Writing A Book In Two Weeks...

A while ago, I came across a very interesting piece by Michael Moorcock, ‘How To Write A Book in Three Days’. Legendarily, he was able to write some of his earlier books in a very short time - apparently one of the Elric books was written in a day - and this was nothing new. Some of the writers from the pulp days wrote ten, twelve thousand words a day, consistently, for weeks at a time. Now, I’ll say at this point that I don’t reach such heights. I have written more than ten thousand words in a day on three occasions, but two out of the three times I did it for a specific reason (big climactic battle scenes, and I wanted to keep the immediacy and the thread - and I knew that it would be a lot easier if I wrote them all at once.) On each occasion, I crashed out the next day.

While writing a book in three days is probably beyond me - though never say never, I guess - I do usually write fairly quickly, averaging four to six thousand words on a good day. The secret, as with everything else, is preparation - and I don’t necessarily mean highly detailed outlines, either. There’s nothing wrong with them on principle, but whenever I prepare one for myself, the book I am preparing never gets written. I think there is a little switch in my head that tells me that the story is ‘finished’, and I end up getting a block. Which doesn’t mean that I don’t prepare long in advance, but I tend not to go into great detail. If I get an idea, I write it down, just a few sentences, and leave it at that. It’s rare that just one idea will make a story; it usually takes a melange of half a dozen to come up with an intricate enough plot. So it was with this Crusader series; in one form or another, this has been years in the planning.

And that is the biggest secret of all. Do your thinking in advance, one way or another, so that you don’t get distracted while you are writing the book. You want to be working as fast as your thoughts will flow, to get that creative part of your brain into high gear and typing away. (At this point, I’ll say that fast typing speed helps. I’ve managed more than a hundred words per minute, though I usually don’t type at full speed. Fifty or sixty is more than enough. While most of writing can’t easily be taught, typing is not one of those things. Practice makes perfect.)

Everyone has their pet problems. Names were always mine, but there are lot of random generators and historical sources that can be useful. Don’t just bookmark a site - though know where you are looking if you need to - generate some names in advance and print them out, enough that you can stay ahead of the game. I’ve already used a couple of mine in advance plotting, but I’ll top them up before the fun begins. Have maps and source material ready. (For historical writing, Osprey books are fantastic - good, quick resources that you can have at hand when you need them, glossaries and images at the ready. I’ll be using four of them for this book.) Have everything at hand, and ready.

Then do an outline. Yes, I know, I know, but even I wouldn’t try and set out on a book without something to fall back on. The system I have generated over the last couple of years is to have a page of bullet points, one for each chapter, and then to break that down before I start each one, usually having a first pass the night before I am to write it, and then a second first thing in the morning before I start work. Nothing extraordinary here, just note down everything that is happening in that section of the book. ‘William fights the barbarians, rescues the princess, gets the quest.’ Or, perhaps, ‘The dame shows up at the office, drops down dead, letter in her purse, police at the door’. If you can’t make three thousand words out of those descriptions…

Once you’ve done the outline, get your writing environment set-up. Take some time to clear up all those outstanding jobs - tidy up the office, get a week’s shopping in. Make sure that isn’t on your mind while you are working, and moreover, make sure you can get some good momentum going on the book once you start. Resting your hands for a day before you begin is a good idea in any case - they’re going to get a beating while you work! (Time to cite good practice here - rest for a quarter-hour out of every hour at least. I tend to work alternate hours, using the other hours to clear my head, read source material, ponder the plots.)

Set targets. That’s important. Word count works well for some, chapters for others, I use both. My absolute bottom limit for a chapter is two thousand words, though for Alamo I average two and a half. For the Crusader series, I aim for three; different writing practices, different way of working. And two of them a day. With the length of book I’m aiming for with this, that means six thousand words a day for eight days.

I said, write a book in two weeks, though. I expect to finish the book in eight writing days, or two weeks. Everyone needs a day off. I budget for two days on, one day off, to clear my head, rest my hands, and consider where to go in the next portion of the book. As well as going back to edit what I have already done, potentially. It’s also sensible to budget for some ‘fail’ days as well - there will be mornings where nothing seems to come, where the words don’t flow, or you realize that the chapter just isn’t working. It’s inevitable. Two more of those is a reasonable allotment...so basically, eight days writing, six days not. That’s the two weeks. A big mistake is to think that you can just sit down and churn out the words non-stop - you can’t. No-one can, and you are setting yourself up for a bad time if you try. Set reasonable goals, and when you meet them - or even surpass them - you’ll be happy. I’d certainly like to finish this book in eleven days rather than fourteen, and it is not impossible that I’ll pull it off.

A trick I learned a while ago was to ‘write my first draft as if it was my last’. Now, I wouldn’t for a moment release a text that I haven’t gone back over as a finished work, but what this means is that you don’t let go any changes you need to make. If you see that your paragraph doesn’t work, write it again. Or your chapter, for that matter. Solve the problems as you find them, without leaving them for later - you’ll be giving yourself a far easier job when you go over the text again in the future. (Which it is usually a good idea to wait a little while before doing. Coming back fresh to the fray after a month - hopefully after you’ve written another book - is usually wise.)

I think the most important thing about writing is that you should do what works for you, not what someone else thinks you should do. There are no real rights and wrongs. I couldn’t imagine not writing to music, but there are others who lament the distraction. Some write in short bursts, others in long. Some outline, some don’t. The important thing is to experiment, to try new things, and see what comes as a result. You never know, you might be surprised.

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