I finished drafting my seventh novel this week! It’s crazy to me that I’ve written so many books. In a lot of ways, I still feel like I’m only just finding my feet as a writer. The process of writing a book is really mysterious to me, so I wanted to talk about the process of getting a first draft on paper.
I’ve been using a website called mywriteclub for a few years now, long enough to have gathered data on how I wrote three complete novel drafts. The first was a book about ghosts in 2016, which took a full year:
As you can see, this was a very complicated and drawn out process, as I edited it halfway through drafting (HUGE MISTAKE), taking out 20,000 words and really slowing me down.
The second book I kept a record of was The Quiet at the End of the World in 2017, which took 6 months:
This one was a lot more simple, with no editing happening during the writing process (phew!). The third was my current Untitled Project, which took 7 months:
Again, quite straightforward, but with a very long break in the middle while I did other projects (and also accidentally wrote another novel, which I didn’t use mywriteclub to track – I wrote it too fast, with about 45k written in a fortnight. I know, ridiculous, and definitely an outlier for my writing process).
From these graphs, I can see that I write novels of a pretty consistently length of 70,000 words. I always take at least one break somewhere in the middle (to do edits on a different book), usually for around a month. After I’ve taken a break, I always write a bit faster than before I paused, because my brain has had a chance to decide what comes next. I average around 2500 words a day during sprint times. I usually sprint for a week at that speed before slowing down again. I write a lot in spring, and much less during the summer.
While these graphs are all really different, the books actually always take a similar amount of writing days to complete. My seventh book took around 30 full writing days, as a very rough estimate. Ghost book took 33 days, and The Quiet took 31 days. Those are the days I was increasing my word count, not including the ones where I was plotting the book (or staring at the screen and not making any progress, which happens a lot).
If I’m working ten hours a day, that means each book takes at least 330 hours. According to Microsoft Word, my total editing time on book 7 was 21,000 minutes (350 hours), though I’m not sure how accurate this is, as I’m sure I changed documents a few times, and wrote scenes in other places before pasting them in.
So, it takes me at least 400 hours to draft a novel. Which is a scary figure to know. Because this book is under contract (i.e. it sold before I started writing it), technically, I could work out my hourly rate. This book will probably take another month to edit, if not longer – say another 400 hours. Then I’ll be promoting and publicising it, online and in person. All of which is unpaid, so the time taken has to be taken account in the earnings from the sale of the book. So – do I make minimum wage from writing a novel, based on the guaranteed income I currently know about? (Assuming it doesn’t ever sell out its advance and make any royalties – AKA, the worst case scenario.) I think I do. Just.
The fact that I am unsure on that is a very worrying thing, as a full time author. This job is a risk, in a lot of ways. But the fact that even when I’m under contract, I’m still not sure if I’m doing work that will earn me a living wage, shows that some things need to change for authors to have sustainable incomes. An author still puts the same amount of work in, regardless of whether the book is a success or not.
Every writer writes at a different rate. Someone else might write the same novel as me in twice as long, or half the time. Does that change how much they should receive as an advance? Should this vary as they gain more experience and become faster writers? How could such a thing be calculated?
I don’t have any answers to this, I’m just trying to analyse the data I’ve been collecting about my writing over the last few years. Here’s what I know: I work as fast as I can. I have deadlines, and I am very efficient with my time, and at this point in my career, it takes me at least 1000 hours to develop a novel ready for publication, as a very low estimate.
As it supposedly takes 10,000 hours to get good at something, that means that after 7 books I still have a long way to go. I’m very interested to see where these figures change when I reach that point.
Also: I’m sure there are more accurate ways to track the time it takes to write a novel (I think Scrivener can do this?) but, honestly? I think it would stress me out to know a more exact figure that this. Part of the creative process is not knowing how things are going to work out. If I was comparing my drafting to a timeline of the last book I wrote, I think I’d go a little mad!
In other news: I have some upcoming events –
November 3rd-4th: Clexacon, Novotel London West – Tickets here
November 10th: SFX Con 2 at Foyles Charing Cross, London – ‘Tech Wars’ panel with Peter F Hamilton, Richard Morgan, Pat Cadigan and James Smythe. Tickets here
The Quiet at the End of the World comes out in five months, in March! Here’s one of my favourite scenes, of Lowrie having breakfast with her parents and their dogs, Victoria and Albert. It makes me smile even though I’ve read it a hundred times:
I’ve started a fortnightly books & baking newsletter.
Teachers! I still have a few slots open for events in World Book Day week – which in 2019 falls on the release week for The Quiet at the End of the World! If you’d like your class to help me celebrate, email me.
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Happy #nationalpoetryday to every poem, but most especially to this nursery rhyme I wrote for The Last Beginning. I have no poetic talent at all, and I'm pretty sure I wrote an early version of this and my editor @ajgraingerauthor was like 'this is….not good.' and proceeded to rewrite the whole thing. So this was an ACHIEVEMENT. Also, when I was looking for this page I ended up just reading my own book for a bit. I love this one so much. I think it will always be one of my favourite things I've ever written. #thelastbeginning