It takes the time it takes

2014-09-18 10.48.37

I’m currently working through the first pass revision for Time and Tithe, the sequel to my debut novel, The Between. One of the questions people often ask me, whether they are writers or not, is how long it takes me to write a book.

My typical answer is ‘it depends.’ And then I ask some follow up questions to clarify what they really mean. Readers typically want to know the time between writing and the book hitting the bookshelves, which is a more complicated question and involves long, boring lectures about the publishing industry and the range of options available to writers today. “It depends” is generally a safer and simpler answer.

Usually the writers want to know how long it takes for my first drafts. I get this question a lot, especially when they find out I don’t do NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), in which writers all over the world work to complete a full novel (of at least 50,000 worlds – which is rarely a complete novel, but that’s another conversation) in 30 days.

NaNo is a boon to writers who struggle with their inner critics to such an extent that they can’t complete a first draft, or writers who love the challenge and the carnival atmosphere of the event.  It’s just too much of the wrong kind of pressure for me. And while I have a pretty fierce inner critic, she and I have come to terms and my way of coping isn’t to write a fast and furious draft.

I know plenty of amazing writers who do. And that’s great. For them.

I write slowly. Deliberately.  The quickest first draft I ever completed was in 4 1/2 months. That novel became Derelict. Time and Tithe took more than twice that.

My process is somewhat recursive – I do what all the ‘experts’ say never, ever to do: I edit as I write. What that means is my first draft is really more like a 1.5 or 2.0 draft. The first half of the book might even be a 3.0 draft by the time I get to the end. This is not better or worse than someone else’s process. It is just mine.

While the drafting of Time and Tithe was painfully slow and often frustrating, the revision is moving swiftly and joyfully. With a fairly clean draft, the revision process will take me about a month, at which point the manuscript will go to my editor. The full process between initial idea through first draft to completed novel? Anywhere between a year to a year and a half.

Which is about the time it takes for my speedy writer friend to complete her process. She drafts her mystery novels in a single month. Then her revision process takes about a year, with as many as 6 or more drafts along the way.

I marvel at her ability to take a ‘hot mess’ (her words) and shape it into a coherent story. She marvels at the way my revision process seems to coast along. Two different writers; two different processes. At the end of a year, we both have completed novels.

Whenever I try to push my daily word counts and just write (and I have tried – it’s nearly unavoidable when all your writing companions are singing the crazy praises of NaNo), I end up with word soup. Nothing makes sense and in trying to find the narrative line hiding inside the mess leaves me drowning. (Hmm. Drowning in soup. That’s a weird image!)

As a beginning writer, I spent a lot of time and energy looking for the ‘right’ way to write a book. I have a shelf of how-to books to prove it. What amuses me now, at 10 years and 10 novels into my writing life, is how each of them is the ‘right’ way. And that’s probably true – each method is likely the right way for a particular writer.

I do recommend playing with different ways of working until you find that ‘Goldilocks’ (hmm, how many different metaphors can I cram into one short blogpost?) place of just right. And what is just right for one project may change for another.

It takes the time it takes. Don’t let anyone sell you their magic formula. It’ll taste bad and probably cause your hair to fall out or something.

Happy writing!

LJ Cohen

LJ Cohen is the writing persona of Lisa Janice Cohen, poet, novelist, blogger, local food enthusiast, Doctor Who fan, reading omnivore, and relentless optimist. Lisa lives just outside of Boston with her family, two dogs (only one of which actually ever listens to her) and the occasional international student. In love with words since early childhood, Lisa filled dozens of notebooks with her scribbles long before there were such a thing as word processors.

Latest posts by LJ Cohen (see all)


  1. This is something that I had to come to terms with. I have so many books in my backlog that I want to edit and publish, but most have to undergo a full rewrite.

    Then life happens, and the deadlines get pushed back more. But at the end of the day, I want to put out a well-written, good read. So, I’ll let it take the time it takes : )

  2. I laughed out loud at the first draft 3.0 bit. Seriously, have you been spying on me? I have been working on one scene for 5 freakin’ days now! I thought I could move on today, but no. I made the stupid mistake of noticing yet another mistake that needed back-checking against the other books. And then OF COURSE it needed correcting.

    (snicker) Oh well. If I don’t correct it now, I won’t have the same momentum when I come back to any notes I jot down for later. For some reason the “note correction” method only works for me on the beta revisions.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *