Writing a book takes a lot of time and effort. You don’t write a book overnight, let alone publish one and become an author in a day.
Whether you are writing a novel, self-help guide, travelogue or memoir, it can take months, years or even a lifetime to write a book. Depending on the nature of the narrative, some books take longer than others to write.
As a writer or author, you might feel frustrated, annoyed and discouraged at how long it’s taking you to write and get a book out there.
I’m in the midst of writing my first book. It’s a non-fiction collection of stories on growing up Asian Australian and navigating cultural and creative identities.
Last month I finished the first draft that I started ten years ago. Ten whole years. But it felt like a big accomplishment.
Notable authors have taken a while to write their books. J.D Salinger took a decade to publish his short novel The Catcher in the Rye. C.S Lewis also took a decade to write the children’s book The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Susan Cain took seven years of researching and reflecting to create the non-fiction book Quiet, exploring the power of introversion.
There are distinct reasons why it can take so long to write a book. Some reasons are yours to blame both as a writer and person. Other reasons are out of your control. Here are some of these reasons.
1. Writing is hard
Writing a book is difficult because writing is infinite with endless possibilities. There are endless storylines to imagine, multiple characters to make realistic and numerous writing techniques to incorporate in your written work. There are so many different written styles and structures to play around with.
It can be overwhelming working out how you want to approach your book chapter to chapter and as a whole. As writer Meg Dowell says, coming up with trivial yet important things like names, locations and dates can take up a lot of your creative energy.
Also, like other art forms, writing is about creative expression. Writing a book often means articulating your deep thoughts or emotions, making you vulnerable for others to judge. Some writers find that uncomfortable.
2. Writing takes time
A good book takes time to flesh out. There’s outlining your book, writing your first draft and later editing your book with the right software.
It also takes time to be original in your storytelling since creativity comes and goes. Then there’s the publication process to figure out.
For a long time I was so undecided on themes I wanted to cover in my book. Should I write about racism more? Or should I write more on never feeling at home? What about introversion? Does it tie in with the purpose of my book? I struggled with wanting to say everything and later realised that less can be more. After all, short and crisp stories can make the best connections with your reader.
3. You lost the plot
You might read your first draft, hate it and start from scratch. Or you might leave your manuscript for a while, come back to edit it but the narrative doesn’t sound right to you.
Your perception of the world and people often changes over time. Chances are if you haven’t worked on your manuscript for a while, your story ideas and characters might not resonate with you anymore. So you take two steps back and rework and rewrite.
4. Step by step
Putting a book out there is a process and you have to juggle many hats. Writing a book, editing a book and publishing a book are separate things. You might be good at one but not the other.
There’s always something to learn about each step of being an author whether it’s your first book or tenth. It involves working with others, such as editors, publishers, designers, booksellers and promoters, waiting for others to get back to you. And it most certainly involves working with yourself as a writer, getting in touch with your voice and allowing your creativity to shine through your words.
5. Bad writing habits
Maybe you don’t have a writing routine or schedule to stay focused on making your book happen. Perhaps you’re writing at the wrong time of the day when you aren’t inspired. Perhaps you don’t have a comfortable writing corner.
One of my bad writing habits is being a perfectionist. While writing my book, I often got stuck in the loop of editing as I go. I backtracked the moment I didn’t like something I wrote, correcting the bit over and over until I was happy. Sometimes this made me feel less confident as a writer. Too many days I barely made progress.
6. Life gets in the way
Things happen in life, good and bad unexpected events that take priority over writing a book. Things happen to you and the people who matter to you, and sometimes writing a book seems the least important thing.
I momentarily fell off the writing bandwagon two years ago when the pandemic hit. It’s been a time where many concepts have been redefined, a time of segregation and lifestyle adjustments for many. This all made me question what’s important to me, and if working non-stop on my book in an exhausted state and selling a million copies would really make me happy.
And the answer is no, not entirely. Yes I love writing and it would be great to sell many books. However, enjoying writing without expectations, quiet time and the small sacrosanct moments with others who matter are also important, if not more important to me.
7. Writer’s block
Sometimes you just don’t feel like writing or working on your book. You don’t feel inspired. You feel your creative muse is nowhere to be found.
Maybe you want to do something other than writing. That’s okay because often you need to stand up to live before you can sit down to write.
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The genre of your book can also be a factor in how long you’ll take to complete writing it. If you’re writing historical fiction or a self-help book for instance, you’d probably spend considerable time researching and pondering over that research before adopting respectful points of view in your manuscript. If you’re well-versed on the subject or story line and have published many books, maybe you’ll get your book out in no time.
Alongside genre and the other factors mentioned, the length of time to write a book can vary depending on word count. The longer the word count, the more time you may spend on refining a longer manuscript. Children’s author Hannah Holt conducted a survey with 76 published middle grade authors in 2017. This survey found these middle grade authors took four or more years to publish their first book. It also found 50% of them wrote more than six drafts before their manuscripts were accepted for publication, and sold more books when they signed with a big publisher.
Many writers have a strong passion for words and love playing with language. You don’t write for the sake of writing or write for the sake of putting a book out there. As a writer, you write for the love of writing, with your own why and towards a bigger aim, even if it means taking a while. Words speak to you and you hope your words and books speak to others.
Writing creative non-fiction is my kind of writing. In most of my writing and upcoming book, I present observations of cultural nuances through a medley of factual and literary techniques.
When I write, it’s not just a matter of stating my points one by one on say, why racism needs to stop or why you should embrace being a quiet Asian introvert. When I write, often I go into a trance-like state of mind, reaching for stories from around and within – words showing rather than just telling, writing with feeling.
There are tips which you can take as a writer to finish your book sooner rather than later. For example, adopt good writing habits and stick to them. Have a clear outline and vision of your book at the start to maintain your focus. Find a writer’s support group online or offline for some like-minded company, getting insight on the writing process and publication.
I’ve read my first draft and am happy with how my book is progressing. It is a big accomplishment. Next it’s time to go back to the start: lots to re-read, work with, whittle down and refine to something much more beyond than words just for me, crafting stories for others and eternity.
Writing a book takes time and thought. While writing a book is frustrating, annoying and discouraging, it’s also exhilarating, satisfying and humbling, ultimately a journey of becoming a better writer.
How long did it take you to write a book? Have you thought about writing a book (or more)?