Two Months to Publication

A friend of mine suggested this blog post to me. She is one of a handful of people to have read SAND all the way through (I sent early copies of part 5 to some betas), and as both a writer and a reader, she is fascinated in how quickly I wrote and published a full-length novel that doesn’t suck all that much. This is also something that comes up in the KBoards forums. There are threads devoted to systems of publishing many works in a year and more threads devoted to how these books must not be any good.

I subscribe to the Blake Crouch theory of book production, which says that a novel takes a set number of hours to write, revise, and edit. How you distribute those hours is up to you. Some purists will claim that it takes five years to write a novel, four and a half of which are spent in a deep depression because no writing is getting done, six months of which are spent actually writing and even then for only an hour or so a day.

The first novel I ever published, MOLLY FYDE AND THE PARSONA RESCUE, was written in a week. I was out of work at the time (paid work. I was writing reviews and serving as the book editor for a website my friend and I started). Twenty years of wanting to write and putting it off exploded out of me. This was a story I’d been daydreaming about for a long time, so I knew my characters and I knew a very, very rough outline of a plot. I started writing at six in the morning and wrote until eight or ten at night. Ten thousand words a day for seven days, and I had a 70,000 word rough draft. I spent a week revising this up to 100,000 words, sent that manuscript around, and was told by friends and family that I had to get it published.

I never wrote that fast again. I doubt I ever will. But it doesn’t take as long as you think, not if you are prepared and dedicated. I saw John Grisham interviewed in person once, and he said writing is neither as difficult as authors make it out to be nor as simple as non-writers assume it to be. He writes for TWO HOURS A DAY and then goes fishing. This is enough to produce a novel a year, and I guarantee you he doesn’t write every single day. He tours and vacations and takes his weekends off.

I have a traditionally published friend (Harper Collins, 6-figure advances) who can’t force himself to write. As his deadline approaches, he goes off to various internet-free rentals and cranks out a master-quality novel in about a month. I suspect this is more common than most readers know. I also suspect not many authors care to admit how fast they end up writing their books, fearing that the time involved will be equated to a lack of quality.

Last month, I had the incredible pleasure of meeting and hanging out with Elle Casey, an online friend of mine and one of my heroes. Elle is a full-time self-published author who publishes A BOOK A MONTH. That’s the deadline she sets for herself. These are full-length novels with intricate plots and across various genres. She has a legion of fans who wish she could write faster. How does she do it? She writes every single day, hours a day. She treats this like a job. And like me, she is very passionate about what she does.

So let me tell you how SAND went from blank page to 90,000 word published novel in two months. It started with NaNoWriMo (which was denigrated in the New York Times yesterday, much to my chagrin and the editor’s shame). NaNo is Elle Casey month for hundreds of thousands of writers. 30 days to write a 50,000 word rough draft. This year, I was on the road for NaNo. I spent 7 1/2 weeks in Europe on book tour, and I was nervous that I wouldn’t meet my writing goal. This was going to be my fifth year participating, and I didn’t want to break that streak, nor did I want to miss the chance of getting all that writing done.

This is part of the motivational magic of NaNo, but it’s also the attitude that allows me to write several novels a year. No excuse is good enough to NOT WRITE. Being on book tour? Not a good enough excuse. Having a day job, a family and house to take care of, meals to cook, a dog to walk and exercise? Not good enough excuses. The people who make this work find the time. I told myself, even knowing that my days were blocked up with interviews and bookstore events, that I would find the time.

SAND was written on trains and in airports. It was written in Finland at five in the morning before I went to the Helsinki Book Fair. It was written on the stoop of my hotel while I waited in the freezing cold for my publicist to pick me up. It was written in the back of the cab on the way to the fair. It was written at the fair while I waited on interviewers and while between interviews. When I wasn’t writing, I was thinking about the plot, my characters, having conversations, making notes in my cell phone.

I flew to Amsterdam where I wrote more. Every day, I wrote at least 2,000 words. I had a few 3,000 and even 5,000 word days. These were crucial, because my mother was meeting me in Italy to spend 10 days of my book tour on vacation with me. When she arrived, it meant getting up a little earlier every day and writing before we set out to see the sights. It meant writing at night before I went to bed. I wrote in a laundromat in Venice while I refreshed my single carry-on of clothes. When I got to 50,000, my mom and I toasted with glasses of wine and had a nice meal. And then I powered on, knowing this wasn’t enough.

When I felt stuck — as happens to most every writer — I went back to what I’d already written and cleaned it up. I would start at the beginning and work my way to the end, and then find that I knew what happened next. This meant SAND 1 had six or seven passes by the time I was writing SAND 4. I shared SAND 1 with my newsletter subscribers. The first part of my work was ready to publish before NaNoWriMo was even over. By the time I got home (just a couple days before Thanksgiving), I had the rough draft of a novel with just a dozen or so chapters missing (I’d written the end, but I’d left out most of SAND 4).

