In the past few days, I’ve either been involved in or eavesdropped on (although I guess if it’s posted publicly on the internet, it’s not exactly eavesdropping) several conversations that revolve around the question of how long it takes or should take to write a book that’s worthy of publication. Some people seem to feel that authors who release multiple books in a single year are “rushing” their content to market, either because their publishers are demanding it or because they feel that quantity is more important than quality when it comes to sales and promotion.
Similarly, I’ve seen it implied, if not stated outright, that it should take about a year to write one single title (75k-120k) manuscript and that, if it takes less than that, the author must not be paying sufficient attention to detail. There seems to be a perception that the longer an author takes to write a book, the better that book will be. Of course, I’ve also seen the converse argument–that if an author is taking more than a year to write a single title manuscript, said author is probably a) a procrastinator (um, raises hand!), b) a perfectionist, or c) both.
So here’s the thing–the one categorical statement I can make about writing books is that no two people do it the same way or at the same pace. Some writers are fast drafters who can pump out 5,000 new words a day, then do numerous revisions. Others (like me and, I recently learned, a certain bestselling author by the name of Dean Koontz) write at a creepingly slow pace, trying to get every word right (or nearly right) on the first pass so that our revisions are minor and take less time. And then there’s everything in between. And no one way is “the right way.” I wouldn’t presume to tell authors who write quickly and revise more heavily that they’re doing it wrong. Equally, I don’t want to be told that my way is wrong because the only way to wind up with a “good” book is to revise and revise and revise (that maxim “Writing is rewriting” makes me insane).
All of that said, if you write on a regular schedule, whether you’re a drafter-reviser or a write-right-the-first-time kind of writer, you don’t have to write at a ridiculously fast pace to produce more than 100,000 publishable words in a year. I’m slow, but I average about 1,000 new words a day, 5 days a week. I do revise when I finish a manuscript, but it doesn’t take me as long to do my revisions as it takes me to write the new words. I can probably do revisions on 5,000 words as fast or faster than I can write 1,000 new ones. (I know lots of authors who are exactly opposite–they write new words much more quickly than they revise them. And there are no doubt some writers who are 1:1 writing:revising.)
So, assuming I only write new words 40 weeks out of the year, not including weekends (giving me 12 weeks for revisions, copy editing, vacations, and procrastination–my Waterloo!), that’s a minimum of 200,000 words a year. How many “titles” that results in depends on how the stories I’m telling break out and on how many of those words actually contribute to manuscripts that I finish. Since I have no active contracts binding me to finish any particular manuscripts, I have a tendency to poke at and then set aside a lot of stories, meaning I’m adding words that may someday be publishable, but aren’t yet because I didn’t finish.
But if all 200,000 words I wrote in a given year wound up in something I finished, that would mean that in a year, I could release roughly two single titles or three-to-four category-length novels, or 5-8 novellas, or some combination of those lengths. And I wouldn’t be “rushing” or doing slipshod work to achieve that (especially if, in a single year, I finished several manuscripts that I started in prior years).
Now, I realize that even 1,000 words a day is too a fast pace for some writers by the time they work in revisions and editing. Especially for writers who have a day job, families, etc., writing more than even a few hundred words a day may be too much. But for most professional, full-time writers, I suspect that two or possibly even three single-title books per 12-15 months is very, very doable and doesn’t require the author to cut corners or sacrifice quality for quantity. Will some be slower than that? Absolutely, and that’s fine, too.
So, how fast can you write a book? The answer is…it depends. It depends on what you mean by “a book”–short story, novella, category novel, single title novel. It depends on what the author’s goals and commitments are. And it depends on the individual author’s individual process. There’s no one true way or one true pace.
None of which is to say that some authors and publishers don’t put out books that aren’t really ready for prime-time. It’s just that I think it’s just as possible for a book that took five years to write/revise/edit to be “not good” as one that took five months. Monkeys with typewriters producing Shakespeare provided infinite time notwithstanding, some writers will never write a good book, no matter how fast or slowly they try to do it. And by the same token, some writers are so ridiculously talented and fast that they can release three or four novels a year and every one of them is brilliant (hello, Ann Aguirre).