June 11 – 17: “How long does it take you to finish the first draft?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5Stephen King has said a novel’s draft should be done in three months. this week ITW Members Paul Levine, Ammar Habib, Paul Sinor, Katee Robert, Lisa Von Biela, David Simms, E.M. Powell and T.J. O’Connor discuss how long it takes them to finish the first draft? Scroll down to the “comments” section to follow along!

 

Ammar Habib is a bestselling and award winning author who was born in Lake Jackson, Texas in 1993. Ammar enjoys crafting stories that are not only entertaining, but will also stay with the reader for a long time. Ammar presently resides in his hometown with his family, all of whom are his biggest fans.

 

Lisa Von Biela began writing dark fiction just after the turn of the century. Her very first short story appeared in Greg F. Gifune’s small press ‘zine The Edge in 2002. After working in Information Technology for 25 years, Lisa dropped out of everything–including writing–to attend the University of Minnesota Law School. She graduated magna cum laude in 2009, and now practices law and writes in the Seattle area. She’s made up for lost writing time since law school and is now the author of the thriller novels THE GENESIS CODE, THE JANUS LEGACY, BLOCKBUSTER, BROKEN CHAIN, DOWN THE BRINK, and INCIDENTAL FINDINGS, as well as the horror novellas ASH AND BONE, SKINSHIFT, and MOON OVER RUIN. She is currently hard at work completing a cheery new novel about a mega-drought and a young family’s disastrous attempted escape through the Nevada desert.

 

David Simms lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia with his wife, son, and animals. He works as a teacher, counselor, music therapist, ghost tour guide, book reviewer, and founding guitarist in the Killer Thriller Band/Slushpile band. Fear The Reaper is his second novel.

 

 

The author of 21 novels, Paul Levine won the John D. MacDonald Fiction Award and was nominated for the Edgar, Macavity, International Thriller, Shamus, and James Thurber prizes.  He wrote 20 episodes of the CBS military drama JAG and co-created the Supreme Court drama First Monday. “To Speak for the Dead,” a Jake Lassiter legal thriller, was his debut novel. His most recent novel is the newly released “Bum Deal.”

 

Paul Sinor is a published novelist and a produced screenwriter. He has two mystery series in print. One features a PI who works out of a pool room in Atlanta, GA in the early 1950s and another series set in the Seattle, WA area. SENTIMENTAL JOURNEY is the second book in the Max Maxwell Seattle series. One book in both series have been nominated for the Georgia Author of the Year Award.

 

New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author Katee Robert learned to tell her stories at her grandpa’s knee. Her 2015 title, The Marriage Contract, was a RITA finalist, and RT Book Reviews named it “a compulsively readable book with just the right amount of suspense and tension.” When not writing sexy contemporary and romantic suspense, she spends her time playing imaginary games with her children, driving her husband batty with what-if questions, and planning for the inevitable zombie apocalypse.

 

E.M. Powell’s historical thriller Fifth Knight novels have been #1 Amazon and Bild bestsellers. Her new Stanton & Barling medieval murder mystery series starts with THE KING’S JUSTICE, which is due for release in 2018. She is a contributing editor to International Thriller Writers The Big Thrill magazine, blogs for English Historical Fiction Authors and is the social media manager for the Historical Novel Society. Born and raised in the Republic of Ireland into the family of Michael Collins (the legendary revolutionary and founder of the Irish Free State), she now lives in northwest England with her husband, daughter and a Facebook-friendly dog.

 

T.J. O’Connor is an international security consultant specializing in anti-terrorism and threat analysis. As a former military federal agent and anti-terrorism operative, T.J. has spent over 35 years in counterintelligence, national defense, and homeland security. T.J. has lived and worked around the world—life experiences that drive his novels—where he conducted terrorism investigations, protected some of American’s top leaders, and operated defensive programs to thwart terror attacks on America’s resources and its people. Today, T.J. lives outside Washington D.C. and provides security and anti-terrorism consulting to the private sector and a Washington-based think tank for vital homeland security programs. T.J. uses his life experience and real-world adventures to deliver his stories and raise the question—when will this happen? THE CONSULTANT is T.J.’s debut thriller with previous works of paranormal mysteries including: Dying to Know, Dying for the Past, Dying to Tell, and New Sins for Old Scores.

