How long, how long?

Of all the questions that writers are asked, perhaps the most obvious is “Where do you get your ideas?”  But, it has been interesting to me that I am asked this significantly less than another murky, decidedly unclear query:

“How long does it take to write a book?”

For me, there is no easy answer to this question, and this greatly vexes those who ask.  I’m never quite sure when a novel is really finished…or for that matter, when it is really begun.  Does it begin with the first germ of the idea, or the first bit of research, or outlining, or when I sit down at my computer and type “Chapter One?”

Likewise, is it finished when I’ve done my three (or more) drafts and sent it to my editor?  Or after the first or second round of revisions she suggests, or in the copy editing or first pass stages?  Changes are made at all these steps.  I keep seeing little things that need to be done—a word that I’ve overused, an unnecessary paragraph, a bit of dialogue that needs to be reworked, the elimination of adverbs—and don’t want to let them go.

It’s cloudy and indistinct, and I’m never sure how to answer this innocent (and perfectly legitimate) question.  Consider a bit of the timeline for COLD GLORY, which comes out next month:

December 2007 – first hint of the idea; initial research

January 2008 – first incarnation of an outline

February 2008 – prologue written (and then rewritten about 12 times)

March 2008 – writing begins in earnest

May 2008 – research travel; then the final push to finish first draft, which is done in June

June-December 2008 – revisions

December 2008 – parted ways with previous agent, began query process to find a new one

August 2009 – signed with new agent, began two rounds of revisions based on his suggestion

February 2010 – submissions to publishers begin

April 2010 – received offer from Forge; accepted offer

May 2010 – first contact from my Forge editor

June 2010 – received editorial letter and began two rounds of revisions based on my editor’s suggestions

Then there was copy editing (copy editors really know how to make a writer feel, shall we say, humbled), and first pass pages, in the ensuing months.  Did COLD GLORY really take me more than three years to write?  Certainly not—I wasn’t writing it full time, after all, with two other jobs, family responsibilities, etc.  And I didn’t really keep track of the time.  How much of that time between December 2007 and the book’s release in October 2011, did I spend writing?  No idea.  The story is the story—when I was in the world of Nick Journey and Meg Tolman and the Glory Warriors, I was in another place, a place where time is different.  (People who know me well may be amused by this, as in “real life” I am obsessive about time and always think I have less than I actually do, which means I get to places ridiculously early on occasion.  Maybe more than just on occasion.)

So the question about how long it takes to write a book always throws me off a bit.  The sequel to COLD GLORY is in my editor’s hands now.  I had a contract for it, hence a deadline (which I beat by sixteen days, thank you very much).  Does that mean it took less than a year to write?  Yes and no.  There is one part of the plot for that book, SILVER CROSS, that has been in the back of my mind for over twenty years.  I’m researching the third book now, and the story will center around something I just discovered within the last few weeks.

How long, how long?

It’s not an easy question for me to answer.  I have no insightful (or even mildly clever) response for “How long does it take to write a book?”

I think it takes whatever the story demands, and what the storyteller is willing to do to tell it.  Follow the story, believe in the story, listen to the characters, understand it, know it…and the timeline will take care of itself.

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