Thursday, January 15, 2015

Back to How To Write a Novel

Daily Productivity

James O Born

One of the biggest changes for me once I became published was recognizing the fact that I could no longer spend several years on a novel.  There were deadlines and revisions and an entire life to live outside the world of writing.  It was a transition at first, but took less than a year to fall into a routine.  When I say routine, I don't mean a routine that wears you out, but understanding how much work I needed to do each day to stay on track and not feel severe pressure from deadlines.

I'm writing this during the month of November, which I am told by reliable sources such as the blog site Writers Who Kill  is national write a novel month.  Paula Benson, my friend who penned the piece, points out several instances of famous writers who could produce quickly if needed.  One example in particular I liked was Ray Bradbury, who would use a typewriter at a university which required a ten cent an hour fee.  It forced him to write quickly and creatively.  It should be noted to anyone who wishes to whine about the time required to write effectively that Ms. Benson, although she would never admit this, is almost solely responsible for the effective administration and running of the entire state of South Carolina.  I look forward to your e-mail on the subject.

Side note: I started this blog in November but deadlines and holidays delayed it.  I’m revising and editing it on January 14. 

Over the last decade I’ve attended dozens and dozens of conferences and sat on panels that discussed every aspect of writing.  I can remember one in particular, Mystery Florida in Sarasota, Florida, where I learned quite a bit about the process of writing.  I was on a panel with the late Stuart Kaminsky, a MWA grandmaster and all-around good guy, who said he wrote about thirty-five pages of text a day.  To keep it in perspective, I generally shoot for about 1000 words or five pages of text a day.  That keeps me frazzled and frail, yet this man who was twenty years my senior had no issue with it.  I kept my yap shut about my productivity during the panel.

On a separate occasion at Mystery Florida, Michael Connelly made an offhand comment that he felt that, at and minimum, you should work on a novel in progress at least 30 minutes a day.  For some reason that resonated with me.  I suspect it's the fact that it wasn't a great amount of time that I had to absolutely dedicate every day.  It's also important to understand that Mr. Connelly is a graduate of the University of Florida and anything a UF grad can do, I can do better.  Except, apparently, write best-selling novels.  Regardless, Mr. Connelly, who is well-known in the Mystery community as a slacker, imparted an idea to me which has stuck with me ever since.  I'm not saying I only work half an hour a day, but I always work at least 30 minutes each day.

Another interesting offhand comment I heard once was from my good friend Bob Morris, unfortunately also a graduate of the University of Florida.  When asked at a panel at Bookmania in Stuart, Florida, how many words a day he wrote, his response was both logical and pragmatic.  He said that since he had been a columnist for newspapers most of his life he felt like 750 words a day was about right.  That also made me consider the issue more carefully.

It's easy for me to say that I write 1000 words a day, but then there are other issues to consider.  Are those edited?  Are they re-edited?  Are they revised and edited a third or fourth time?  Because that's what the finished product really is.  A thousand words or five double-spaced pages doesn't sound overwhelming to me.  I can tackle that in a day.  The next day I will have to edit those thousand words and then write another thousand.  The day after that I will edit the 2000 words and write 1000 more.  I think you're starting to get the picture.  It's not that easy.

I have a number of friends who now make the majority of their income through books which are sold on Amazon or other e-book retailers.  One of the things I've noticed each of them comment on was how important speed was in producing a book.  They wanted to have as much product as possible on the bookshelf, so to speak, to get Amazon to notice their books and start to promote them.

The big question becomes, "how fast is too fast?"  I think the answer is that it depends on each writer.  Everyone has their own process.  Jonathan King, the Edgar award winning author once told me he had to think about a book for months before he could start working on it.  I like that idea.  It gives me a chance to think about a book while I'm doing other things.  You might notice that this is something I have advocated on this blog a number of times.  If you're a runner there is no better time to consider your novel than while completing your early morning jog.  If you enjoy yardwork, most of the time you can be thinking about your novel while you're prunning your rose bushes.  If you make your living dismantling bombs for the military, that is one of the few jobs I would say, “Keep your mind on the task at hand.”

For the rest of us, you get the idea.

Is writing a novel in a month a good idea?  That depends on what you're trying to accomplish.


  1. A novel in a month is ridiculous.

  2. I agree with Anon, although I once read that Anne Rice wrote INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE in 6 weeks to meet a contest deadline.

    I've never been able to keep a word-count goal because I keep fiddling with word choices and sentence construction. Mostly, I just write until I get too tired to go on. Sometimes that's 8 hours and sometimes it's fifteen minutes. I try not to judge.

  3. Jim, as usual, you give me far too much credit. Thank you for your kind words. As much as I would like to, I have not yet been able to finish a novel in a month, although I have friends who say they have. I really appreciate your mentioning Michael Connelly's advocating a half hour a day work on a novel in progress. That seems very manageable. Also, I agree with you completely that thinking is part of writing. In fact, I'm working on a blog about that subject. Mind if I quote you? :)

  4. Sometimes I go days without writing anything, but I'm working out the story in my mind. I've created some of my best character conversations and scenes while waiting in the grocery line or doctor's office. When I finally plant my behind in my chair, it all comes tumbling out and I write pages and pages. I'm getting older, though, and can't remember as well, so I have to jot down my ideas, or they are gone forever.

  5. James O. Born1/15/2015 12:58 PM

    I also make notes but I use a program called ever note to keep track of all my ideas. As always, I'd like to explain that there is more than one way to complete a task.

  6. from Jacqueline: I was once asked at a bookstore event why I couldn't write two or three books in a year - I said, "OK, so the choice is yours - couture or off-the-peg." I do my best to get as close to "couture" as possible. Stephen King reckons you can lay down the first draft of a novel in three months if you write 1200 words a day. I like that, however, my goal is 1000-1500 per day, and I never, ever edit as I go along. In the first draft I am the storyteller. I have the clay on the wheel, that's all. Then I change mode for the revision - which is both a creative and technical process. But anyone who thinks that all writers have to do is write, well - Jim, we know you've told us otherwise! There's the emails, the promotion, communications with publishers, with archivists for research, trips to specialist libraries, or in my case - other countries! Add it all up, and you can just about squeeze in that 3 months for the first draft! However, I used to lose sleep if I didn't hit 1200 words a day. Now I don't. I do what I can, but I keep the goal in mind. No going to sweat if I don't meet it - life's too short.