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Monday, February 13, 2012

How to Eat an Elephant

In my early years as a writer I left a trail of half-finished manuscripts, bleeding, wounded outlines, and novels that stormed out of the gate only to collapse thirty or forty thousand words into the game. Of my first eleven novels attempted, I only finished two of them. I am now operating on a string of nine straight novels started and completed. I wrote and finished most of these on spec, with the only contract the one wherein I had agreed to write to the best of my ability.

The difference between then and now? Then I sat down to write a novel. Today I sit down to write my daily quota of words. As the question goes, how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

This is my technique. I start with a date. Mostly recently it was February 1. About four or five weeks before that date I set a commitment to start the first draft of a new novel. I then spend 10-30 minutes a day up to that point working on brainstorms. At the minimum, I need to know my opening, my ending, and a major set piece in the middle. I need to know my villain and my hero, and I like to flesh out my major and minor characters. This will all change in the writing, but if I have a rough structure, I can grope my way along in the dark from day to day.

When zero hour arrives, I write every day until the first draft is finished. I write if I'm sick, if it's my birthday, if I'm on vacation or if it's Christmas. I know from sad experience that if I take a day off, that day can easily become two and then a week and then there's a good chance the book will die. It doesn't matter how close I am to the end. In 2004 I wrote 75,000 words of an 80,000 word book and then stopped for some inexplicable reason. I've never returned to it. In 1999 I write 100,000 words of an epic fantasy novel. Again, dead in the water.

My goal is typically a minimum of 1,000 words and most days I only hit 1,000 - 1,200 words. It's a struggle each and every day, especially for the first few hundred pages, and I hit my minimum with a feeling of relief. In short, I'm not some superhuman writer who writes fifteen, twenty pages in a day. In writing more than 2,000,000 words of fiction, I've exceeded 4,000 words in a day no more than five or six times.

Lately, since I'm doing this as my regular job, I try to write at least 1,500 words per day for most projects. My current book is part of a writing challenge and I've been writing 2,000 words per day since the first of February, but again, only barely hitting that most days. Even so, it's the 13th and I'm at 28,000 words, which is a third of the novel. It adds up in a hurry.

I log my work every day. I also use mental tricks. I set timers, I use Freedom, which is a program that blocks me from the web for a certain period of time. I try to write at the same time every day (morning) to train myself.

When I finish, I let the book sit a couple of weeks and then get back to work. I generally add a few scenes (and so shoot for 5,000 - 8,000 less in the first draft than I expect to have when the book is done) and I'll delete a bit as well. As the years go by my first drafts are much better at having the same rough shape as the final version, even if individual scenes may be hacked and maimed in the process. It generally takes an equal period of time to brainstorm and edit as it does to write the first draft, so I usually finish a book about six months after I start. I'm trying to nudge that closer to five months these days.

Here is a typical example of how I log my progress. Note how disciplined I am, but also how I rarely shoot ahead with big word counts. Note also the day I knew I was going to be hiking the mountains with my son and so I cheated and doubled up the previous day, pretending that the PM was the following day so that I could stay on schedule. Note also that I sometimes went back to early chapters and wrote in missing scenes, so I wasn't 100% in order with my log.


