Monday, 30 August 2010

How long does it take to write a book?

My experience suggests for non-fiction the easy stage is the writing and the time-consuming stages are before and after. I've published eight non-fiction books in the last decade. Some have sold better than others but the investment into each one follows a similar pattern for me.

I have two shelves full of notebooks. There are nearly forty A4 wire-bound notebooks in which I keep all the written detritus of my working life; from telephone messages to notes of meetings through to scribblings and drawing about new ideas. When I do get an idea for a book if I go back through my notebooks I usually find that something was stirring long before I recognised it.

I generate long lists of ideas for books, papers, stories, scripts and poems. These are unstructured and often without context or anything that may guide their development. When an idea grabs hold of me more firmly I (a) start a box file in which I can collect any tangible papers etc and (b) I use Evernote as an online storage and organisation facility.

There are eleven box files in my office which have been gestating ideas for business books and novels for over three years, some as long as seven years. Their time has not yet come. When I do get focused on one idea then I will spend many months consciously researching it. This is true for both non-fiction and fiction. The novel I have recently completed writing took me six years to research; I swore never to write historical fiction because of the research required but the story kept nagging me.  Because of this long gestation time I try to keep a number of projects on the go.

For all my writing there seems to be a moment when the need to get the words down becomes so intense I have to get on with it. I think this is when the angle of the idea and the specific audience and reader comes to mind. When I know who I am writing for the task is clear. The decision to get started is usually quick and I commit to taking on the project.

After the years spent researching and mulling over ideas and themes, the writing comes as a playful relief. Getting two thirds of a draft on the computer is relatively straightforward and I have to be disciplined to reach the end. There are a fair few incomplete projects languishing on my computer... When on the go I aim to write  a minimum 1000 words a day as I know then I will complete the first draft within three months. Some days I hover at 250 words and on others the enthusiasm pushes me to 3,000. My bottom line is I write something every single day - even if it means turning on my laptop and writing one sentence only.

A draft is easy to write. I know for every month I spend on the first draft to plan for around three months to edit it. I've come to terms with the fact that editing is as much of the creative process as the first draft. Figuring when to stop editing is another matter and the more people who get involved, then the more editing needs to be done.

Second Editions
I'm at the stage with some of my books that they are coming round for the 2nd edition. After the delight or horror in discovering what I wrote ten years ago, editing has proven difficult. In some cases my thoughts have moved so far in ten years that I can't see how to update a work other than to ditch it and start again.  So I am working on how to do this.

Any thoughts on coping with editing for new editions will be appreciated.

1 comment:

Rhian Last said...

No useful thoughts to offer, just a thank you. I have had a novel on the 'back burner' for far too long (the very first threads back in 1995!). Periodically, I have a burst of activity but I really don't give it enough thought or attention. Your phrase 'their time has not yet come' puts this dawdling into context, and this particular blog has provided a lot of insight into how I might apply myself better in order to realise my right time.