How to write at least four novels a year is a simple matter of math.
People don’t like that answer, and I don’t really either. I want it to be something mystical, magical, something inspired by muses wearing dragonfly wings and wielding lightning bolts of inspiration. Sometimes, it is that. But mostly, it’s showing up at the page and getting the words down. Do the math: four seventy-five thousand word novels equals three hundred thousand words. Divided by 365 days in a year, that’s 822 (rounded up) words a day.
Even on my laziest, bitchiest PMS day I can do a thousand words. So can you. And if you can’t, writing more than four novels a year just isn’t the right goal for you.
I’ve written eighteen novels and a lengthy memoir in the last four years (a few of these projects not published yet) and people ask me how I do it. Honestly, I’m nowhere near as productive as some, but I’m as productive as I currently want to be.
And that, my friends, is where it all begins: in the mind. Examine your beliefs about writing. You probably have some myths you are believing that limit your output. Identify the beliefs that aren’t serving you and substitute new ones. For instance, I love the idea of a muse, but I’ve invented her as a happy, creative workaholic bubbling with ideas. So far, she’s never failed me, because I don’t believe she’ll ever run out of ideas or energy. Therefore, she won’t.
Here are some nuts-and-bolts choices I’ve made that help me keep producing the pages.
- Make a production schedule. I have the year’s writing projects planned out on a white board in little boxes by month. This allows me to add and erase, and integrate with other things going on, like holidays, vacations, relatives visiting, surgeries, etc. Other folks use spreadsheets, calendars or software of some kind. Whatever works! For me, going “old school” when planning stuff seems to help me get things nailed down better. Setting out annual goals means we’re twice as likely to achieve them.
- Set up/outline the books you plan to write. You could to this all at once, in Scrivener. Or use an Excel spreadsheet, like Russell Blake does. Or, on a whiteboard with a handwritten spiral pad for each book’s notes and outline, like I do. I write a one sentence “logline” for what the book is about: “Complicated woman with a past tries to solve a crime that echoes her own life” is one of my loglines. From that, develop a short summary of the plot. This technique helps you set your intention. Even if it feels unrealistic, ignore your own disbelief that you can do this, and push on through.
- Develop your main characters on paper before you ever bring them out to dance. I used to do mental health assessments and diagnose patients. I do that with my main characters before I start writing: what is their driving need? What is their pathology? What’s the family dynamics like? Social style? Physical appearance? Quirks? I call these Character Bios and they help me know a character before I ever interact with him or her on the page. Writing down things about a character that may never be seen in the story helps them leap out, well rounded, from the first word.
- Outline or plot the first ¾ of the book. Sometimes a new character will show up halfway through a book, but I try not to let that happen. I like to establish all the players within the first three chapters of a book. I don’t plot the last part, because even though I may have an idea about how I want it to end, that last part is where the magic happens. The twist, the surprise, the turn of the screw…for me, it can’t be planned. The characters generate it in that last blaze of foreward momentum, and it’s always better than when I try to set it up by manipulation.
- UNPLUG when it’s writing time. Oh, dear. I’m a social media addict. It really is my social life right now, so when I get stalled, I find myself flipping through Instagram photos or Facebook updates. This distracts me further and does not get the writing done! So I’ve taken to turning off and unplugging everything until I get my daily 2,000 words done (yes, that’s my personal daily goal. So I end up with more than four books a year!)
- Use tools to help you stay on track. Once I have my outline and my characters and my overall story, I’m plowing forward. I re-read the day before’s writing to get into the mood of the scene, and that’s the only re-reading or editing I allow myself. Once I have a clear idea of the scene I’m going to do, I use a program called Write Or Die, which uses negative reinforcement to keep you writing. You type into a text box, and as soon as you slow down or stop, the program makes noise and flashes ugly pictures until you get going again. You can set it to various response times and negative stimuli. (My current setting is Chaotic Noise and Grumpy Cat.)
- Develop habits to keep you writing. Our brains are wired to save energy expended through choice-making by developing patterns of behavior that are predictable. The original decision is the only one that matters: I’m going to write every day, a specific amount. Make that decision one time, then schedule it in. After the first six weeks (which it takes to chisel in a new habit) it won’t even be difficult to sit down and do. I started my writing journey doing 1200 words a day. That got easy, eventually, so I increased it to 1500. When that got easy, I busted into Stephen King’s daily output, which is 2,000 words. I aspire to eventually do 4000 a day, which I can, but which still takes a lot of effort at this point…again, small potatoes compared to giants like Russell Blake or Melissa Foster, but currently as obsessed as I want to be. The habit of writing every day has come to serve me so well that I don’t feel right unless I’ve done that word count.
- Have some fun. Even write-aholics need an occasional day off. I do take those, but then make up my word count the next day. I also vary my activities when I feel my brain getting sludgy—I will do something hands-on, like crocheting, gardening, or walking with no music or sound, allowing my mind to roam. I like to take in art exhibits, or put myself somewhere that I see interesting people, like the post office or my local mall, watching the people. I never fail to have a spark of new direction ignite by getting variety and new input, such as taking a class or a trip. Just be careful you aren’t using those things as an excuse to avoid the page!
- Acknowledge that this is going to change your life and make room for it. Writing at this level takes room. Mental room. Emotional room. Disciplinary room. Whether that room is early in the morning, late at night, or has now become your main activity, you will never write seriously until put it front and center as a priority, reducing other activities, cutting out empty socializing, pruning out anything or anybody that distracts or drains your energy. It may bring to the fore toxic relationships you’ve tolerated. Be prepared to get radical if you need to, to guard your writing energy. If you want to really write, energy vampires must go.
