The Baby-Steps Method to Writing a Novel

by Suzannah Windsor Freeman

Baby wearing pink hat

It’s said that most people think they have a story in them–a novel-sized story.

Writing a novel is a huge task, but looking at the big picture makes it appear much larger than it needs to be. Think of writing as a process, rather than an end product.

Don’t tell yourself you must write 300 pages–today, you need only write one.

Let’s presume you want to write a novel in the ballpark of 80,000-90,000 words, within a reasonable time frame of one year. Here are just a few examples of the many different ways you can accomplish just that, by writing 500 words or less, in 30-60 minutes per day:

Baby-Steps Method #1: First Draft Only

Before you start writing, take 4 weeks to plan your story. You don’t need to know all the particulars, but you should have a good idea of your story’s beginning, ending, major plot points, and characters. Keep some notes to refer to later on in the process.

Once you know where you’re going, maintain the following schedule, or something similar:

250 (words per day) x 7 (days per week) x 48 (weeks)= 84,000

OR

350 (words per day) x 5 (days per week) x 48 (weeks)=84,000

By writing  250-350 words, 5 to 7 days per week, you will have written 84,000 words in a year.

The downfall of this method is that you will have only finished a first draft, so you’ll need to allot several more months for revision.

Baby-Steps Method #2: First Draft and Revision

Begin with the same 4 weeks for story planning as for method #1. Then write:

450 (words per day) x 7 (days per week) x 26 (weeks)= 81,900

OR

500 (words per day) x 5 (days per week) x 33 (weeks)= 82,500

Depending on which you choose, you’ll have anywhere between 15 and 22 weeks left in the year to revise your novel.

These equations are only guidelines. Choose whatever frequency suits you, and don’t be too hard on yourself if you don’t meet your quota every single day. Having a writing schedule is meant to empower, not restrict.

Although it may seem like this plan reduces novel writing to a sort of paint-by-numbers approach, having a ballpark quota of words to write each day helps break down the big picture into smaller, more manageable chunks.

So, when you’re tempted to look at how overwhelming the task seems, you can remind yourself it’s not so impossible after all.

It only takes baby steps.

{ 18 comments }

LydiaSharp April 19, 2010 at 12:00 pm

This is excellent advice for those just starting their novel-writing adventures. Not looking at the whole thing in one big lump is always an effective approach; it’s easy to get overwhelmed and give up, especially when it’s time to go back and revise.

After you’ve been doing this for a while, though, things do move along much more quickly. My latest project (a YA Romance), took me exactly ONE HOUR to lay out the main story and major turning points. I’ve already written the first 20 pages in the last two days, and I plan to whip out at least another 30 pages in the coming week.

You need to take your time and pace yourself in the beginning, but it does get easier. Just thought I’d throw that out there as something to look forward to. ;)

Suzannah April 19, 2010 at 7:03 pm

Thanks,Lydia. You’re right about it getting easier in general, but I don’t think everyone speeds up with experience. Some people are naturally faster writers than others. I happen to be a slow writer with occasional breakthroughs where I can write double the usual amount in a day. It has a lot to do with how much time you actually have to spend writing, as well. If I go back to teaching when my baby is a bit older, I’ll probably have to drop down to 250 words per day, or about half an hour of writing. But if you’ve gotten faster over the years, that’s wonderful! Hope it happens for me one day ;)

Iain Broome April 19, 2010 at 12:36 pm

This is absolutely not how I wrote my first novel but it absolutely is how I will be writing my second. My ad hoc approach to writing and planning (and life and jobs and stuff) has led to me taking an eternity to write novel one. If I had my time again…

This is sound advice!

Suzannah April 19, 2010 at 7:05 pm

If I’m not mistaken, that ‘first novel’ got you an agent, didn’t it? So, I’d say you’re not doing too badly ;)

I understand what you mean, though. It makes life so much easier if you have some sort of plan to writing your book instead of just working on it whenever you feel like it and whenever you happen to have some spare time. That makes it far too easy to put it aside and not pick it up again.

