Wednesday, December 18, 2013

How Long Should it Take to Write a Novel? The Answer Might Surprise You

By Karin Gillespie

How long should it take to write a novel? A couple of years? One year? A few months?
 I’m reading Donna Tartt's latest novel The Goldfinch, and I’m determined to savor it, because she always takes ten years to write a novel. At that rate I won’t be enjoying another Donna Tartt novel until 2023.

A decade is a very long time. Long enough to age single malt scotch and serve a prison term for armed robbery. Long enough for James Patterson to write 100 novels. So long that I can't but wonder:
Why the hell does Donna Tartt take ten years to write her novels?

In her defense, The Goldfinch is 748 pages. That’s a hefty book; in fact it was so heavy my wrists got tired holding it up. But let’s 
do the math. Seven-hundred and forty eight pages is approximately 187,000 words.  To write a novel that length in ten years, you would need to eke out only 51 words per day.   

Now I realize Donna Tartt is considered a very accomplished writer; her words are like precious diamonds. Compared to how long it takes the Earth to make real diamonds, (a few billion years) Donna Tartt is a speed demon.

Still it’s hard to justify ten years particularly since Donna claims she isn’t on Twitter and rarely uses the Internet. Additionally  she has never been married and works exclusively as a writer, thus family and work concerns are not getting in the way of her output.

In a recent profile piece, Donna tries to explain why it takes her so long to write her novels.  She compares her journey to an astronaut or a polar expedition. She also says she writes in longhand and claims “she can happily move around a comma ‘for hours.’”

 Fine… But ten years? Seriously. How much comma moving can one person do?

 But then I discovered an older interview with her, and she quoted John Gardner saying, “Write as if you have all eternity.”

Suddenly it all made sense to me. She wasn’t talking about daily work count or the laborious chore of handwriting 750 pages; she was talking about a mindset, one that is a vital part of the writing process, especially if we want to produce quality work.

Nowadays so many writers feel the need to rush, rush, rush. If they are published, the pressure comes from agents, editors and readers. If they are unpublished, they feel the need to catch up, to prove themselves, to justify all the time they spend at the keyboard.

But the longer a person writes, the more they understand that a well-told tale sometimes takes a while to reveal itself. We’ve all heard of instances where an entire novel comes to an author in a glorious rush over the span of a few days, but that’s the exception instead of the rule. Typically it takes a much longer period of time for a story’s nuances to be revealed, nuances that can’t be uprooted in one abrupt swipe of a steam shovel. Instead they must be unearthed teaspoon by teaspoon.

Anyone who has ever written a novel knows that it is frequently a mystical process. Insights into character and structure usually come in small, unexpected flashes, typically when we are far away from our desk. The insights also tend to build on one another, and there is no hurrying the process. When we encounter the inevitable snags, we must resist the temptation to force a solution. A better strategy is to take a long aimless walk or fold laundry or watch a cardinal pull a worm from the ground, all the while having faith that the knots we’ve created will eventually loosen.

Brenda Ureland understood the process well. She says, “… the imagination needs moodling – long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling, and puttering. The people who are always briskly doing something may have little, sharp, staccato ideas, such as: “I see where I can make an annual cut of $3.47 in my meat budget.” But they have no slow, big ideas.”

Donna Tartt may have spent many hours rearranging commas and writing in longhand, but it’s my guess she also spent a good portion of those ten years moodling. In The Goldfinch one of the characters restores antique furniture. His methods are described in such painstaking detail I suspect the author has restored a piece or two herself and has also spent hours in dusty and dimly lit antique shops, inspecting old secretaries and chifferobes, and well… moodling.    

It’s crucial to allow ample time for moodling, even when writing something as short and simple as a blog post because sometimes it takes a while to figure out what we really want to say.

For instance, two days ago I intended to write a cute fluffy piece about Donna Tartt’ and her feet-dragging ways. I thought, “I’m pressed for time because its Christmas and everyone’s going to be too busy swilling eggnog to read my post. A funny little post will be just fine.”

 But, as usual, I was not satisfied. I kept telling myself, “There’s more to this. Dig a little deeper.”

Wednesday I was skipping around the internet, hoping for inspiration, and that’s when I found  Donna quoting John Gardner. Finally I knew what I wanted to say. And instead of merely making fun of Donna’s pokey methods, I found I could learn something important from her--something I’d want to pass on to others.

We’re all different in the way we approach our work. Unlike Donna, I don’t think I’ll ever take ten years to write a novel, but she has inspired me to be more respectful of the process and not become impatient, constantly prodding my work forward like a reluctant mule.

 It’s so tempting to settle for a facile manuscript, one that goes down easily and amuses the reader for a few hours, but often the work is swiftly forgotten. At the time, it may seem good enough. We say to ourselves, “Haven’t I put in enough time already?” or “I just want to be done.”

When we start thinking along those lines, it pays to remember we might be only one revision, one month or even one year away from something far more meaningful. And the extra time we put in is almost always worth it.

Just ask Donna Tartt.


  1. Karin,
    I hadn't realized she'd spent a decade on this novel, but I'm looking forward to reading it. A story takes as long as it needs to tell it... I loved that John Gardner quote ;). And thanks for introducing me to the word "moodling" -- it's well on its way to becoming one of my new faves!

  2. Dear Karin,

    I think you are thoughtful and write really cool blogs, deep or fluffy.


  3. In this day of get it done and out the door faster - even in publishing - it's refreshing to see someone says to hell with it and takes all the damn time they please! Thanks for the post, Karin and happy holidays!

  4. "Compared to how long it takes the Earth to make real diamonds, (a few billion years) Donna Tartt is a speed demon." - OK, that totally cracked me up.

  5. Lauren! You were able to comment. Awesome. Thanks, Malena, Laura, and Marilyn for popping by and commenting

  6. Karin, I take great hope from Tartt's tardiness. I have written and rewritten the same novel for going on five years and it's still not right. I adored The Goldfinch by the way, and adore all of you too!

  7. Wow, Karin! What a smart and insightful post. This one will stay with me for a while.

  8. Thank you Karin! I loved this post. I've been moodling for four years on my latest novel and in one little blog post, you made me feel infinitely better! Thanks for the gem!

  9. I love this post. (And since Tartt writes by hand, I guess we can't assume her slow pace of production is due to a fondness for solitaire. Maybe I'll start calling solitaire "moodling." )

  10. Shelia, you'll get it right one of these days, I'm certain. You too, Saralee.
    Thank you, Judith and Brenda for your kind words.

  11. And sometimes it is hard to set that little book off on its own in the big bad world and you want to fix its collar and brush make believe crumbs off its shirt one or two more times... before it leaves you.

  12. God, for the luxury of ten years ... or even five. I have a March 1 deadline looming on my work-in-progress and I'm ready to slit my own throat ... especially since I fully relate to the ideas you expressed here about giving a book time to percolate.

    What a great blog, Karin. You rock.

  13. so insightful, loved this post. Lucky her she has the luxury of taking 10 years--sadly most all don't have that, really. But I found this quote fascinating: “she can happily move around a comma ‘for hours.’” thanks for taking the time to noodle on this!

  14. Great post. If I could, I would take years to write the next novel, but my contract says I have until mid July. I did, however, spend 10 years on my debut, and it has never felt finished to me…