 

 

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26 Comments
  1. Stephen King isn’t human. He wrote his early novels while nearly starving in a trailer with kids and an 8K teacher salary. If that’s not motivation to finish a book, I don’t what is.
    Three months for a first draft is optimal – if time permits. What’s optimal? Again, what’s your job? Jobs? Kid situation? Family support? It took me 8 months for a crummy first draft for FEAR THE REAPER. However, it took much longer for the research and outlining (if you are one of those people – I am). Once the muse bites, it can be a rollercoaster ride that can be exhilarating that leaves bumps, bruises, and smiles. I think all of it depends on how well you know the characters. When I was writing the new novel, DON’T BLEED ON ME, now in edits, I tried the NanoWrimo approach – once I was ready. Stuff came out of my fingers I never imagined before and I wound up with the most natural novel I’d ever attempted.I also fell asleep at the computer at least five times, waking up to lines I couldn’t remember writing. It also took so many left turns because I LET it. And the result was something I’m proud of. Was it a GOOD first draft? Definitely not but the story worked.
    We’ll see how long the edits take.
    For the current novel, I’m allowing the story to happen without a timetable but want it completed by summer’s end.
    To me, the story, the research, and the discipline dictate the timeline of that first draft. There’s never a one size fits all method for doing so. To say there is assumes all of us weird writers fit in neat little boxes.
    Sanitoriums have neat little boxes.

  2. So pleased to read your comment, David! Three months had me thinking I must be either doping something wrong or am hopelessly slow. I’m a lot closer to eight or nine months for a first draft. It can easily take a year. But I write historical thrillers and so much of that time is taken up with research. Research is a big commitment for any writer, but it’s an especially hefty one for historical fiction. For me, it involves two waves.
    First, the major, large scale stuff. My latest, THE KING’S JUSTICE, is based around the travelling law courts of Henry II. That meant I had to get my head round 12th Century English Law, as well as all the political issues of the time. I had to do that before I could get a single word on the page. I have met historical writers who say, ‘Oh, I just write it and do the research after.’ That approach makes me break out in hives. (Yes, you’ve guessed it: I’m a plotter.) I have to do the research first. Otherwise I run the risk of writing my novel, researching…and then finding something that makes the whole premise fall over. Cue laptop straight out of the window.
    The second research wave is the detail, detail which appears on pretty much every page—things like food, drink, clothing, houses, transport etc. Some of that can be left until draft two. But I have found that if I do a lot of it beforehand rather than as I go, it can often give me a great idea for a plot twist/solution or motivation for a character.
    There is also another factor which interferes with my writing speed, and one which I doubt impacts on Stephen King. I will say only this: essential household appliances and their ability to suddenly stop working.

  3. I think Mr. King has the benefit of far more experience and time than I do. I’m not a fulltime author, but I do write virtually every day (at least I try). My first draft really depends on the book. My earlier paranormal mysteries took about four months for draft one, then some tough editing for a month to two before I sent it out to my beta readers and editor. My first paranormal, Dying to Know, was never meant for publication and I sat down and banged it out in about three months. But truly, that was a first and only. My recent thriller, The Consultant, was unique. I’d written draft one about five or six years ago and it sat on the shelf without edit waiting on my contract for the mysteries to be fulfilled. Then, I dusted it off and completely rewrote it. Probably 70% was new. I did this twice over the next year until it landed at Oceanview Publishing. I find the first draft of The Consultant’s first sequel also different. I drafted it in about five months (I had an incredible heavy workload at the same time), did a month or so editing, and off it went. Unfortunately, it needed a lot more work than I knew and I’m back at it editing hard. Cutting 20,000 words is tough! But it’s coming along well. So I think if I could write full time, and accounting for the learning curve as I go, perhaps a three month first draft will be doable … in a few years!

  4. Good morning, all!

    When I first saw this topic, I thought, yeah, no way do I meet Mr. King’s standard. Not with working full-time with a longish commute, etc., etc. But I’m somewhat nuts about recordkeeping and I just looked through my “progress” tabs in OneNote for several of my novels. And lo and behold, my first drafts (with one exception) have been in the 2-4 month range (the actual writing). BUT…that is after I complete the research and outlining. Depending on the book, that stage can take a few weeks to a couple of months all by itself.

