Posted in Writing

Finish Your Novel by Sticking to a Schedule

Recently I tweeted the following:

Last month, while in the midst of prepping for my MFA oral and written exams, I desperately needed a creative outlet. I had just spent 14 months writing my MFA thesis novel. It was finished and turned in, and I didn’t want to start the next revision until after I had completed my exams and received feedback from both my agent and the professors on my committee. I had about a month of no fiction to work on, really, so I got to thinking: what if I wrote a short story?

There was one idea I’d been kicking around for about a year, and I figured now was the time to do it. But I was so busy studying for the exams and grading papers for the classes I teach that I wasn’t sure if I could actually produce a completed draft of fiction, even at short story length, I’d be happy with. I was used to writing fiction over the summer and winter breaks, when I had more time to dedicate to the project day in and day out. When I write my novels, I almost always stick to a 2,000-words-a-day schedule, and when I write my short stories, I usually aim for 1,000 words a day.

In this case, I knew I didn’t have the time and energy for 1,000 words a day, but I also knew I wanted to write this weird meta fantasy story. So on Monday, April 2, at possibly the most insane point of my MFA career, I said to myself: 300 words a day, five days a week. That would get me to 1500 words by the end of Week 1, and around 6000 words by the end of Week 4, my goal word count. I didn’t want this story to be a 10,000 word behemoth, but not exactly short either. My goal, ultimately, was to have a first draft completed the day before my oral exam, on Wednesday, April 25.

I enjoyed working this way, not feeling overwhelmed each day by trying to write an entire scene or a big chunk of a story, but instead motivated to hit the required words: 300. It’s nothing, really. Some days this took not even 10 minutes. Other days it took closer to 30, but never more than 40. And on April 25, I wrote the final sentence of my new short story Gretel, which topped out at 7400 words. By the time that weekend came (and I was finally able to rest a little), I marveled at the fact that I’d written the story in less than a month, and that it was everything I wanted it to be. And I only wrote, on average, 300 words a day.

When people ask me how I write so many books, I tell them about my rigid schedule of meeting a word count every day, and usually I’m met with blank looks. 2,000 words seem like a lot. Day after day? Week after week? Month after month? If you want to finish that novel, you have to find that time during the day you can dedicate to reaching a word count, but you do not by any means need to aim for 2,000. You can do 500, or hell, even 200. It’s not really about the amount of words you hit every day. It’s about being consistent with the words you do meet each day.

I’ve heard of writers who sit down at their keyboard once a week, usually on the weekend, and hammer out 6,000 words, or 8,000 words, or something crazy like that. Then they don’t write anything for 7 more days, until they sit down again and just purge onto the page. I’ve never written a novel like that, and I wouldn’t know how to.

The magic that comes from writing a set amount of words every day, without taking more than a weekend off, is that the characters really do begin to speak to you. They start to linger in your mind, almost live and breathe in a way, so that by the time you return to your chair the next day you’re ready to tell the next part of a scene or beginning of a chapter of that character’s journey.

Stephen King recommends 2,000 words a day, or 1,000 if you’re just starting out. Before I wrote my first book Slate back in 2010, I didn’t think I could write a novel. I knew I could start one — I’d started about five or more in the years prior — but figured I’d get lost somewhere along the way and abandon the project. For this book in particular, a story I’d been wanting to get off my chest in novel-form for going on two years, I decided to approach the work differently. Instead of writing a scene every few days, or tackling a chapter on the weekends, I decided to create a schedule and stick to it. 2,000 words a day. Every day. 7 days a week. Until the first draft was done.

At this time of my life I was working a 60-hours-a-week job. I came home every day around 8pm exhausted. I barely had the stamina to make dinner, let alone sit at my computer for another 2–3 hours and write 2,000 words. But I was so passionate about the story that I committed to the schedule, and didn’t let a single day go by that I didn’t reach my word count goal.

Suddenly, about 6 weeks later, I wrote THE END. I had a novel. It was 106,000 words of garbage, mostly, but I realized that day, and every day thereafter, that I could write a novel. And so that summer I wrote a second book. And that fall I wrote a third. And 8 years later, I’ve written 18 books, some of them crap, but many of them quite good. One of my newest books got me an agent last year. And my latest is my MFA thesis novel I believe to be my best work yet.

I would never have produced these books, would never have improved my craft in the ways I have, if I hadn’t stuck to a schedule. If you’re serious about writing a novel, I implore you to pick at least 5 days a week, a word count you want to meet each day, and then keep to your schedule until the manuscript is done. Go for 2,000 words a day if you can, like King suggests, but if you want to take it slow, aim for 500. Or even 200.

And then don’t deviate from the word count. Even if it takes a few months, eventually you’ll have a completed novel. And you’ll be well on your way to getting published!

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