How to write a book in a year

Huge thanks to Laura Vanderkam, one of my favorite authors on time management, for letting me guest post on her blog!

One of the items that has made it onto my New Year’s Resolution list every year as long as I can remember is to write a novel. Not to start writing a novel, FINISH writing one of the half dozen, barely-started novels I tinker with from time to time.

Estimates floating around the Internet are that 80-90 percent of people want to write a book but few actually follow through. Meanwhile, Stephen King seems to sneeze out a new book every month. What separates the dreamers and wannabes from the crankers?

For my academic work, I love Wendy Belcher’s method, and it’s not an understatement to say it changed my life: I wouldn’t have gotten tenure without it. In one year, I went from three articles in the “idea” stage, to three peer-reviewed journal acceptances.

Mixing a little Belcher with some other productivity gurus, I’ve developed this recipe for book writing success that guarantees I will end 2017 with a completed fiction manuscript in hand (note the public, bold statement, which will also keep me accountable):

1. Make a realistic plan. First, list every single step it takes to move you across the finish line. Then, assign a realistic timeline for each step. Need to review books and articles on your writing topic? There’s no way you’re doing that within a week–it can take that long for books you order to ship. Expect to edit a 10,000 word manuscript in an hour? You might finish, but you certainly won’t do a great job. A safe bet is probably to double the amount of time you think it will take you to complete a task. Plan for the worst, and hope for the best. Even when the muses are giving you a shoulder rub as you type, it’s rare to put down more than 1,000 words in a day and more common to do about 300 if you’re not working on the manuscript full time. With the cozy mystery genre I’m aiming for with my first novel I’ll need about 85,000 words. Some academic books run much longer, but in general publishers seem to be wanting writers to cut, cut, cut. I hear 110K is tops for my academic field (political science) these days.

2. Think in terms of weeks, not days. It’s nearly impossible to keep up a good behavior on a daily basis, and once you miss a day you can get so discouraged that you’re knocked seriously off track. Laura has the formula right when she implores us to think of our time in terms of 168 hours a week instead of 24 in a day. Looking to devote 4 hours a week to your book-writing project? Schedule one or two chunks a week and don’t worry about the rest of the days. Which leads me to…

3. Schedule time. Here’s where having a planner that breaks down the day in 15- or 30-minute increments is essential. No matter how good you are at multitasking, there’s a zero-sum element to time. Every hour you spend on this goal will be an hour you don’t spend elsewhere. Once you figure out what you can give up, you need to schedule time for your goal each week. My favorite planner for this is the Passion Planner.

4. Make consequences. This is the golden ticket, and the reason I have some swagger about my prospects for finishing a manuscript in 2017: I just paid about $800 non-refundable to attend a writer’s workshop where agents will read and comment on my manuscript. In May. With the manuscript due April 1st. Gulp. I only have 8,000 words (plus an outline!) so that would be 7,700 a week for me for the next 10 weeks, and that’s just for a first draft, which will be terrible.

As scary as that sounds, serious consequences like that really work for me. I halfway worked on my first book for months and months before the publisher with whom it was under contract started getting annoyed and gave me a firm deadline. That did it. It’s amazing what you can pull off when you don’t have a choice. Putting the formula into practice right now I’ve given up cleaning my house in order to write more fiction (apologies to all visitors). I’ve scheduled writing time for early mornings (always crossing fingers that I get up earlier than my two small kids) and a chunk of about 2-3 hours every Friday, and I plan to devote a few weekend days between now and then to do my own “writer’s retreat” at a coffee shop in town.

Always remember: anyone can write, but the people whose books you see on the shelves are the people who FINISHED writing. Here’s to the finishers.

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