Notes To The Author As A Young Man: How You Can Write A Novel In Three And A Half Months, And Still Have A Life.

There are many things I wish I could go back and tell my younger self about life, love, writing, and many more things. I’m going to start with this one, in the hope it may be useful to my readers. Just a year ago, I would have said that writing a novel this quickly would have been impossible for anyone but a professional, probably-childless, full-time writer. Here are the lessons I learned that made this possible. I would like to especially credit Steven Barnes and his Lifewriting philosophy for teaching me many of these things. There’s a lot more over on his Facebook group dedicated to this, some of which I have not yet put into practice, but it’s well worth checking out. I’ll designate the points I learned from him with an (L).

1) Have A Clearly Defined Motivation (L): In this case, my motivation was two-fold: 1) I had a contract promising me payment, and 2) I had another novel I really wanted to get to revising in June because a publisher asked me to. So I had to be done with this by May. Now, if I had read this a year ago, my reaction would have been something like,  Oh, all you have to do is get publishers to hand you contracts for shit you haven’t even written yet, or respond favorably to something you have? Well THAT sounds easy! Thanks for nothing, asshole!
And I would have been wrong to think that. Because what I would have been missing is that the motivation always comes from YOU. Yes, it’s AWESOME to have external motivation. But if I had decided, no bones about it, “I’m gonna self-publish this baby by the end of August” I could still have accomplished this. That decision is ENTIRELY in your control.

2) Control Your Word Count: This novel had a soft limit from the publisher of 55,000 words, and a hard limit of 60,000. This meant that I had to make absolutely sure that it didn’t balloon into an epic. At 53,000 words, it is the shortest novel I have ever written, the next shortest being about 120,000 words. Word Count MATTERS. If this had been a typical-length novel for me, I doubt it would have been finished in under six months. I can’t type that fast. Yet. So how do we control our word count? We…

3) Outline: Before I started this project, I created a thorough (about 3000 word) outline of the story, including four character sketches of the family at the center of the book. On completion of this outline, I was reasonably satisfied that I would not exceed word count. I could not allow myself any real subplots. Focus had to stay tight on the major plot from beginning to end. This meant that I could look back at the outline so that I never had the dreaded “What was going to come next” moment. Also, it was a great way to squelch rabbit trails that would inflate the word count.

4) Double Outline: Before beginning each chapter, I read the outline to make sure it would make sense, and then made further notes, including who would say what in what order. This outline would have looked like gibberish to anyone who wasn’t me. But it ensured that while I was actually writing, I got to focus on how the prose sounded, because I had already decided what to say, when.

5) Control Your Time (L): While I was writing the novel, some other things I normally do had to be put on the back burner. Short story writing, responses to calls for submissions, marketing, and, notably THIS BLOG all suffered. In fact, it’s the reason you haven’t been reading much here for the past two weeks. Working on it. It even means that blog posts have to be shorter. This, one, for example, has now taken all the time that I can give it, so I’m going to leave part two of it for tomorrow.

6 thoughts on “Notes To The Author As A Young Man: How You Can Write A Novel In Three And A Half Months, And Still Have A Life.

  1. I wish I was that focused, but then again, if I had a signed contract and a delivery date, I probably would be.

    I read in several sources that most novels aren’t considered by published unless they’re around the 100,000 word mark, so the numbers you’re quoting seem pretty short. It’s also difficult for me to tell a story with a hard word count in mind, at least something novel length (I’m getting better at crafting short stories that way). The story is the story. It takes so long to get from beginning to end, and there are time when even I don’t know how long that is.

    I’m also finding that in the first draft, as I continue writing, I revise the overall outline (which for me is a pretty loose thing). That means in the second draft (whenever I get to that part), I’ll have to revise and edit like crazy to integrate my later revelations into earlier chapters so the entire novel is internally consistent.

    I’ve written numerous “novel-length” books before but they’re all textbooks or self-study tutorials in the area of computering and networking technology. Writing a fictional tale is a completely different breed of cat.

    I was once asked to write 13 chapters in a technical book in 30 days. The lead author on a project had bailed and the publisher was in a bind. We arrived at a price for my services, and besides my day job, I was dedicated to creating those chapters. I made the deadline but I was glad when it was over. Once a project is nearing the end, I want it to go away and never come back (which never happens because of errata) because I’m ready for something new. I wonder if writing a novel is like that?

  2. Tomorrow I begin the last chapter of a novel I started on Sept. 8th of last year. It is presently at 52K words. I think my snail’s pace is attributable to writing by the ‘seat of my pants’ method. I’m going to plan out as much as I can of the next one ahead of time and see if it gets me up to pulp speed.

    Good luck with yours!

    • That’s not even remotely a snail’s pace, especially depending on the size of the novel. My first novel that I was actually proud of took me about 4-5 years to write. And that was just the first draft. It probably took another two to get it into publishable shape. So:

      First Novel (180k words) 6-7 years.
      Second Novel (125k words) 1.5 years.
      Third Novel (126k words) 1 year.
      Fourth Novel (53k words) 3.5 months and counting (because it’s still first draft)

      That’s not to say you can;t do BETTER. I probably can, too. But don’t feel bad. That’s a good pace.

  3. Reblogged this on Carlos Carrasco and commented:
    I begin working on the final chapter of ONE LAST FLIGHT tomorrow (that’s Chapter 18 for those of you who have been following its serialization here). I started it in September of last year, which is a long time to reach its present 52K words. No more ‘by the seat of my pants’ writing for me. I’m hoping the advice offered here and elsewhere about pre-plotting and planning will yield me a more robust word count per day.

    Give it a read and see what you think.

  4. Nice, thankyou. I am trying to use the “Lester Dent Formula” to motivate myself to outline, get a decent start on pacing, and just offer a framework to hang the story on. I’ll be adding your advice here to the mix.

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