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How I Write a NovelMay 23, 2012

"How do you write a whole book?" I get asked this a lot, and I thought I'd take a moment to answer it specifically rather than with my usual generic answer, "A little bit at a time." While this answer is true, I don't think it's very helpful. It certainly wouldn't have been for the younger me, the one who only wanted to write but could never actually seem to get her butt in the chair to do it, and when she did finally get seated at the desk, usually just ended up playing Solitaire. 

But dude! I just finished my sixth book. SIXTH! So I've changed. It can be done. 

This is my process. It works for me. Your process will be different, but if any of these tips help, I'm glad to share them with you. (And in the comments, let us know what techniques work for you!) 

1. Don't Wait For the Muse. 

As Nora Roberts says, "Sister Mary Responsibility kicks the muse's ass every time." The muse is a fickle beast, and she usually only strikes me in the middle of the night. I'm a GENIUS at three in the morning. However, since I never write down what she says (because I know I'll remember it later), I don't get that much from our relationship. 

In my mind, the best way to write would be to find a whole day or better yet, a whack of days, during which I could lock myself in a hotel room overlooking the ocean and write the better part of a book. 

That doesn't work. The time never comes. I spent, oh, ten years trying to find the perfect block of time, convinced it was always coming up in the next few weeks. 

Instead, the only thing that works for me is to just work every day. Every day. I work from 1 to 8 hours, usually more on the 2-3 hour side. (This gets me two books done a year while still working 60 hours a week at the day job. But I've got no kids and I don't have cable. Your mileage will vary.)

On the days when I go to the day job, I work on my breaks, only as much as I can fit in. I don't stress too much about those days. 

But on every day off, I get up and go to the cafe. Getting out of the house is key for me -- if I'm home I'll find something to clean or organize or DO. At the cafe, they frown when I start to organize the paper cups.

Of course, I could always lose myself in the internet at the cafe, which is A Bad Thing, which leads me to...

2. Freedom

I've written about this a million times, but it bears repeating. This is a $10 program (with a free trial) for the Mac and PC that kicks you physically off the internet. You tell it how long to go offline, hit your password, and you're locked out. The only way to get back in is to actually shut down your entire computer and reboot (which, let's face it -- we've all done it once or twice). 

So I get to the cafe, grab my coffee, and allow myself to check email while I eat my carrot muffin. Then WITHOUT THINKING or arguing with myself, I hit Freedom, enter 45 minutes, and enter my password before I can talk myself out of it. Bam. I have nothing else to do but work. And if, while I'm working, I think of something that I must know from the internet, I jot it down, thus clearing it from my brain. 

After 45 minutes, the computer bonks and DING DING DING, twitter and email messages fall from the skies like confetti. Then I give myself 15 minutes to screw around.

Then I do it all over again. 

3. Write or Die

Also ten bucks (or free if you use the online version), this is THE ONLY WAY I write a first draft. It's simple. Write or Die is like a sweet little cattle prod to the imagination. It makes you keep writing. I like the intermediate level, where your screen turns red and then it makes a terrible noise if you stop writing. (I do NOT use the level in which it erases your words if you don't keep writing, but it amuses me to know that it exists.) 

See, I just lose track if I'm not using it. I open a document and start writing. An hour later, after taking long sips of coffee and absentmindedly staring at people with weird hair in the cafe, I will have 500 new words on the page. And I'd swear to you that I was doing the best I could, writing as fast as possible. 

Then I turn on Write or Die (for first drafts, I usually dive into Freedom and Write or Die at the same time, for 45 minutes) and three quarters of an hour later, I have 1500 words or so. 

Yep, some of these are crap words that I won't end up using, but I would have written those anyway. And it's astonishing -- your voice is your voice is your voice, whether it's a "good" writing day or a "bad" one. You end up using a lot of those words. Some of them are exactly what you needed and never would have come up with while staring out the window. There's something about the pressure of having to keep the cursor moving to the right that makes you figure out solutions to the problems on the page in ways you wouldn't normally think of. 

(I just finished writing a novel, and the first draft was so difficult for me at one point, I had to go into Write or Die for 15 minutes at a time. Just 15 minutes. I always got more words that I thought I would, and I got through that slump. You do what you have to do.)

