Yes, that’s right. I’m going to give you the secret, handed down from the writing gods. It is the secret you have climbed this mountain to find, young supplicant, through the freezing glaciers, without climbing gear and bearing a rare flower in your teeth, just to prove your worthiness.
The secret is . . . that there is no secret. The secret is that you have to put in the effort. The secret is that you can have all the great ideas you want; but unless you practice your craft, unless you write and write and write, unless you try and fail and learn from the experience, unless you do what everyone learning any craft must do since the dawn of the ages, you will never write that novel.
But that’s not the title of this blog post. The reason why you’re reading this is because you’re asking “Okay, Mr. Bowman, how do I write a novel in three months? Just sit down and write? Oh, is that all?”
Pretty much. It’s actually a matter of math. Oh, don’t worry, you won’t have to remember how to do algebra. Bear with me while I talk about word counts.
Unless you’re new to the Internet, you’ve heard about the National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. The object is to write a 50,000-word book in a month. That is a lot of words. However, it’s a very small book.
Starting in the 1980s, book sizes started rising. Novels kept getting fatter and fatter, and SF&F books increased the fastest. There’s a reason for that: SF&F geeks are, on average, much more likely to be early adopters of new technology. The tech in this case was the home computer. It was now much easier to pound out words, thanks to the ability to rewrite rather than have to use whiteout or paste to change things (ever think about where the computer term “cut and paste” came from?), as well as being able to write faster than one can by hand or even on an electric typewriter. Being able to put words on paper without actually using any paper was revolutionary, and the amount of effort per word decreased dramatically.
The result of this, however, is that the definition of a novel — a story in excess of 40,000 words — is outdated. You regularly have books hitting the shelves now in the 200,000-word range, five times that old definition. Even more if your name is Sanderson or Martin.
However, I’m going to base things around the 200,000-word mark, not the doorstoppers of A Song of Ice and Fire or The Stormlight Archive. For comparison, a novel of that size is roughly around 600 pages, making it heavy for a debut author but still not unreasonable.
And yet that’s still four times the NaNoWriMo length, which means that writing a book in three months might seem ridiculous. If it’s four times the length of the NaNo challenge, shouldn’t it take four months? Well, let’s do the math.
Using current American publishing standards (or rather, the averages of books for which I can get official word counts or that I have in ebook formats which I can get my computer to do the counting for me, and then compare either total to the printed book’s page count), we can see that the average novel tends to have between 300-400 words per page. That means you can figure on every 1,000 words occupying three pages as a good rule of thumb.
The average typist is able to handle between 30 and 60 WPM, or words per minute. I can hit up to 85 if I’m in the zone, even with the pain in my hands. However, there’s an interesting thing that you can find with actually composing: even experienced writers tend to average a lot lower. For example, while I can reach typing speeds considered to be exceptional when copying things or taking dictation, I’m rarely over 30 WPM when I have to write something original that isn’t something I’ve said over and over and over. I know writers who can do more than that (I’ve done word wars with many of them, and I rarely get the top score), but the average seems to fall between 20 and 30 WPM.
So let’s go low on the scale. 20 words per minute. Now, that’s based on an average over an entire hour, using reports I’ve seen from authors talking about their own productivity or the results of the aforementioned word wars (also called word sprints, by the way, but ain’t alliteration always awesome?). So it’s entirely possible that your WPM score while writing is a bit lower. That’s not a failure on your part. This is considered “professional” output for a writer, on average. Practice makes the words flow faster.
So, at 20 WPM over an hour, you could produce 1,200 words. If you spend two hours per day working on your manuscript, you’ll produce a full 200,000-word novel in under 90 days.
Congratulations. You’ve written a full-length, industry-standard novel in just three months.
Make It a Habit
“But wait,” you might interject here. “You made a comparison to NaNo. It’s very common not to be able to finish just 50,000 words in a month. You’re talking about doing over 66,000 in the same period.”