    For my novel-length works, I write technothrillers (horror/supernatural for my novellas). So there is some research to be done, and usually the plot has to be carefully constructed so the timelines make sense overall (can’t have an epidemic develop in a day, or a disease condition proceed along an inconsistent or completely outlandish timeline). So the outlining and working out of the timeline can be the hardest part of the “first draft” process. So when I say 2-4 months, it really is sitting down with an already carefully planned plot/characters/timeline/etc. and having at it.

    The exception I mention is my current WIP. That first draft took more like 5 months. Ironically, it started out as the fastest of any of my novels to date. That first draft was flying because the underlying plot didn’t have the intricate complexities/interrelationships as my other more techno/medical novels. But other things intervened to slow that first draft–it was during that time when my publisher was shutting down and reverting rights to all my prior works. I found a new publisher, but a significant amount of time and attention was needed to deal with re-releasing my prior works, etc. So that first draft had a lot more fits and starts than normal! But it’s back on track now, nearly done.

  5. Oh, Stephen King, stop making the rest of us look bad!

    I can’t write a first draft in three months. But just what is a first draft? I write “rolling drafts,” editing many times as I go. With SOLOMON vs. LORD, the first of a series, I re-wrote the first two chapters perhaps 25 times before I reached the end of the novel. For me, it’s important to get off to a fast start, to establish the characters clearly and quickly, and to set up the plot in the first 20 pages. I never get it right the first time…or second or third time. I polish and hone and edit until I’m sick of my own prose but confident that the story moves lickety-split and every twist and turn makes sense.

    With my “rolling draft” method, it took me about five months to complete
    a “first draft” of BUM DEAL, which launches tomorrow. Then a solid ten weeks of rewriting, seven days a week. At that point, I can see the finish line, and I sprint like Justified down the stretch.

    Wasn’t it Hemingway who said that “the only kind of writing is rewriting?” So, what difference does it make how long that first draft takes? Or the finished product, for that matter. Just make sure it’s your best possible book!

  6. Hello everyone!

    I’ve loved seeing all the different perspectives so far. So much to learn here! For me, I can relate with what Lisa is saying. Once I get into the actual writing, I can usually get a first draft knocked out in a solid 2.5-3.5 months. However, that time does not include outlining/pre-writing, and it DEFINITELY does not include editing. I will mention that my situation is that I am single and have no kids, so that likely gives me more time to write than most writers.

    After the first draft, my editing usually takes much longer as I go through numerous draft revisions before sending the manuscript off to my agent. After that, she takes as long as she needs to find a home for the work. So although the first draft might only take 3 months, the entire writing process is definitely much longer.

    I think the biggest takeaway for new writers is to remember that writing a book is a marathon and not a sprint. So writers shouldn’t be concerned with how slow or fast they write, and they shouldn’t compare their writing process to others. Instead, everyone should be comfortable in their shoes and with the way they write!

  7. Most of my books have been drafted in 6-10 weeks, depending on genre and length. I’m a sprinter, so after a degree of plotting, I start writing and don’t stop to edit until the draft is done. If issues arise or there’s extra research to be done, I just make a note and come back for it after the draft is finished.

    Stephen King tends to write every day, which isn’t something I usually do. My work-life balance is questionable at best, so I try really hard to take weekends off unless I’m under deadline. The math is a little hit and miss, but it translates to roughly 2-3k words written each day.

  8. Holy crap on a peanut butter sandwich … 6-10 weeks, Katee? I think I’m with Paul on this one, what the heck is truly a first draft? I write first 100 pages, and then begin editing and editing until the opening seems right. Then charge on. But each book is different. I’m a rookie, after all, so I’m going to absorb all this like a sponge. But 6-10 weeks? Wow!

    1. I think everyone’s process is different! My draft isn’t actually readable until probably 12-14 weeks when all is said and done, sometimes longer, because my first draft is just the story in its rawest form. I’ve started plotting more, so it requires less rewrites, but there are significant edits required before anyone else lays eyes on it.

