How Long Does It Take To Write A Book?

These papers have been in a box under my desk for most of a year.

“How long it take to write a book?” my dad asks.

“It depends,” I answer.

“How long does it have to be?”

“As long as it needs,” I reply.

“How long is the book you’re writing?”

“It was four hundred pages.” I say.

“Four hundred pages!” he says. “Wow!”

“But now it’s just two hundred,” I add.

“How long have you been writing it?” he asks.

It’s been in a box under my desk for almost a year.

This makes it sound as if I haven’t been working on this novel since last August, which is not entirely true.

* * *

I think about the book all the time, as if it were some best friend I keep in my prayers while it convalesces from a serious illness. In this time, I have imagined a solution to a major structural issue. I won’t know if it’s the elegant solution I want until I unbox the typescript and bend to the story, and that’s just not on the current schedule right now, because I’m currently obsessed with a piece of non-fiction that I’m hoping to shape into a book.

This new project is about being outdoors and civil discourse and belonging to the land – but I don’t quite know the story yet, so I’m writing around it. I’ve not just been thinking about these ideas for the past year, I’ve also been learning to fish, to shoot, and to read the landscape. And writing about it. As part of my research, I will be hiking the Long Trail, the oldest long-distance footpath in the country, at the end of the summer.

The Long Trail follows the spine of the Green Mountains from Massachusetts to Canada. Two-hundred and seventy-two miles in twenty-five days. Plenty of time to think about a story. Meanwhile, I hope to be able to send preliminary chapters to my agent before I leave.

* * *

“My book is just ten pages, and it’s still not done!” Dad says. “I keep starting over!”

“That’s sometimes the way it is,” I say.

Dad at 90

Dad’s referring to the eighth or ninth installment of a collection he started over twenty years ago titled, Reflections of an Old Man. He’s now ninety-one.

The books include a family history, complete with photocopies of photographs of relatives who never came to America; important documents, like my father’s army induction, honorable discharge, and all the citations he received for his infantry service in World War II.

He also wrote A Love Story, which includes transcriptions of all his letters to his then sweetheart, my mother, whom he addressed as “Dear Blondie.” Her letters to him were lost when he was wounded. They wed after the war and were married for sixty-six years before my mom died.

The more recent installments of Reflections of an Old Man are more philosophical. The one that’s giving him trouble now is about religion.

“Writing is hard,” Dad says.

I agree, pleased by his validation.

“So how long does it take you to write a book?” he asks again.

“Each book takes a lifetime,” I tell him, “No matter how quickly you write down the words.”

Tell me, what are you working on? And for how long?

Deborah Lee LuskinDeborah Lee Luskin is the award-winning author of Into the Wilderness, a love story, set in Vermont during the Goldwater – Johnson presidential campaign in 1964. She blogs Wednesdays at

48 thoughts on “How Long Does It Take To Write A Book?

  1. This post made me smile ☺ What a full and interesting life your dad has lived! I bet he can tell a story or two!
    I’m working on a sci-fi novel, and have been seriously for about six months now. Looking forward to seeing where it takes me!
    Best of luck with your long hike! Here’s hoping you work out your next steps for your novel as you go ☺

    • Thanks for your kind thoughts and wishes, and best of luck to you on your journey into your imagination!

  2. I’m working on a book about art and culture. I’ve been working on it about 5 years, and have three very different incomplete versions of it. But I am determined to finish it in 2016.

    • Three drafts represents a lot of thinking and work. Good for you – and good luck with eventually coming up with a draft you can call a book. Thanks for reading and responding to the post.

  3. This post, in particular, resonated with me. So true, and beautifully expressed. I’m working on a memoir about the year I lost my dad. I started writing it for real in 2013, although it had been percolating for a few years. I’ve stopped and started, and stopped and started again, and am working on it consistently now.

  4. I have several first draft novels in the drawer, so to speak. It doesn’t take long to write the first draft-you’re cruising along on a creative high, getting it all down. But it’s the revision that takes a long time. And that’s why they’re in the drawer. It’s tough to face all that hard work, but that’s what real writers do: hard work. So this summer I’ll take one of them out and begin the long, hard process of revision. How long? As long as it takes.

    P.S.-Your dad sounds wonderful!

    • Good luck with your revision. Personally, I like revising; it’s invention I find so difficult: so many possibilities! This just goes to show that we each work differently – and one of the big lessons in writing is learn to appreciate and respect one’s own process. Best of luck with your revision!

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  6. I LOVE this, Deborah. So much truth here, and so much … “ease” is the best word I can come up with. I’m re-reading my beloved copy of If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland and remembering that one of the reasons I love her philosophy so much is her emphasis on giving creativity TIME. So important in terms of how we approach and engage with any creative project. 🙂

    • Thanks, Jamie. This idea of time reminds me of Virginia Woolf’s take on the need for time to daydream in apparent idleness: “It is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes makes its way to the surface.” But giving ourselves time to develop the ideas isn’t really idleness at all; it’s just not the productivity that’s universally recognized in our profit-driven world. When we can detach from the riches of things, though, we can begin to delve into the richness of our imaginations. And there’s no time-motion study for that, except maintaining the practice of writing.
      It’s such a pleasure to share this blog space with you! – Deborah.

