How not to write a book. Or maybe it’s how TO write a book.


I had a book due a couple of weeks ago. I may have lamented that here. In fact I’m sure I did. It’s the fourth in my Horngate series, titled Blood Winter, so I’m well acquainted with the characters and the world, and yet somehow I had a horrible time translating that on to the page.

I started with some ideas of what exactly I wanted to have happen. Unfortunately, I didn’t know how those things could possibly connect. It seemed like they were too different and too unlikely to intersect. That made planning hard. Make that pretty much impossible. I’m usually somewhere between a pantser with no plans at all, and a plotter, with detailed plans. In other words, I usually kind of know the high points and figure I’ll get there somehow if I start writing.

Not this time. I could not make a plan. So I started writing. And it was slow. Now a lot of that had to do with life stuff and work stuff and health stuff and there’s just no getting around some of that. But it was also writerly resistance. I had a tough time bringing myself to write on the story, much less do more than a few hundred words at a time. I dug into some cool research, which although it didn’t end up being a primary focus of this book, will no doubt make it in elsewhere because it is worth using.

Here’s a fact about me. I work great under pressure. There’s this amazing thing that happens when I know I have a deadline and I know how much work has to be done. Suddenly I get motivated and just get going. It doesn’t matter if I know what I’m going to do or not, the lizard brain gets to work on its little hamster mill and suddenly things start happening.

The deadline approached. It didn’t matter. I couldn’t get myself working and again, life/home/work stuff. I got an extension. That was for March 15.

Now here’s a secret. On March 3rd I had about 40K words written on a book that needed to be around 90K. And the deadline was the 15th. You do the math. And I wasn’t going to miss a second deadline. I just wasn’t. I didn’t like missing the first one and come hell or high water, I was going to get this book done.  I had spring break and another part of a week and two weekends. So I started writing. The pressure head kicked in and I wrote. And wrote. In those twelve days I wrote 55K words. And the book was done.

Now the big question is, were those good words? I think so. I had a beta reader zip through them and got some positive feedback. But in the end, it doesn’t matter if the book is broken. I can’t fix and unwritten book. I can fix what’s at least visible to me.

This was exhausting. But all my life/health/work issues faded beneath the desperate need of writing. I got words out and the story wove together. It was successful. Jay Lake tends to write his books very quickly, just like that. He says he does this because he can hold the whole story in his head and get it out before bits of it get forgotten. I totally get it. I’m just not sure I could do that without a pack of frothing mad dogs chewing my ass.

I would never recommend leaving more than half a book to the last minute. It’s not a good way to write a book.

Unless it is. And the fact is, without having that pressure to get it out, I’m not entirely sure how long it would have taken for me to get it out. Now that has to do with state of mind and that whole life/health/work stuff. Everybody’s different. Hey! I did Nanowrimo in 12 days! Better than I usually do in November. But anyhow, my point is just this. There’s no one way, or even one good way, to write a book. You do it in the way that works at that moment. Period. Over an out. The only thing for certain is that you have to get your butt in your chair or in front of your computer or in front of your notepad and do it. One word at a time, one day at a time, and if you leave only 12 days to write 55K words, then you didn’t plan well.



10 comments to How not to write a book. Or maybe it’s how TO write a book.

  • Diana, a few of my writing friends and I call what you’re describing (neither Plotter nor Pantser) as Puzzler. We know how the story basically looks and we have the edges and corners and several other parts are put together but we still have to fill in the missing pieces. Does that sound right?

    Congrats on the crazy-awesome progress and on getting your book done by the extended deadline!

  • Laura: that’s brilliant. Puzzler is perfect, especially since I’m very puzzled sometimes 😀 But seriously, that is very much like what I was doing.

  • Di, I nearly did a spit take at this one, >>I’m just not sure I could do that without a pack of frothing mad dogs chewing my ass.>> But I held it in which is great because I have a new keyboard.

    I have done pressure writing once or twice, and I have a love/hate relationship with it. It feels amazing when the ending (last half, whatever) comes spewing out in a sparkling froth of creativity and story. It also feels horrible recuperating from the mad rush and adrenaline and mental and physical toxic buildup.

    I am glad you got it done. Can not wait to read it. The Hornegate is one of the most unusual and original worlds I’ve read in a long time!

  • Ken

    Congrats on meeting the extended deadline. This was an interesting post. 55k words in 12 days is pretty impressive. The next couple of days must be feeling like you’ve sprinted a marathon…

  • Right there with you, Diana, or at least the first part. I’m struggling with my Darwen III outline and deperately want to start writing because the deadline is starting to loom, but I’m mired in the logical progression of Act 2 and getting anxious…

  • 55k in 12 days is pretty amazing, Di. I’m not sure I could have done it. In fact, let’s be honest: I know that I couldn’t have. 90K in 5 weeks for Robin Hood nearly killed me. But that said, I know just what you mead. Sometimes we find ourselves needing to write at a pace well beyond what we think of as our limits, and when that happens, we just get it done. That’s been my experience, at least. So, maybe I could have done it after all…. Nice post. Congrats on finishing.

  • For what it’s worth, I’ve been following Jay Lake’s blog, and (since you referenced him in this post) he’s been documenting a change in his process over the past several projects. On current projects he’s now doing much more outlining. He refers to his ability to hold all or most of a story of a certain size and complexity as his “Span of Control”, which seems like a really useful term. As I understand it, as his projects have gotten more ambitious, longer, and more complex, they’ve begun to exceed his Span of Control, and so he’s using tools like outlines to help compensate for that, but it sounds like the additional layer of these tools does slow him down.

  • Faith: what you said. Except the spewing. Damn, I didn’t get you to spew.

    Ken: yes, that. Only the brain is pretty dead. But back to being creative. Ish. At least painting in the house creative.

    AJ: I’m sure there’s a pack of frothing dogs around here somewhere . . . I recommend iron underwear though.

    Thanks David. Of course you could have done it. Motivation is a wonderful thing.

    Stephen: yes, and of course there’s the chemo head too. Still, even so, Jay is tremendously prolific. And at the same time, his stuff is really good. I just hope mine holds up with my editor.

  • @Diana: Oh yes… even with his Day Job, a child, and chemo-head… he is insanely prolific, and I envy his output quantity a great deal. He seems to be able to produce significantly more within a given space of time than I, personally, am able to – on the order of 2 or 3 times more, I think (plus he just makes better use of his time). Even Jay seems to recognize that his output prolificity (for lack of a better word) is well above average.