Thanks for weighing in, Iain, appreciate it!

Iain Broome April 19, 2010 at 7:50 pm

Well, yes, it did. But as well as being completely brilliant, I’m also extremely modest.

Suzannah April 19, 2010 at 7:55 pm

Too funny. We don’t mind if you gloat–just a little bit.

Suzanne Pitner April 19, 2010 at 12:47 pm

I think it’s a terrific approach. Ray Bradbury or Isaac Asimov, I can’t remember which one, said he wrote 1,000 words a day. That was his schedule. It builds a habit, and I don’t think it turns it into an exercise in painting by numbers. Thanks for doing the math for us. Wonderful post!

Suzannah April 19, 2010 at 7:07 pm

Hi Suzanne :) I do know that Ernest Hemingway wrote 500 words per day, every day. In fact, I think he might have been the one that was known to stop as soon as he hit 500 words *exactly*.

Hey, if it works for Ernest, it works for me!

Wendy A.M. Prosser April 19, 2010 at 9:04 pm

I became more productive and much happier with my writing when I began setting relatively low daily word quotas. I was previously (unsuccessfully) trying to churn out huge numbers of words every day, and every day feeling miserable when I failed. The “baby-steps” approach really works, especially if you are a slow writer.

Suzannah April 21, 2010 at 6:16 am

Thanks, Wendy. I’m a slow writer by nature, so it’s worked for me, although maybe not for everyone. The nice thing about having a low quota is that you feel really great when you exceed your own expectations!

Lisa April 20, 2010 at 2:43 pm

Great post. I managed to finish my first draft by writing on my lunch breaks and on the weekends when I could. It took six months, but it is possible.

Suzannah April 21, 2010 at 6:17 am

Hey, that’s great! I don’t know if I could concentrate that much on my lunch break.

zz April 21, 2010 at 3:41 am

Hi Suzannah , this is really great advice. I just finished my first draft of my first novel. While I did virtually no planning, it did get pretty painful as I hit many plot walls and found myself constantly changing characters and locations. I’d like to work on planning my next novel, but I don’t know if I could hold off writing for a MONTH to do so! I’d be itching to start as soon as I had my first idea!

Suzannah April 21, 2010 at 6:38 am

A month isn’t so long if you’re doing a lot of the groundwork. As an example of why it’s sometimes good to wait, my work-in-progress started off as a completely different story. Over about a month’s worth of planning and mental composting, it evolved into something far better. I’m glad now I took that time instead of rushing into it.

drmani April 21, 2010 at 5:43 am

One problem with this approach that I see is that you might find it tough to stay focused on the storyline for such a long period. Even when I condensed my writing into a month, I found my attention wavering, and getting lost in sub-plots – and imagine if I wrote for a full year, the story would turn out completely different, even with an outline/blueprint to work from. But yes, I agree completely with the 4 weeks to plan an outline. And would even add another 4 weeks for the idea/concept to mature (or ‘compost’) in your mind – before beginning to write.

Suzannah April 21, 2010 at 6:41 am

That could become a problem, but as long as you’re consistently working on it, I don’t think it would happen as often as you might think. Certainly, if you only work on a novel every now and then, writing thousands of words at a time but then leaving it for long periods, you might lose focus. I’ve been writing between 250 and 800 words or so pretty much every day for the last few months, and I haven’t lost focus in the slightest.

Anonymous May 29, 2010 at 8:09 pm

I’m learning a lot from your blog: not just techniques but the attitudes and perceptions behind some of them. If I wrote a small, but consistent, amount each day, my focus might not have the wide swings it does. It would certainly be better than re-reading 10 pages and trying to figure out what was supposed to come next. If I outlined my work (I’m doing that now and realizing that my first idea was big enough for at least 3 books), that might keep the wandering to a minimum because I would have a basic blueprint to return to.

Thanks.

Suzannah May 30, 2010 at 12:05 pm

Thanks so much for your comments. I’m glad you’re learning a lot! And yes, I highly recommend outlining. I’ve tried to pants my way through a few things and they’ve never turned out.

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