December was for revising. My plan was to publish each part with two weeks between them. When I felt good about a section, I sent it to David Gatewood, who would work on his editorial suggestions while I was finishing the next part. It went faster than I had anticipated (it always does. I set insane deadlines, and then I work like a beast and beat them). I also realized SAND 4 was going to be too long and that it had a natural break point, so SAND 5 was born. (There was also the pleasure of mimicking WOOL, which SAND is the antithesis of in at least a dozen ways. More on that much later). I had hoped to have the final part out at the end of January. I was done with the writing on January 1st. It is now 6 in the morning on January 6th, and my formatter is working on putting together SAND 5, which will be published this week.

I’m not sure if this is what my friend wanted to see, this rough timeline of events from first words to final publication, but that’s how the novel was put together and published. I don’t think it’s all that unusual, to be honest. Elle Casey would think me lazy. Another of my author friends would claim that this is only possible after ten months of agonizing procrastination. I think anything is possible. It’s Monday. I spent quite a bit of my weekend writing, signing and packing up books, editing for an upcoming anthology, writing a piece of flash fiction for another anthology, responding to emails, etc. This morning, I’m up at 6 to put together this blog-post-upon-request. And then it’s off to the next story I want to write. Even if I had a day job, I would get my words in for the day. Every day. That’s what I did for three years while at the bookstore. I got up and I wrote.

Maybe SAND would be a better book if I spent five years on it and revised every paragraph dozens of times. Perhaps. But I don’t hate what I’ve written, and I think the story and writing would only be marginally better with all that time and re-working. What would be lost are the ten other novels I would write in that five years. That’s more important to me, staying energized and excited, keeping it diverse, not wallowing in a story until I’m sick of it, but writing at the pace in which good reading occurs. Every writer needs to find their own system. This is mine. The only wrong system of writing is to not write. And now . . . I turn to a blank page and start something new. Or maybe I look at that Molly Fyde manuscript and try to wrap it up. Finally. It has taken me three years to write that book!

43 responses to “Two Months to Publication”

  1. Fantastic Hugh. Keep it up. Sand is outstanding.

  2. Thanks for the perspective Hugh. It helps a ton to see how other writes “do the work.”

    Looking forward to the Sand Omnibus.

  3. Lovely piece of work here. I believe what you’ve said here is true for many things. I always see the scene from The Matrix and hear Morphius telling me to stop trying to write and write already. I’m trying out my writing skills now and this post goes a long way to keeping me encouraged. Thank you for sharing.

  4. I have a feeling this post will end up as a link in the “Favorite Posts For Writers” bar. Though you should change the post’s title to “Just Write, Dammit”.

    1. I don’t take suggestions from you!

  5. Hugh, I love this. I love this because there seems to be an assumption that things written quickly are not well written. And to your point, yes, taking more time and “agonizing” over the changes and revisions might make the writing better, but maybe only marginally so and at the expense of other stories you want to write. I love that!

    And Tad, great connection with Morpheus. I see the whole “trying to write” versus “just write” quite a bit in some folks I know.

    In the end, writing is actually a lot simpler and a lot more difficult than more people know. Just not in the ways they assume.

    So, speaking of impossible deadlines that you beat, Hugh, what’s your next impossible deadline?


    1. I don’t know yet. I’m going to spend a few days writing in a few different stories and see which one grabs me. I’m not going to pressure myself to have another novel-length release before June. I’ve got a lot of small stuff happening between now and then.

  6. Hugh –

    Thanks for sharing your process. I love to hear how the work gets done. I’m halfway through Wool and I love it. Looking forward to reading Shift next.

  7. Very encouraging, Hugh. Question: After you’ve written your first draft and you start to make a list of all the changes you need to make on your next draft, how do you keep from being overwhelmed by the laundry list of changes you’re going to need in order to whip the book in shape?

    I get very frustrated when I see the amount of work I’m going to need to do and then I end up abandoning yet another book instead of polishing it until it’s ready.

    1. Rather than make separate lists, I make notes right inside my manuscript, usually at the beginning and end of chapters that need work. I MAKE THE NOTES IN ALL CAPS, SO THEY STAND OUT. I also put the word BOOKMARK anywhere I need to come back to.

      When I finish a draft or I feel like revising, I just search for “BOOKMARK” from the beginning, tackle whatever that need is, and then move to the next. Eventually, I don’t have any all-caps notes. At that point, I’m just reading along, looking for rough spots to smooth out.

  8. Do you write well when you do a first draft, or do you just do a quick brain dump? Do you labor over each word or do just get something down paper that you can go back and look at when you’ve finished the entire first draft, Hugh?

