Why Does Writing a Book Take So Long?

sticky notes color-coded for organizing plot during revisions
Shard & Shield undergoing color-coded revisions. Spoilers probably available if your monitor is sufficiently awesome.

A friend joked about my copious free time. “I mean, what do you have to do, really? You’re self-employed, so you can totally slack off there. And you’re writing a book, and that can’t be hard. I mean, really, how long can that take?”

He was joking about all of it, of course, which is why he’s still breathing. But he put forth a question which many people do ask less ironically — how long can writing a book take, really? (Seriously, just look at fans complaining about George R. R. Martin or Patrick Rothfuss needing time.)

That’s the wrong question — as NaNoWriMo and the 8-Hour Book Challenge prove, writing a story may not take long at all. But writing a good story does.

(Don’t get excited, I’m not bashing NaNoWriMo! But even NaNoWriMo cautions that completing a first draft is not a finished book; there’s a lot of process not even touched yet. And yeah, Smoke and Fears is fun, but could it have been even better with more time? No question.)


Himeji castle
The daimyou might eventually live here, but not at the time of our story.
Himeji castle (Photo credit: Mr Wabu)

So I’ve actually heard this:

“Fantasy is a genre for writers who don’t want to or can’t do research.”

/gasping laughter/ I’m sorry, hold on just a second, let me catch my breath…. Right.

Kitsune-Mochi is a sequel and therefore required arguably less work, as the world was already established and researched (and based on real history). Still, I used hours of “writing” time in determining whether daikon and goldfish had made their respective ways from China to Japan in time to appear in my setting (they did) and whether goldfish would have their distinctive coloring yet (not so much). And, of course, I had many other points of research, such as the layout of a Heian-style house because the iconic Japanese strongholds hadn’t been built yet, only there’s no surviving examples of a Heian house, so it’s all bits and pieces from contemporary writings. And let’s not forget the single shining, terrifying moment in which onmyoudou‘s cosmology made sense to my modern, scientifically-trained mind.

Cover of "The Name of the Wind (Kingkille...
Cover via Amazon

And for Shard & Shield, I spent countless hours researching legitimate historic economies and cultural strata to make sure the invented world would be both believable and “real.” And since there are in fact two invented and distinct worlds in Shard & Shield, I had to do it twice. (Bestselling author Patrick Rothfuss, of The Name of the Wind fame, has said that only about 4% of what he knows of the world he built is actually visible in the books. But it’s the reason his books are immersive and credible.)

There are upsides to all this research, of course; it feeds my inner nerd, and I get to look like a total dork to my friends. Okay, maybe that latter bit isn’t a perk. But when my pastor said in class the third-century church rejected a 200,000-sesterces donation from a dubious source, and someone asked if that were a significant amount, I could pipe up that it was roughly equivalent to nearly $500,000 in today’s currency, because I had just been reading up on Roman slave prices the week before. Now, isn’t that useful? Isn’t it?


Writers whine about this all the time.

Even if I know the story I want to tell — and it isn’t always that simple — that doesn’t mean it’s easy to organize it. Or to write it. Or to pace and structure it. Or to find exactly the right verb to capture several senses at once and simultaneously convey a sense of movement with just so much, but not more, energy and emotion.

Suffice it to say, what might take a reader an hour to read does not take the writer an hour to write.


I spent years just writing Shard & Shield and its sequels, and then there are the revisions. One hardcore revision saw me cut over 50,000 words from a single manuscript. (That is nearly equivalent to some mainstream books, in cuttings alone.)

Yes, even after everything above, writing words is the easy part. Cutting words is the brutal part. Anyone can babble for a paragraph or more; trimming that ramble to one subtle sentence is the tricky bit that makes writers rip out their hair and reach for the dark chocolate.

And there will be yet more stages of revisions yet to come, even if everything goes as perfectly as possible.


Then we find trustworthy focus groups and see if everything above has worked so far.

“Beta readers” are a special breed! and are worth their weight in sushi and dark chocolate. (Not mixed together, though. That’s a bit much even for me.)

More Revision

Darned readers and their ridiculous expectations of having things make sense. Sheesh.

Oh, did I accidentally revise that bit of plot right out of existence? And now that whole scene isn’t explained? Seriously, people, can’t you just check the Deleted Scenes disc?

More revision and polishing, then.


And then, in the traditional publishing route, there is submission to an agent (time) and submission to an editor (more time) — probably with a trunkload of rejections along the way. (I have multiple stories out for consideration right now with a combined 21 months of waiting for response….) And then the agent has to sell it, and then even after a publisher buys it there will be about 12-24 months of production time before the book finally hits the shelves.

In the self-publishing route, there’s also design, layout, and all that other good stuff to be done, too. There are a plethora of other people’s blog posts on these processes, so I won’t go further here.

So while I know you read that latest novel in a handful of hours, please understand that your favorite author needs a while longer to make the next one. :)

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