Thursday, 27 August 2009

Conveyor belt writing

Yesterday I told you how I managed to convince my spouse that writing was more than a hobby - by using deadlines and third party involvement. Today I'm going to explain how I arrive at those deadlines. Of course, if I had agents, publishers and producers clamouring for my output, the deadlines would be externally imposed, but since that isn't happening (yet) I set my own.

The first thing to do is work out how long any particular piece of work is going to be.

A full length novel is typically 100,000 words; a novella - 40,000; film script about 30,000; short stories can be immensely variable, but let's say 8,000.

I know that something that starts out as a novella can turn into a trilogy of full-sized books. I also know from personal experience something that was meant to be a novel can come to an end after 50,000 words - it's shrunk to a novella. Maybe the writing was too hot? But let's assume for the sake of argument, that any given piece of work is going to be around the predicted length.

OK, so you're going to write a novel. What are the stages involved?

  1. Research and development Well, actually, it's the other way around. Work on the plot, sketch out skeleton scenes or chapters, identify your plot points - then work out what research you need to do. Go away and do it.

  2. First draft - pretty obvious, that one.

  3. First edit - by which I mean: adding the bits you forgot, or that are obviously needed by unexpected changes in the plot; removing bits that have become redundant for the same reason; and going through the actual writing to correct typos, remove waste words, change passive to active and so on.

  4. First reading - it goes off to a panel of readers to critique, do some editing, make suggestions, and proofread.

  5. Second draft - this is when you incorporate those readers' suggestions you want to accept and tighten up the plot, focusing more on structure. You will be re-using large chunks of the first draft, so far less typing is involved.

  6. Second edit - Either done by you or someone else - a final proofread, tightening language, formatting the manuscript correctly.

  7. Create query letter and synopsis, and submit.
Ok, that's it. All done. Those are the stages involved (at least for me) in writing a novel. Other writers may go through another cycle of third party reading and critiquing, followed by another draft and edit, but I don't. For the sake of this post, let's assume that you follow my model.

How long is it all going to take?

An impossible question to answer, you might think. Waiting for inspiration, struggling with stubborn plot issues, recalcitrant characters - I mean, how long is it going to take?

Remember, we're talking about production line techniques here. Never mind losing your Muse's number. Never mind the creative juices are suffering an unprecedented drought. We're treating this like any other business.

So, what do we know?

We know the first draft is going to be about 100K words.

How fast do you write? Work it out. Set aside one hour and write something fast and furious. Never mind the typos, the spelling mistakes, the inconsistent names. Ignore all of that. How fast can you physically write?

For me it's about 1,000 words per hour. It doesn't matter that half of them are going to be discarded. That's what the editing is for. We are going to steam through the first draft at 1000 words per hour. It's going to take 100 hours to complete the first draft.

Well, no it's not, because stuff happens. Allow some margin for error, unexpected interruptions, the odd natural disaster or two. Let's say 120 hours.

The R & D? Remember, this is a business. Assign a figure and make sure you stick to it. Let's say 30 hours. Add on the margin for error. Be generous. Give yourself 40 hours. That's equivalent to a full working week, Monday to Friday, 9 till 5. And don't forget, you're always advised to write what you know, so the actual research should be a few hours with Google and Wikipedia.

First edit - tricky. There's a lot to do, but remember, you still have another edit to come afterwards, so let's say it takes half as long as it did to write the entire thing - so 50 hours plus our margin = 60 hours.

From the very start - sketching the outline, to the end - an edited first draft ready to send to readers, has taken 220 hours.

How many hours can you definitely chisel out of the week to write? Why don't we pretend that you can absolutely free up 20 hours a week. Producing the intermediate product is going to take you 11 weeks. Add on one more week to cater for nervous breakdowns, plumbing leaks and swine flu.

Twelve weeks from the day you start, you have a finished first draft. Put it in the calendar. Time is money, the tide waits for no man ... the date on your calendar is the date you have to finish. Tell yourself your job depends on it. Sack yourself if you miss the deadline. Inform your readers now that you'll be emailing them the Word document twelve weeks from today.

Tomorrow, we'll go through the next stages - the second draft, the second edit and the submission.


  1. A week for a nervous breakdown is a fabulous idea! Although, if I had known I could have given myself a whole week for it, I think I'd have had a larger fit...

  2. Have swine flu as well. These things are always cheaper in bulk:)