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Trick Question: How long did it take you to write your book?

Every so often I’ll get a query where an author tells me how long it’s taken them to write their finished manuscript. Typically the time frames mentioned are ones that the author deems impressive–either very short (look at how quickly I managed to write this book!) or very long (look at how dedicated I am to this story!)

It’s an understandable impulse. A query is meant to make an impression and showcase your writing. There’s no doubt that writing an 80,000 word manuscript in one month is stunningly impressive, as is being so dedicated to a project that you spent years crafting it. But in telling an agent or editor how long it took for you to write your book, you run the risk of making the wrong kind of impression.

If I see that an author wrote a book in one month, I’ll assume it was rushed. If another author spent years writing and polishing their manuscript, I’ll wonder if they’ll having trouble letting it go or if they have moved forward with other projects. Both of those are problems. Rushed writing is sloppy, and authors who have difficulty moving on often stagnate and never really launch their writing careers.

I can already hear the questions coming in. Beth, what do “very short” and “very long” mean? How long should it take me to write my book?

The answers depend on your genre–readers from some genres expect authors to come out with a book or more per year, while others have a more leisurely pace–and a number of other factors. I’m not going to get into it, and honestly you’d probably get a different answer from another agent, based on our differing experiences.

But that’s okay because the answers are not the point.

The point is that, in giving this unsolicited information in your query, you are providing the agent with more opportunities to reject you. Yes, it’s a little thing, but it’s a detail that can reveal potential stumbling blocks in your writing career, and because agents may have different opinions on how long it should ideally take to write a manuscript, there’s no 100% “safe” amount of time to cite.

I’ve never heard of an agent asking authors to tell them how long it took to write their book–not at the querying stage–so why volunteer it? Yes, we may ask later on if we decide to offer and want to have a discussion about your career trajectory and goals (I certainly have), but leave that for the discussion. Let your writing speak for itself in the meantime. If we love it, we love it regardless of how long it took you. Ultimately, this is about your final product. Don’t distract from that.

 

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4 comments

  1. There’s nothing more exciting than starting new projects OR fixing old ones, and that comes with time frames. The ideas you get when you come back to a project after a year, I tell ya… For example, I have two short stories that I finished a year ago. I decided to self publish them in order to boost my upcoming traditionally to-be-published novel, and guess what – I have ideas that would’ve never occurred to me while the stories were in the “heat of making” a year ago. So it’s time frames and time frames. But I wouldn’t put that in a query letter even if I thought it puts me in a good light simply because query letters are supposed to be concise.

  2. I guess it’s like the age question: should I mention that I’m only eight but I’ve written this 120,000 word urban fantasy novel? Or that I’m one of the few 78-year-old YA novelists in the country? (I’m neither, btw, just for the record, in case you were wondering.) The advice I hear from agents amounts to: “Impress me with your NOVEL, not your SELF. If I love the novel, then we can talk about whether we need to have a parent sign your contract, or how to make the most of marketing John Green’s grandfather!”

    Querying is all about the novel–is this a story the agent wants to read? Am I right?

  3. In my head, writing your ‘first’ novel (and by that I mean whichever number book you write that becomes the first to be agented) has the luxury of time. You can write it quickly or slowly because you aren’t under any deadline other than your own a totally different scenario to the first book you write when under contract!

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