 p.m. after you watch your favorite TV show, and then your balance for the week is back on track.
You don’t need multiple hours and days of consecutive time. You do need to carve out small chunks of time, even if they are only fifteen minutes per day, and you need to set reasonable goals. Don’t beat yourself up if you can’t make your word count goal one day, but make it a goal that every day you will make your best attempt to spend a reasonable amount of time writing. If you can make that kind of a commitment, you most likely will have written an entire book within a year, and if you haven’t, then I daresay you’ll have a fair chunk of a rough draft, and in any case, you will be much farther than you were, and you need have no regrets in the end about how you never got around to writing that book.
Irene Watson is the Managing Editor of Reader Views, where avid readers can find reviews of recently published books as well as read interviews with authors. Her team also provides author publicity and a variety of other services specific to writing and publishing books.
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