So far, the biggest thing I needed to learn about writing a novel came from running: just like you can’t go from couch potato to marathon runner, you can’t just sit down and write 100,000 words. Even if you’ve done it before, even if you start at, say, 4 in the morning and write until midnight. Let’s break it down, just for fun:
100,000 / 20 hours = 5000 words an hour
But there’s a book with that title, so I guess that means it’s possible, right? No. Even if you can crank 5000 words in 60 minutes, you can’t do that over and over again, 60 minutes after 60 minutes, with no break1.
And if you’ve never written anything longer than, say, a 10,000-word short story before (raises hand), you definitely can’t spend 20 hours writing a novel.
But that’s ridiculous anyway, so why are we even talking about it?
The way I used to approach writing a book was:
- Have an idea
- Dawdle for a year or two
- Open a Word document2, and… start typing.
If this works for you, cool, but what I’ve discovered is I am definitely not a pantser: I need to plan things out. I need to know where I’m going, I need to know what the point of the scene I’m about to write is, how it serves to either move the character or plot forward (ergo, I need to know what the both of those are) otherwise I end up staring at a blinking cursor until my nose starts to bleed.
More to the point it doesn’t avail us to sit down and bang out two thousand words in a breakneck session and then write nothing for the next two weeks… because I don’t know about you but I want this novel done in months and not years. So back to the marathon metaphor: the way you train for a marathon is, you run just a little, and then a little more, and then a little more, and then a little more, until your “Oh, just going for a relaxing Sunday run” is still 15-20 K, like my crazy running friends.
Same deal here. I tell people I can do about 1000-1500 words in about 20-40 minutes 3, and that’s impressive to most people who aren’t writers in the same way as tossing off an “easy” 10 K is impressive to most people who aren’t runners, but we got here the same way.
It’s all a matter of training.
So: write a little, then write a little more. But here’s the thing, and I mentioned 5000 Words Per Hour before, here’s a big tip I took away from that book:
You need to track how much you write
- Choose a piece of spreadsheet software. Say, Numbers on the Mac, Excel on Windows.
- In one table (Numbers uses separate ‘tables’ on a single sheet, in Excel each sheet is basically a big table but you can just use different ranges of that sheet as little independent tables) make a long list of dates in one column
- In the next column, tally how many words you write per day
Do this. Right now, I’m serious.
My writing tends to fall into two buckets—The Almighty Novel, and Everything Else—so I use two separate tables. Novel Words, which is how many words I threw at the draft, and Total Words, which is Novel Words plus everything else I wrote that day, including notes and journal entries and, for example, this blog post. Here’s a pic:
I’ve dropped a handy chart in there with a trend line. That’s cute, but… what’s the point of this busywork?
The point is, I can see that if I keep up the current pace, in eight weeks I should be averaging 4000 words per day instead of 2500. And you can watch that trend line over time. When it starts getting shallower, you know something’s up.
We can look at ranges of time, too. Look at this period: Banging that novel out.
Yeah, baby. But in the last week or so, I’ve been limping along. Full disclosure:
Now I can pull back and examine… well, why? What else is going on in my life, what can I do to get back in the groove? This is where journaling comes in handy.
If you don’t quantify any of this stuff, you can’t grasp it by the neck and take back control.
The trend lines are there to reinforce this message: you can’t improve all at once, you improve a little over time. In his book Atomic Habits4, James Clear talks about getting 1% better every day. Like compound interest, this sneaks up on you: after a year of writing 1% more per day, you’re doing 37 times what you started with.
Let’s pause for a second, that’s ridiculous. So if you were writing 100 words a day, now you’re writing 3700. That’s a novel in a month instead of in three years. Gimme gimme.
And this goal is much more realistic, less threatening, less fear-inducing, than thinking “OH GOD I HAVE TO WRITE A WHOLE NOVEL???!!” No. Someday a whole novel will have been written by you. All you have to do is, write today. Try to write as much as you wrote yesterday. In fact, just try to write 1% more. And you’ll get there, eventually.
- And Chris Fox never suggests this, I’m not calling him out. Not only is that not at all my place, but it’s also a great book. ↩
- Literally don’t get me started ↩
- Depending mostly on how well I can visualize the scene, I’m finding out. Action pours out of me, two people talking in a room takes ages. ↩
- I may have mentioned this before. I will mention this again. Go read this book, seriously. ↩