The Pace of You

PhotobucketWhat is your natural writing pace? How long does it take you to write a book?

On a private email loop of mostly long-time professional writers, the subject of writing methods came up. Quite a few of us had pressing deadlines and we posted our progress, our challenges and triumphs each day in order to stay on track, and to feel less alone. It can be awfully isolating to be slaving away on a deadline. Heading out to the water cooler of the internet to tell somebody who knows what it means that you’ve written three pages since the last time you check in feels pretty good.

We ended up in a discussion about our various methodologies. We’ve been together a very long time, and it’s easy to see the natural rhythm of a writer when you’ve been watching her process for a decade or two. Just as each of us seem to be stuck with certain themes, we are stuck with certain methods, too. In our group, one of the writers plods away, writing at an unremarkable pace for most of the book, then blasts out the last 60, 80, even 110 pages in a few days. Every time, on every book. She writes in the morning, but when those blasts come, she writes morning to night until the book is done.

Another writes six pages a day, six days a week, year in, year out. Another doesn’t write much at all until she’s close to deadline. She shows up just in time to start writing her pages, and writes seven days a week, every evening, until the book is done. She’s a fast writer, a former journalist with a clean, uncluttered style. When she finishes her book, she goes off to putter with her hobbies, her family, her avocations until it’s time to write the next book.

One of our group bemoaned her inability to stick to the goals she sets. But book after book, she has said the same thing, suffering through the not-meeting her goals, and manages to finish the books, over and over. The suffering seems to be part of what she needs to get the book done.

As I said here before, my books are written in my head for a year or more before I start to put them down. What I fret about is the fact that I end up having to write and rewrite, write and rewrite, a process that feels like combing long hair, over and over. The first hundred pages take three times as long as the rest of the entire book, and there always comes a point where I leave this reality for the book world, and stay there for the last couple of months. It’s just too exhausting to live in both worlds at the same time.

This is a subject that causes a lot of concern among all writers. And as with so many other things, it’s a subject that’s almost doomed to make us feel like a failure, no matter where we are on the continuum. Fast writers are sometimes viewed suspiciously as hacks. Slow writers are often seen as precious and full of artist angst. Obviously, some of it has to do with the material. A busy commercial fiction writer might easily write two substantial books a year and not ever break a sweat, while her counterpart in historical novels might not be able to do one book every five years.

But what do you do if you’re a slow genre writer? A super fast literary writer? I know writers who find even one book a year to be completely exhausting—and there you are, surrounded by people blasting out 5000 pages a year. What if you’re that naturally prolific writer who can do 5000 pages per year? Will people inevitably cast aspersions on the probably quality of your work.

What struck me in the discussion with my long term writer circle was how most of us felt there was something wrong with our own process. It seems to me that so much rewriting must be a sign of me not listening clearly enough during the original drafting. The fast writer thought she probably should be rewriting more. The angsty one said she should figure out how others do it so she could be more peaceful.

Instead, each writer has created a system to accomplish the very difficult task of writing whole books, over and over. It seems we create that system fairly early, too. A burst writer is often a burst writer from the first days of attempting her first material. A six-page a day man is probably orderly in other areas of his life, too.

What is your natural speed? How much can you comfortably write in a day, a month, a year? Have you ever just noticed what you can do, what’s comfortable, how long you can actually write in a day before you are very tired? Do you have any idea how many pages you write in an hour? What if you observed instead of judging?

Photo courtesy Flickr’s Creative Commons, Blickolage.108



About Barbara O'Neal

Barbara O'Neal has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life, which landed her in the Hall of Fame. Her latest novel, The All You Can Dream Buffet has just been released by Bantam Books in March. A complete backlist is available here.


  1. says

    It’s comforting to hear that there are as many processes as there are writers. I’m a pretty even paced writer, averaging 3000-5000 words a week. Now, my personal goal is 1K per day, but I almost never meet that goal.

    Part of that is the inevitable distractions–the internet, blogs, email, etc, participation in crit groups, and the real life responsibilities of family and work that need to be balanced.

    All in all, I’m okay with my own process. I’ve managed to finish a book a year for the past 4 years, and am on track for finishing number 5 in year 5.

    I try to stick with what has worked for me and not compare myself to other writers. I only hope I can continue to work well and with the same discipline if/when my agent sells my manuscript and I enter the world of external deadlines.

  2. says

    I would kiss this post if I could. Oh wait, I can! *KISS* Hope the woman I share my computer with (job-share) doesn’t mind the lip imprint on the screen…


    Seriously though, as a young writer, this is something I constantly struggle with. I’m still trying to find my rhythm, and to not be disappointed that I can’t output monstrous word counts like some people. Especially since my boyfriend is very self-motivated and goal-oriented (and a PRODUCTIVE ROBOT WHO NEVER GETS DISTRACTED), I constantly feel disappointed in myself, which of course is anathema to writing better or more productively.

    So I’m trying to find and walk that line between being realistically productive and yet not indulging in distractions. Pretty much what LJ Cohen was talking about in her comment, that’s where I need to get to.

    In a way it’s comforting to know that established authors, such as yourself Barbara, still struggle with this a bit. It’s especially comforting to know that there isn’t one pace that works, but that we can each have our own. I don’t have to force myself into a routine I can’t sustain. I just have to find what works for me and stick with it. :)


  3. says

    I seem to flip flop. I’ve figured out that in order for me to be productive (and maintain that productivity) I have to write six days a week. If I stop for the weekends, then it’s like pulling teeth to get back into the writing. Once I’m on a roll, I write about 2000 words/ten pages a day.

