How long should it take to create an original work?
How long should a book take to write, for example?
A successful author herself, Louise Doughty published A Novel in a Year: A Novelist’s Guide to Being a Novelist (2008) based on a column she originally wrote for The Telegraph newspaper (UK). Despite the title, she also said in her column that one of her own (longer) books took three and a half years to write and also admitted that “Your novel will take you as long as it takes you – but I’m going to stick my neck out and say that if you haven’t written a book before and are really serious about it and have a job or a family or – heaven forbid – both, then you are looking at around three years from start to finish.”
That was over ten years ago. Are expectations still the same? There appears to be a huge pressure on writers now to be prolific, in ‘literary’ and in particular in genre fiction, at least where they are successful and need to keep feeding hungry fans.
Certainly, genre writers tend to be hugely productive. And it’s not necessarily the case in popular fiction alone. For instance, author Ali Smith will soon complete her ‘Seasonal Quartet’ of stand-alone novels (Autumn, Winter, Spring and the forthcoming Summer), all written and published in four years to positive critical reviews with Autumn being shortlisted for the 2017 Man-Booker Prize.
Whilst a genre writer, Georges Simenon was (is) an admired one, and he had 500 novels and novellas in publication—somehow finding time between a reported (by himself I think!) 10,000 lovers. He claimed to be able to turn a book around in 11 days (eight for composition then three for corrections). At his most productive in the 1830s, Dickens is said to have written at least 15,000 words per month, produced for what John Updike called “Victorian word-eaters.”
As ever in creative writing, there is much advice on how to be productive – write a book in 100 days, in 30 days, or perhaps even three days (ref. the 3-Day Novel Contest running since the 1970s). Then nanowrimo of course, encouraging writers to write a novel (or at least to draft one) in a month (November). In the end, we’re all pressed for time, right?
The other end of the scale is harder to gauge. There are many famous gaps between publications, but we don’t know whether those authors kept starting and setting aside their writing, or perhaps returned to a previously abandoned work. One example is Arundhati Roy, whose second novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (2017) was published twenty years after her acclaimed and prize-winning The God of Small Things, having begun the former around ten years in. In the meantime though, she also published a lot of non-fiction. Similarly with Marilynne Robinson, who did not publish fiction for nearly 25 years after her first novel Housekeeping (1980) but has said it took only eighteen months to write her next, Gilead.
Audrey Niffenegger is on record as taking four years to write the (admittedly lengthy) The Time Traveler’s Wife then seven for follow-up novel Her Fearful Symmetry. “Slow works for me,” she said in an interview for nanowrimo, “I have all the bad habits my fellow writers warn you not to fall into: I procrastinate. I write a bit and wander off to think…” It makes you like her a bit more, doesn’t it?
In The Art of Slow Writing (2014), the late writer and editor Louise DeSalvo gave examples of a number of famous and successful slow (or at least gradual) writers. DeSalvo advised that that the creative process takes time, and “Trying to work too quickly, trying to work in too polished a way too quickly, expecting clarity too soon, can set us up for failure.”
Going back, Virginia Woolf spent seven years creating first novel The Voyage Out, revising it at least eight times. So what appears ‘slow’ may represent a fast writer being particular about their working and embarking on many redrafts before they are satisfied. The prolific D.H. Lawrence produced a number of complete re-writes of Sons and Lovers, as another example.
Such variety exists, of course, across the creative zones. George Seurat worked a meticulous two years on Un dimanche après-midi à ‘Ile de la Grande Jatte (A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte)—well it is large, and all those dots! In contrast, in one manic period Van Gogh was said to have produced about seventy paintings in roughly the same number of days. In terms of repeat attempts towards artistic satisfaction, Edvard Munch produced at least four iterations of his best-known work The Scream (Skrik). And so on.
All in all, whilst expressing scepticism that few of us could, in fact, produce a completed novel in one year, Doughty was probably correct to say “[it] will take you as long as it takes you.”
Do you create quickly or slowly? And does speed have a bearing on the quality of the final work?
‘Fiction Takes Its Time’, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/may/27/arundhati-roy-fiction-takes-time-second-novel-ministry-utmost-happiness
‘Marilynne Robinson’s Lila – a great achievement in US fiction’ in The Guardian
3-Day Novel Contest http://www.3daynovel.com/