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10 books in 5 years — A System

I’ve written off-and-on for the past 20 years. In that time, I finished one book (it’s terrible, you can’t read it) and nearly finished a second (I hope to release it next year). Something needed to change, so I set a goal to do 10 books in 5 years. It’s a specific target, and it seemed really hard.

I needed a system.

I wake up at 6 AM every morning (even on weekends), make a cup of coffee, and then sit down and write 1000 words. Some days it’s less, some days it’s more, and on average I hit 700 words per day. I write for about 60–90 minutes. Then I make breakfast, shower, and go to work (not on weekends).

Since I started my regimen in January, I’ve missed maybe 15 days total from sickness, travel, or family emergencies. I self-published two books this year and have just finished the first draft of book three. The system appears to be bearing fruit. By the way, this is for fiction — everything’s easier when I’m just making things up as I go.

I’m not going to tell you how to write — there’s gobs of content around about the craft.

This is how to do it in a hurry.

Write the first draft

Sounds obvious, but this is the part that takes the longest, so there are a few techniques I use for speed.

I resist the urge to edit the story while I’m writing it — and by edit, I mean open the document, start reading the first chapter, and make tweaks/changes/rewrite. I’ll end up with an amazingly-polished first three chapters and really rough rest of it. Plus, it will kill my momentum. I use Microsoft Word and it’s got a neat feature where I can easily get to “where I left off” the previous day.

As I’m going along, I’ll think of spots where I can fill in details but I’m in the flow of an action sequence, or some other place where I don’t want to stop. I leave myself notes in the manuscript with <> brackets, like <describe this> or <what does the person look like> or <does he feel sick at seeing that>. If it’s a critical plot point, I’ll figure out the <> note the following day, otherwise I go back and fill in <> notes during the second draft.

I write a lot of rapid-fire dialogue, and I leave <moment> all over the place to go back in and leave “beats” to break it up and ground the reader in the scene.

This is one of Ernest Hemingway’s tricks: when I reach the end of my session, I stop in the middle of a sentence or an action point. Gives future-self a springboard to jump off from. It’s really easy to finish out an “and then” phrase, and then keep on going.

Most days I’m just a conduit. Meaning, my characters decide to do things without me expressly telling them to do it. Yes, I know that sounds weird, but I’m routinely surprised by the things they do. Book three has an interesting twist near the end that I didn’t see coming. I don’t plan everything out. I usually know how the story ends, and maybe some important bits in the middle. The rest just shows up while I’m writing. It’s more fun that way.

Do the second draft

The second draft has a number of tasks in it:

  • Filling in any <> blocks I left lying around.
  • Expanding description. I tend to be really light on description, so this is the part where I fill in all the little details that make scenes really stand out.
  • Annihilating adverbs.
  • Fixing any time and continuity problems, such as characters being in the wrong place at the wrong time. So far, each Akken Chronicles book covers 24 hours or less, so having a spreadsheet of hour blocks and where each character is at any given time helps avoid problems where they suddenly need to be across town in three minutes.
  • Removing extraneous exclamation points. The White Ring is 83k words. It has 26 exclamation points in it. Best to save them for when it’s really necessary or needs extra impact.
  • Finding and fixing passive voice. “She felt” vs. “She could feel”. It’s really noticeable when a story is in active voice, and it feels like a “wrong note” moment when it drops into passive.

Third draft

The third draft is me reading the story aloud to myself and fixing things that sound wrong. I catch other bits I missed during the second draft. Then I print it out and read through and make notes. When I’m done, I go through and fix everything and polish.

Get it edited

I pay somebody to find the mistakes I just don’t see. I tend to have a lot of tense problems and the people who find these for me are worth their weight in gold. On both of my first books, I used a husband-and-wife team in the UK. Their rates are reasonable and they’re nice to me when telling me that my story needs help. They’re called BubbleCow.

Depending on the size of the manuscript, the editors have it for 4–6 weeks. During that time, I start on the next book. I begin with a one-page outline and then get to it.

Fourth draft & beta readers

When I get the manuscript back from the editors, I go through and fix everything they found and polish it some more. Then I send it to my three beta readers. They each read a different way. Their feedback is invaluable. While they have the book, I continue on with the next one.

Final draft

I fix everything that the beta readers find, do a final polish, then I prep it for release on Amazon. I do the Kindle and print versions. It took me a few hours to figure out how to do both formats the first time, but now it doesn’t take me very long to set them up. I design my own covers to save money. Amazon has a handy preview feature that shows how the book is going to look, and I can order a proof copy of the print version to do a final check. Then I set prices and publish. Easy!

The cycle continues

By the time I publish a book, I’m usually 25–35% into the first draft of the next one. Rinse and repeat. Consistency is king. Show up every day and do the work.

10 books in 5 years? If I don’t run out of content, I think I can do it in 4.

I write books and software. Opinions held loosely.

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