  9. Let’s agree to take the word “should” out of the equation on how long to write a first draft.

    This so individual. Sure, in ON WRITING, Stephen King says he writes 180,000 words in three months. The man is a genius, and I am convinced that his brain is hard-wired differently. Arthur Conan Doyle wrote an astounding 3,000 words a day…without Spell Check or Copy and Paste. But it took Tom Wolfe eleven years (at 135 words a day) to finish A MAN IN FULL and Anthony Doerr about the same length of time to write ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE. Those are two of my favorite novels of all time. (So is Stephen King’s MISERY.

    I was 42 years old when my first novel, TO SPEAK FOR THE DEAD, was published. At my first book signing, someone asked how long it took me to write the book. “Forty-two years,” I replied.

  10. Paul, you make some great points here! Everyone has their own pace. Some people will be like Stephen King and will be churning out works like nobody’s business. Others will be more like Tome Wolfe. There’s definitely no right or wrong amount of time that an author should take on their first draft. There are so many factors that play into it (the author’s schedule, their writing style, etc) that it’s impossible for their to be a cookie-cutter method to writing the first draft.

  11. PAUL SINOR:
    When I start a new novel, I have an iron-clad set of rules which I follow…. for about an hour or two. I say I am going to write a certain amount of words per day, write every day, do it in the same place at the same time and I’m not going to stop until I get that day’s goal completed. Yeah, right.
    Realistically, I think it is entirely possible to write a novel in ninety days, give or take a few days. My novels usually run from 75-90,000 words and I try to write a thousand words each time I sit down to write. This does not mean once a day from 7-9pm or 5-6 am or lunch time. It’s when I can sit down and reasonably expect to be able to accomplish my mission. When I am not writing, I’m usually thinking or planning or plotting or wondering where I’m going or how I’m going to get there.
    I have an advantage over many other writers who cannot make a living doing what we all enjoy and have a real job. I am a retire US Army officer, so I am what I call Self-Unemployed but that doesn’t mean I don’t have anything to do. I have a wife, two daughters, two grandchildren, a house, a 3-car garage that constantly fills itself up with “stuff” I don’t need and can’t seem to get rid of and a 1957 Moris Minor convertible I’ve been working on for the last 20 years. Some days I long for the time when I got a set of orders that sent me away for a few months or a year, so I could get some rest.
    My acid test is that the first thing I write on the computer when I start a new novel is the date. I call it my Guilty Goal. That’s the one thousand words a day I want to write. When I don’t make my goal for the day, I want to feel guilty, but that doesn’t happen that often, either. If I can do my thousand words a day, I’ll have a novel in ninety days. Hasn’t happened yet but it’s a start. I began the novel I’m working on now on 29 March and today, 11 June I have 66,000 words. I’m behind but I’m not panicking. I now know where I’m going and have a good handle on how to get there. As you can guess, I don’t outline in advance. I also write screenplays and I have a manager in Los Angeles who says I write from a stream of unconsciousness. He may very well be right, but it works for me.
    If ninety days is your goal, go for it but don’t beat yourself up if you don’t make it. It will be better if you take longer to do it right than to take the next six months straightening out the mess you made which will keep you from starting another novel.
    Now, if you’ll excuse me I need to go clean out some boxes in my garage that appeared over the weekend.

    1. Totally off topic Paul but your Morris Minor reminded me of a green MM ute with a divided windscreen we had when I was growing up. I drove it and my best friend to high school at a stately speed in the late 1960’s. My cousin had a passion for MM’s and I remember he got one going when the gearbox collapsed. He had two gears on the column and the other two on the floor. Don’t ask me how!

  12. Loving the “realistic” comments here, so thanks, E.M! I never thought I’d write anything “historical” but after ditching New Jersey and moving to VA, I found myself face to face (almost literally) with a piece of history that nobody ever published a novel about (well, I couldn’t find one in 6 months time).
    So… research, research, details, integrating those facts about what occurred in the 1930s, geez!
    How in the world does anyone write that quick? Maybe for a book with not much that’s “new” to the author, but wow. 6-10 weeks would kill me and cause my family to institutionalize me! (that wouldn’t be so bad, the second part!).
    I’m worried about the details and while the characters are usually alive for me, the scenes and language, etc etc take time.
    Then adjusting to life after a job, or two, or more.
    Stephen King is not human – I’ll keep saying it.
    I know his son, author Joe Hill (amazing writer) and HE doesn’t come close to his dad’s output.
    Would love to hear more about the historical aspects and how quickly they’re integrated.

