How long does it take to write a first draft?

There’s no one right way to write – and there’s no one answer for how long it will take you to get that first draft done. Some writers take years, while others can pump first drafts out in months. If you’re wondering how long it will take you to write your first draft, take a look at how the process went for these 10 authors.

1.Tristan Bancks
Thinking time: Six or seven years
First draft: Two years

Tristan is an author of children and young adult books including Two Wolves, The Fall and Detention. He had the original idea for Detention about six or seven years before he started writing it, and then wrote the story in two years.

“When I was doing writing workshops in schools, I would come back to this idea of a lockdown story in a school,” he says. “It was actually only about a couple of years ago, two years ago, that I started writing it properly, when I realised that Sima was going to be an asylum seeker on the run who had escaped from this immigration detention centre. That’s when I really felt like I had a story on my hands.

“So probably two years of writing and six or seven years of thinking and note taking.”

2. Ali Berg and Michelle Kalus
First draft: One year

Ali and Michelle co-wrote The Book Ninja and While You Were Reading, and Ali says it took about a year for their first draft of While You Were Reading.

“At the end of writing the first book we had lingering thoughts about what we could write the second book about and then it just stemmed from there,” she says. “So we ended up coming up with the idea six months before our first book was even launched. So it all sort of was very quick. We came up with a synopsis and a plot at the end of 2017. And then in June 2018 our first book was launched, and by that time we were already halfway through writing this second book.”

Ali and Michelle finished their first draft for While You Were Reading in November 2018, and the final draft was done in March 2019, with the book published in July 2019.

“We actually handed in our first draft at around November last year. So it was just over a year that we had for the first draft, and then ended up with the final draft out in March, and then it was published in July this year.”

3. Petronella McGovern
Thinking time: Three years
First draft: Six months

Petronella, author of non-fiction as well as novel Six Minutes and The Good Teacher, says she thought about her draft for a while, but taking a course with the Australian Writers’ Centre helped her get it done.

“It probably took about three years before I started writing the story,” she says. “Then I just wrote a bit and then put it aside. And then I moved to Sydney from Canberra and I did join the Australian Writers’ Centre novel writing course. And so I’d probably written maybe 15 chapters before then. But I did then do my first draft during that course and I finished, fully finished the first draft.

“That was the six-month course. So I finished the draft in those six months having already started it and having thought about it before.”

4. Christian White
First draft: Three months

Author of The Wife and The Widow and The Nowhere Child, Christian had most of his draft for The Wife and The Widow done in three months, but needed a little help from his wife to figure out how to write one area in particular – especially as he had a one-year deadline.

“There’s a significant twist in the book that I won’t mention. But I knew very early on that I wanted that twist, but I had no idea how I was going to pull it off. And I kind of thought, well, I’ll figure it out when I get there. And then I got to it, and I didn’t figure it out.

“So after my first draft, which probably took three months, I went back and I plotted again and again. And actually, the answer came, I was all ready to abandon the twist, and I was freaking out really, saying, oh, I’ve wasted all this time, and what am I going to do now?

“My wife Summer is a born storyteller… often, when I’m desperate, I will throw a load of questions at her. And that’s what I did this time. We went for a walk around this lake near where we live, and I said, you know, I’ve got this real problem. This is what I want to achieve but I have no idea how to. She was quiet for a few steps, and then she said, well what if this happens and then this happens which would mean this happens?

“It was so wonderfully annoying because that was the answer. It was all laid out. So as soon as I had that key, that just unlocked so much. So then I went back to the drawing board and… probably another couple of months addressing… Because what you need to do is when you reach, when you figure out that twist and make it work, then you need to go back and make it look like you had that in your mind all along, which quite often you don’t.”

5. Megan Blandford
First draft: Six months

Megan is a freelance writer as well as being the author of I’m Fine (and other lies): Postnatal depression, motherhood and trying to actually be fine. She wrote her book within the first half of 2017, and cut back her freelancing to do so.

“The first thing I did was I brought my freelancing back to four days a week, so that I had a dedicated day to write my book,” she says. “Then that would flow, so I would do that on Fridays, and that would inevitably flow into my weekend as well. My family was not used to seeing me without my head in a computer for a good couple of months.

“To be perfectly honest, it would also creep into my work time a little bit. Because once you start letting this stuff out, if something comes to you, you kind of have to go with it. So I did cheat a little bit and take a little bit of my work time as well.

“But also at night, I didn’t sleep very much during the writing of this. I was up remembering things and writing on the couch at 3am and things like that. So time just kind of opened up for me to do it in a not necessarily very healthy way.”

6. Nicole Hayes
First draft: 18 months

Nicole, author of The Whole of My World, One True Thing and A Shadow’s Breath, says it took about 18 months for A Shadow’s Breath – but her monthly work rate varied significantly in that time.

“Those first chapters came very quickly. Probably the first 20,000 words, I think it was about 30,000 words I hit at that point, and that’s a common point for me. Only a few months in, they come very, very quickly, and then suddenly I hit a bit of a wall. And that’s usually because I’ve run out of outline… The big bulky part of the story, that second act, and I do tend to follow a rough three-act structure, that’s the one that bogs me down.

