A week ago I completed the third draft of A Fate Entwined, a novel which I began on June 8th, 2019. Sometimes people ask me how I write so much, or how to finish a novel quickly. There’s a simple trick, but I can’t promise you’ll like it.
Now, I should be completely honest and admit that technically I finished my third draft on June 9th, making it 367 days (including the leap day), but I think it was a close enough effort to say I did it in a year.
I mean, if we want to get even more technical, I wrote an alpha chapter for the book a few months before that, but there’s a good reason I consider June 8th to be the day I truly started writing the novel. I’ll get to it shortly.
For the sake of clarification, (and a bit of a humble brag) I should mention that these drafts were not revisions. They were total rewrites. I don’t do revisions, apparently. Draft one was about 110,000 words. Draft two finished at a monster 144,000. My third draft is done at 129,000. Overall that is 383,000 words written in the past 12 months. A very small amount of those words were copy + pasted from the previous drafts. I re-typed a significant amount more into my Scrivener document. But still, that’s a lot of words, if I do say so myself.
How did I do it? I’ll tell you, because that’s the whole point of this post.
The Pre-Draft (April 2019)
It’s a cold autumn night in Australia. Early April, two months out from my university intensive, which will begin after the first semester ends. It’s been a pretty easy start to the final year of my course, seeing as I only have two classes most weeks, thanks to the upcoming intensive. I’m excited. I know exactly what I’m going to write. Finally, I’ll be able to move past Incarnate and write my second book.
It’s going to be a story in a world where art creates magic. The main character will be a boy who can travel back in time a few minutes by drawing in the dirt. The inspiration came from a TED Talk by Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) about the concept of the genius. I’m waiting for the intensive so that I can start it then.
Anyway, back to the cold night. I’m playing Dragon Quest 11. I reach the middle of the second act and there’s a twist I don’t quite expect. It’s not immediate, but eventually, the gears begin to turn in my mind and I consider an interesting concept. Two characters who share a destiny, but one of them dies unexpectedly. Would the other be considered a failure for letting their other half perish, or would they shoulder the burden of fate alone?
And that’s how A Fate Entwined was born.
I loved this idea so much that I got writing that night. Over the next few days, I completed what I thought was the first chapter. I had done no planning. No world-building. I just wrote the damn thing.
Then I stopped. I let it sit for a while. I started thinking about the world and the characters. Made a map and designed the magic system. Eventually I decided that the other twin wouldn’t die at the start, but that the two of them would be separated instead.
Other than that, I did no more work on it. No real world-building, no intense plotting. I discovery write, so I let myself step away from it until the intensive. Until then, I just focused on querying Incarnate.
The First Draft (June 8, 2019)
The day finally came. The intensive started on a Saturday and I don’t think a single one of us complained about it. We’d all signed up to do ten six-hour classes within a couple of weeks, so we knew there were some sacrifices required. We were giving up our entire long weekend for this (although it was uni holidays anyway). All semester we’d been looking forward to Reading Writing, also known as “The Best Uni Class I’ve Ever Done” by most people who took it.
I got up at 6:30 am, through the bitter chill of Melbourne’s winter. Caught the train to the CBD. Made it to Melbourne Central, grabbed a hot chocolate and arrived at class by 9:30, ready to write. All I knew was that I had to rewrite my first chapter, now that the direction of the story had changed. Other than that, I was ready to discover the story.
We were instructed to use a particular writing technique, being Pomodoro. The twenty of us would all write in silence for 25 minutes, then take a five-minute break to walk around and chat. Before each burst, we had to write down a target word count. Mine was usually between 300-500 words. If we hit the target, we got to put a tick next to it (or maybe that was just something I did). We also had to write daily targets. When you reached 1000 words for the day, you got to put on a party hat.
For the record, I usually hit 1000 words within an hour, but never actually put on the hat. Didn’t want to draw attention to myself.
After four Pomodoro bursts, we got to have a half-hour break, before returning for a final session. Then we had an hour-long lunch before we got discussing our projects or workshopping for the next two hours.
Every morning I put in my music, as most in the class did, and just wrote. Discovered the story word by word. At one point, on the fifth day, I got halfway through a Pomodoro and realised I had literally no ideas for what came after the current scene. I took a short walk and had to come up with some quick plot ideas in five minutes, then got back into it. It was pressure cooker writing and I loved every second of it.
Most days I wrote 3000 words in just under 2.5 hours of actual writing time. It would have been impressive, if not for another class member, who averaged about 5000 words each day. Even still, I earned a reputation among my friends as a writing machine. Someone said I’m like ‘Stephen King but not on coke.’ I do have to wonder how they could possibly know whether I was on cocaine or not. I assume there must be some signs of it. I wouldn’t know, since I’ve never tried cocaine.
But I’m not here to brag about not being on cocaine, writing lots or anything else. I’m here to give advice. So what did I learn from writing 30,000 words in ten days, and more importantly, what can you learn from it?
