This week I’m starting the first draft of a new novel. I’ve got my outline, and I’m (more or less) ready to go. But what’s my plan of attack? What are my goals? How quickly do I aim to finish. Let me answer those questions with a quote from Stephen King.
“I like to get ten pages a day, which amounts to 2,000 words. That’s 180,000 words over a three-month span, a goodish length for a book — something in which the reader can get happily lost, if the tale is done well and stays fresh.”
This is and has been my target for every one of my novels. It really works for me and allows me to finish a first draft in rapid but still comfortable pace. I know word count goals don’t work for everyone, but they definitely keep me on the straight and narrow. That said, I do break from Mr. King’s prescribed pace in the following ways and for the following reasons.
- Five days per week. I generally work on novel first drafts Monday through Friday, reserving the weekends for other writing. That’s usually short stories and blog posts. I do this because I need the occasional break from a big project to keep the ol’ creative juices flowing. I find that short stories, especially, are a great palate cleanser that keep me fresh for novel writing.
- At least 2,000 words per writing day. If I get 2,000 words written, I feel like I’ve had a good writing day. Sometimes, though, I’ll press on and write 2,500 or even 3,000 words. Those extra words tie into the next point.
- At least 10,000 words per week. There are some days were I can’t hit my writing goal or even work on the novel at all, so in addition to daily goals, I also set a weekly goal. That goal is 10,000 words per week. So, let’s say I can’t write Monday. Then what I’ll do is write 2,500 words Tuesday through Thursday so I have my 10,000. If I hit that number, I feel like it’s been a productive week.
- Cut myself some slack. This one is tough for me, but it’s vital. There are going to be days or even weeks where I can’t write, for whatever reason, and I have to give myself permission to be okay with that. If I finish my novel in twelve weeks instead of eleven, it’s fine, and maybe even necessary. I’m not a machine and I sometimes need a break.
All that above sounds like a lot of talk, I know, but I do stick to it pretty rigorously. I can even prove it. I keep a running spreadsheet of daily and weekly word counts for all my novels, and for one of those novels I even blogged my weekly progress. I won’t make you chase down all those old posts, but you can find them under Acts of War: Aftershock if you want to check my math. I’ve summarized my weekly output for Aftershock below.
|12/12 – 12/18||11678|
|12/26 – 1/1||10022|
|1/2 – 1/8||11185|
|1/9 – 1/15||10149|
|1/16 – 1/22||11062|
|1/23 – 1/29||12040|
|1/30 – 2/5||11282|
|2/6 – 2/19||5864|
From 12/12/16 to 2/19/17 I wrote 95,303 words, an average of 2,118 words per writing day and 10,430 words per writing week. I did not hit my five-days-a-week, 2,000-words-per-day goal, but I did hit 10,000 words per week every time. I only wrote 5,800 words in that last week because, well, I finished the book before I hit 10,000. 🙂 If you were to look at the day-by-day word counts, you’d see some weeks where I worked only four days and some days where it took me six or even seven to hit 10,000 words. So I don’t want to give the impression the above is some kind of perfect score. Shit happens when you’re writing a novel. Shit that forces you to miss a day or a week or be unable to hit your word count goal because you’re stuck on a plot point or something. Still, I was thrilled with the pace I set with Aftershock, and it at least showed me just how quickly I can write a novel when I need to.
Of course, writing a first draft in nine weeks is a rapid pace, unless you’re Stephen King, and then I guess it’s a little sluggish. I’d say I’m pretty quick, but when I’m working on my own stuff (the above is a media tie-in novel) my first drafts takes longer, closer to twelve weeks and maybe a tad more. So my advice to those writing their first novel is let it take as long as it takes. Word count goals are great, but they’re not the only way to get the job done, and they simply don’t work for some folks. Find goals and a pace that work for you and then, and this is key, don’t quit. Keep pushing until that first draft is done, even if it take you six months or a year or whatever. You can’t take all those exciting, terrifying, and necessary next steps, from editing and revising to querying an agent, until you finish.
Do you work from word count goals? Something else? Tell me about it in the comments.