How Not to Write a Novel (In 22 Super Easy Steps)

Hi, friends. I don’t know if you heard, but I wrote, like, one whole book. So yeah. I’m basically an expert and thought it was high time I broke down how to do it for you peasant, unwriterly folk. See below for a foolproof writing process. Patent pending.

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How Not to Write a Novel

  1. Decide you want to make a million dollars and realize the easiest way to get there is becoming an author. Because duh writing books is super profitable (ever heard of a little fellow named Harry Potter?

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2. Go with the first story idea you ever had. Who cares if there’s no logline, hook, or plot? How hard can it be to string together 70,000ish words?

3. Dream about book signings and brunches with your imaginary editor. Write nothing.

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4. Do some research and learn you need an author “platform.” Begin tweeting in earnest. Stalk agents on Twitter. Decide to write about writing on your blog even though you’ve never finished a book because HEY EVERYONE ELSE IS DOING IT. Avoid writing book at all costs.

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5. Decide outlining is for people who aren’t TRUE artists (aka: not you). Besides, you know the beginning and the end, how difficult could the middle be?

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6. Very, very difficult as it turns out.

7. Despair

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8. Repeat step 7

9. Repeat step 7

10. Repeat step 7

11. Delete second half of book with one stroke of the key.

12. Repeat step 7

13. Give up all dreams of being a TRUE artist and outline the dang thing

14. Rewrite second half of book (sprinkle in a healthy dose of step 7 along the way)

15. Re-read draft immediately after typing THE END. Decide it’s brilliant. Query immediately.

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16. Repeat step 7. Add red wine and obsessive email refreshing, waiting for the inevitable multiple agent offers because obviously every agent in the biz should be able to see that your novel will change literary history as we know it.

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17. Stop. Collaborate. Listen.

18. Start over. Write an actual book with an actual plot and believable characters.

19. Revise aforementioned book until you hate it more than the Grinch hates Christmas.

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20. Let it sit for a while and then revise some more.

21. Query in a healthy, realistic manner.

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22. HA! Jokes. That’s not a thing. Repeat step 7 for all time and eternity.

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How I Wrote 50,000 Words In Two Months (While Working Full Time)

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In January I set a short term writing goal for myself: write 50,000 words of my manuscript by March 1. Last Wednesday, February 28, I typed my 50,092 word.

During this time period I had 42 writing sessions averaging 30 minutes each. I was working full time and also happened to be revising my first novel for an agent simultaneously (that’s a story for another time). When I hit my wordcount goal no one was more shocked than me.

I’m a perpetual goal setter, but I almost never accomplish the tasks I set out for myself. That’s fine. I still get farther with goals than I would without them. But I wanted to figure out why this time was different. What did I do more effectively? How could I duplicate it for future goals?

First drafts are the hardest part of the writing process for me. I am terrible first drafter. I know everyone says that in a really cute “aw shucks” kind of way, but I really mean it. My first drafts rarely even contain complete sentences. I’m lucky if they contain discernible words.

I’m an Editor by trade and writing doesn’t click for me until I have words to work with. I hate writing every word of first drafts and so I made it my goal with this project to get the first draft over with as soon as possible. Getting these bad words on the page quickly is crucial because the important work of shaping and coloring in the novel will take much longer.

So I launched an investigation to figure out how I wrote 50,000 words in two months while working fulltime. I identified five key factors that set my writing approach aprt:

Five Tools That Helped Me Write 50,000 Words In Two Months

1. Set a goal in the Sweet Spot

The first thing I did that helped me accomplish my goal was setting a reasonable goal in the first place. I found the Sweet Spot.

The Sweet Spot is a target difficult enough to be a challenge, but reasonable enough to keep you motivated. For me, writing 25,000 words would have been too easy, but writing 75,000 would have been so difficult I wouldn’t have bothered to start. Fifty thousand words was the Sweet Spot. A stretch, but within reach.

To find the Sweet Spot first list your Unattainable and Too Easy goals.

So for example:

Unattainable: 75,000

Too Easy: 25,000

Sweet Spot = Unattainable Goal – Too Easy Goal

The Sweet Spot is the difference between these two goals. In my case, 50,000 words.

2. Quantify your goal

If you are a creative, quantifying your goal might seem counterintuitive. After all, how do you quantify art? (Insert smug mustache twirl thing here). But if you want to improve and set measurable goals than you have to choose a way to track what you are doing and how it’s working.

Measuring quantitavely in this sense, is not about measuring quality, it’s about measuring output.

Everything is quantifiable. If you are a painter, you might track how many days it takes you to finish a painting and how many hours per day you spent working on that painting on average. If you are a runner, you might track your time and mileage. If you are an actor, you might track how much time you spent practicing and how many auditions you attended.

By keeping track of my creative output, I was able to see what on earth I was actually doing. Because I kept detailed records of when and how much I wrote, I know that the most I wrote in one day was 3,000 and the least was 560, and that my average was somewhere around 1,200.

It also helped me to identify patterns. I write much faster and sustain energy for longer periods of time, later in the day. Most writing advice says you should write in the morning. I can do that, but it’s not the most efficient way for me to write. Tracking my writing made me realize I need to plan my writing sessions later in the day.

The only way to know what works best for you is to keep track of it. Lots of random internet advice told me I needed to get more sleep, but when I Heatmapped I discovered that I was actually happier with less sleep. Don’t take other people’s advice on what will work for you. Find out for yourself.

PS: If you’re not sure how to start keeping track of your time, I wrote an entire post on Heatmapping—the best tool I’ve found for quantifying personal goals.

3. Outline outline outline

As with many things in life, planning for success makes success more attainable. I’ve always outlined my projects, but normally I ditch the outline 1/3 of the way through. This is fine, but it meant I would start each writing session with, at best, a vague notion of what I needed to write. Over the last two months, I ended my writing sessions by jotting out a detailed outline of what I would write the next day.

This doesn’t just apply to writing. If you are a runner, make a running schedule. If you are a painter, sketch out what you want the finished product to look like. Start each day knowing exactly what you need to do on that particular day to reach your goal.

4. By law you get a lunch break. USE IT.

This one only applies to people who have goals outside of their bill-paying jobs. I have a fulltime job and consider myself very lucky to be employed. But my job means I have to think carefully about when I can write and need to make use of the free time I have.

I work all day, but I do get a lunch break. I outfitted my iPad with a mini keyboard. Now I have a lightweight writing device I can use to write during my lunchbreak. That’s a solid hour of writing every day.

One thing I’ve noticed about my friends who work office jobs is that they rarely take lunch breaks. Your company is legally obligated to give you a break during the workday. Don’t be a martyr. Take it.

5. Do NOT revise as you go. Ever.

The final thing I did that made a huge difference was not reviewing my work. I didn’t read a single word of what I had written. I just kept going.

Why is this important? Because starting a project is fun, but it’s easy for me to get so bogged down in perfecting the beginning that I never reach the ending. Perfectionism prevents completion.

Most dreams die in progress. Lots of people have first chapters of novels that they’ve edited to death. Few people have finished manuscripts. The first chapter, first sketch, first rehearsal, isn’t important. Finishing is important. And to finish you need to look forward, not backward.

For my last project, it wasn’t until the final draft that I started the story in the right place. The first chapter that I slaved over for months didn’t even make the cut. It wasn’t necessary. You will save yourself tons of time and energy if you commit to seeing a project through without trying to fix it as you go.

So there you have it. Five easy things that made it possible for me to write more efficiently and to have more fun while doing it. What about you? How do you reach challenging goals while meeting other life obligations? Comment below so I can steal your ideas!

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