Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Write a Novel in 90 Days (or Less!)

So I'm about 8, 000 words into the sequel to TRANSCENDENCE (still a little bit of a thrill to actually write that) and it's occurred to me that I've learned a few things since I sat down to write my first book that might possibly be helpful to someone.

I have people come up to me all the time and ask how to write a book. My standard answer is that I don't know. Because I don't. For me, writing is like seeing a movie in my head and writing down what happens. But then I started to think, that, except for the magic part of the whole thing, I actually do know how to write a book because I've done it four times already (yes, I only have one novel published and one coming out next year - your math isn't wrong). And I have a guaranteed way to do it in 90 days. I wrote both DIRTY LITTLE SECRETS and TRANSCENDENCE in about three months each. (So what do I do with the rest of my time? It's called authoring, as opposed to writing, but that's another topic for another day.)

And the secret is...are you ready for it?....write 1,000 words a day, every day, no matter what. Thanks for reading, I hope that helps.

Wait, what? You need a little more? Okay, there actually are some guidelines for this groundbreaking butt-in-chair writing method.

1. Commit to write 1,000 words a day. I pick this number because honestly, it's not that much. Maybe an hour, maybe an hour and a half if I don't know exactly what's going to happen. 1,000 words in a standard, double-spaced manuscript with an average amount of dialogue is about 3 pages. You can do three pages, can't you? If you write really slowly (I always say that the typing course I took in 8th grade was the single most helpful thing I ever did), then you can change your word count to something like 500 words a day, but that moves you on to our 180 day guarantee. I have to keep myself accountable, so I write the date and the word count on the back of the notebook I use for, well, notes and stuff I print out from the internet. 1,000 words a day for 90 days = 90,000 words or about 300 pages, which is about how long my books tend to be these days.

2. That's every day. But what about Sundays? Or birthdays? Or soccer tournaments? Too bad. No matter what else is going on you have to commit to 1,000 words a day. Get up early, stay up late, stop watching TV, write during practice. I wrote most of DLS in a cold, drafty gym waiting for my son to finish his workout. Even people with crazy schedules can find the time if they want to badly enough. Looking at my notebooks, I see that I started both DLS and TRANSCENDENCE on November 17th. Why? I have no idea, but I had to force myself to work through the craziness of Thanksgiving and Christmas. Last Saturday was packed with soccer and a pizza party we threw here at the house until fairly late. I was exhausted, but sat down at 11pm to do my 1k because I had to. The secret here is that it's not about word count per se, it's about sitting down and opening the file every day (we'll talk more about that later). If you're going on vacation for three weeks and know you won't write every day, then don't start the book yet. Which brings me to the next point....

3. Don't start your book too early. You know when a great idea hits you. You get that excited feeling in your stomach and your mind starts racing with possibilities. You feel like you should run to the laptop or notebook and start writing right away. Well, don't. Every idea needs time to stew and develop. For you to get to know the characters and the plot, even if it's subconscious. I got the idea for DLS from a magazine article I read in August, but started writing on November 17th. That's about the right amount of time for me. Your mileage may vary. Someone on chat asked last night when you know it's time to start writing. For me, it's when I find myself saying bits of dialogue out loud and I have a great first line.

4. Don't fly blind. Yes, my favorite writing quote is still the one over there on the sidebar about driving at night, but you do need to know that there's a road somewhere beneath you. I've tried a lot of different ways, from the 9 Point Plot Process to the method laid out in Blake Snyder's SAVE THE CAT (which I love), and find that I like a mashup of several different methods. I do like to have a lot of scenes plotted out on my bulletin board before I start so I have some idea of where to go, but leave a lot of room for the magic to happen where I have no idea why the characters are driving to the zoo, but I just go with it. This is the board for the sequel to TRANSCENDENCE (it was called FATED, but we're changing it - will NYT bestselling authors please stop stealing my titles!). Each card is a scene, and they're divided into acts. You might notice that the last two acts, basically from pages 151 to the end are a little...um...skimpy. That's because I get bored outlining and planning. This is enough info to get me halfway through the book. At some point before I reach the halfway mark, I'll go back and write a bunch more scenes for the last half of the book. You only need to stay a little ahead of yourself so that you don't get stuck.

4. Can you 'bank' words for the next day? No. Are you really on a roll and want to keep on going until you've cranked out 4k for the day? Awesome! Go right ahead. But you still need to sit down the next day and write your 1k. The deal is that it's not so much about word count as it is about sitting down and opening the file every day, whether you feel 'inspired' or not. It's like skipping class in college. I used to go as long into the semester as I could without skipping a class, because the first one is the hardest and the rest were easy. If you go one day without writing a word on your manuscript, it's that much easier to not open it the second day.

5. What if you get writers block? Then just write garbage. That's right , 1k of complete crap. Stuff you know you're going to dump. It's all in the doing, not what's done. Eventually, you'll get back to a place where it's working again, and you might surprise yourself that what you wrote isn't a total loss.

