On Twitter I recently asked people what they found most difficult about writing. One of the recurring themes that came up was to do with actually getting down to writing. This blog is going to focus on the strategy that I used to write Blackwing, but one that I also teach at university for business purposes, and that I apply to pretty much anything that I try to achieve in life. Warning: this is a long post.
Writing a book is a daunting task. It takes hundreds of privately spent hours, introspection, bursts of creativity, lulls and drops, tireless editing and determination.
I like practical advice. I think it’s great to be inspiring, and those throwaway forum lines like “Just write!” are all well and good, but do they actually help anyone? I don’t know. Maybe they do. But here, I like to think that I can offer aspiring authors a practical strategy that is more likely to carry them through to the end.
And not just short term.
Writing books is a long-term process. If you want a publishing career, you should start looking at the long-term now, and not thinking solely about the single project that you’re working on. This helps tremendously with a lot of the common issues that people have when penning their manuscript:
- “What if it’s not good enough?”
- “I keep editing and editing and am never satisfied!”
- “This book is my soul! I can’t stand to be judged by it!”
So. Step one.
Consider where you want to be in five years time.
Five years is a long way off. There’s a huge amount of work-time in there. But picture what your life is like. Do you want it to revolve around writing? If the answer is ‘no’ then the rest of my advice is going to be largely irrelevant, because it’s not for you. But if it is, then do the following:
Picture where you want to be, e.g. “I would like to have a novel taken on by a major traditional publisher.”
Now write down in a Word document what would have to have happened to get to that point. For the example given, the following would apply:
- I must have finished a novel
- I must have submitted the novel to agents and get taken on
- I must have sold the book to a publisher through an agent
Now look at the list and identify things that you personally can affect. Only 1. and 2. are things that you can personally affect. So strike out number 3 – you cannot plan your strategies around anything that you have no direct control over. You can never control whether someone else will buy your book, but you can control both whether you finish the novel, and whether you submit it.
Now ask yourself: to achieve 1. and 2. what must I have done? It’s easy at this stage.
- I must have written and edited a novel
- To get taken on, I need to follow the guidelines and send out a lot of applications to play the numbers game.
Ok, got your aims?
Two year’s time. Do the same again. Consider what’s realistic in that time period. If you’ve not started your novel yet, then having a publishing deal is possible but much less likely. So how about we say “I would like my book to be out for submission to agents in two years’ time.” Based on that, let’s identify what needs to have happened:
- I must have written and edited a novel
- I must have submitted the novel to agents
Now break down, in further detail, what you need to do to accomplish either of those tasks.
- I need to have written (e.g.) 100,000 words of novel. I need to spend 2-3 months working on editing those 100,000 words. I need to acquire feedback from a few people on at least the first fifty pages to see if it’s working.
- I need to acquire a list of agents, e.g. The Writers and Artists Yearbook 2018 (UK) or comparable. I need to look at what those agents represent, and then pick the ones that represent my genre.
OK, so we got that down.
What do I need to do to be approaching that goal within one year?
Once we start getting down to the one year time frame, we have to get more and more detailed. So.
100,000 words plus 3 months of editing in one year means 100,000 words in 9 months means 11,111 words per month. That works out as a meagre 2,564 words per week. Not a lot of words! A measly 366 words written per day.
So now we have a hard goal: Write 2500 words per week.
Now set yourself your monthly goal. That’s going to be 10,000 words per month, or 2,500 per week.
If you’re having trouble putting out that many words, it’s arguable whether you really actually want to do this, or whether it’s really a priority for you. Ask yourself whether, if this is a business decision for you, you really want to be in this business (and writing is a business). That may sound harsh, but if you really want a publishing career, then you’re up against people who are putting out that many words and far more, all of the time, and there’s only so much room at the table. This may be some tough love, but if you’re not putting out 366 words per day (which probably takes less than 30 minutes to write) then maybe a writing career isn’t for you.
So now, with a one month goal, reduce it to a weekly goal.
At this point, the idea of finding time to write 2,500 words sounds easy. But maybe you still don’t manage to put out that many words, and find it hard because you have a long-hours job, or kids, or whatever. Here’s some things that you might consider doing:
- Work out how many hours last week you gave to TV or Netflix
- Work out how many hours last week you spent socialising
- Work out how many hours last week you spent on video games
And so on. Anything you do regularly that takes up a bunch of your time.
Do you need to do that thing? Ask yourself the hard question:
In ten years’ time, if it meant that you never saw your writing published, would you be happy with yourself for having spent your time doing that instead? How important is it ever going to be to you that you caught up on The Punisher? That you watched Termintor 2 AGAIN. Will you ever remember that you finished Dark Souls 5?
You don’t have to give up all the stuff that you love doing. But be realistic with yourself. If you aren’t managing to write because you’re doing other things – enjoying other people’s art, for instance – then you have a choice. Some things you cannot possibly change, e.g. looking after your kids. That stuff comes first, of course. But we all waste a lot of time on things that just don’t matter. I’m terrible for wasting time on reality TV shows, but I can accept that I do because I’ll put out 5k words, four days per week. If it ever starts infringing on writing time, then it goes in the bin.
Finally, make yourself a planner. All it has to say is what your goal is each week, listed by date, have a tick box for whether or not you met the goal, and a space where you can write in – if necessary – why you didn’t on a particular week. Stick it on the wall and fill it in.
This may all seem a bit obvious, but by writing down your goals on a macro level, then breaking it down into more and more manageable segments, the reality of what you have to do on a micro level becomes clear. Writing a book feels like such a long-distance, nebulous process of mist and magic, but actually, it just comes down to ploughing on and doing what’s needed. By setting it out into a more manageable series of tasks than ‘write a book,’ I find that it becomes far more manageable.
Best of luck, and let me know how you’re getting on in the comments.