    I still don’t think I’ve figured out the perfect rhythm for myself yet. I know I can be a lot more productive.

  4. Jan says

    I think you wrote this post for me. (Oh you laugh, but I think you did.)

    This reminds me of the Buddhist principle: that suffering is not created by external events, but by the meanings with which we infuse them.

    You see, my writing process is so different from others–write, fret, rewrite, fret–that on a bad day, it seemed to be a sign that I was doomed. In a very funny way, what this post tells me is that I can be free to enjoy my misery and just get on with the work.

    Will you do something for me? Please go hug that angsty writer in your group for me, and tell her she has a doppelganger out in the world.

    And thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for another hope-filled post.

  5. says

    I’ve been writing non-fiction for years, and stupidly thought the transition to fiction wouldn’t be all that difficult. Don’t laugh, I know better now.

    I was thrilled when I wrote my first story, and it had a beginning, middle and end. I entered different scenes in contests, to test the water, and finaled in the first three I entered.

    Then reality set in. I found that getting scenes right isn’t the same as getting a book right.

    Combining both unpublished fiction and published non-fiction, I tallied up half a million words last year. I’m competent enough at the non-fiction work to get published repeatedly, but that’s not the case with fiction.

    My process is churning out a story — or a good chunk of the story — and then slamming into a wall when I realize how massive the rewrites are going to be. The first draft always flies. The revisions slog. Imposter syndrome sets in, and I set the horrible piece of trash aside. Go work on revisions for another story. Have an epiphany about how to save the maybe-not-completely-trash story. And repeat the process all over again.

    I don’t know if it’s frightening or reassuring that established authors like yourself go through similar struggles. I keep hoping it will get easier!

  6. says

    Kristan, laughing about the Robot Boyfriend. I know people like that. So not me! Glad it helped (and thanks for the kiss ).

    Jordan, there seem to be a lot of writers who want to write something every day, so you’re right there with them.

    Definitely hugging my angsty friend for you, Jan. And you back from her. (Hey, hugs and kisses! That’s a happy return.)

    One step at a time, Becke. That’s how we all learn. I’m not sure writing ever gets easier. You do, however, learn what is “normal” for you. My partner never even blinks when I moan, “Oh this book is the worst ever.” He says, “Yes, dear.” Because I always say that. Every time.

    Hang in there.

  7. says

    My first novel was written in one month, but on average, the last 8 novels in my fantasy series takes an average of about 6 months from start to finish, each averaging about 175,000 words.
    Currently, I’m completing my first YA fantasy, but this one has been beset by delays as I juggled edits for my agent and took off couple of months to hammer out negotiations for film rights pertaining to my original series. So, 130,000 words later and 20,000 more to go, I’ve been working on this story on and off for 8 months (including the delays).
    I tend to write at night after my daughter is in bed and make every attempt to put in 5,000 words per session at least 5 days (nights) per week when I’m not too distracted with life.
    It can be quite the slog, but it’s a great creative outlet.

  8. says

    LOL uh Jordan, I’m not sure how much more productive you want to be… I’m under the impression that 2000 words per day is pretty good!

  9. says

    There are days I write thousands of words with little effort and days when I write none. There are days I delete what I wrote before, and days when I keep going forward. I have no average, but I have learned that once I get started I have a better chance of finishing. Seems simple, but it’s true. I am a terrible procrastinator and benefit from deadlines – and talking to myself!

  10. says

    I am in utter awe over 5000 words per day, five days per week. I started to think about how many pages that would be and just said, “Self, stop. Ain’t never gonna happen.” Though it would be so much fun to write so fast!!

    But there it is, that sense of “what should I do? how do I measure up?”

    Today, I didn’t write anything. I should have. A deadline looms, and I didn’t get much done yesterday. But there are days the girls in the basement need to slink away and do something else. I have no idea what. They’d better bring me some pages tomorrow, however.

    Oooh, just saw the time! Jeoapardy is on, and one of the guys is a friend of my eldest son! Go Dan! :)

  11. says

    What I fret about is the fact that I end up having to write and rewrite, write and rewrite, a process that feels like combing long hair, over and over.

    Yes. Yes, yes, yes.

    I’m a slow writer, because I do so much rewriting. Strangely (?), I’m also a burst writer, capable of writing a decent scene in a day. I think this links in to something else you said:

    …there always comes a point where I leave this reality for the book world…

    I do this when I’m in burst-writer mode. I almost resent real life, because I don’t want to focus on anything but finishing the scene/chapter/sequence. But I have two great kids; real life is definitely more important. So I try not to fall into burst-writer mode unless I have a chunk of Alone Time…which is rare…which probably has something to do with me being a slow writer. :-)

    As always, balance seems to be my biggest challenge.

  12. says

    Oddly enough, I had to make a decision about my writing pace when I started graduate school. My schooling was in economics, not writing science fiction, so I asked myself what a reasonable amount was to get done even as I had totally independent and time consuming obligations to school. Watching myself write over time, I’d learned that 300 words was somewhat difficult. It would take me about that many words on a daily basis to get my writing-foo on. Once I reached 300 hundred though, it got easy. So I told myself 400.

    I have to say it has worked fairly well in regards to writing the manuscript. My pace on editing, sadly, has been less organized.

  13. says

    I’m a turtle. One page a day, sometimes three if I’m lucky. I crap out after a few hours…sometimes I even have to take a nap because my brain is tired. I’m not a very complicated creature in that respect.