It's that idea of Flow, right? Getting into the state where time disappears and everything disappears except the work in front of you. I have the best chance of doing this when I'm forced to work fast, which disables my inner editor (oh, I hate that cranky bitch). Another thing that helps me is: 

4. Music

For me, every book has a soundtrack. I listen to music on my iPhone since my computer is offline while I work. But whatever media player you use, the key is this: use the music as a way to drop right back into the writing. Don't end up procrastinating (I see you over there!) by making the perfect playlist. Drop three or five albums that you think might work into a list, hit shuffle, and start writing. When a song doesn't work? Hit skip, and later, when you're done writing, throw it out of the list. Later, when you hear a song on the radio that would be perfect for the list, add it then. Your playlist grows organically that way, and when the book is close to being done, the list will be pretty much perfect.

5. Do the Math

I just finished my sixth book, and I know that it takes me about six months per book (three months for a horrible first draft, two-three months in revision). You know how I know that? Math. I know my novels are around 95,000 words. Writing 2000 words a day (approximately eight pages), it'll take 48 writing days to complete, which even gives me days off in my goal of first draft in three months. 

But what about revision, you say! No one can strap a time frame around revision! Well, it might be a little bit more slippery than its friend, the first draft, but you sure as heck can.

I try to do a full (major) revision in a month (because I write really crappy first drafts -- I know people who revise as they go, and end up with very clean first drafts -- that is not me). I also try to do this because I know, from my process, that I might have to do this two or three times, and I'd better get crackin'. (My revision method is outlined here. Gawd, I love revisions.) 

So I look at the calendar. Suppose I have 15 days off in a month. That means I pretty much have to revise 6000 words a day. Yep, that's a lot. But I can get that done in four hours if I'm working hard, more if I'm brain-dull that day. It's doable, for me. These are my numbers, and yours will be different, but again, it comes down to math. I know, we English majors don't like that, do we? But it works, I promise. 

Now, if your goal is to write a book in a year? OH MY GOD! You're going to have so much fun! Aim for six months to a first draft -- that's only 527 words a day! Then you'll have another six months to revise! That sounds delicious, right? You know it does. The key is not to let it be some nebulous, undefined "year." Make it a year from today. Starting now.

6. Just Do It

Again, writers write. I completely, totally understand wanting with all your heart to write and not writing, because I did that for (too) many years. It's such a frustrating feeling. But the only way to get that urge out of your system and feel satisfied (finally!) is to do the work. Even when it's shitty work (and it will be, at first. All first drafts will be shitty. It's the law). Just sit your arse down and do it. A little at a time. It's like knitting -- the words add up, just like stitches do, and eventually you have something to show for them. 

*Pro tip: If you say I can't write this way because I have to make everything perfect before I move on, that's fine by me ONLY IF this method works for you. In other words, if you are completing what you set out to complete, then yay! But if you want to write books but are stymied because of the whole "perfection" thing, then barrel through a really horrible first draft. Your method isn't working. Try a new one, friend. 

So. What's your process? 

Comments

Write, just write. My inner editor is switched off and I concentrate only on getting the words out. Love your method, Rachael!

What a useful post. I am ready to dig into my seventy billionth draft of my dissertation novel, and THIS TIME I am not going to get derailed by revising before the draft is finished. Going to keep a link to this post bookmarked! Thanks...

You know, someday in the not-at-all distant future I will be writing a PhD thesis. Your posts on your writing process always fill me with such hope that this engineering/computing student might just be able to put together enough words to make it!

New book, you say?? Details, details!!

Thank you Rachael. I was about to skip writing today, for what would have been the fifth day in a row. You guilted me into it. Thank you for that.

Though I do feel the need to point out that I wrote my first book (unpublished) in sentence bits in between reading knitting blogs.

My process is to simply write quickly and honestly for the first draft. (Like 2000 a day) then judge the work. If I think what I have is really really good, then I do an "easy" edit, though nothing about it is easy. If it's really bad, then I re-write it, tweeking the plot of it and the stlyle to make it better. I also write slower too about 1000 a day. If it still sucks after that, I lie down for a little while, sob my heart out. Knit for maybe an hour, declare the book a faliure, and move on to write another day. (I'm at work on my fourth book, and editing the second, at the point where I do 1000 a day.)

Though I must ask, does this really long comment count towards my word count?

I haven't really thought about writing a book. However this is useful information for keeping your sanity (not being interrupted) when you need to get stuff done.

