How Long Did It Take to Write?

Paul Doiron here —

When you do a series of readings, you find that you get asked the same questions over and over. For me, the most common question is, “How long did it take you to write the novel?” It’s an understandable inquiry. With Trespasser it’s easy, because I started the book in 2008 just before my agent sold The Poachers Son. But as far as the first novel goes, I find it harder to answer because I worked at the book sporadically. I never sat down one morning and typed “Chapter 1.” In fact, I didn’t even know I was writing a novel when I first started. Sometimes I labored away on it every day or week, but there were many months when I did nothing at all.

According to Susanna Daniel, my predicament is not unusual. In an essay titled “The Quiet Hell of 10 Years of Novel Writing,” she recounts her seemingly endless endeavor to finish her first novel. At times the process was almost a kind of torture for her:

During my should-be-writing years, I thought about my novel all the time. Increasingly, these were not happy or satisfying thoughts. My “novel” (which had started to wear its own air quotes in my head) became something closer to enemy than lover. A person and his creative work exist in a relationship very much like a marriage: When it’s good, it’s very good, and when it’s bad, it’s ugly. And when it’s been bad for a long, long time, you start to think about divorce.

It took Daniel roughly a decade from the moment she began working on her novel, Splitsville, to its publication date last year. For most of that time she wasn’t actually writing, though. Instead she was beating herself up for procrastinating.

I can empathize. In my case I can’t remember the specific date I began working on the piece of fiction that would become The Poacher’s Son (sometime after 2001 is the best I can do), but I guess I should be happy that I never suffered the crippling writing blocks and crises of confidence that plagued Susanna Daniel.

When I talk about the writing process with audiences—whether it’s keeping to a schedule or defeating writer’s block—what I always emphasize is that it is different for each writer. In that respect, your relationship with a book is really like a relationship with a person. Sometimes, it’s just a fling that never leads anywhere. Sometimes it’s a long-term commitment that you must make. Each one is unique.

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2 Responses to How Long Did It Take to Write?

  1. Barb Ross says:

    I’m so glad you wrote this. I am always embarrassed by the “how long did it take you?” question (which it’s true, we always get), because it took me so long. Hank Phillippi Ryan tells a great story about reading the first scene of my book when she blurbed it and remembering it vividly from a class we’d taken together ten years before. When she tells the story, there is no question it’s complimentary in the sense that she carried the scene in her head all those years. I used to squirm when she told it because of, well, all those years. But now I’ve embraced it, it took how long it took. There were lots of good reasons, including co-founding and running a technology company, raising kids, and living life. Now, at last, I’m writing everyday and loving it.

  2. I seem to have the opposite problem. The more novels I write, the longer it take me to write them…

    But not the 8th which I’m working on right now! (In case anyone from St. Martin’s Minotaur reads this.)

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