“We got up to NaNoWriMo that year. And I spent a day with P. D. Martin, a crime writer. I don’t know if you’re familiar with her work? Philippa is an old friend of mine. And she was running some NaNoWriMo workshop days. And I spent one day, she let me sort of jump in for one day, one Sunday, at The Convent actually where I teach classes for the Australian Writers’ Centre. And it was literally, I think it was from ten til five, and we wrote with breaks every two hours. And it was just a bunch of people just sitting there and writing, and I knocked out 13,000 words, 13,5000 words.

“Maybe a month later, because I felt like I’d done the hard bit, I just went back into it. And so, probably I had to deliver a first draft, I think it was the end of January. So the rest of the book came together in those next three months, two and a half months.”

7. Astrid Scholte
First draft: Four months

Australian Writers’ Centre alumna Astrid, author of Four Dead Queens and The Vanishing Deep wrote her first draft in just four months – including one week of total focus.

“Essentially I started writing in March of 2016,” she says. “Because I work full-time, I wrote for about four months on weekends, and at night-time. And then I found out about Pitch Wars. I’d heard about it a few years earlier, but I’d never been in a place to actually submit anything. And I thought, well that’s a great deadline to have. It was August that you had to submit something. So I thought I’ll try and get a first draft done.

“For some reason, I didn’t think you had to have the whole manuscript complete, which is my fault for not reading the full terms and conditions. So I submitted it on the deadline of August, which was about 57,000 words, not even a full manuscript, really. Especially for fantasy which tends to be a lot longer. And after half an hour I got a full request for my pitch and first chapter. And I was like, oh, okay, I better finish this book.

“So I spent the next week – I took some time off work – and just really knuckled down and tried to get it done. And from that, I actually got into Pitch Wars, which was fantastic. So that was August 2016.”

8. Lexi Landsman
First draft for book #1: Five years
First draft for book #2: Nine months

Lexi took five years on her first book, The Ties that Bind, and nine months for her second, The Perfect Couple, as she was working full-time while writing the first and on maternity leave when she wrote the second.

The Ties That Bind took me five years while working full-time. I would write every weekend, whenever I had a spare moment, and most evenings. But then sometimes, you know, life gets busy, things happen, and I would put it aside for three months, for instance. Or I’d hit a hole in the plot that I just couldn’t think of a way out of. And again I’d put it down and I’d come back to it when I felt refreshed.

The Perfect Couple, I actually only had nine months to write it. So I wrote the book in my third trimester of my pregnancy, at which time I was on maternity leave, and straight after I had the baby, with a newborn. That was a whole different challenge to writing while working full-time.

“With the second book, because I knew I had nine months from start to finish, it means that you have to write when you’re not necessarily feeling inspired, or when you’re not necessarily feeling creative. And it meant I would have to write, I’d go, okay, well, I’ve got to write between this hour and this hour. And you have to sit down at your computer and just go. Because I didn’t have the time to write later.”

9. Paige Toon
Thinking time: About a year
First draft: Always three months

Bestselling author Paige Toon, who has sold 1.5 million copies of her novels worldwide, has a rolling deadline which means she writes her first drafts in three months.

“All of my books have to be delivered at the end of November. That’s with my UK publisher. So I basically start writing in September right through October and November. And I just find that that time of year works really well for me as a writer.

“In the UK, it’s summer over June, July, August. And there’s something about the summer that I find really, really difficult to write. I find my head gets quite foggy. I don’t know. Maybe I just need to install air conditioning and I’d be fine. But in the UK, my office is very stuffy. And I really find it very hard to just clear my mind and feel really connected to the characters. There’s something about coming back to work, kids going off to school, back to work after the summer holidays, that I’m just really productive.

“It’s always during the writing process, so far, bizarrely, that I tend to come up with the idea for the next book. I think just because I’m in that creative drive and something will just pop into my head. And I might have had an idea going for a couple of years even, but things just aren’t going forward. And so from that point onwards, I’m really thinking about it until I start writing it in September.”

10. Lisa Jewell
Thinking time: Six months
First draft: One year

Lisa, the internationally bestselling author of 18 novels, says it took about a year to write her first draft of The Family Upstairs.

“I had a meeting with my editor at the beginning of September 2017 and I was so desperate to start writing this story by then that I said, please, please, please, can I dump the book that I’m halfway through writing and start this other book instead? Because I was so excited about it.

“And I thought, because I’d just had a number one bestseller in the UK at this point, so I thought I was going to be flavour of the month and she’d let me do whatever I wanted. But actually, when you’ve had a number one bestseller, your publishers really, really, really just want you to deliver another book as quickly as possible.

“So she basically said, ah, no, sorry. Get this other one finished first and then you can start! So I finished the book I was halfway through in December 2017. So I started writing this in early spring 2018. And I finished it, in fact, in early 2019.”

If you want to finish your book, the Australian Writers’ Centre’s Write Your Novel program will help you do just that. You can take the course over 6 or 12 months, so you can write at the pace that suits you, and our experts will help you take your manuscript to the next level.

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