    I can’t write well until I know exactly what’s going on in the world of my story. If I do a brain dump I’m able to get through the first draft pretty quickly?

    1. My rough drafts are pretty damn clean. I do labor over some sections, but not over each word. I can write 2,000 – 3,000 words in a 4-5 hour session. Most of those words will survive to publication. Probably 90% of them.

      1. I’m jealous that your first drafts come out so clean. Grrr ….

  9. Hugh, love the ‘no excuses’ rant, much needed. My question for you is how many hours of sleep do you get? I find myself sacrificing sleep for writing time, but that never works out very well. I suspect that should be a non-negotiable and I should be sacrificing/prioritizing other things.

    1. I need 6-8 hours every night. I tend to go to be early and get up early. Usually asleep by 11 and up by 6.

    2. I can empathize with sacrificing sleep in order to write. Do you work a day job while you write, like me? I know that I’ve stayed up way past my bedtime many times in order to pound out an extra thousand words here and there. Definitely makes getting up in the morning a lot more difficult, but I feel like the end result is worth the sacrifice, how about you?

    3. Hugh’s advice to write every day was the one thing that kicked my butt into high gear. I used to worry about word counts per writing session and ‘finding time’ to write. Then I just started making SOME time every day to write, even if it’s just two paragraphs. There are days that I write 300 words and others 1,200 words. I get a good night’s sleep (6-7 hours), I jog at least 2-3 km per day, spend time with my partner, work a day job and STILL I make the time to write.

      The result? My 100,000-word memoir is edging toward the 60K mark and I expect I’ll finish the draft within a few months. I’ve also got a series of short stories in the works, two novels itching to be written, as well as more non-fiction.

      There really is no excuse if one is serious about writing.

  10. This is great. I like the part where you said that even when you weren’t physically writing, you were still going over the story in your head working things out. I think this is what makes a person a writer. When people say things to the effect of, “I write, because I have to write,” I think this mental writing if you will, is what they are really talking about. So while it may take a short time to put a novel on paper, you have probably been kicking it around for at least that long already in your mind. Working out the plot, getting to know the characters, etc. I like to compare it to light from the sun. Once a photon escapes the solar surface, it only takes eight minutes to reach Earth, but that same photon, from creation during fusion to the time it actually is released from the solar surface may have been bouncing around inside the sun for thousands of years before it actually came out.

    My long and rambling point is that just because a story was put to paper quickly doesn’t mean it was written quickly. It probably went through several revisions before you even typed the first word.

    1. Great analogy! I might have to repeat that sometime.

      1. Definitely agree Kirk! I always joke that while others are angry about sitting in rush hour, I’m joyously writing my stories in my mind. In fact, I actually brainstormed my entire second novel while sitting in rush hour traffic 5 days a week. =)

      2. Use it anytime. Just keep the great stories coming and we’ll call it even. My best Christmas present this year was my signed copy of Wool that my wife bought after several not so subtle hints from me.

  11. I have found that a lot of outside factors can play into a person’s writing timeline. I know for my first novel I finished the first manuscript in about 2.5 months (93,000 words) because I had a lot of free time at home (my wife worked different hours than me). I would often spend evenings and weekends pounding away at it, writing anywhere between 4,000-10,000 words in one sitting. My second novel’s manuscript, however, took significantly longer to complete because both my wife and I changed jobs, giving me significantly less free time. Even though it was only about 50% longer (at 140,000 words) it took about twice as long to complete.

    I feel like I could probably crank out a book every month or two if I wasn’t working 50 hours a week in the legal field, but as is, I must take more of Grisham’s approach where I only write for a few hours a day (and not every day at that). Even with the heavy burdens of the day job I will write, edit, and publish two books in less than 18 months, which I feel is a decent timeline.

    Did you ever write while you were working someplace else? How did that affect your writing output?

  12. Ok, two things.
    1) how do you get away with one piece of carry on? I’m going to the UK for a week and wondering if my carry on is enough!

    2) Thanks, because you may have just sped up my fifth edit of my forthcoming ‘Psychophilia’. I agonise and agonise, suffering because of the type A streak that runs though me, and it slows me right down. I have lit the dynamite and I’m off!!!

    Great post, Hugh

    1. I plan on doing laundry while I’m on tour. And I pack mostly t-shirts, a few pairs of shorts, two pairs of jeans, one pair of shoes, socks, underwear, and not much else.

  13. Can you (or David) elaborate a bit on your editing process? Does he act as a developmental editor, line editor, or copyeditor? What is the order of revision once the first draft is done? David, revise, beta readers, revise, release?

