How to Write a Book Quickly:

If you’re writing for money, speed is a concern. Turnaround is important. I’ve had some successes and failures while working it all out. I’ve tried to take lessons from those experiences wherever I could. In all that rush, though, it’s hard to find time to write my own material, and I still do plan to make my living writing books someday. So, I just have to finish them quickly.

Today, I’m going to lay out a process for finishing your own fiction work quickly. I’ve already written a guide to creating a book in a year, writing just five minutes a day. That’s great and all, but what if you want to get that book done?

Well, I’ve already taken a good look at the actual amount of time required to write, and you can see it’s not actually that hefty an investment in the grand scheme of things. Instead, writers tend to get bogged down in the details.

Now, this is hardly the only way to write a book, in fact most writers I know use a different method, but most of them don’t write for a living. I think it’s the best way to realistically get one finished. This is basically just the path which minimizes retreading the same ground. For example, if you write, edit, polish, and shine a chapter, only to find you need to change it to preserve continuity due to changes to other chapters, you’ve wasted not just the writing time, but the editing time as well.

So get the writing done, then worry about the rest.

The Initial Planning

Planning and world-building should be minimal in advance of writing the first draft of a book. Or, more accurately, the first draft should be part of the planning process. Get a basic idea of where you want to start, and where you want to end, maybe with some really good scenes you’ve thought up as waypoints, but don’t obsess over it–it’s all going to change, no matter how well you planned it.

Ideas aren’t stories, and stories aren’t ideas. They coexist well, in a symbiotic sort of way, but you can write a great story without any big ideas, and turn amazing ideas into horrible stories. They’re independent variables in the same equation.
Things to Kinda Know Before Your First Draft:

  • Who is in the story?
  • What are they doing?
  • Why are they doing it?
  • Where are they doing it?
  • How does it change them?

I say “Kinda Know” because all these things will probably be unrecognizable by the time you’re done. There may be writers who sat down with a carefully-plotted novel idea, then wrote the whole thing in one draft, but I don’t know any. The book you write is rarely the one you intended to write in the beginning, and, if it is, you probably didn’t do a good job on it.

A good story takes on a life of its own. You never really know your characters until you see them in action, the same way you don’t know people after one interaction. You never really understand what they’re feeling until they’re there, and it’s basically impossible to foresee the wrinkles in your plot until you’re trying to put it into action. So don’t try.

Use the first draft for all of that.

The First Draft

Your goal of your first draft is not to have a book when you’re done, it’s to have a story you can turn into a book. One of the reasons I’m highly skeptical of people who have been “working” on a draft of novel for years without ever finishing is a single draft of a novel, especially the first one, isn’t especially time consuming. The reason it takes a long time for your favorite writers to churn out a good book is that they’re writing draft after draft until it’s right.

Details are important. . . later. But they barely matter at all in the first draft. To quote a rather extraordinary writer who passed away recently:

Terry Pratchett First Draft Quote telling yourself storyYou’re telling yourself this story. You aren’t going to have anyone else read it. You don’t care about inconsistencies. You don’t need the world fully fleshed out. You don’t need to know your characters. This where you get to know your characters, this where you figure out your world. All you need is a basic plot and setting.

Then write.

Write.

Don’t go back and change things. Write.

Don’t edit. Write.

Editing is a waste of time when the words are going to change, anyway. Chances are, barely a single word you’re writing is going to show up in the final draft. This is going to be true whether you spend a week on each chapter, or an hour, so guess how much time you should spend smoothing out the rough edges?

Trick question; you should spend that time writing.

As an aside, I am working under the assumption that you have bothered to gain a strong understanding of spelling, punctuation, and grammar, at least, (and hopefully some sense of storytelling strategy) before writing a book . . . but if not, this is a great way to start making up for the lack.

Start at the beginning, go to the end. If you get stuck, keep writing anyway. Figuring your way out of tough places on the fly puts you in the same position as your characters. As you go, make notes of major changes, but don’t actually make them. That comes later.

The first draft is the writing equivalent of one of those tiny little sketches artists do to work out basic composition before they even break out the big pieces of paper.