Most people who do NaNo aren’t treating it like a job. I’m talking about putting in the effort of two hours a day, every day, just on writing. That means dedication, perseverance, and focus. It means putting down the TV remote, logging off of Facebook, and turning off the Xbox. It means that this isn’t a hobby where you just work when you feel like it; it means writing even when you don’t.
It also means not being a perfectionist. Yes, it would be great to have the story be perfect prose of the type that brings a tear to one’s eye. However, never let that get in the way of getting the story down. You can always come back and fix it later. Line edits are a lot easier to do in post; just be concerned with the story right now. Do your research, but once you gain what you need it’s time to get back to the book.
No, really. Don’t skip on your research; for example, don’t be like one author I worked with three years ago who had a book that hinged on a court case in a contemporary setting and didn’t actually check the statutes. That was a week-long mess working about ten hours a day to clean up just fifty pages of story. (I have that author’s permission to talk about that one. It makes for a great case study. It wound up much better in the end.) Aside from crucial stuff like that, it’s far more important that you get the basics down now and move on, rather than get mired in minutiae. That’s what second, third, fourth, etc., drafts are for.
Another reason to do this is that if you start selling well, your fans will want you to provide the next installment as quickly as possible. They’ll take the time to read other things, and that’s not a bad thing; but the longer you wait, the less enthusiasm they’ll have. Learn to write consistently now, and it’ll be easier later when you actually have deadlines. This happens a lot with published authors, more than you might expect.
In fact, let me just quote Larry Correia on this topic.
Think about this. How many times have you read a book from a new author, and it was good. Then the sequel came out, and it was just okay. And then the last book of the trilogy came out, and it sucked. And then you never hear of that author ever again. That’s fairly common.
The reason is that the author slaved and toiled and worried and worked and fought with every line of that first book, and they spent years polishing it. They sold it. It blew up huge. It may even win some prestigious awards. And the publisher came back and said great, here’s a check full of money, you’ve got six months to write the sequel. They panic and rush, because they spent so much time fretting over the first book that they never learned the habits of how to actually produce. It wasn’t a job, it was a labor of love. Then they got 6 months to produce the third. It is crap. Then they sulk away, never to be seen again.
That’s because there is a difference between a labor of love and a job. If you want to keep doing this stuff for a long time, you need to be a pro and treat it like a job. You can love your job, but you still need to treat it like a job.
I’ve seen this happen a lot, actually. Another symptom Larry Correia doesn’t mention there is that many such authors start taking a long time between books, instead of doing the work of clocking in and getting it done.
And I fell for this too, many years ago, before I started editing. What’s interesting is that the thing that turned me around on this was me hanging out my shingle as an editor. I’d originally picked it up as something extra to pay the bills, then focused on it after losing my day job. I went into it thinking of it as an actual job, with necessary turnaround times. I started as a subcontracted acquisitions editor, and even though I wasn’t required to I started writing things up as reports and analyses for why I was accepting or rejecting (well, actually, during that first time I never accepted anything) the manuscripts that came across my desk. These reports went to my boss, but she almost always sent what she thought was relevant to the author to help improve a later attempt, along with her own analysis of what she’d read herself.
We got lots of compliments and thanks for that, with one author even saying it was the nicest rejection she’d ever gotten. This is part of why I don’t charge for just reading a pitch; most editors won’t do it at all, and it’s important for an author to know where he or she messed up or they’ll just keep doing the same mistakes.
It’s a small service, it helps others, it doesn’t take much time for me, and it also keeps my skills sharp. Something I quickly learned in that first job was that if I made myself write down reasons, those reasons got refined, and I became a better editor and able to go through manuscripts more quickly. My job as an editor was not just to go through that pile, but also shape the future pile that would be coming from repeat authors and those who heard recommendations about us.
So the result was that I started seeing writing as something that has to be done on cue, not when inspiration strikes. I’d heard from some authors by then that you just needed to do it, and I never understood the idea of writing as a job until it actually was my job. The problem for most authors is that this moment won’t come until after they’ve published and their editor is asking when book two is ready. You have to build up the habits now.