Chapter One
05/04 – 0,400
05/05 – 1,200
05/06 – 2,000
Chapter Two
05/06 – 1,300
05/07 – 2,700
Chapter Three
05/08 – 1,800
05/09 – 3,300 (8,000)
Chapter Four
05/10 – 1,400
05/11 – 3,100
Chapter Five
05/11 – 0,300
05/12 – 2,500
05/13 – 3,100
Chapter Six
05/13 – 0,800
05/14 – 1,500 (15,700)
Chapter Seven
05/14 – 0,400
05/15 – 1,500
05/16 – 2,900
05/17 – 3,900
Chapter Eight
05/18 – 1,400
05/19 – 2,400
Chapter Nine
05/20 – 0,800
05/21 – 1,800
05/22 – 3,300 (25,300)
Chapter Ten
05/23 – 1,400
05/24 – 2,600
05/25 – 3,500
06/14 – 4,900
Chapter Eleven
05/26 – 2,100
05/27 – 3,300
Chapter Twelve
05/28 – 1,100
05/29 – 2,800
05/30 – 3,300 (36,800)
Chapter Thirteen
05/30 – 1,200
05/31 – 2,600
06/01 – 3,100
Chapter Fourteen
06/01 – 1,100
06/02 – 2,200
Chapter Fifteen
06/03 – 1,500
06/04 – 2,700
06/05 – 3,400
Chapter Sixteen
06/06 – 1,200
06/07 – 2,500
06/08 – 2,700 (48,200)
Chapter Seventeen
06/08 – 0,900
06/09 – 2,600
Chapter Eighteen
06/10 – 1,700
06/13 – 3,500
Chapter Nineteen
06/11 – 2,300
06/12 – 4,000
06/15 – 4,600 (58,900)
Chapter Twenty
06/12 – 0,200
06/15 – 1,500
06/16 – 2,700
06/17 – 4,000 (really pm 6/16 because of LT Hike)
06/18 – 4,500 (63,400)
Chapter Twenty-One
06/18 – 0,700
06/19 – 1,800
06/20 – 3,200
Chapter Twenty-Two
06/20 – 0,100
06/21 – 1,500
06/22 – 2,300
Chapter Twenty-Three
06/22 – 1,800
06/23 – 2,900
Chapter Twenty-Four
06/23 – 2,700
06/24 – 4,100 (75,900)
Chapter Twenty-Five
06/24 – 2,900 (78,700)

I wary of giving one size fits all advice about how to write, but this is a technique that works for me and might be helpful to others who need to accomplish a large task without any hard deadlines.


  1. Thanks for posting this. I find it really helpful to know how other writers write, even if their techniques might not necessarily work for me. I'm in that early "can't finish anything" phase that you mentioned and it makes me feel better to know that I'm not the only one who has gone through it.

    Could you explain what you mean by "major set piece"? Is that a scene you would be working towards or maybe the climax? If you could give an example from The Righteous or Mighty and Strong that would be very helpful.

    Also, could I ask if you've ever tried rewriting any of those unfinished stories? For the past couple of years I've been rewriting the same three stories. Thought I did complete one of them, it wasn't to my satisfaction so I've found myself trying to write it again and again. Have you ever had any luck finishing or restarting an old story, or have you found that it's better to just let it die and move on to something new?

  2. Cat,

    A set piece is something the reader can see coming, like a battle where two sides are lining up their forces for battle. The way I write--certainly not the only way--I rely on dramatic irony. That is, the bad guys have one piece of information and the good guys another. Gradually, the reader sees the different parts and knows that something big is brewing.


    An example from The Righteous would be Enoch sneaking into town to meet Jacob in the polygamist temple. Enoch thinks he'll be safe from the conspirators to tell his brother what he knows. However, we see that Gideon knows something is going on and has tracked Enoch to the temple before Jacob has the meeting.

    Of course the reader doesn't know everything. This confrontation in the temple sets off the entire climax of the book that only ends with the final, violent confrontation between Eliza and Gideon in the sandstone labyrinth. We also don't know how the Lost Boys will play into this or the FBI agents who have infiltrated the town. But it's clear that it will be something and this raises tension in the reader.


    Mighty and Strong ends with a similar tension between reader knowledge and the more limited information of our characters. We know the FBI is planning a major assault on the compound to get out their captured agent. The sympathetic characters inside don't know this, though, and think tension is at a low simmer when it has really come to a boil. Meanwhile, Jacob's wife and kids show up due to attorney general pressure in Salt Lake. We know this can only end badly, but we don't know how.

    In general, I try to have two or three major set pieces in a book, with the last one being the biggest.

    Let me put the question about unfinished stories into a separate blog post. That's a good question, too, and maybe appropriate for larger discussion.

  3. I don't think I've ever considered using dramatic irony to create tension, though it seems like one of those things that ought to be obvious. Sure, I've had the readers know things that the characters don't, but not in any way that would lead up to a set piece/conflict like you gave in your examples. This is extremely helpful, thank you!

  4. Great understanding of yourself as a writer. It sounds like that knowledge was hard-won. FWIW, I find a similar regimen works for me. Write 5-6 days a week, taking one day completely off. My brain just gets tired and won't give me much if I go past six straight days writing. Plus, I find that I'm super-eager to get back to my story if I've missed a day. If I found (as you mentioned) that one day off turned into two, I am sure I'd have a different schedule, though!

  5. Cidney,

    I wonder if the key isn't so much the specific schedule, but that one picks something and then follows it with rigid discipline. In your case do you have a word count goal when you're writing first draft material? How often do you hit it?