6. Can you revise as you go? Yes, but you still have to keep up word count, which is why I suggest not doing heavy revisions until the first draft is done. Yesterday, I was trying to get the first chapter in shape to show my editor, but my darling and wonderfully harsh critique partner insisted I cut a bunch of fluff, which amounted to over 1k words. That stunk, but she was right, so I did it, and then had to add enough words to make the final count for the day 1k over the count from the day before. Does that make sense? If you start with 5,500 words from the day before, and then cut 1,000 words, then you have to add 2,000 words that day to make up for it. Sound unfair? It probably is, but those are my rules.

7. Writing is not a 365 day a year exercise. At least it's not for me. I know Stephen King would probably disagree (and if you haven't read his On Writing or Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird you should). I do the 1k-every-day thing until the first draft is done, and then I go and do other stuff like revising, copyediting, website improvement, playlists, laundry and dishes. I can get about two books done a year at this point without completely burning out, and books are wonderfully cyclical in what they demand from you - create, fix, wait, promote.

8. What about punishments/rewards? I don't use them, but you can if you want. The guilt of not completing what I set out to do that day, combined with the crankiness I always get if I'm drafting but haven't done my count for the day is enough for me. Although I never say no to chocolate and I drink a ridiculous amount of coffee.

I hope some of this helps you zero in on the method that will work best for you. As for me, I only got 50 new words done this morning, so I'm off to do the other 950.

16 comments:

HelenL said...

Wonderful post! I especially like your point about not starting a draft too early. I've done that SO many times, and you're right - it never works. Kudos to you for your discipline and dedication.

kiperoo said...

Love this so much, especially because I've seen you make it happen! I'm hoping to follow in your footsteps, so all these tidbits are definitely helpful. :-)

geekgirl said...

I love this. Such great advice.

-geekgirl

Heather Zenzen said...

I love this, especially the part where skipping the first class was the hardest, then it became easy. SO TRUE. My current MS has been SO slow going, but this summer's been crazy, and I bet that's why. I haven't been diligent about getting my words in. That will all change. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

i love you cynthia- it is your same philopophy about tidying up on a daily basis !!! i love your passion and who you are K

CJ Omololu said...

Kip, you flatter me ;)

Glad this helped you guys. And Heather, I totally get it, which is why I started writing this book the day my kids went back to school.

Joanne Rocklin said...

Wonderful, wonderful post. Especially, for me, the part about not starting until the good idea hits you, and that writing is not 365 days a year! Actually, every section had something useful. Thank you!

CJ Omololu said...

Thanks Joanne. I've realize this post was also a way to keep myself accountable. Now that I've put it out there publicly, I'd better do it!

nicóle said...

Excellent advice. I've given myself daily word goals before but I've gone and skipped a day and that day will eventually turned into a series of days which leaves me feeling defeated.

I'm off to get my thousand words in before it's time to pick up my son from school.

Cheers!

nicole
www.writespell.com

Jean Reidy said...

Great post, Cyn, and oh so inspiring. This is why I'm a fan of NANOWRIMO - because it gets my butt in the chair.

I would love to see a follow up post about your next steps. Because that's where I tend to get stuck. I crank out my first draft and then take FOREVER trying to revise and perfect it. Our loving agent even noticed that I'm a little "slow" with fiction.

I loved your point about letting an idea simmer. That's probably my favorite part of the process - collecting all those nuggets in a notebook and being fully prepared when the day comes ... to begin.

CJ Omololu said...

Yay Nicole! That's why skipping makes it sooo much harder.

Good idea Jean - I'll post some of the next steps too. And slow is okay, as long as you get it done. There's that old saying, "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good." That's what editors are for.

erica and christy said...

I think of not writing as "skipping church". You feel really guilty the first time, but after awhile it gets easier. Within a month, you're not even thinking about writing (church). Yikes, don't do that (in this case, the writing part of it!)
erica

Liz Czukas said...

CJ, this is fabulous! I tend to be feast or famine writer. Sometimes I can do 70K in 3 weeks, other times I'm scraping out 100 words a day. I really like the idea of going for 1K for the short burst. Very doable.

Thanks for the nudge and the perspective. I CAN'T WAIT to read your next novel. I LOVED Dirty Little Secrets so much!

- Liz

CJ Omololu said...

Thanks Liz! I hope it helps.

Erica, you couldn't be more right, which is why I'm sitting here at 11:22 on a Sunday night after a late dinner party to finish my 1k. Can't skip!

Anonymous said...

So helpful!!! This is totally going to help me. Thanks!

Lilivette said...

Seriously, thank you so much for writing this!! It's great & very very very helpful! And yeah, I always get that felling of like watching a movie & writing it down & well, at least now I see that that's normal, haha. Ok, enough said. Thanks & bye, peace! :)