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How I wrote over 95,800 words in 34 days

By Emma on November 7, 2011

I almost deleted that title. I’m worried it sounds kind of sleazy, like a lead in to some sales pitch for a book that will teach you how to do the same thing too.

It’s not.

For one thing, I’m just going to tell you how I did it, without any kind of implication that you should do it the same way, or any hint that if you are “not capable of this too you are being a crap lazy good-for-nothing with delusions of being a writer” (don’t you just hate those kinds of tweets and posts?). This is just what works for me, and there are some pretty large caveats, which I’ll explain in a minute. But first, note that I didn’t say:

“How I wrote a book in 34 days”

Because quite frankly, I haven’t. I have written a first draft. That first draft is going to be combed through for details to put into my file so I don’t have to refer back to it when writing the next book in the series, and then it is going to be locked away until next year.

Then it will be edited by me. Twice.

Then it will go to beta readers.

Then it will be edited again based on their feedback.

Then it will be sent to my editor.

Then it will be edited again based on his feedback.

Then it will go to a proof reader (maybe two or three) and then it will be corrected.

Only then, after all of that, will I have written a book. And that is months and months away.

Why over 95,800 words?

Well, because I’m a stickler for detail mostly, and during those 34 days I wrote all the launch materials for the Split Worlds, a sprinkling of blog posts and lots of tweets and things.

But for this post, let’s focus on the 96 grand okay? Because that’s the first draft of the first book set in the Split Worlds.

So, if I’m not telling you how to do this, why I am writing about it?

Well, I know a lot of my friends online are currently participating in Nanowrimo, in which the goal is to write 50,000 words in November. I thought that I’d share what I did over October and the first 3 days of November, and if any of it resonates, then cool, I might have helped a Nanowriter.

I’d like to add at this point that in the previous three years I attempted Nanowrimo twice, and failed on both occasions.

Before I go any further, here are those caveats I mentioned:

1: Writing a five book series over the next year is my full time job. I write these books, I write the year and a day of stories, and now I am just beginning to promote (or rather, encourage other people to help me promote in return for prizes) the Split Worlds project. That’s all. No other day job to juggle, no other commitments other than being a mother and a wife.

2. This is not the first book I have written. Over the six or so years I wrote the 20 Years Later trilogy, along with all the short stories in From Dark Places (and others), I figured out how I write, what suits me and what does not. There is no way I could have done this six years ago.

3: I am contractually bound to deliver these books on a tight schedule. It’s not a hobby, or something I’m trying out, and I think that makes a difference in terms of motivation. I hasten to add I wouldn’t have it any other way, and I was the one who designed this schedule to fit with my strengths. But it did help on the odd day when I was knackered and just wanted to play Puzzle Quest.

So, now that I’m confident you know I’m not trying to sell you anything, or trying to tell you how to write (because for goodness sake, we are all different and we all need to find what works for us and there is no right or wrong way and if someone tells you that they are trying to sell you something – oh, sorry, rant over), here’s what I did.

I set clear and achievable goals

I didn’t know exactly how many words the book was going to be, but I knew it should be between 95,000 – 100,000 words to be about the right length for the series. So I set my goal at 100,000 words in five weeks, breaking it down to 20,000 a week, or 4,000 words a day 5 days a week.

Where I could, I split one of those into two 2,000 word days, but as a couple of those weekends had other commitments in them, it wasn’t always possible.

Why 4,000 words a day? Because I knew I could do it if I was focused only on that book, and I only knew that because of an experiment I did and wrote about here.

I used the agile approach to planning a novel

I’ve written about the agile approach elsewhere, but the last thirty four days have really proven to me that this approach is the perfect fit for the way my brain works. I simply cannot predict every detail of a book when I am sitting down to plot the beginning. That post I mention talks about it in more detail, suffice it to say that it works for me. It also allows me to feel ‘safe’ when I’m writing, in that I know where I’m going, but not too far ahead, keeping it fresh and exciting as I write. It allows me to excavate what is there without bludgeoning it into a shape I might have thought I wanted.

As a result, my ideas for book two have had some radical changes, mostly because a minor character turned out to be much more interesting than I thought. I love it when that happens.

I prioritised writing the book over everything else

Aside from making sure my little boy went to school in a clean uniform every day and that we all had clean clothes the rest of the time, the rest of my usual chores did fall by the wayside at times, I admit it. I let the house go to hell during the week before Bristolcon and the launch week as I simply could not fit everything in.