  13. RE: Historical details.
    David, My Johnny Morocco series (WRATH OF THE DIXIE MAFIA, FAIR GAME, PICTURE THIS) is set in Atlanta, GA in the early 1950’s. The protagonist is a PI who works out of a pool room. I am of the age where as a teenager I hung out in a lot of pool rooms when I should have been in school. I draw a lot of my characters from the ones I knew in those places. I found a city may of Atlanta from 1953, so my descriptions of streets and landmarks are correct. I use the name of a real pool room that was in Atlanta at the time and I received a letter from a man who used to shoot pool there and he said I did a good job. When you are doing historical research, I think you’ll find much of what you think has changed is still the same. I also have a Sears Roebuck catalog from that period, so I know how to describe the fashions etc.
    Your readers will forgive you if you make little mistakes, but if you get the main story line right, you are ahead of the game. My PI bets on baseball games and I know who played and who won. He bet on the 1953 Kentucky Derby…and lost but I know who won and who was riding the winner.
    Take a few minutes or hours if necessary when you are at a point when you need some historical information and search for it. You’ll be surprised what you find that you weren’t looking for that you can use later on. Do you know how much a gallon of gas cost in 1953? Look it up. I already know.

  14. Reading all these comments tells me a lot. First, I’m not alone in wondering how Mr. King does it. Second, that process is as individual as he stories. I do tend to follow the “living first draft” process, though. My first draft doesn’t really end until I think it’s ready for a look by one of my readers in the beta group. Just a quick read to see if plot flows ok or an major flaws. I’m terrible at editing my own work. If follows that if I knew it was wrong when I wrote it, I wouldn’t have written it. So first draft gets the basic plot and characters down, but by the time I truly massage it and do a little more research where needed, it begins to morph on its own. My world is in anti-terrorism and security and my new thriller, The Consultant and its sequel (currently in editing) morphed a great deal version to version with changing world events and such. As I wrote and reread a finished cut of it, I found areas that I like more than others and began adjusting the plot and characters accordingly. That’s dangerous for me sometimes, in that I could go around in circles forever if I didn’t stop and say, “Draft Complete” and get fresher eyes on it. I’m sure we all have some form of demon chasing us. Mine is “oh, I could do this or that …”

  15. Re: historical details. Paul, your comment ‘Your readers will forgive you if you make little mistakes’ made me smile! I wish that were the case but some historical fiction readers get really, really annoyed at the tiniest slip and will leave a review to reflect that. That can be really frustrating when you know you have a least three reputable sources to back you up. But, hey, it is what it is.
    As for time saving devices, I have to say that my pace has really picked up since I switched to Scrivener. I love the way that it somehow (magically!) seems to really help me to keep the whole novel in my head, so the warm-up time in any writing session is a lot less. When I have to back to Word for edits, it feels like a plough horse after a racehorse.

  16. Regarding “historical details” and mistakes. Try making a mistake with a gun, and you’ll be bombarded (har) with corrections. I put a safety on a Glock 9 mm once (it doesn’t have one…just a trigger guard), and boy did I hear about it. I’d been thinking about a Beretta, which I own, but I typed “Glock” and they cleaned my clock.

  17. The mistake about mistakes:
    Several people have commented on my comment about making small mistakes and being forgiven for them. I understand what you mean because it makes me crazy to find mistakes in books and movies, and unfortunately, I have made a few myself. By small mistakes, I mean getting a line of dialog wrong when your character says something and you think it means one thing and it really means another. Using the wrong word, or an editing error that no one caught. In a book by one of my favorite and best-selling mystery authors, he has a character who is a Soldier on one page. Three pages later he is a Marine and later on he’s back to being a Soldier. His fault? The editor? Did I hold it against him and never buy his books again? Not hardly.
    I spent five years as the Army Liaison to the TV and Film Industry in Los Angeles where I worked on scripts and was the on-set technical advisor for some of the biggest films in the last ten years. There were times when I had to bite the bullet (no pun) and let a mistake be filmed. And I heard about it later. I do the best I can to get it right in my novels and so far I’m doing pretty good. I’d like to say I never stake minakes, but I probably do and don’t even know it.
    This was supposed to be about writing a draft in 90 days and if you do your research before-hand, I still think it’s possible to do and do right.

