What does it take to write a novel?

What does it take to write a novel? Author Stephen King, in his upcoming book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft says that he can complete a draft of one of his novels in about three months. Not many of us, though, are able to devote ourselves to writing full time. We have day jobs, families and an endless assortment of diversions.

Last year, I wrote the first draft of a novel in about nine months. Something over one hundred thousand words, churned out a page at a time over the same length of time that it takes for a child to develop from inception to birth. There were times when it seemed that giving birth might have been the less painful route, even though I am male.

Completing a novel is a monumental achievement. Not because it requires any talent necessarily, but because it requires a certain discipline and devotion. I always knew that I would write, and over the years I have done so with varying degrees of success. In the past decade, however, my output withered away into virtual non-existence. I would dig my notebook computer out of its carrying case and set it up on whatever perch was convenient, write a few pages, and then return the computer to its hiding place where it would remain for days, weeks or months.

So, what was different about 1999? My wife, bless her soul, asked me what I wanted for Christmas in late 1998. After some consideration, I answered that I wanted a place to write. Somewhere permanent, somewhere that could remain undisturbed, where I could sit down, turn on the computer and start writing without having to find a place to set up. She bought a lovely roll-top desk and we found a suitable place to install it. The roll-top was a stroke of brilliance on her part. I tend to generate piles of papers, books, and notes while I am working. At the end of a session I can just back up the day’s work, turn off the computer, pull down the cover and – voila! – my clutter is hidden beneath the handsome, dark, corrugated cover.

Still, a desk does not a writer make. In addition to a place, I also needed a reasonably regular schedule. I wasn’t a slave to the clock, pushing aside everything and anything else to achieve my hours at the computer, but four days a week I could usually be found sitting at the computer in the evening while my wife and daughter both did their homework. It became a loose routine, a habit. After supper, we would each retreat to our own private sanctuary. I would roll up the top of my desk, turn on the computer, read any notes I had left for myself from the most recent day’s writing session, load up the file and get back to work.

Some days were harder than others, but I usually produced between 500 and 2000 words in one of those sessions. Even at 1000 words per day, a devoted writer could produce a full-length novel in 70 to 100 days. About three months, if you work every day, or about nine months if you have to work around jobs, family and life’s other obligations.

So, what about my novel? Thanks for asking. It’s in a drawer after having been unsuccessfully test marketed with some agents, editors and contest judges. It’s not a terrible novel, but neither is it a terribly good one. That’s okay. I accept that judgment. With some more work, I think it probably could be turned into a fairly decent novel.

Still, that’s not so important. As my first professional sale, a novelette for which I will earn the princely sum of $100, is working its way closer to press, I realize that the writing season of 1999 was a valuable experience, even if that particular novel never sees the light of day. I learned a lot about writing and rewriting, about pace, suspense, characterization, description, continuity and style. Most importantly, though, it helped to demystify the whole process. I now can state with confidence that I can finish a novel. I can stick with it and get to that bittersweet place where your fingers find the keys and tap out “The End.”

Originally published in Houston Writers League newsletter, September 2000

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