The first thing of any length that I ever wrote was a play in university. It was performed by drama students before an audience and one of my friends asked if I had written it the night before. The night before? Well no, it took longer than that.
Any writer will tell you the key to writing is rewriting and the hours, days, weeks, what have you, add up. But I’m amazed at how quickly some writers work.
There is a graphic that shows how long it took to write popular books. John Boyne claims to have written the novel The Boy in the Striped Pajamas – which was made into a film – in two and a half days! The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? Robert Louis Stevenson did that in only six days.
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens required six weeks, which to me still sounds like a sprint, while the same Mr. Dickens spent eight months writing Great Expectations. Mary Shelley worked for a year on Frankenstein and Harper Lee devoted two and a half years to To Kill a Mockingbird.
Then we have the marathons. Lord of the Flies by William Golding? Five years. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell? Ten years. Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger? Ten years again.
It took Victor Hugo twelve years to get Les Miserables the way he wanted and sixteen years for J. R. R. Tolkien to pen the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but that was three books.
Writing a novel is many things. It is a mission, a work of love, the greatest satisfaction, and the most dire form of punishment – sometimes all of the above.
When I wrote my first novel more than 400 pages poured out – like water – over nine months. Then it was more work under the watchful eye of a good editor to cut the manuscript. In half!
My favourite novel, The Source by James A. Michener, is almost 1,000 pages of historical epic and every time I read it I am immersed. Michener would spend three years on a book, and I think three years to write The Source is productive time well spent. But if we’re talking time and productivity, the master is Ernest Hemingway.
He wrote The Old Man and the Sea in eight weeks. It’s not a big book, but not a single word is wasted and every phrase paints an image. It garnered Hemingway the Pulitzer Prize and later, the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Indeed, a book like that should be mandatory reading for every iPhone-tablet-mobile-device-carrying young person and Millennial out there. But read it in print. There is this thing about stories and time and paper that no screen can deliver.