How long does it take to write a book? Writing the first draft of a book is a grueling, intimidating process. But it doesn't have to be a slow process.
Ask one hundred writers how long it takes them to write their first drafts and you'll get one hundred different answers. There is no perfect length of time to spend on a first draft.
You will find, though, that the writers whose answer is closer to a couple of months than to a couple of years are most likely more successful.
In this post, you'll learn how to write a book in a reasonable amount of time—and probably a better book, at that.
Ready to write your book? The Write Planner will help you make the most of your writing time so you can finish your book in six months—or much less! Check out The Write Planner »
A Tale of Two Books
I wrote my first novel in a month. It was horrible and short for what was supposed to be a novel (48,000 words—more the length of a novella—instead of the standard 90,000). I didn't worry about revising that book, as it was a project that was more cathartic than one that I wanted to share with the world.
This manuscript is languishing somewhere in my basement gathering dust. And good riddance.
My second book took me three years to write. About a year and a half to write the first draft, and the rest was revisions. I published that book.
There was a big difference between the two.
One would think, given the poor quality of my first, that my second book would be stellar. For a long time, it wasn't. I did multiple revisions before publishing it, and like most authors, it's always hard to decide one day to stop revising and move to publish. (I did eventually make it to publication, though! You can find Surviving Death here.)
So why isn't my second book much better than the first? There are a few different reasons.
1. I learned
I learned a lot about the creative writing process through actual writing in those three years.
I was writing and publishing short stories throughout that time, had joined an online writing community, and read every book on writing I could find. Learning, getting valuable feedback from peers in my writing community, and seeing exactly what editors were looking for by submitting short stories changed my writing drastically.
2. I got bored
I got bored. My enthusiasm for the project waxed and waned throughout those years. I mean, three years is a long time to work on something.
Writing books takes time, but it doesn't have to take that much time for one book.
3. The story changed
The story kept changing.
Life happens, and in three years a lot of life can happen. Writers use their experiences in their craft, and my experiences kept swinging my story back and forth. I wanted to say different things at different times.
In short, I had trouble keeping ahold of the base meaning of my story.
That second book may have gotten published, but after working with a developmental editor, I did yet another fairly major revision on it. The editor helped me focus on my core ideas. In going through the book what felt like a thousand times, I could finally see just how many tangential scenes there were to cut and how many plot holes needed to be filled in.
Pro Tip: I self-published my book, and as an Indie author, it's important to invest in major milestones needed to publish your book professionally. These should at the very least include a developmental editor, a copy editor, and often a professional cover designer to create your cover.
The quality of fiction and non-fiction books by self-published authors on Kindle books or Amazon who don't do this versus do stands out.
Self-publishing can be a great option for writers, but if you choose this publishing route, make sure you know and are willing to front the expenses needed to do publish well.
My Third Book
I wrote the first draft of my third book in three months in The Write Practice's 100 Day Book program. While I was writing, I didn't reread what I'd written so far. I just wrote.
When I was done, I let the manuscript sit for a few days and then took a deep breath (and cringed a lot, if I'm honest), then sat down for my first read-through.
I read the book in one sitting, hiding in a dark hole. I planned to keep the book to myself until I'd done at least one more draft. I expected horrible writing. I expected plot holes galore. I expected the characters to waver in their development and make horrible choices that made no sense.
I almost cried when I finished reading that last sentence.
The book wasn't horrible. At all. In fact, I gave the raw, typo-ridden first draft to my husband to read as soon as he got home from work. And he didn't think it was horrible either.
I feel extremely confident about editing this third novel. I know I'll be able to get it ready for publication in the typical three drafts I do for my short stories.
It's not going to take me anywhere near three years to finish, and that puts me over the moon.
The Time Frame Argument for Writing Fast First Drafts
After writing my first book at breakneck speed, I was skeptical about writing fast. The muse would come when it came, I thought. A real writer works when inspiration strikes, I thought.
Turns out inspiration is a fickle beast, and if you wait on it, you might feel more like a “writer” (perhaps the cliché one who drinks espresso in coffee shops while considering the human condition all day), but you won't actually be a writer.
You'll be a procrastinator.
There's a general rule of thumb about writing short stories: Write in one sitting because it will be read in one sitting. Obviously, unless you're a superhero or on drugs, writing a novel in one sitting isn't going to happen, but the concept still applies.
Why? Your story will come out smoother and more coherent if it's written continuously. You'll also have an easier time keeping up the enthusiasm.
(Note: I'm not saying you won't hate your story some days. That's normal. I'm saying you won't hate your story as much overall.)
5 Writing Tips on How to Write a Fast First Draft
By now, I've maybe convinced you to try writing a fast first draft. That's great, you say, but how do I write that fast?
