Like Sands Through the Hourglass: What is This Time Thing, Anyway?

This week’s topic is time.  We picked it because November is NaNoWriMo, the annual writing frenzy that turns half a million people into slavering lunatics who eat nothing but Doritos and refuse to shower for 30 days just so they can put 50,000 words on paper.  But, much as I admire that level of dedication, I’ve never done NaNoWriMo.  Partly because I’m addicted to daily showers, but mostly because I’m such a slooooow writer that the thought of writing 50,000 words in a month gives me the vapors, and I hate to fail at things.  Plus, I’ve decided time doesn’t matter.  For every great book written in the writerly equivalent of two nanoseconds, there’s another great one that took ten years.  The same goes for bad books.  Don’t believe me?  Read on:

Louisa May Alcott, who should be the poster girl for NaNoWriMo, wrote LITTLE WOMEN — 183,388 words — in ten weeks.

Herman Melville wrote all 206,052 words of MOBY DICK, including the 7,423,567 words about whales and how to kill them, in 18 months.

Charles Dickens wrote GREAT EXPECTATIONS in 36 installments that ran in a weekly newspaper between December 1860 and August 1861. NaNoWriMo-ers, raise your bleary eyes from your computer screens for three seconds to contemplate the pressure this man was under!  He had to cough out a new chapter every week for nearly a year!  And he couldn’t even revise the earlier ones, because they were already published!  

Danielle Steel, the best-selling author alive, wrote 113 books that have sold over 800 million copies.  Though she published several books a year in her heyday, it actually took her two years to write each one.  Unlike you and me, and pretty much every other writer ever, she worked on up to five at once, researching one while outlining another while drafting a third and revising a fourth and fifth, like a human romance-novel production line.  She also raised nine children and married five men and, I presume, still found time to take the occasional shower.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote THE GREAT GATSBY in one year.  In a letter to a friend, he wrote, “It represents about a year’s work and I think it’s about ten years better than anything I’ve done.”  Well said, Fitz.  Too bad it took you nine years to write your next book, TENDER, which no one studies in high school, ever.

J.R.R. Tolkien took 12 years to write the 455,125-word LORD OF THE RINGS cycle.  Then he spent many more years on the Appendices, and continued to revise the books for more than twenty years after they were published.  (Please, don’t let that be me.)

E.L. James wrote FIFTY SHADES OF GREY in about 20 months.  It started out as TWILIGHT fan fiction, which she published episodically on fan fiction websites under the pseudonym Snowqueen Icedragon.  In other words, she’s our modern-day Charles Dickens.

Vikram Seth took ten years to write A SUITABLE BOY, which at 591,554 words is the longest book published in a single volume in the English language.  Actually, I think that’s rather fast, considering.

Stephen King, in his book ON WRITING, says, “I believe the first draft of a book — even a long one — should take no more than three months.”  That slacker obviously never did NaNoWriMo.  Plus it took him 13 years to write THE STAND.  Liar.

Finally, Heather Young wrote the widely acclaimed, Pulitzer Prize-winning international bestseller THE LOST GIRLS in just over six years, in between driving carpools, doing laundry, and cleaning out the cat litter.

So there you have it.  Great writing, crappy writing, weeks, months, years.  Time is irrelevant.  Until you run out of it.

Now get back to work.


Author: Heather Young

After a decade practicing law and another decade raising kids, Heather decided to finally write the novel she'd always talked about writing. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars, and is an alumnus of the Squaw Valley Writers Workshop and the Tin House Writers Workshop, all of which helped her stop writing like a lawyer. She lives in Mill Valley, California, with her husband and two teenaged children. When she's not writing she's biking, hiking, neglecting potted plants, and reading books by other people that she wishes she'd written.

6 Replies to “Like Sands Through the Hourglass: What is This Time Thing, Anyway?”

  1. Hey, Walter B. Gibson wrote the Shadow novels for the pulps, and he wrote a full novel every two weeks. For years. On a manual typewriter.

    There’s no shame in being slower than that — everybody is.

    Dickens’ situation sounds odd to a lot of writers these days, but course it’s very familiar to those who write for television. (And those of us who write serial prose fiction. 🙂 )

    Rex Stout, my favorite mystery writer, wrote around one Nero Wolfe book a year. That’s deceptive, though, since I’ve read that he wrote each book in a few weeks, beginning to end, no editing or rewriting, and then took the rest of the year off.

    Oh, and I agree about not revising after publication. You start doing that, and pretty soon you start to think that Han didn’t shoot first.

    Which he did, of course.

  2. Great post, Anthony! I’m a huge Rex Stout fan, too, and I often think about how difficult it must be for TV writers to write a heavily serialized show. Did Lindelof ever wish he could go back and delete the Smoke Monster in Lost? I bet he did.

    I almost put in that Jack Kerouac wrote ON THE ROAD in three weeks, but he had a lot of pharmaceutical help, so I decided that didn’t count.

    And Han totally shot first.

    1. I have read that the myth of On the Road is somewhat… exaggerated. The first draft was written as described, but then there was apparently more editing and rewriting than people thought.

      Serial TV (and radio before that) used to be easier — catching glitches depended on the viewer’s memory. Now, everything is available forever for people to go back and check things after the fact.

  3. Ha! I loved the “…human romance-novel production line.” part 😉 I’m a fast drafter — 3-4 months for me — but it’s mostly b/c I don’t love that part of the process, and like how my kid and husband eat vegetables, I just want to get it out of the way as quickly as possible. However, revisions take just as long and often twice as long. So there you go. Happy writing!

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