So much yes! And isn't it funny how, if you do something every day, you get better at it? Something I never took into account back in the years I spent thinking "I should write some day."

I'm kind of lucky in that I have a fairly specific word count I have to hit each day if I want to get paid and eat. Really sharpens the habit.

Nice post. and helpful. Thank you. Really. Hope the pink is back in your cheeks!

As a "waiting for the perfect writing time window" person (years!) I really loved seeing this post, your app resources (I had no idea) and the revision reminder. As always, your gift for sharing personal experience touched a chord...thanks so much and wishing you many more successes!
Trish

So, you're going to share those carefully honed soundtracks with us, right? *Right?*

Your method works; I feel like I "know" your characters - I want to pick up the phone and call them, or maybe take a long weekend and head their way for a visit...

Rachael, these are awesome tips. I'm a non-fiction kind of writer, but writing is writing. Some of my work is called "photo editing" or "layout" but the principles apply to that as well. Thanks for these great tips!

Thanks for posting this; it's fascinating to me to see what your internal process is (I guess most people ask about things like how do you come up with ideas and plot and character. I find the mechanics interesting).
Ha, and I love the idea of Write or Die.

I never really got any good at writing essays until I was writing email and web pages all the time. It's like all those years of English classes never fully sunk in. I could fake the form but they were dull and dry and unconvincing. I really chalk up getting better to lots of practice on stupid little things.

And now I edit the hell out of my emails (especially work ones). This might be partly a waste of time, but it's important to me to be clear. You can see I'm not so practised at the comment editing.

You are awesome, girlie!! I'm always curious about other writers and their processes. I need to find my own groove...challenging it may be!

Interesting post; amazing the apps available today to help keep you on track. Can't imagine myself coming up with characters or a storyline that would grab people's interest, though am curious about the process as I've ended up doing some proofreading/editing since I stopped working.

So this is your 6th book? I've got (and loved) your 3 Cypress Hollow books and your autobiography, which makes 4. Is there something I've missed or is your 5th book in the publishing process and this one just being submitted? (looking hopeful...) Do you have something coming out soon???

I write professional stuff, like that stupid doctorate dissertation that I'm stuck on.

Right now? It seems as if procrastination is operating method. However, you see, I read this blog about write or die and freedom and I think I might have some new method to try out.....

You forgot the step where you feel so overwhelmed and unable to continue that you lower your head and bang on the table gently for five minutes.

No, it doesn't help.

Thanks for the tips on those programs and apps. Good to know.

This is such a useful post Rachel and it's kicked my butt! I used to write "mathematically", using word count on the computer (endlessly counting words) and putting time and day limits up when I wrote professionally and for theses as well. It was the only thing that got words from me to the page. So why had I forgotten that and been in a personal writing slump for a long time ???? Thanks for the much needed a sensible inspiration!

I love reading about other people's methods.

One method that cracks me up is "Write drunk, edit sober" - for some people, it lets them drop the idea of perfection and performance anxiety and just start barfing words.

I get it. Sit yerass down in the chair and work. Check, I can do that. Coming up with a basic idea for a story to tell? Eh, not so much.

I guess I'll remain just another enthralled observer. When's your next Liza novel coming out?

Thanks for this. And congrats on book six! (Why, yes, I just *may* be eager to read more of your works! Why do you ask? Ahem.)

My last novel took seven years--one year for the first draft and six to revise. Maybe by following your great tips, and doing the math, I can shave this novel down to three-and-a-half years!

Thanks for posting! Food for thought. I am not planning to ever write a book, any book, but I can always use tips on procrastinating less and living more :)

Sounds like a variation of the daily free writing technique - forget where I got it - but this helped me get my dissertation done. You just write without judging, without trying to make sense, about where you're at in the process, what you're worried about, what trouble you're in with the project - and try to do that for even 15 minutes every day. Hopefully some days you have time to go further, and then you get something done.
Nothing more grueling than writing. My sister used to joke about how even cleaning the toilet would start to seem so much more compelling than keeping butt applied to chair and writing.

My process is facing that just because I like to read, I am not a writer. So, instead, I am a reader, thankful every day for those of you who are writers, who work really hard so people like me can read.

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Rachael loves it when book clubs read her work! She's happy to attend book clubs that read her books either in person or via Skype. Contact her at rachael@rachaelherron.com to make arrangements.

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