Friday, 28 August 2009

Conveyor belt writing - 2

Yesterday, I showed you how to estimate the time it will take to produce a finished first draft for a novel. In the model, it took us 12 weeks to plot, research, write and edit the first draft. Today, we'll go through the next stages.

Assume, for the sake of argument, you started writing it on the 1st September. By the end of November, your manuscript is finished. Now what?

1st December, you send it out to your panel of readers. Ideally you want a mix of readers - some writers, some who like reading the genre. The 'reading readers' will tell you if it works as a piece of fiction. The 'writing readers' will tear the structure apart, savage the language, and in general cover the manuscript in red. To save costs and a few acres of tropical rainforest, I suggest you email the readers an electronic version of the manuscript, and, assuming they're using MS Word, ask them to 'Track Changes' - so all their revisions will show up highlighted. If they want to comment on any particular part, ask them to add notes.

How long will the readers take?

It doesn't matter!

Because on the 1st December, you're starting work on your next project. This is a conveyor belt, remember? You are totally dismissing novel A from your thoughts and working on novel B. For the next 12 weeks, you're producing another semi-polished first draft.

When the readers respond, and surely they will within three months - if not, send them a polite reminder. Do be polite because they're doing you a favour - thank them and promise to get back to them. Then carry on with novel B.

According to our model, you'll have finished that at the end of February.

Then what?

Send it off to your faithful readers. And begin the second draft and edit of novel A.

If you recall, we assumed that the first draft would take about 100 hours, writing at 1,000 words per hour. (Obviously plug your own figures in there.) Allowing a margin for error produced a figure of 120 hours.

How long will the second draft take?

You've been away from the story for three months. In that time, you've come up with some more and better ideas for parts of the plot. Your readers will have come up with suggestions. So, take some time, re-read what you've done, familiarise yourself with the concept. Immerse yourself in the action once more. Then consider your new ideas and the ones your readers have dreamed up. Choose the best, ignore the rest. Tighten up the plot, cut out redundant characters, correct factual errors. Let's say 30 hours for this + the surplus = 40 hours.

There isn't as much typing in a second draft. You will be re-using large chunks of the first draft, although perhaps moved around. You will be rewriting perhaps 30% of the story completely. You'll also be correcting all the errors your readers spotted.

If the first draft took 120 hours, shall we say this takes 60 hours?

The final edit - like the first, but with even more scupulous proofreading and formatting. I'm going to say 60 hours. Some might say it takes longer.

Then the final bit. You have to summarize your marvellous, genre-blurring, profound work of fiction in 500 words or less - the synopsis. You also have to produce a query letter, where the task gets harder - you have to describe theme and concept and give an overview in two paragraphs - the query letter. This letter you send off, perhaps with the synopsis and a couple of sample chapters, to as many agents simultaneously as you can.

The first time you do this, it will take quite a while - after all, you have to identify the agents who deal with your main genre, weed out those who are not accepting clients, or who do not accept email submissions.

Only do this once - record the details (email address, submission guidelines, contact name and phone number) in a database or a spreadsheet. Why do it each time you submit something?

I'm going to average out the time it takes to do this. Let's say 20 hours for the query, synopsis and submissions.


You're done. Time for a novel = 400 hours.

According to our figures, this second, post reader, bit took 180 hours (9 weeks).

Then immediately begin working on the second draft for novel B.

When you've finished and submitted that, write a couple of short stories. Alternatively, go lie on a beach, or sit in a bar, or climb Mount Everest.

Or, let's hope, work on yet another round of editing according to the diktat of the agent who agreed to represent novel A. Or talk to the director about the film version.

Using this conveyor belt system, you can easily produce 2 novels per year.

Tomorrow I'm going to ramble on about ideas and how there is no end to them.

Have fun!


  1. Of course, that does depend a great deal on your readers. Some of my readers (ahem, K.W.) have taken a while!
    Though I am intrigued. I think I will give this a try.

  2. You can't really push them - well if you're paying them I suppose you could. But of they're doing it for free, then they'll do it in their own time. Still, 12 weeks? In my case, about 6 weeks - that's how long it's taken me to do my first drafts.

    I've actually sent one out to readers this week, with another going out end Sept, and yet another end of Oct, so they're going to have to read fast!

  3. Writing isn't preparing for an exam. It's entirely irrelevant if it takes you 12 weeks to do the first draft, or 12 years.

    I would imagine if you send a manuscript to anyone who then doesn't respond in accordance with your personal timetable, the response to you gently, diplomatically asking them to hurry up won't be positive. Their feedback at the best will be hurried, and at worst, not entirely balanced.

  4. Hi whqttt. Yes, you are entirely right,it is irrelevant how long it takes anyone to produce a novel. Except for one factor. The longer it takes, the fewer novels you are going to write in a lifetime. The fewer you write, the less opportunity you have to master your craft.

    As for the readers, I always mention the criterion that I would like their response by date X. If they can't manage that, I have no problem whatsoever with them refusing to do it. I understand that they have busy lives themselves. I read for others, but if I can't manage to meet a deadline, I'll excuse myself and ask to be considered next time instead.

    As date X approaches, I do generally remind them, gently and diplomatically as you said, that the deadline is approaching. As far as I know, no-one has reacted adversely to that.

    Don't forget, we are talking here about treating writing like any other business. If I don't get enough responses from my readers by the time I've finished novel B, I can either go ahead myself with what I have, or start work on another project. There are always alternatives to ensure a continuous output of material from the factory.