How Long Does It Take to Write a Book?

This is one of the questions I get asked most often (along with, "Where do you get your ideas?" and "How do I get an agent?"), and the one I have the most difficulty answering in 25 words or less. I think I now have a good answer, but here’s the problem first:

Let’s take my novel The Expert as an example. I wrote a short proposal for the book in the summer of 1996.

For a few months after that I spent a lot of time hanging around federal court, talking to lawyers and judges and sitting in on trials, and I also read through a mountain of legal material. I spent time just thinking about the book and eventually sketched out a plot. I delivered a detailed outline and several sample chapters in the fall, and a complete first draft in February of ’97. A very harrowing editing process then began and we finally agreed on a final version of the book in mid-summer of ’97.

So how long did it take to write it? Depends what you mean by "write." Shakespeare said that a writer can be working when he is only staring out a window. Does the question refer to the total amount of time actually spent generating prose? Or the time span between when the first word is laid down and the manuscript is delivered? Does it end with the first draft or the finished version?

I’ve written a complete novel in less than six week, from conception to a final draft. (Called The Green, it will be published under the pseudonym "Troon McAllister" by Doubleday in April, 1999.) The next book under my own name for Dutton, about the Rosenberg atomic spy case, is something I’ve been working on since 1991.

I’ve tried to explain all of this hundreds of times to well-intentioned people curious about the process, to my frustration and their confusion.

Lately I’ve just been saying, "About six months."

They’re happy with this answer…and so am I.

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