How to Finish a Novel: You Have to Write It
The last thing I want someone to take out of this blog post is that you have to discovery write or use the Pomodoro technique to write lots. That’s far from the truth. Those work for me, personally. But what those ten days really taught me, was that writers write. I got more out of that intensive than every other university class I took combined. I’m not exaggerating. Kind of seems like I wasted a lot of money on the course… You can read more about my thoughts on that here.
I spent five or six years on Incarnate, which finished up at 124,000 words. Admittedly, that had multiple drafts as well, but it’s still a damn long time. After writing 30,000 words in 25 total hours, I promised myself that I would never spend that long on a book again.
If you’re a writer, you might be thinking that you could never hit that word count. The thing is, you don’t need to. Right here, right now, I’ll tell you the secret to writing lots. It’s the same as the secret to exercise or sticking to a diet. It can be said in many ways, but I’ll call on a dead meme to do it for me.
I’m sorry, but it’s the truth. That’s how to finish a novel in twelve months. The intensive class taught me that if I just sat down and did the work, I could make great strides in little time. Because of that lesson, I went on to write another 40,000 words during the holidays and completed draft one a few weeks into semester two.
We all want to know the secret to getting things done. We’re always looking for a shortcut, a way to motivate ourselves easily. The truth is that there is no secret. There never will be. You just have to decide you want it.
And I know, it’s easy for me to say when I was a uni student and now work part-time with no kids to look after. You get busy. Life is hard. If you want to write lots, you’ll find the time anyway.
I’m a pretty big gamer (he says, having played only Terraria on his Mac for the past two weeks), but when I was writing this book, I had neither the time nor the desire to play video games. It simply wasn’t a priority. And yes, I may have clocked well over 100 hours in The Witcher III, but that was while waiting for my beta feedback, so it doesn’t count. The point is if you want to write lots, and I mean really want to, something will make way.
Hopefully it’s not something really important, like going to work or feeding your family, but you know… do what you have to.
25 Steps to Being a Traditionally Published Author helped me understand this as well. It’s an incredibly brutal post that has the potential to make or break you as a writer. I highly recommend it, if you’re brave enough.
I have a bad habit of writing ultra-long blog posts, so I give you permission to leave now if you wish. By all means, I’d love it if you kept reading, but that was really the crux of this post. I wrote three drafts in a year because I chose to be disciplined about it. It’s boring, but it’s also the truth. As for the rest of this post, I’ll keep it brief but hopefully interesting and insightful.
It may be really stupid to give your readers permission to leave in the middle of a post, but I don’t want to waste time here. It’s not like I make any money off this site, anyway. In fact, I’m losing money from it, so do whatever makes you happiest, dear reader.
The Second Draft (October 6, 2019)
Okay, I did something really stupid (even worse than encouraging readers to leave my post. Thanks for sticking around, by the way) and started my second draft two days before the due date of my capstone assessment, then used the first two chapters as my submission. And I also had the nerve to get upset when my grade wasn’t fantastic. I guess I got what I deserved on that one.
To be fair, the feedback I got from my assessor was kind of terrible. There were about ten comments over 7000 words and they were all nitpicks. I still have no idea what I did wrong. It’s quite flattening when all your peers say how much they love your work throughout the semester and then your tutor is like ‘well actually, this isn’t that great’, then proceeds to give high distinctions to pretty much everyone else.
Maybe I’m still a bit salty about it. That’s not really the point, though. I just wanted to call out my own stupidity.
It’s not like I’d put the assessment off without good reason. After finishing draft one, I committed to six weeks away from the manuscript. Once that time had passed, I read through my first draft and made extensive notes. When I finished, I had two days until the deadline for my final assessment.
By that time I had plenty of my peers offer to beta read for me, so I threw myself into the second draft after finishing my course. After about a month I landed a part-time job but continued writing almost every day I wasn’t working.
I set myself a goal to finish draft two by the end of 2019, but it was around mid-January in the end. After another proofread I sent it out to several beta readers, then waited a couple of months for my feedback. You can read all about that here.
The Third Draft (April 21, 2020)
I wrote my third draft in fifty days. 129,000 words. Fifty days.
If I can do that, you can write a book in a year. It might only be one draft, but that’s still something to be immensely proud of. If you haven’t finished a single book yet, and you want to, then I hope this gives you confidence.
I was not a prolific writer a year ago. I’d finished one novel in several years. But I found the secret, and that secret is discipline. Also known as ‘no secret’.
There’s not really a lot to say about the third draft. Not much changed for me while stuck at home from COVID-19, except that I didn’t have to search for jobs. I just stuck my head down and smashed the draft out, and I think I would have done that whether the world was facing a pandemic or not.
It might be easy to see this blog post as me bragging about my high word counts, but the whole point of it was to do the opposite. I wanted to show that you don’t have to be Stephen King or Brandon Sanderson to write a book quickly. If I can do it, then you can as well.
All it takes is desire and the right mindset.
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