WORDS FOR WRITERS – How Long Should it Take You to Write a First Draft?

Tweet from Katie Crabb: I am making sense of an idea document for a potential new project tonight, and thinking of all the research I would need to do, and all the things I would need to figure out, and it makes me think of seeing people writing drafts in like…a month and honestly?? How??? HOW.

This wasn’t a direct question to me, but I ended up writing a really long thread on Twitter in answer to Katie, which I’m going to flesh out a bit below.


The facetious and flip answer to this question is, of course, that it will take you as long to write the first draft of a book as it needs to take. The more familiar you get with your own writing style and narrative tropes, the faster that process will get, until it isn’t any more, for some reason.

And while, yes, some people “draft” a novel in a month, you also have to look at a few factors – their experience as writers, how complete that draft is, and how much space they have to write.

Let’s start with EXPERIENCE

What does it take to become an expert or master performer in a given field? The common rule of thumb, popularized by Malcom Gladwell in his bestseller “Outliers: The Story of Success”, is 10, 000 hours. While that’s not precisely true, the fact of the matter is that some practice has to go into every endeavor before you’ve got a handle on it.

And as writing is constantly evolving as you grow as an artist and a person, take comfort in the knowledge that you will never have a handle on it. Not one of us has it handled. Every book is different, and every time you sit down to write is different. You can’t perfect  your writing experience, but you can make it easier by figuring out HABITS that help you streamline and speed up your process.

(This is something I love NaNoWriMo for – it forces you to write everyday, and if you’re participating in both the OL and IRL events and challenges, it helps you experience writing in a whole load of different environments, and under different stresses. It’s great for helping you find out how you hate to write, which means it will help you eventually find the way you love to.)

The first thing I want to talk about under HABITS is ENVIRONMENT. Some people love noisy coffee shops. Some people hate them. Some people can only write in their private home office. Some can write in the park on their lunch breaks. Some need a getaway at a cabin or beach to get the juices flowing. Some people need a specific playlist going, or a certain candle lit to evoke sense memory, or a certain kind of tea available. What kind of environment you need to tell stories in? How long your writing sessions need to be, and basically everything you need to actually sit down and make the words go, and at what point does that going stop?

Wherever and however it is that you need to be to really get into the flow of writing, once you find that place and build those environmental habits (and habitats), your drafting will go quicker.

Sussing out and codifying the shorthands and tropes you prefer to use are another form of HABIT, this time a CREATIVE SHORTCUT. Once you’ve figured out what sorts of story elements you like to work with best, and the kinds of themes you like to assemble, the next books will be easier because you’ve already got a catalog of your familiar and preferred tricks. This isn’t cheating or being lazy – it’s more like a soccer player focusing on a few kinds of specific goal-winning kicks to specialize in.

Lastly, the more you write, the more you’re going to figure our your own STYLE. That is, your internalized preferences in storytelling and narrative structure, the way you like to build and evolve characters, the way you like to drop information and worldbuild, etc. Once you figure how it is that you like to do these things, you’ll get faster and better at them.

The first draft of my first novel took me about two years to finish. The first draft of my second novel took about a year. My third novel took about four months.

However, take into account that people change, and the kinds of stories they want to tell also change. And then it will be a long hard slog again, as evidenced by the three novels I have currently in half-formed states. I’ve decided to change up how I structure novels, what sorts of stories I want to tell, the kind of character evolution I want to spotlight, and how some of these stories are formatted. I’m working with – and learning – new tropes and new plot maps.

And so it’s taking me… well, years, again. It’s like having to go back and relearn how to write all over again now that I’ve changed how I’m structuring my work and which creative shorthands I’m leaning on.

You’ve got to learn how to skate before you can turn out a flawless triple axle each time. And the minute you change what kind of skates you’re using you’ve got to relearn all over again. And even then, your triple Axel will never be Flawless on the first attempt. Figure skaters have jump coaches. Writers have editors.


When someone says they “drafted” their book, what do they mean? To my mind, a “drafted” book is a fully complete, totally written version of the manuscript.  It is, essentially, a whole book that any reader could pick up and understand. (Though, as a first draft, it might not be good.)

But to other folks, they may mean they just set up a document, figured out the number of chapters they’re aiming for, and went into each chapter and wrote a detailed one-page outline of everything that happens in that chapter, mapping the character growth. To yet someone else, it could be an intricate system of cue cards pinned to a wall whereon they’ve figured out each and every minute detail of the worldbuild and laid out the plot.

So having a completely drafted novel in a month could mean something totally different to different people. Don’t compare yourself if your notion of “drafted” means something different.


I also want to be clear that when people are talking about the time it takes to draft also depends on your ‘availability’. What do I mean by that?