I try to aim for 3000-6000 words a day during this part of the process. You’re doing a quick sketch, so just go go go!

Planning Part Two

Now you know what’s up. You’ve got 60-80,000 words of drivel written down. But you’ve finished a draft. Take a deep breath, you’re a real writer now!

Okay, now tear it to shreds. Here are some good questions to ask:

  • Is this the best story I can tell with my characters?
  • Are my characters the best ones to tell the story with?
  • Do I feel like my characters are full people?
  • Have I made it too easy on my characters?
  • Does every scene add something to the story?
  • What is the central plot/conflict?

Now, some people are going to tell you you need to do this, or that, or the other thing. That there’s a right way to write a book, and they’re wrong. You can have a book that meanders through a bunch of what amount to short stories, a long book, a short book, a book in the first or third person, paragraphs of however long you want, etc. Throw in some passive voice if you like. As long as you can make it work. Worst case, you’ll end up with a terrible book that no one wants to read.

If that seems like a pretty significant downside, remember that you’ll share this fate with most authors who wrote their books the “right” way. If there was a formula for the perfect novel, machines would be writing them, and we’d all be out of work.

Right now, you’re creating a large-scale framework based off the rough sketches you created in your first draft. All you’re doing is deciding which ideas you like, and which you don’t think you need to carry forward into the book.

Okay, it’s time to start writing your book.

If you’re thinking, I’ve written 80,000 words, and I’m just now getting started on the book, this is terrible! you’re in trouble. Writing as a job is, you know, a job, and, you know, a lot of writing. If you don’t want a job involving lots of writing, don’t pursue a career as a writer.

The First Revision

Don’t edit.

I am working under the assumption that you have bothered to gain a strong understanding of spelling, punctuation, and grammar, at least, and, hopefully, some sense of storytelling strategy before writing a book . . . but if not, this is a great time to start making up for the lack.

This revision is about broad strokes. You’re cutting out the things you don’t need, the things you probably don’t need, the things you might not need, and the things you think you might possibly need, but you aren’t sure. Maybe some stuff you’re sure you need, just to see if you can get by without it.

You’re going through and deciding how the characters will behave in situations now that you know them better. These are going to be your first broad strokes of the book you’ll actually be writing. If you’re really happy with your first draft, you might consider using it as a base, but I generally just write the whole thing fresh, with only a few really good scenes or bits of dialog brought over from the first draft.

You’re going to be revising this again, but your goal here is to write a version of the story you really want to write–the best possible composition you can create with the elements at your disposal.

Now’s the time to start watching your style and voice. You can make this pretty fun if you give it a chance.

The First Edit

The goal here isn’t an unassailable perfect manuscript, just a readable one. It needs to be readable, because the time has come to let people read your work. I know, that’s not easy for everyone, but it needs to happen.

Tell your readers not to worry too much about grammar, and to focus on how they feel about the story, pacing, character development, and so on. For various reasons, you might want to consider joining a writer’s group in your area. Grammar and punctuation have their time, but that time is still later. Because . . .

mark twain that substitute damn quote
Probably not really by Mark Twain though.

Revision Two: The Re-revisioning

Take everything your test readers have said about your book, and figure out what you agree with, what you don’t, and how to make things better. This is going to be tough, because you’ll get conflicting recommendations. Sometimes you’ll need to stick to your guns even when everyone disagrees with you, but make sure it’s for a good reason, not your own pride; if lots of people are hitting on the same problem, you are probably looking at something that needs to be fixed.

Make those changes, and then give the book back to test readers.

From Here Until the End

From here on out, you’re repeating this process. When are you done? When it’s right. When you’ve told the best story you can. Or until your deadline arrives. It’s probably a good idea to have a deadline in mind. Not only does it motivate, but it forces the perfectionist to say, “Good enough.”

That’s when you go through, making sure every letter and piece of punctuation is in its place. It would be advisable to have someone help with this.

The truth is, the very best version of a story will never become the book, because each of us imagines things a little differently, interprets events and characters through the lens of our own experience, and, so, reads a slightly different story from everyone else.

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