Rosanne Dingli

Rosanne Dingli

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

How long does it take to write a book?

c. 50                                 Image via WikipediaBooks take on average about six hours to read. It doesn't sound like much. In that time, one can consume literally thousands of words that took one writer - or very rarely a whole team - a much longer time to write.

Depending on the subject, the genre, and the length, books can take a lot of work. That means they take a considerable time to write - many times longer than it takes to read them.

Writers say that books are not only written when they are at their computers: they think a lot, scribble handwritten notes, talk into recorders, discuss their subject, research online, look material up in other books, visit libraries, watch films... a lot of different activities can go into 'writing' a book that amount to much more than just the physical writing.

Many authors will tell you a book takes them years. Some others write two or more a year. This makes a reader realise different writers do it in different ways.

How do I do it? Good question! I have to think before I answer... well, I do think a lot before I start to write. I discuss the plot with my family - we make it a very animated Sunday breakfast topic, where everyone gets their say. It can be fun, and a great number of subplots are hatched and discarded. Characters are invented and left behind, fleshed out or forgotten about. Themes and locations are sought and found.

I take notes. Not many, but I do scribble them in the margins of Sudoku puzzle books, shopping lists, and odd pieces of paper, at the bottom of my diary and other places! Finding them again can be a problem. When I start to write, I draft a list of chapter titles that signify scenes. These generally follow the plot line, more or less. Writing the scenes is the hard part. Sometimes, I get on a roll, and know exactly what to write next. When I get to seventy thousand words, I know I have something: I'm more than halfway through.

Writing all the scenes gives me a first draft. I leave this to settle for a couple of weeks. This is the exciting part, when I feel I can now start to really work. So I read the draft a couple of times, trying to figure if the story is told in the order I want. Then I start to re-write and change things. I start to edit. This part of working on a book is the most time-consuming, but it's the part I like best. Sometimes I cut the whole text up into large chunks and re-arrange its order. Sometimes I put it back the way it was!

But how long does all this take?

The first draft usually takes a bit longer than two months or so. Re-writing, editing and fixing takes more than a year. A year! Oh yes: this is a long, painstaking process. What happens then? Then I send it out to be read by my faithful readers. They make notes. This means I have more work to do, reading and incorporating the suggestions I agree with and making the corrections to errors that were found. My readers sometimes suggest I change the order of chapters, so large re-writes can be necessary. In a few weeks, I have what feels like a real book. The manuscript goes out to my final reader, who always has more suggestions, more notes and more corrections for me to make.

The manuscript then gets put away for a long interval, after which I come back to it with fresh eyes. With the improvement of a few more revisions, the book feels ready to go out on submission. With any luck, a publisher will like it, and a contract is signed!

The period between getting the first idea and signing a contract is never shorter than 24 months for me. For other authors, it can be very varied. Asking this question on Google will raise hundreds of results, all of which give a different answer. On the whole though, most writers say they have a very intense, condensed period of writing that gives them a first draft, and then a longer period that involves a number of edits.

When one sits down with a new book, knowing there are five or six hours of pleasure ahead, how many would consider the time it took the author to conceive, work on, and create the work?

To gain an idea of how a novel starts to take form, why not read Chapter One of Death in Malta on my website?
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  1. Yes indeed Rosanne, those edits are the killer. I find that I change a word here or there, come back later and change it back, and so on. Can't imagine doing that with something as big as a manuscript, maybe put together a collection of poems! So thank you for going into detail on the book writing process, as always much appreciated.

  2. Thanks for returning, Shane - you might find yourself writing a novel one day!

  3. Rosanne,

    Thank you for sharing. You provide and interesting view of writing a book. That glimpse provides some understanding of why authors take so long, Bloggers can relate to a certain extent yet it's like comparing a sprint to a marathon. Thanks again.


  4. Yes, Christian - sometimes it feels like several marathons run end to end! I'm glad you liked it.

  5. I agree. I think I spend more time revising than anything although I have some days which are better than others =)

  6. Rosanne,

    Really enjoyed this article, I think writing a book requires patience, I started one last year that I'm still working on, blogging on the other hand has been something I can do at the same time to complement my book pursuits that gives instant gratification for my creativity! :)

    Many interesting articles on your site, I also enjoyed the one about having an ad free blog

    Thank you for sharing,


  7. @ Deirdre: sometimes we think revising will never stop. When is a book finished!?
    @ Annette: I feel exactly the same. Instant gratification is something you need if you are being so disciplined in other areas.

  8. Thank you for this post. I always think that I want to write a book and come up with 'where do I start?' After reading your post I wonder if I am cut out to do this.

    I write a blog ( and write, revise, write, revise, post, re-read and correct again and post. I have several drafts in my que ready to go and that will take some time to post so the idea of writing a book seems more daunting now.

  9. You are either cut out for it, Jason, or you aren't. But writing the book is only the beginning. You then need to get someone to read it... even just one person. And that's almost impossible.
    Good luck!

  10. Enjoyed your article, Rosanne. Thanks. Yes, each of us writes in our own unique way, but I find that having an outline for a nonfiction book and a synopsis for a novel will greatly reduce my writing time. An added bonus is being able to use that same info as part of my book proposal.

  11. Thanks, Poetry Editor - yes, there are many ways to come around to the same place from.