The story about how long it takes a writer to craft their first novel is a common one. Five to ten years is not an unusual response. This is why.
In my case, I spent a couple of decades writing tech articles for print publications as well as online. I did this mostly as a ghost writer based on specific requests from employers and clients. Almost all of the articles were published under other author names.
Writing a tech article is very different from writing a fictional novel. The main difference it that a technical writer focuses on explaining or “telling” a reader how things work, while a fictional novel requires learning haw to “show” the reader how a character acts or a scene plays out. The transition is not an easy one. Unless a writer masters the skill of showing, the story ends up reading more like an essay than an interesting tale. It will lack depth and the visual aspects that create a vivid visuals for the reader.
No one completes a good novel in one pass. There are multiple stages, each requiring a re-write until a tale emerges that a reader experiences. Readers must feel they know the protagonist and sometimes several secondary characters. They must empathize with the protagonist’s plight and learn to hate the antagonist. Never forget the villains. Some say a story is only as good as its villains.
The typical stages that I find when writing a novel are:
Stage 1. The rough draft. One of my writer friends refers to this as “puke on paper.” The concept needs to be worked out before you begin, but you may not know where the story will go or what happens along the way. Put the story together from start to finish as quickly as you can. Simply put your ideas together for how the story will flow. Don’t dwell on perfection at this point. Punch out the story. The rough draft is generally short. The characters may lack depth and the story may read like an essay. But when finished with this stage, you will know where it ends up.
Stage 2. Structure. Work on the numerous holes that tend to form in the plot. Make sure the basis for the story and the path it takes are believable. Work in the failures and successes the protagonist will experience. No leading character is perfect. Every protagonist struggles and stumbles periodically along the way.
Stage 3. Characters and scene development. This is a complete pass through the story. It’s the time to make the characters real and the scenes vivid. By the time this pass is completed, the reader should know and be able to visualize the characters early on in the story, include their physical characteristics, how they dress, and how they might react to a given situation. Scenes should be visual. Thing about the physical aspects of a scene: the sights, the sounds, and the smells. If the reader cannot feel they are a part of a scene, the scene is weak.
Stage 4. Grammar and punctuation. Put on your critiquing hat and study every line to assure it uses a strong action verb and visual words. If the plan is to run the story through an editor, you might want to have that person take a first pass at the story. If you have a good editor, they will likely respond with a long list of recommended corrections, not only related to grammar, spelling, and punctuation, but also to the plot, characters, and scenes.
Stage 5. Final rewrites. At this point, you might consider the novel ready for publication. But it’s very likely there are improvements to be made. Wait at least a week or two, then read the entire story as a reader. Look for ways to further improve the story. Some stories require multiple passes. My first book, Teslas’s Ray, required five final rewrites until the story felt right. My second book, On the Fringe of Reality, only required two.
The need to resist endless rewrites is real. Every writer wants their first book to be perfect. But waiting until perfection is achieved can take many years. Set a goal for the number of final rewrites and stick to it. The first book is always the hardest to get through.Tesla’s Ray did literally take ten years, start to finish. On the Fringe of Reality only required one year. The plan is for the third book in the James Frost series to also take one.
Many well-known authors plan to spend one year writing each new book. They start with the concept, then work through their list of stages, and plan to publish the novel by the end of the year. It takes discipline to do this. But if you listen to their stories, that first novel took much longer than all the rest.