How Long to Allow to Write a Book
This week on Ask Me Anything we take a question from Joel Canfield.
How do you decide how long to allow for writing a book? Do you set a time goal like one year, or do you let it take as long as it takes and trust the daily writing ritual to keep you on track?
Recommended reading: Henry Miller’s Rules of Writing
Steve: I think this is a great question when we’re thinking about organizing a year—and Shawn, jump in on this and Jeff, jump in on this whenever you want to. The key concept here I think, is thinking in blocks of time. Not just going one day at a time because that’s like setting off for Tahiti in a sailboat and you just figure, “Well I’m just going to keep sailing west.” You’ve got to have a chart and you’ve got to know how long it’s going to take.
For instance, I was reading—I can’t remember this writers’ name, but he’s like a very established thriller writer, a brand named guy—and he was saying that it takes him to do a first draft of a novel, it takes him 200 hours. So, again, this is under the theme of thinking in blocks of time. So, let’s say that you’re a mom, or a single mom, or you’re working and you just don’t have a lot of time. So, you say to yourself “Okay. Two hundred hours. I can spend an hour a day doing something like that.” So, if you’re looking forward to 2014, you can say, “Okay. I’m gonna write . . . Here’s my goal. I’m going to write a first draft of the novel that I’m working on and it’s going to take me 200 hours exactly.” So, that means 200 days, if I can work 5 days a week, that’s 40 weeks. So, that’s not quite a whole year.
Now, what to me is very empowering about thinking in a block of time like that—it’s a little bit like the Foolscap Method—you can say to yourself, “Okay. Forty weeks. I can relate to that. I can do that. It’s not 10 years. I can serve that time.” The other thing you can say to yourself is “How am I going to feel at the end of 40 weeks when sitting on my desk is going to be a 315 page first draft of my novel?” You’re going to feel great—and so that is a great motivational tool. To think in that block of time of nine months let’s say. Now the other thing about this—why it really helps to think that way—is you can check yourself at say one month, and if you’re supposed to be 1/9th of the way through. Suppose you’re 1/9th and 10 pages of the way through at that going. You go, “Wow, I’m ahead of the game,” and that inspires you to keep going even more, and you can check your progress.
Now part of the question here was, “Do you set a time goal or do you take it as long as it takes?” I very definitely set a time goal, and I say “between now and my birthday, I’m going to do ‘x’. I’m going to write this many things.” And I go beyond that, and I think you do, Shawn. You probably do too, Jeff. Like if I’m going to start the first draft of a book, I’ll give myself a page number. I’ll just sort of pull it out of thin air and I’ll say “Okay, this is going to be 360 pages”—and to my amazement, when I do that, it comes out within like two or three pages of that every time. So, if I say 360 pages, I’m going to two a day, that is 180 days. So thinking in blocks of time over the course of a year is a great way to do something.
When I was working as a screenwriter, when I . . . At the original start of my career, I worked for about five years with a partner and we had one of these divorces where we had this fight, and he said to me “I can no longer work with you” and he hung up the phone. And my partner . . . He was the guy who got us the jobs. I was like the slave. I was the mule and he was the guy that got us the meetings and got us the jobs. So I was in a state of panic for about five days thinking, “How am I ever going to get it together here?” And, I just said to myself, “I’m going to take one year and I’m going to write two spec screenplays, six months each, and at the end of that time, if I can’t make a living, I’m going to move to plan ‘z’, whatever it is”. And, so I did write the two and they both sold. They were terrible, but they both sold.
So thinking in blocks of time is a great way to do it. I think . . . Decide what you’re aiming for and how long it’s going to do it, and then hold yourself to it.
Shawn: I’d love to follow up on that Steve because it speaks to, like . . . The 200 hours is a great sort of starting point. Here’s a way to make it even more specific to you—and I talked a lot about this in the book that I’ll eventually finish that is called The Story Grid. The usual novel is between 65,000 to 85,000 words, okay? If you think of your work in those terms—how many words per day as opposed to pages per day—because it’s easy to check your word count on Microsoft Word or whatever word-processing unit you’re using. Instead of sort of trying to become David Baldacci who can do it in 200 hours, find out how long it takes you to write a specific word count. For example, sit down and give yourself a task. Say you need to write one chapter. You need to write one great scene and you have to do it in say 1,500 words, which is actually a really nice word count for today’s reader. So 1,500 words, sit down, don’t edit yourself while you’re writing it. Please don’t do that. Just write the story 1,500 words and see how much time it takes. Then once you know, say it takes you three hours to do 1,500 words. So, you know every hour, it’s going to be about 500 words. And, then you can just go back and do the math and know “Well I want to write a little novella that’s going to be 60,000 words, and it takes me an hour per 500 words, then that’s two hours per thousand. That’s 120 hours to write 60,000 words—and that’s the first draft.” So, that’s another way so that you specifically can find out how long it’s going to take you, not, you know, Steve Pressfield who’s been doing it for 30 years.
Steve: That’s great. Let me add one other thing because I know that people who are hearing us talk like this Shawn, may be saying “Well isn’t that so formulaic or so disciplined. What about the madness? What about the craziness of creating art?” I think there’s a great piece—Henry Miller’s Rules of Writing. I actually stole it and put it on our website. It’s somewhere on our site in the archive, but it’s also in the archive of a really good site called Brain Pickings Weekly. Brain Pickings I think is the actual name of the site. Henry Miller’s a wild and crazy guy. He’s like sleeping in doorways, chasing women all over Paris, Brooklyn, blah, blah, blah, but you read his rules of writing, and he’s like the most disciplined guy imaginable. Get up in the morning, sit down, and write ‘x’ words . . . It’s really kind of an eye-opening thing, and I think that that’s the way real artists work. If you read Twyla Tharp’s daily thing, in her book The Creative Habit, she gets up every morning at the same time, goes, catches a cab, goes to the same gym, works out with the same trainer, goes back to the studio, does her dance. It’s very habitual. That’s just what it takes.