First, I would like to say, no, this post does not give you a mathematical equation to literally figure out how many hours, days, months, years, whatever, that it will take you write your novel. Obviously there are a lot of factors that depend on you personally as a writer.
But what this post does give you is a questionnaire that helps you determine how complex your novel is, which will then, hopefully, help you gauge what kind of effort and energy you will need to complete your story.
While some authors write faster than others, some stories, frankly, take longer to write than others.
And it doesn’t just depend on the length of your manuscript. Some stories have simpler structures, others more complex. Here are some questions you can ask yourself when plotting your novel to help you gauge how long it will take to write it.
Keep track of your answers. They run from simple to complex, with the letter “A” being simple and onward, more complex. Remember, the more complex doesn’t mean the better your story is. Simple stories can be powerful too.
(Note that I created this myself, so if you have any ideas for improvement, please let me know. This was the best I could get it at this moment.)
How large is your cast of characters?
A. Small cast of characters
B. Medium cast of characters
C. Large cast of characters
How many different settings are in your story?
A. Story takes place in mostly one area. (For example, the character never leaves the farm.)
B. Story takes place over a lot of different areas I’m familiar with
C. Story takes place in another time or place that I will need to research extensively
D. Story takes place in another time and place I will need to research extensively
Story takes place on a completely different world I need to create from scratch
How thematic is your story?
A. My story doesn’t have much of a theme. I’m just writing a story.
B. My story has a bit of a theme that came alive all on its own.
C. My story has a specific, thorough theme that I need to plan carefully to best impact the reader
*Note that you may have multiple themes, which makes your story even more complex.
How complex is your plot?
A. My plot is somewhat simplistic: boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back
B. My plot is more sophisticated
C. My plot is layered, complex, and intricate, with plenty of twists and turns, and it’s long.
How many different types of conflict does your story cover? (There are 5 types: man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. self, man vs. God, and man vs. society)
A. I use one type of conflict in my story
B. I use two types
C. I use three types
D. I use four types
E. I use all five types
How many viewpoint characters does your story have?
A. I’m following one viewpoint character
B. I’m following two viewpoint characters
C. I’m following several viewpoint characters
Does your story have character arcs? (a character arc refers to your character growing and changing over the course of a story)
A. None of my characters have arcs
B. My main character has an arc
C. Several characters have arcs
How many types of emotions are trying to evoke in your reader?
A. My story evokes a select few, related emotions, (love, lust, and loss)
B. My story evokes a lot of emotions and/or differing emotions (love, lust, loss, and also humor, horror, and wonder)
C. My story evokes a symphony of emotions. I want the reader to feel everything from despair and adventure to loneliness and victory, from humor and euphoria to frustration and anxiety
How many perceptions of your character does your reader see? (There can be different perceptions for each character. How she perceives herself, how others perceive her, how society perceives her etc.)
A. In my story, my reader only really sees one perception of my character(s)
B. In my story, my reader sees a few different perceptions of my character(s)
C. In my story, my reader sees a lot of different perceptions of my character(s)
How many plot lines does your story follow?
A. I have really one plot (primary)
B. I have two different plots (primary and secondary)
C. I have multiple plots (primary, secondary, tertiary, and quaternary)
How complex is your writing style itself?
A. I want to write in simple prose, perhaps the “language of the common man.”
B. I want to write simply with some embellishments here and there
C. I want almost every sentence, almost every scene to be sophisticated and strong with every word carefully chosen. I may even have carefully controlled extended metaphors.
Now that you’ve gone through all of the questions, look at your answers. The more A’s you have, the simpler your story is, and the less time it will take you to write. The more C’s, D’s, and E’s you have, the more complex your story and the longer it will take to write (not to mention more skill). Remember, people need both simple and complex stories. Both can be powerful.
If your story is simple, you’ll get through it faster (though that doesn’t mean it will be easy). Don’t forget what Da Vinci said, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” Simple stories work. If they didn’t, we wouldn’t have romance or comedy movies still coming to theaters. American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang is one simple story that I enjoyed, and so did many others. It’s one of the only graphic novels to receive over half a dozen prestigious awards from the “high-brow” literary community.
If your story is complex, you’ll want to set aside more time for it. Be patient. And when you see other authors whipping out novel after novel, take a deep breath and relax. Remember, you are writing something complex! It will take more time to get it right. One of my personal favorite complex stories is Harry Potter. It took J.K. Rowling five years from the time she got the idea for the series until the time the first book was published. It took about a decade for her to complete all seven volumes. And it was well worth her time.