  7. I really enjoyed your post, it sums things up very well.
    I was only bitten by the writing bug a couple of years ago, although have had a lifelong desire to become an author.
    I am working on several projects at the same time, which really becomes frustrating! I have a childrens’ book ready to self publish but am currently deeply involved in a novel which came out of nowhere- I keep writing because I’m fascinated to know where it’s going!
    I write daily but would write most of every day, but of course I have other commitments that need to be kept, I also write my blog, although not as regularly as I’d like. I have promised myself to become more organised, but hey ho, I’ve said that many times before.
    Thank you for your regular inspirations.

    • Yes, yes, yes! It’s wonderful to allow oneself to discover a story while writing it. That’s when the imagination really takes over!
      Thanks for your kind words – and (IMHO) being organized is overrated.

  8. I’m only beginning…a newbie in the sands of writing (for anyone to read that is). Oh to have the time to devote solely into writing. This may take a while (unless I win the lottery!).

    Thank you for sharing, I leave inspired!

    • I’m beginning to believe that a regular practice of a few minutes a day is more productive than a lot of hours all at once. . .Thank you for letting me know this was an inspiring piece!

  9. I’m working on a travel narrative about the area of Upper Mustang in Nepal, a place many people have never even heard of. Fortunately I have a deadline to finish at the end of this year (first draft anyway) or it could go on indefinitely. I’ve only ever written articles before but if a book is the same but longer, I don’t think you ever feel finished. You just have to stop at some point! Deborah you sound like you need to check out The Idler ( They promote idleness as a path to greater creativity rather than everything being measured according to our “profit-driven world”.

  10. It is said that someone asked Abraham Lincoln, who was tall, how long a man’s legs should be. He replied: “Long enough to reach the ground.” Writing a book takes as long as it takes. No longer; no shorter.

  11. Thank you for post. Your dad sounds wonderful. I certainly do wish him well. The writing is often the greatest joy not the coming to the end of the story. Beyond the Ashes was an embryo story for more than 20 years for me. I always knew I had a story…..all the people… fiction were real. Second story took about 2 years – the inspiration was POWERFUL and the characters real but this time the historical accuracy – frightened me. Now the sequel How long? as someone wrote above…..forever……age limits my options but if I keep working a sentence an idea a chapter at a time perhaps……..If I can finish within the next couple of years I would be thrilled. Unfortunately I have both the encouragement and the pressure of the local Mayor hoping I can finish for the 150th anniversary of the discovery of gold in our town next year. No pressure! one day at a time…one word, one sentence at a time. Thoughts for each one of you…Give it your best shot!!

  12. Useful, encouraging, beautifully expressed and a pleasure to read about your research mode and your father’s life and creativity. Thank you!

  13. How long is piece of string? The fact that I am so indecisive and writing a story gives you so much choices, it takes me a long time to decide on : theme, character, narrative voice & story structure. Thank you for your insightful post.

    • “Author” is at the root of “authority”: you get to decide (and you can always make changes during revision). Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. Best of luck with your words.

  14. Great post. My first book took a year, give or take. But this second one- geez oh man- I don’t know if I’ll ever finish it! I think perhaps shelving it, like you’ve done here is great to gain perspective and solidify the storyline. But I have yet to publish anything (except for my blog). Querying is a whole other line of work, that isn’t as fun as fiction writing. 😉

    • Sometimes allowing a book to lie fallow for a while is helpful. But the marketing end of the business? Bah! Good luck with it, and don’t let it get you down or stop you from writing. Good luck!

  15. The current iteration of my book is a young adult, fantasy/sci-fi cross love story & it’s been trying to grow for seven years, give or take. It’s around 140,000 at this point, maybe 3/4 finished, & I’ve written myself into a corner :P. So now I’m trying to figure out how to restructure it so the block is gone & the rest of the story can finally get out. Considering it was a totally different storyline when I started 32 years ago & then it went into hibernation for about 24 years due to life getting in the way, I guess I can’t complain too much. Your dad, who sounds like a real gem, is totally right. Writing is hard 🙂

  16. What a journey! And how wonderful that you’ve never let go of the idea or the impulse, and you’re allowing the book to tell you what to do. Writing is hard; it’s also an act of discovery. Thanks for your kind words – and good luck with yours.

  17. Reblogged this on Notes from An Alien and commented:
    Today’s re-blog is a delightful peek into the “lifestyle” of those who write…

    I think I’ll always maintain that writing is the weirdest thing in the world…

    By the way, the word history of weird is:

    “Old English wyrd ‘destiny’, of Germanic origin . The adjective ( late Middle English ) originally meant ‘having the power to control destiny’, and was used especially in the Weird Sisters , originally referring to the Fates , later the witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth ; the latter use gave rise to the sense ‘unearthly’ ( early 19th century ).”

  18. “Each book takes a lifetime.”

    I love this. I just found your website. I have written two novels, both of which are shelved due to my perfectionist tendencies. I have written parts of three others. I write for a newspaper and have published some short stories. I am airly unsuccessful ad far as writers go!

    But yes. Each book takes a lifetime. I feel as if I have lived a hundred lifetimes through my stories. At some point, I hope one of my beloved stories finds its way to someone’s eyes who loves it as much as I have. In the meantime, I keep writing down my daydreams. 😊

  19. Pingback: Personal Becomes Universal Through Research | Live to Write – Write to Live

  20. I love this. The adjective ( late Middle English ) originally meant ‘having the power to control destiny’, and was used especially in the Weird Sisters , originally referring to the Fates , later the witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth ; the latter use gave rise to the sense ‘unearthly’ ( early 19th century ).

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