    I know everyone has a different process, but mine really hasn’t been working for me lately. I’m looking to shake things up, but I’m just not sure in which direction I wish to shake. :)

  14. Kudos! I absolutely agree. Writing is far simpler and harder than people tend to think. My first fiction in over decade of not writing fiction (focusing on non-fiction and such) and I woke up to an idea that forced itself out of me in 6 weeks–100k works. I my average is far slower since writing at that speed puts everything else on the backburner, but I can average at least 2 novels a year with a fulltime job as a medic (24 hrs shifts usually with sleep deprivation). It’s all a matter of determination and focus. How important is writing to you? I’ve always said the #1 rule in life is: People do what is important to them. Thanks for the insightful post.

  15. Thank you for this post. This was a great read for me and exactly what I needed to see during this period of rebuilding my own strategies for writing on my own.

  16. I’ll go search for it in a minute, but off the top of my head I’m wondering if you’ve done a post on the topic of how to find an original idea to write about. What do you do if you’re dying to write – seriously, so much so that it hurts – but have nothing new to say?

    I mean, I write some passable fanfic but it is starting to feel like not enough. I’ve never loved anything like I love spending time with those characters in their worlds, but I’m still just a visitor. How do you go from hanging out at someone else’s house to building your own?

  17. I agree with the “might wind up in authors’ favorite posts above” — Among many great posts, this is one of your best. Awesome worth ethic.

  18. […] Two Months to Publication | Hugh Howey […]

  19. You’re an inspiration, man…

  20. Great post. I want to keep it somewhere visible to remind myself.

    Of course, the great irony is that I was reading this post as a way of procrastinating from working on my book. And at some point I realized, “Oh, sh_t. He’s talking about me.”

    Back to work.

      1. He said inspiration not dominatrix. Common mistake.

  21. That is reminiscent of Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451.”

    The legend goes, he wrote the manuscript in two weeks in his basement.

    The reality is he wrote the manuscript in four weeks in the basement of the university where he was working at the time. He discovered the school had a room where students could rent an typewriter for 10¢ for writing their papers. So, he decided to give it a try and write the story idea he had.

    The further reality is that, yes, he wrote it in four weeks, but it came out more as a short story and took another two years to wrangle it into the novel that eventually became famous.

    1. There’s an amazing number of classics that were written in less than two months. One of my favorite films, CABIN IN THE WOODS, was written in a weekend.

      Authors stretch the truth when it comes to the amount of time put into a novel, trying to inject quality by feigning agony.

  22. I don’t know that there’s going to be much room to write any other way than fast if you want to make a living in the future.

  23. I think one problem that I have encountered with the speed of writing that is becoming popularized now is a lack of understanding of editing.

    I sometimes spend too much time editing. This current book I am finishing is the fourth complete rewrite. I could have written four other books in the time it will have taken for this novel. I only wrote one other book, but at least that’s one.

    However, even though I should not have written four separate versions, I think a lot of writers think they can pound out a lot of words, do a light edit and call it a day. That’s not writing. That’s writing a rough draft and publishing it after some minor clean-up.

    There’s a some of that going around I find. Editing isn’t just copy editing.

  24. Thanks for this post Hugh, it is fascinating to learn more of your process.

    Can you talk about how much you plot things out before you start writing. Do you have all the structure and world worked out before you write the actual chapters or do you ‘make it up as you go along’?

    Do you ever get 80% through a novel and then realize you need to add a character, or change some major part of the story and have to go back and rework everything?
    Or do you map it all out in a treatment before starting the actual writing?

    Appreciate any insights you can spare


    1. I usually have it mapped out. I spend a lot of time thinking about the very last scene. What’s the climax? The closing shot? And then I work my way there.

      One of the few times I’ve added a character was Lukas to Wool 3. I wrote the first draft and realized it didn’t work without a love interest. The entire story changed because of that.

  25. […] only writing instruction you’ll ever really need from Hugh Howey. This blockquote probably violates fair use or something… but this is the core of the post […]

  26. […] our guide, we now know what’s possible. And even though I’m something of a slacker CEO (it takes me two months to go from blank page to publication), my team has really impressed me with their energy. I think those long NY lunches were wearing […]

  27. Thanks for the insight into your process.

    In 2012, halfway through NaNoWriMo time, I started a novel. I got the first draft knocked out in about six weeks. Currently, I’m still revising it. This is my third time through. I’m working on other projects here and there, and I post flash fiction every week on my blog, but some days I worry that it will never be to a point that will be perfect. Other times, I worry that I’m over working it. So, maybe good enough is actually good enough? Maybe there’s no such thing as perfect, anyway. I can completely relate to needing to be excited for a project. And I find that if you get too focused and caught up on one thing for too long, the other ideas you had buzzing around can die.

    By the way, Love Love Love the Wool series. And I think your writing/publishing/success journey is truly inspiring.

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