There are plenty of little tricks out there, like writing sprints, that will get you mentally moving faster, but the following five tips are the basis of writing a fast first draft.
And—if you want even more great advice on how to write fast drafts—I'd encourage you to check out author J.D. Edwin's latest series on how to write faster. You can bookmark and follow her series here.
1. Set deadlines.
Deadlines are your friend. I know I'm taking all the magic out of this writing thing, but it's true. You need to set deadlines. And you need to meet them.
Being a writer is all about deadlines: When to submit short stories; when to get your latest draft to your editor; when to release your book. The industry is riddled with deadlines, so get used to them. Learn to love them.
Set a weekly word count deadline for yourself and hit it.
Here at The Write Practice, we believe the best time frame to finish a book is 100 days—which we mentor and support writers to do in our 100 Day Book program.
During these weeks, the ideal word count to meet each week is 5K words. If you want to break that down into “scene” or “chapter” length, consider that to be about two to three scenes.
This is because the ideal length for a scene is 2 to 2.5K words. This is considered the “potato chip” length, when a reader finishes a chapter/scene and looks forward in the book to see if they have time to read another chapter or scene, and seeing it's only 2 to 2.5K, decides they do!
2. Develop a writing routine.
I'm not saying you have to write every day, but you definitely need to carve out time as often as possible. I'm talking at least four days a week for a couple of hours each day.
You don't have to be a full-time writer to finish a book, but you do need to prioritize time to write, and like a full-time job, you need to do the work during this time.
That means that, during your writing time, you need to actually write.
Don't worry about researching for your book in these hours. Turn off your internet to avoid distractions like social media. These aren't the hours that you spend tweaking your WordPress website—even though that's something important you'll need to do as a published author.
This isn't even the time to write your synopsis, even though writing a synopsis can drastically improve the quality of time you spend writing your book.
During your writing time, write your book. One hour in the morning and three hours after the kids go to bed. Four hours from 5 am to 9 am. It doesn't matter.
As long as you do it, and you're honest with yourself when you say you spent that time well.
Don't let anyone mess with your writing routine. Guard it like a baby.
Don't reread or worry about typos, grammar mistakes, etc. Just write. If you can't think of a word, make a note and move on. If you need to do more research, make a note and move on.
Your goal with a first draft is to get the basic story down, not to produce profound prose right out of the gate.
If this is your first time writing, perfectionism syndrome will probably distract you more than seasoned writers. But maybe not.
Honestly, it's hard at first to ignore the micro problems with a book, like voice and style. But with practice, this becomes easier.
And really, the most important goal for a first draft is structure, not prose.
You will need to revise your book. Focus on structure and character first. To do this, you have to finish your book, which means not sweating the small stuff until way later in the revision process.
4. Get accountability.
Get some accountability. Tell people you're writing a book. (This also helps when you're protecting your writing time.) Tell everyone.
They will ask you how it's going periodically. The shame of possibly not finishing and having to admit that to the world will keep you on track.
Goals become more important if there are consequences for not reaching them. Having someone hold you accountable will prevent you from finding an excuse to stall—or worse, stop.
One way that you can get someone reliable to hold you accountable is by joining a community of writers who are on the same journey as you. My favorite is our community here at The Write Practice Pro (join us here!).
5. Join a challenge.
NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, where writers pen 50,000 words in 30 days) is a good place to start. It's free and gets you that finished first draft feeling quickly.
If you're looking for something slightly slower and less manic experience, try The Write Practice's 100 Day Book program. Challenges expose you to other writers. That's not only great for networking, but lets you talk shop with other writers, gives you support when you need it, and keeps you accountable.
Breakneck Speed Isn't For Everyone
How long does it take to write a book?
I know NaNoWriMo isn't for me. One month just isn't where my writing shines, as evidenced by my first book.
Three years, though, also isn't for me.
Ultimately, you need to find what works for you. How fast do you need to write in order to finish a book that's not riddled with random tangential scenes? How slow do you need to write to keep your sleep schedule and sanity? Three months seems to be where that sweet spot is for me. You have to find your own writing sweet spot.
Just please don't make it three years.
Ready to write your book? 100 Day Book is the book writing program designed to help you finally finish your book.
Get the deadlines, accountability, training, and mentorship you need to make it all the way to “The End.” Join the next semester of 100 Day Book now.
Do you write your first drafts fast or slow? Let me know in the comments!
For today's practice, set a timer for fifteen minutes and write. Write as fast as you can without editing or even rereading the previous sentence.
Need a prompt to get you started? Write about a woman who just lost her job.
Sarah Gribble is the author of dozens of short stories that explore uncomfortable situations, basic fears, and the general awe and fascination of the unknown. She just released Surviving Death, her first novel, and is currently working on her next book.