Writing a novel is a Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal. A bucket-list item. And like so many other bucket-list items, you have to find a way to make it happen.
Next, personalize the commitment. Can you wake up earlier and write for half an hour, six mornings per week? Or are you willing to give up an hour of Netflix every weeknight? In the first scenario, you’ve just opened up three hours of novel-writing per week; in the second, five hours. Now multiply that by your average writing speed (e.g. 500 words per hour) to come up with an estimated weekly output. Five hours times 500 words per hour = 2,500 words each week.
Lastly, do some research about the average word counts in your genre. I write adult literary fiction, where debuts clock between 70,000 and 100,000 words. Rom-coms can be shorter; fantasy and SciFi might be longer. Give yourself a target based on your genre.
Let’s say your target is 80,000 words. Now divide your target by your average weekly output to give an estimated time frame to write your novel. In this example, 80,000 words divided by 2,500 words per week equals 32 weeks. That’s only seven months! You can go from zero words to a completed first draft in seven months, while still balancing your job, your family needs, and other obligations.
The model is flexible: dial it up or down depending on the amount of time you can realistically commit. Maybe you can only write on weekends, one hour every Saturday and Sunday. Fine. Two hours per week at 500 words per hour will net you 1,000 words per week, so 80 weeks to finish your first draft. That’s still only a year and a half. For those of us who spent sixteen years saying we didn’t have time, we could have written ten and a half first drafts during that same period.
What about the dreaded “writer’s block?” Committing to writing time won’t amount to anything if you can’t find any words to put down. If you’re stuck, consider setting aside chunks of time to allow you to generate ideas. This can be part of the time you’ve set aside for your writing, or it could be in addition to your writing commitment.
You might find a writing class helpful (Catapult offers many fine options), or a walk outside, or a visit to someplace new, pen and notebook in hand. Now return to the blank page during your chosen time. Allow yourself to write what Anne Lamott calls a “shitty first draft.” Eventually, with time set aside, new ideas in mind and nothing to do but write, your words are bound to emerge.
So do the math. By calculating your average writing speed, committing to time blocks for writing (even small or infrequent ones), and deciding on your target novel length, you can deduce how long it will take you to write a novel. You may find, as I did, that the goal isn’t as hairy as you’d thought, and that the math you left behind in high school or college might actually help you on your way to becoming a novelist.
After 15 years of startups, Jill returned to her first love, writing. She is currently querying a novel and raising three kids from Richmond, Virginia. Her fiction has been published in Atlas & Alice, New Flash Fiction Review, The Normal School, and Twin Pies Literary, among others. Find her at jillwitty.com.