Well, let’s have a think about J.R.R. Tolkien who took several years to draft LotR (but it was big): Tolkien was a professor with tenure, so he had stability and job security. It’s well known that he deliberately poorly-taught and sabotaged his own courses so students would drop out so he had time to sit in his office and write. So he had SPACE available – both physically, in having a private office that was away from home, and the time, because he used the hours he should have been teaching to write, as well as the hours around when he actually was teaching.

His home was managed by his wife, whose only job was to stay there and plans meals and events, oversee the staff, the nannies and governesses, and the household. So he was free of the EMOTIONAL LABOUR of participating in his own domestic life and raising his own children. He told them bedtime stories, but I don’t know how much else he was involved in raising them.

People call Tolkien a genius – and he was – but when you envision the grand fantasy master sitting under a tree, smoking a pipe and scribbling in his notebook, remember that he has the privilege to be doing that because many, many other people are making his life go.

Tolkien was MENTALLY, EMOTIONALLY, FINANCIALLY, and SPATIALLY ‘available’. And he was healthy enough to sit for long periods of time to do the actual physical work of writing (which I personally have not always been, so I understand that as a privilege too).

So when you’re worried that other people are drafting their novels faster than you, consider what kind of SPACE you both have available. Do you have kids, and they don’t? Is writing their full time job, while you have to work 40hrs a week? Are you suffering from Covid Concentration Crud (I know I am!) while they’re finding the lockdown time inspiring and freeing? Do they have a spouse to help with childcare, or domestic and emotional labour?

For example:

when I say my first novel took me two years to write, and several more to edit, this is true. But I was also working, cooking for myself, cleaning, commuting, and trying to have a social life.

When I started “Triptych” I was at work 50hrs a week in a high-academic school in Japan, with a 20min commute both ways. I lived alone in a place with little English, did all my own cooking and cleaning, and had to do all my own grading and lesson planning (and unlike Tolkien, I actually taught my lessons.)

In the middle of writing the book, I applied to five grad schools, studied for and wrote the GRE, got hit by a car and was laid up for six weeks with a broken knee (a large chunk of the book was written with the laptop on my stomach, high off my face on Japanese painkillers), did all my physio and had a once-a-week visit to the hospital, moved back to Canada, found an apartment, attended classes, moved apartments again, had knee surgery and all the attendant physio, did my course work, worked 20-40 hours a week at McD’s, recorded a new voice demo and did some freelance voice acting, volunteered for a medical trial, wrote my MA thesis, got an agent and did auditions, was a TA for one course with piles of marking, and still did all my own cooking, shopping, and cleaning.

I started thinking about the book in 2006, and started seriously writing it after the car accident. It was published in 2011.

I learned a lot about myself as a writer in that time. It was the second book I’d written (the first was while I was in undergrad and is buried under a tree forever), and it was already leaps and bounds better than the first. I learned the optimal conditions for me to be productive as a writer in that time.

Over the course of my second book, I was living in one place, with a steady full time job that paid enough that I required no side-hustling, I was walking again so I could cook and clean for myself, and I had an established friend group with established weekly plans, and I wasn’t dating. So I had lots of time to write, and moreover to work on my habits.

Now that I had practice, I could optimize my time, my mental processes and storytelling choices, and environment to make the writing go better, faster, and smoother. I had developed HABITS and figured out my needed SPACE.

Draft one of that next book took about a year to write. After that, each book took a little less time, maybe a month or two less.

Over the course of the next few years, I still worked, still switched jobs, still switched apartments, still lived alone, still handled all of my own domestic and emotional labour.

AND THEN. I had a really bad accident and had to move back in with my parents while I healed, saw doctors, and did physio to get back on my feet. Suddenly I was free of domestic labour, of a job, and some of my emotional labour as well, as my parents took over.

At first I couldn’t sit or stand for a long time to write, but as I got healthier, I had the PRIVILEGE of being able to just stay at a computer and write for hours and hours each day (as long as my body didn’t rebel). I wrote the first draft of a 400 page book in four months.

Now, to be totally fair, this was my 8th or 9th novel, so at this point I had the whole ‘Optimum Environment’ thing down. And it was a sequel, so I’d already done all the hard work of coming up with characters, settings, plot structures and narrative choices, etc. But the fact remains that I would never have been able to do that if I didn’t have someone else to share the domestic load, the freedom from needing a dayjob, the safety and security of living at my parent’s house, etc. That is, the AVAILABILITY.


All of this to say: don’t get down on yourself if it takes you longer than other people to write the first draft of your book. We all have different AVAILABILITY situations, and it takes practice to figure out your own OPTIMAL SITUATION and STORYTELLING HABITS to write.

In the end, comparison is the silent killer in a creative space. Each artist, no matter their discipline, has their own way of doing things, habits and methods and tricks they’ve figured out.

Da Vinci didn’t sketch, or plan, or mix paints the same way Rembrandt did, but they both produced masterpieces. So work to your own pace, in your own space, and you’ll be just fine.


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