How long does it take to write a novel?

I was asked that question (sort of) by “annonymous” when I mentioned that I have only four months to write the final Magic or Madness book. “A fan” also asked if writing a book in such a short time meant that it would suck.

Good questions.

Obviously novels can take any amount of time to write. I wrote the first draft of Magic or Madness in about eight weeks. The first draft of my as-yet-unpublished epic Cambodian novel took eleven years. Writing the third book in the morm trilogy in four months is not that fast, especially as the first two books were only 65 thousand words long. (Most adult novels are around 80-100 thousand words long.)

What’s due on 30 December is not the polished, perfect, every-word-glistening final draft of MorM 3. It’s the first draft. That first draft bit is important. Because there will be months of rewriting after I first hand it over to my editors, Liesa Abrams and Eloise Flood. For me that’s when the real writing begins.

I write novels (or, at least, I wrote the first two MorM books) like this:

Every day (or there abouts) I try to write at least a thousand words. At the beginning of the draft getting to a thousand words is a struggle by the time I’m about three quarters done and finally know where the book is going it (usually) becomes dead easy. I start each day by editing the previous day’s words and then moving forward. Every few days I read a chapter or two out loud to Scott and then begin the next day by incorporating the changes that come out of his criticisms.

Once I have a finished draft I read through the whole thing and rewrite it. When that’s done I’m so over the whole thing I can’t stand to look at it. That’s when I send it out to my faithful crew of first readers. Because I’m usually on a deadline I ask them to get back to me with their response asap, which around 70% of them do. Yay first readers! I then fume at the injustice of their stupid comments rewrite based on their comments and then send it off to my editors.

They then get back to me with notes, which if the first two books are anything to go by, boil down to this:

Make it less subtle. Less implying; more showing.

I ratchet everything up so that it’s horrendously over the top and send the manuscript back to them. They send back more notes:

Make it less subtle.

I fume. How could it possibly be less subtle than it already is!? I show Scott so that he can confirm the injustice of my editors’ comments. He agrees with them. I consider divorce. Then I do what I can to make everything horribly obvious. They respond with more demands for less subtlety. And repeat until my editors declare themselves satisfied.

At which point I realise they were right all along: the novel had been a bit undercooked. I decide that there are still too many anaemic threads. I go through the novel thickening each one. I continue this process obsessively all the way up to, and including, the proofreading stage.

The whole process takes about ten months.

So, to answer “a fan”. Yup, often that first draft is very sucky indeed. Fortunately I’ll have heaps of time to unsuck it.


  1. you know who on #

    The idea of you being too subtle! [Chokes]

  2. Liza on #

    This is wonderful. Thank you so much for writing it up; I want to be a writer (and have since I was a child… I’m 32 now) and it’s good to know that the first draft is SUPPOSED to suck. And that my attempts at being interesting and subtle which are shot down by my “first readers” (friends, family) are not necessarily indicative of my inability to write. I feel better. Thank you.

  3. a fan on #

    Thank you! Great answer.

  4. Justine on #

    You know who: Actually, I don’t know who.

    Liza: So pleased to be helpful. One of the things I didn’t expect to happen once I got published was for my writing to get so much better. It’s remarkable what really good editing can do for you. One of the biggest delusions many wannabe writers have (and I know cause I used to suffer from it big time) is that first drafts are the test of how good you are and that only crap writers need to rewrite. Just the opposite is true.

    I didn’t make my first pro sale until I was 35.

    A fan: Only cause you asked such a good question.

  5. Tevans on #

    I just finished the first draft of my novel and It sucks with a capital S. the story is there but the writing in terrible. I hope after I revise it a few times and let others read it that it will be good enough to send out to some agents. Oh yeah i just remembered a question i wanted to ask, didnt you just recently get an angent? How did you sell your books without one? I thought publishers wouldnt except the book unless it was sent to them by an agent.

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