It’s a question I get from almost everyone in my life who knows that I’m a writer. It’s the first thing people ask when I mention that I’m a writer. It also has an answer that is too complicated for small talk and is difficult for people, even other artists to understand.
To break it down, it can take anywhere from 3-6 months to write a first draft of a novel, accounting for the fact that I, like many unpublished writers, work a full time job and do not make any money from my writing. A first draft of a novel is not like a finished painting, it is crap. Utter crap. No first draft is ever readable. I take pride in the fact that I produce pretty decent first drafts, but even I consider my first drafts a mere skeleton of what the final product should look like. Factor in that I write fantasy and the fifty thousand word standard for contemporary novels skyrockets to a minimum of one hundred thousand words and sometimes that stretches even the 6 month mark a little further out.
Subsequent drafts can also take anywhere from 3-6 months, but I’ll be more precise and say that a second and third draft will only take me about two months each to produce. This is if I’m doing good with my writing schedule, not going out of town a lot and not working weird hours that affect my free time and sleeping time (which I frequently do). Also barring the fact that I often get new ideas and will take a week to write those fresh ideas down and get them out of my system, then get back to whatever I was already working on.
So, a minimum of a year to get to a third or fourth draft, which a writer will be ready to show to someone else, preferably another writer, or their entire writing group if they’re lucky to have one. We do this thing called critiquing, which is where we trade pieces of late-stage drafts with other writers and give them constructive feedback from a writer’s point of view, some of the most valuable feedback we can get for our drafts. That puts us in the fourth or fifth draft, sometimes taking up to six months for another writer to give our draft the attention and feedback that it needs. This is the step I am at with Shadowhand, my current fantasy project, I’m looking for someone who wants to trade critiques so I can get some good feedback to make it stronger.
More important for writers planning to self publish, but also a valuable tool for writers looking to traditionally publish, is the beta reader. A beta reader is someone in the writer’s target audience that reads the very polished version of the draft and answers specific questions regarding character and plot. For instance, whether a certain sub plot works well in the story, or is confusing and distracting from another more important element. A writer might ask their beta reader for their opinions on certain side characters that the writer isn’t sure they want to keep, or flesh out more, etc. Depending on the number of beta readers, this process can take a while. The larger the number of beta readers and the more diverse those people are, the better, but more readers means more time and everyone reads at a different pace.
So that puts us between four and six drafts of a novel, depending on the method a writer uses and if they choose to use the beta reader model. For a first novel, the more eyes on it before an agent sees it, the better.
Which brings us to the agent. For anyone hoping to traditionally publish through a publishing house, large or small, they need a literary agent. This is a person who has connections at the publishing houses, knows editors and will read your manuscript and know the best people to send it to. They make money off of your sales, taking a commission, basically, so it is in their best interest to get your book the best deal with the biggest publisher. Finding an agent interested in your work can take several months, or even years.
Same thing with an editor. Having an agent will generally speed up the process because hopefully they are targeting the people who would be interested in your work, but it still takes time. Editors have interns who read through crap everyday that they never even see. Even with an agent, it could take weeks or months for that editor to even get around to looking at your manuscript. They are often in the middle of multiple projects at once, working with different authors.
So that’s the process (plus the year or two it takes for the editor to edit your manuscript, printing, distribution, marketing, etc). I also happen to be a perfectionist. I don’t settle for anything less than my best work. My fantasy world was in the works for years before I was comfortable even writing an entire novel in its setting and even after I started writing those novels, my ideas for the world evolved and changed so I had things to change in the stories.
Writing is not easy. I saw a post written by someone else who said (I’m paraphrasing here) that they think people (non writers) believe that writing is easy, because in theory anyone can write. Which is true. Anyone can write down a sentence, or a paragraph. Anyone can write a novel. You could sit down and write a novel right now and have fifty thousand words of crap sitting on your table in a few months, because that’s what it will be: crap. Everything I’ve ever written has started out as crap. I’ve written five different fantasy worlds that I scrapped and haven’t even bothered to go back and look at.
I went to school for four years for writing and it made me a better writer, but it doesn’t mean I can write a perfect first draft, no one can. I can write a pretty good first draft that doesn’t make me cringe, but it’s not great. The most valuable thing I learned in school was how to recognize what was bad and what was good and how to fix the bad things.
To sum up a very long post, I don’t have a book published yet because I’m not ready to publish one yet. I have a draft that I am pretty proud of and am ready to get some feedback on, but I am not ready to have a professional literary agent read it. When I send Shadowhand out to an agent for consideration, I want it to be the best thing that it can be. Deep down, I am an artist at heart and I cannot set my creations free out in the world if they aren’t something I can be proud of and stand behind. I know what good writing is and what goes into it, so I’m going to put the work in to give myself the best chance at succeeding in doing something I love. I won’t settle for anything less because my art, and I, am worth more than that.