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How Long Does it Really Take to Write a Book?

This is Part 2 of a 3-Part Series: What I Wish I’d Known Then.

(Click here if you missed Part 1: Don’t Give Away Your Power)

In my Memoir Mastery class this week, we’ve been talking about expectations. A lot of times, folks think that writing a book will be easier than it is. We simply don’t know what’s involved and how long it’ll take. And if you’ve seen those Write Your Book in a Weekend programs, that’ll create its own unrealistic expectations.

On the other end of the spectrum are the literary/academic folks, who think it’ll take years and years to perfect the craft of creating a perfect book. More on that in a sec.

Let’s start with the Write a Book in a Weekend camp first. Is it really possible to write a book in a short period of time?

It depends. If you’re trying to write a shitty first draft of a straight-forward business book on a topic of your expertise? That’s possible in a weekend, yes.

A memoir? Nope. There’s simply too many moving pieces. And memoir is a journey, both in the writing as well as the telling. It’s not a simple path from A to B.

So how do you know how long it’ll take? Will it take years and years or is this something you can realistically do in a year or two?

The answer comes down to what you’re writing as well as what your goals are for your book. If you’re writing a personal story for friends and family, then yours will be the shorter path. If you’re targeting a wider audience with your book (particularly if you’re aiming to publish traditionally), it will take longer.

Why? Because there’s much more craft and technique involved in creating this type of book. You need to ensure that your book is compelling enough to draw your reader in as well as keep her turning the pages. That’s one of the reasons it’s so important to clarify your book’s audience and goals. The answers to those questions will shape everything else, including your path forward.

Back to the literary/academic timeline of how long it takes to write a book (or how many licks it takes to get to center):

When I was earning my MFA, we operated under the assumption that writing was torturous and painful and required zillions of revisions in order to produce anything of value. Published writers struggled for YEARS.

Nothing was ever good enough—and I mean this literally. You went to workshop to get feedback on your story and walked away with more to do. No matter how good the writing was, it could always be better.

(To be fair, this model hails from an earlier era, when traditional publishing was the only game in town. Since traditional publishing is driven by gatekeepers [agents and acquisitions editors], you have to jump through their hoops in order to get that external validation. If your writing isn’t super-sharp, you probably won’t get published. With the rise of self or indie publishing, today’s writers have become more empowered—a good thing if you have a well-written book.)

As I mentioned in my last post, it took me years before I could share my writing again after grad school. (I’m not the only one—a friend recently told me she spent $65K in an MFA program to realize that nobody or nothing would ever stop her from writing.)

Of course, I learned all sorts of valuable information in grad school, as well as got a ton of teaching experience. But that perfectionism around my writing cost me a lot. It kept me from putting various short stories and poems, as well as a novel, into the world.

Many of my literary/academic writer friends still operate under this “make your writing as humanly close to perfect as you can” ideology. What this kind of thinking costs you, though—at the most basic level—is time. And time is a precious resource, especially as we get older. If you spend years perfecting a single piece of writing, who knows how long you’ll wait to consider your book “done?”

In contrast to the literary/academic world, writing in the business world moves forward. People finish projects because they have to. Not because it’s perfect, but because there’s a deadline.

And here’s the thing: I’ve seen tons of not-so-perfect business projects that have made a huge difference in the world. Hell, I’ve seen a lot of not-that-great projects that have made a giant difference.

Here’s what we can learn from this:

A book doesn’t have to be perfect to change lives. It just has to be good enough.

Once you embrace this idea, it can be incredibly freeing.

As you know, I wrote The Secret Life of Grief to help folks who were grieving at home, without support, alone. I didn’t write that book to create a literary masterpiece. My goal was to make that book good enough—to finish it and get it into the world.

And because that book is done, I now get to work on another book that I’m really excited about. I’d never have had this opportunity if I’d pumped another 10 years into trying to make my grief memoir perfect.

That’s why I’m encouraging you to let your book be good enough.

So take a minute to explore what good enough looks like to you. Does it mean hiring a developmental editor to help you strengthen the big picture pieces so that your story will really shine? Does it mean setting aside six months to revise your first draft before sharing it with trusted buddies for feedback?

You get to decide.

Now, if that’s not a crazy enough idea for you, here’s one more: your book will be done when you declare it done.

One of the primary ways I see writers trip themselves up is by moving the goal post. This is especially common in memoir. When we’re writing about our lives, it can be challenging to figure out where to end the story, especially since we’re still learning and growing. But at some point, you need to declare what’s enough.

Now, if you’re working with a traditional publisher, you’re not going to have as much control over this process. For those of you publishing independently, a good developmental editor can also help you figure out how to craft a strong ending.

And for those of you who are trying to figure it out yourself, trying to figure out how many effin times you need to revise this thing, please hear me when I say that you get to decide. Remember why you’re writing this book. Remember who you’re writing it for.

Then step back and ask yourself if you’ve lived up to your promise for yourself. Have you lived up to your promise for your readers?

Start by deciding what it is you want this book to be. Then decide how you’re going to get there.

Find a mentor, if that helps. Hire a writing coach. But don’t simply assume that it’ll take years off your life before you can share your powerful story. There’s probably a quicker path. And it can be challenging when you’re trying to go it alone.

So get support. Learn the craft and technique of your genre. Connect with writers you admire. Find your tribe.

And let yourself enjoy the journey. In the end, it is what you declare it to be. So have fun!

P.S.: I’m honored to have been recently profiled in this VoyageDenver article. Click here if you’d like to check it out. 

P.P.S.: If you have a friend who could benefit from my posts, please forward these notes or invite them to join our community here.

P.P.S.S.: And as always, reach out with any questions. Email me at tanja@tanjapajevic.com or simply hit “reply” to this message. Hope you have a lovely week!

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