  18. So, is anyone here going to Thrillerfest next month?

    I learned a lot about writing SLOWER from the biggies there but never about getting there FAST. Some amazed me in how they edit along the way, creating a “finished” product (Lee Child). Others were painstakingly slow and deliberate, still worrying about each line, only to go back and work on a second, third, fourth draft.

    Wondering how to find that sweet spot in the middle. A Nano mindset does work for me, but only once I know the characters well enough. They’ll still do their own thing and screw up my plans, but it’s better than stopping to figure out what one would do in a situation.

    Thoughts?

    1. I’ll be at Thrillerfest. Lucky to get on a panel, too. I love Manhattan and I go for business 5-6 times a year. I too have learned a lot with each book, and pick up a lot from fellow authors at these events. As to the sweet spot, I find that I edit and edit the first 100 page trying to get the opening path set. Then I work to the end, doing the “100-page” review each time until then end. I think that’s why first drafts, as several have said above, is a moving target. For me, each book I write tends to track differently. My thrillers do take longer and more editing, though. I’m looking for new tips here!

  19. Ah, I did the “rolling draft” thing once–with my first novel. I remember that process well. Wow, did I polish each chapter as I went–over and over and over. It had its pros and cons–at least for me and the type of books I write. It enabled me to focus hard on each chapter as I went…but it also took something like 2.5 years to complete the novel.

    It was several years before I tried writing another novel (law school, relocation, etc. took up a wee bit of my time in those years). When I did, I opted for the “draft at a time” method. I like it better because I get a feeling of completion–even of just a stage/draft. I also like it because I can get a feel for whether all the parts fit together much sooner. Typically my second draft is all about that–parts fitting, continuity, gaps in plot, etc.

    My first draft is not skeletal, by any stretch, but it is fairly lean. Means fewer words to wrangle to make the fixes typical of my second drafts. See, because of my background (IT, business, law), my writing tends to be concise…often too concise for fiction. So my drafts get longer as I go, as I add detail and “let them breathe.” I’ve never found myself over the word budget with a need to whack a bunch…usually the opposite!

  20. Hearing those other comments about details are great- thanks!
    As for writing slower/obsessing about every line, editing as you go? Yes, that’s me, Dave and Lisa! I also write short, Lisa: I always have to expand my word count as I rush the pace of scenes and need to give them more depth.
    One thing that does make a huge difference for me is that ‘set-aside’ time: where you’ve written the MS and then don’t look at it for a while. When you do, you really come to it with a fresh pair of eyes. The most interesting parts are those which I have NO RECOLLECTION OF WHATSOEVER. None!
    I know we’re talking first draft in this discussion and set-aside is moving into editing time. But whatever I send to my editor is considered first draft. And there is no way I write a novel and press send without going back over it as much as I possibly can.

  21. An open question to all . . . Sort of toward first draft production. Have you used Scrivener? I’m considering it as a tool, but would like some input. On the surface, it appears a great way to work the first draft at least. Thoughts?

    1. T.J, I switched to Scrivener for my current release, THE KING’S JUSTICE. I’d written five previous novels in Word and thought I’d never get used to anything else. It took me a while to get the hang of Scrivener. But once I did, it is honestly the best, best decision I’ve ever taken. Reasons? I mentioned them in a comment above/tend to shout them from the rooftops all the time!’As for time saving devices, I have to say that my pace has really picked up since I switched to Scrivener. I love the way that it somehow (magically!) seems to really help me to keep the whole novel in my head, so the warm-up time in any writing session is a lot less. When I have to back to Word for edits, it feels like a plough horse after a racehorse.’ I can’t recommend it highly enough!

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