Housework will always be there, and writing books is simply far more important. Sorry Mum.

It also means that my inbox is terrifying. If it wasn’t critical, I didn’t answer it. Sorry every who emailed me, I’m wading through the emails this week.

I wrote when I had a cold, I wrote when I was tired and when I didn’t feel like it

My little boy started school in September. I was constantly ill for six weeks. Coughs and colds blended from one into the next as my little bean faithfully brought home every new germ in the county.

I drank Lemsips and got on with the words. I can tell you this, on some of those days I would have called in sick if I had a ‘normal’ job. But I couldn’t let the word count slip as the schedule doesn’t have room for it. And you know what? I didn’t want to stop anyway. Also; naps are beautiful things.

I fell in love with the Split Worlds

If I had got 10,000 words in and hadn’t done this, I would be in a lot of trouble. Thankfully, the more I write about and explore the Split Worlds, the more I want. Phew.

I had a lot of support from my husband

He’s pretty epic in the whole “being married to a mad writer” department already, but he was kind enough to let me barge in whenever he was doing something to help me unknot my brain about a silly detail, and we went out for coffee at least once a week to bounce ideas around. Just having someone else for me to burble at really, really helps. Thanks darling.

I took a day off from writing one day out of every week

Without fail, I made sure that there was no typing of any materials whatsoever at least one day a week, to help avoid RSI as much as giving my brain a rest. And it was necessary, as all that writing is draining, really, really draining. In a good way.

I did not look back

The major advantage of writing so fast and with this amount of focus is that I never really left the world. It meant I didn’t have to go and read a few chapters to “get back in” as I’ve had to on other books when I still had to earn a living doing other things. As a result, I didn’t accidentally start to edit before a day of writing.

Editing and writing require completely different parts of my brain. They are mutually exclusive for me, and being able to stay in writing mode helped keep the dreaded censor at bay and the doubts too.

Those thirty four days were all about discovering the best path through the story, exploring the world and working out exactly who the characters are – this series, like all my books, is character driven as much as (if not more) plot driven, so getting to know them inside and out is one of the most critical tasks. I know there are descriptions to improve, chunks of exposition and throat clearing to hack away and placeholder clichés to winkle out and replace with something better. But that’s for next year, when I put that first draft into my backpack and start the hike through the lands of editing.

And as I have said before, books (and heroes) are made in Editing Land.

If you have any questions feel free to ask in the comments. I’d also love to hear about how you approach the first draft, and if you’re nanoing (is that a verb yet?), how that’s going.

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{ 14 comments... read them below, or add one }

  1. Jo Hall says:

    Housework will always be there, and writing books is simply far more important – Thank you, you’re fab!

    Nothing compared to this, but I blitzed through the first draft of Art of Forgetting (208,000) in eight months. It practically wrote itself, which is a great feeling. Then, of course, i had to go through and take all the crap bits out 😉 Whizzing through it at top speed is a great way to get words on paper, and without words on paper, there would be nothing to edit!

  2. This is a great post. Every aspiring writer should read it. An astonishing and inspiring effort with some brilliant advice on how to keep going… Now comes the hard part.. EDITING!

    When I’m writing I have to lie and cheat and cut corners at work and be an absent husband and dad, evenings and weekends.. and neglect my friends, my garden, my wardrobe and my personal hygiene until I get to where I want to go.. But one complete day off a week is a really good idea… (if you can do it!!)

  3. Diana says:

    Amazing story and effort. And I can’t imagine having to go through this kind editing process after finishing a mosaic!

    • Emma says:

      You know, I never thought of that. Do you ‘edit’ as you go along when working out a design? I love your work, would be fascinated to learn more about your process x

  4. Congratulations and what a great attitude! Professional, hardworking and dedicated, no wonder you’re doing so well!

  5. christy says:

    Hi Em . I never completely left. Only mostly. And it was totally me and not you. Honest and truly.

    I’m sticking up my head to tell you how overwhelmingly pleased I am for you. I’ve always wished you nothing but gushing success, and now you’re living it.

    It’s just lovely. And perfect. And wonderful. And a hell of a lot of hard work. 🙂

    Good on you.


  6. Caroline says:

    Fascinating. Congratulations!

    And I love the bit about the housework. 😉

  7. Joe Duncko says:

    Posts like this make me look into the future and say “if they can do this, so can I”. I love writing, and my dream is to write full time. I may be a teenager, but reading these make me excited for the future I am preparing myself for. Thank you for sharing your experience, and congrats on the word count!

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