- But don’t lose sight of what really matters. Like your significant other. And your children. They will eventually learn to respect your boundaries if you consistently set them, but losing your family so you could write a YA fantasy about cross-breeding unicorn magicians…well. You’ll wake up and regret it someday. So find a balance.
I hope these tips help you get ‘er done. There’s a whole other blog brewing in my mind about how to write real quality as well as quantity. But I believe you have to write quantity first, before true quality comes consistently. Get your ten thousand hours (and words) in, and then we’ll talk quality.
Did I hit on anything useful? Got any ideas to add?
I cannot agree more about the importance of goals, discipline and outlining. Writing is a profession and a craft, as well as an art.
And thanks for the tip about outlining the first 3/4 of the book. I always try to outline to the end, but even when I do that, the characters keep hijacking the story.
Thanks for chiming in, Scott, and here’s to your next ending surprising even you!
The only thing I have a serious issue with here is the development of characters BEFORE they go on the page; I develop my characters by watching them ON the page. And yes, I’ve tried it the other way. I’ve done the bios, the character interviews, the plotting birthdays and favorite colors and food and…it utterly, completely killed my story. I felt like I’d already written the thing, since I already knew these people, and I stopped DEAD.
I personally do a “what-if” question. Which leads to one vivid scene. Which leads to the first chapter. Which leads to a complete synopsis–not cast in stone, but an outline more than anything. Yes, of the whole book. If I don’t know where I’m going, I inevitably end up somewhere else. 🙂 Which then, finally, leads to writing the book itself.
The fun thing about this process is, in many (MANY) cases…that first vivid scene hasn’t even ended up in the book itself. But does it inform, shape, and infuse the story? You bet it does. I can’t explain how it happens. I just know it does.
But for those of us who don’t do quite such an exhaustive process with our characters…I just thought I’d throw my two cents in about that. For some of us, talking with our characters diminishes any inclination we have to then tell their story to someone else. I prefer they act the story out on the page and surprise me a little!
Aloha Janny, thanks for commenting. YES, I actually agree (to a point.) I write a series, so characters have evolved on the page, and several have never had bios and, over the course of 10+ books, have grown nicely. You’ve also somewhat addressed the “plot only 3/4 of the story” point, because the characters want room to breathe, improvise, solve their own problems.
I find the bios helpful, though, as a sort of blueprint to start with, and now that I have a Kindle World with other writers using my characters and writing Lei Crime stories, having them has greatly helped consistency.
I appreciate your perspective, though, and it’s totally valid.
I’m curious how you deal with editing in the mix. I find it easy to get the output when I’m not editing, but I have a real bottleneck, as I write way less during editing/revising phases.
Hi RJ, thanks for asking. I’m working on another post on that: Editing your Quality Pulp Fiction. It’s a topic that deserves its own writing.
Is the 3/4 rule an original invention or from one of them writin’ books? It’s an intriguing concept. Please quit doggin’ it and get ahead in your wordcounts so you can go write/post the follow up on quality/editing! (Can you tell I’m in knee deep in the novel editing process?)
I am hoping to get that blog post up in the next day or so, check on back!
The 3/4 rule is from a long period of different kinds of attempts…I have done everything from no planning at all to detailed outlines to Scrivener, and this is what works for me with the police procedural/mystery genre. Yes, I have an editing process and it’s extensive! More in Editing your Quality Pulp Fiction.
Your post certainly nailed the biggest issue facing most authors—do I sit down and write or do something else? I’ve learned I’m a terrible multitasker, so the only way to accomplish my writing goals is to disconnect from everything else. The other suggestion I like to make to new writers is write, don’t rewrite. There will be plenty of time to rework the story after you know what the story is. But, until you finish, you really don’t know the ending.
Yeah…some folks said, how can the writing be good if its fast? Well. How can you improve it if you don’t get the words down?
Toby, this is such a great post–you make it seem so POSSIBLE to write novels by breaking the process down into these simple steps. Love it, love it.
Ha ha, we both know it’s not that easy!
These are very helpful tips, I’m struggling at times being distracted when I’m writing.
Great advice! I’m struggling to sit down and get 500 words out a day. I know it takes discipline and making that alone time a priority. Thanks for the inspiring thoughts Toby.
Thanks for commenting, I hope it was helpful!
Found you via a link to Passive Voice blog. Glad I did. I’ve been collecting articles and advice on increasing productivity and speed, and this one will be helpful. Thanks for writing it.
Thanks so much for the kind and positive comment! Mahalo, as we say in Hawaii!
As I sit here about to start my “writing day”, I’m smiling as I read all your tips. Great advice.
Loved the link to Write or Die. That red screen and the honking alarm noises certainly pushed me toward my small test goal.
Oh, and like Jodi above, I also found your article via Passive Voice.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to unplug. 😉
Happy productivity to you!!
If you have the drive, you can accomplish many things. Some of us are more hungry than others. I find my fastest writing is my main series. It’s easy since I know all the characters besides the few I might have to add to a particular book. I write far more than four book a year, but not 80k books. Most of mine are 50k, but with my first book I wrote 1k a day and finished it in two months. Thanks for the good tips!
Thank you! This rings true for me.
However, I’ve noticed that my personal rhythm seems to be
-summer: write a novel
-fall: write picture books and maybe blog essays
-winter: start editing
All with some transitions (often fraught with resistance) in between.
I do think that as I get better at “refilling” myself I’ll be able to write novels more year-round. But living in a northern climate (Minnesota), I’m likely to always run more prolific in the summer and be more withdrawn and inward-focused in the long, dark winter.