It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over
So yes, it’s possible to finish a manuscript in three months, or even less if you’re spending extra time writing on the weekends. It can be difficult to get into that regular habit of writing every day. I suggest that if you feel it’s too much, then just start at a lower goal and work your way up. I knew one amateur who had a strict habit of writing something every day, even if it was just one word, because she didn’t want to lose that habit no matter what, even if she was going to “make it up” on another day. I have some recommended tips for productivity, but mostly it boils down to butt in chair, hands on keyboard.
“But wait,” you might ask, “If this is just a numbers game, then why don’t more authors publish more per year? They’re doing this full time, after all, not just two hours per day.”
Actually, most authors have day jobs, or at least something part-time to help the bills. Never quit your day job unless your writing is already pulling in enough for you to survive, and even then you should wait a year to build up savings and probably talk to a financial adviser first to see how secure your income will be.
There’s another factor, though. The manuscript isn’t done yet. Or rather, you wrote the first draft in three months, but now you have to do the rest.
Well, it’s not quite that bad; but yes, there’s still more to do. It’s more of the stuff that NaNoWriMo doesn’t prepare you for.
Do you remember the adage from college that you should always expect to put in twice as much time outside of class as you do in the actual classroom? No? Well, you should have. Writing is the same way; except in this case, it’s that you should always expect to spend twice as much time editing and rewriting as you did on the first draft. (If you’re going the traditional route rather than self-publication, then expect up to half that time to be spent with your in-house editor.) Once you factor in the time to look over proofs and okay a final printing run, that’s why so many professional authors only publish once every year or so.
Over time, with practice and especially a good rapport with your editor, this will start reducing. That, in turn, is why you see some authors becoming more prolific as they get more books under their belts. They usually spent that time writing short stories and starting new series rather than just jamming through more on the same thing, though; many people need to take breaks from having their heads in one subject for too long.
However, this too must be treated with the same care as the actual writing process. You need to focus on doing things every day if you can help it. Fortunately, if you’ve built up the habit of writing all this time, some of that will carry over to the more nebulous, hard-to-measure-by-word-count realm of new drafts and editing.
Incidentally, you’ll have to expect to cut a lot of words. This is not a bad thing; you want your novel to be tight, not sloppy. On the first draft, you’ll always have excess words because you’re just getting your thoughts down. On the next, and the one after that, and so on, you’ll find ways to say the same thing in fewer words. (That never means “fewer words” is always preferable; it means you should use the least amount to carry the same information to the reader. I mention this because I’ve seen people confused by this point.) For example, I’m currently doing an intensive edit on a sci-fi manuscript that started out at nearly 200,000 words. The author and I are only a sixth of the way into the novel, and we’ve already cut 8k. The resulting draft has trimmed extraneous paragraphs, streamlined description, and moved some things around entirely. This isn’t even the final draft, either; we’ve been collecting and refining the technology the author describes and keeping it consistent in a separate file, which will be used on another pass in sections we’ve marked for further edits later.
As a result, that 200,000-word manuscript may well turn out to be 160,000 when we’re through with it. (No, that’s not a mistake on my math, Remember, I just said we’re going back and adding in tech descriptions later. We’re just focused on the plot and storytelling on this pass, and we’ll tighten up the worldbuilding descriptions next time.) That would still leave this as a nearly 500-page book with traditional mass market printing, and possibly smaller in indie print-on-demand formats if the author goes for self-publication. That’s still a good size, especially since self-pubbed books that I look at are averaging between 300 and 400 pages.
So, in conclusion, you need to focus on these ideas:
- This is your job. Show up for work.
- Write when you’re on the clock, not just when you feel like it.
- Keep at it consistently, using whatever tools will help you build that habit.
- Don’t let the perfect manuscript in your head get in the way of the good one at your fingertips.
- Get the story down, even if you’re using excess words.
- Once you’ve done your research, don’t stress over the details; fix it in post.
- Set a daily or weekly goal.
- Keep it realistic. It’s always more fun to realize you can do better than to find out you’re doing worse than expected.
- If you have to skip a day, it’s not the end of the world; but keep track of it, and make it up later. Any day you don’t write is a day you don’t get paid for when you’re done.