Over the summer I met up with James Maxey (who’s guest-posted here for us several times before) for dinner. Spotlight Publishing had just released his short story collection, There Is No Wheel, and since it was the first book I had acquired for Spotlight, I wanted to to give James his copies personally. The fact that we live less than an hour apart made it easy, and while we were waiting for our table at the restaurant, James mentioned that he was in the middle of trying to write a novel in a week.
“Seriously?” was my reaction. “A whole novel in one week?”
“Well it’s just a short one. Maybe 60,000 words.”
Well that put things in perspective. Since it was just a short novel, he could easily afford to take a few hours in the middle of that to go out to dinner with me.
To make a long story slightly less long, I told James that when he was done with his novel-in-a-week experiment, he should write something up about it for me. One of the things we’ve been talking about a lot lately here on MW is the need to write fast, and I think a novel in a week qualifies.
One last point and then we’ll get to James’s essay: James got married a week ago Friday to a wonderful woman and is still away on his honeymoon. So while you should feel free to comment on the essay, he’s not going to be in a position to answer any questions until Monday or so. I know a bit about the story behind this experiment of his, so I’ll chime in when I can, but James is otherwise engaged (if you’ll pardon the prenuptial pun).
Only a Lifetime, Plus a Week – by James Maxey
One question I’m asked a lot when I teach writing classes or appear on author panels is how long it takes me to write a novel. For most of my books, the process takes about six to eight months. Like most writers, I have a day job and do my writing in stolen moments. I try to produce 10,000 words a week when I’m writing a first draft, so that I normally finish that draft in three months. Then I have to write a second draft, which goes faster, and a third draft, which is faster still, up to my final draft, which consists of reading the book out loud, a process I normally finish in under a week.
I’ve always wondered what I could produce if I didn’t have my day job. Making up stuff isn’t as easy as it looks. Would my imagination limit me to 10,000 words a week? Or could I put my butt into a chair eight hours a day, five days a week and crank out 40,000 words or more? Would it be possible to write a short novel in the 60,000 word range in a week? Since I’ve been constantly employed with few breaks since I left college, I’ve never really had the chance to find out.
Then, surprise! My employer shut down my workplace for a week in order to rewire the building. We were only given two weeks notice, so I had no time to plan any vacations, and even if I had, my fiancé wouldn’t have been able to join me at such short notice. The work-free week was falling just as I was finishing my second draft of my latest fantasy novel, Hush, and wouldn’t be of much use for rewrites since I normally let a draft sit a few weeks before I return to it.
It was tempting to use the week to putter around the house and sleep late. Instead, I decided to finally find out if my daydream of writing a book in a week was possible. Fortunately, I had just the book in mind.
When my first novel came out back in 2003, I had an idea for a sequel. Alas, my first book was a flop in sales and I never wrote the follow-up since I knew I’d never be able to find a publisher. Luckily, the world has changed dramatically for writers with the rise of e-books. Now I can skip finding a publisher and release a book I want to write directly to Kindle and Nook without worrying whether some marketer at a publishing house is going to like it.
I’d been thinking about this sequel for eight years. More specifically, I’d been thinking about it every time I walked into a bank. In the final scene of Nobody Gets the Girl, the supervillains Sundancer and Pit Geek are seen in hiding, having survived what looked like mortal injuries in an earlier battle. Pit Geek’s last words in the book are, “Next time, we should rob some banks.” So, every time I’ve walked into a bank since 2003, I’ve looked around the place and thought, “Man, I could totally rob this place if I had superpowers!” Perhaps there’s something wrong with my moral center, but the idea of writing about a super-powered crime spree absolutely delighted me.
So, the second week of August I got up at 7am on Monday and started typing. The first day, I produced 12,000 words. As I finished each chapter, I popped them up on my blog at dragonprophet.blogspot.com to keep me honest. I also announced my daily word count each night on Facebook. The second day, I made put out 10,000 words. The next, 8,000. I was definitely hitting a wall. The more I wrote, the harder it became to think of new stuff. My imagination buffers kept running dry. I remember hitting chapter seven and being excited because I had a big fight scene that I thought would fill up the whole chapter. I wrote it and did a word count and found I only had 1000 words. Eek! I kept adding to the fight, and finally had a respectable fleshed out chapter of about 3500 words. Still, I was pretty sure when I went to bed Wednesday that I wouldn’t be able to write any more that week, and told myself that 30,000 words in three days was nothing to be ashamed of.
Fortunately, when I got up Thursday, my brain had recharged enough that I could write another chapter. Then another. And, the further I got into the book, the easier the project became, as the characters and events took on their own momentum. Pit Geek is an amnesiac, and the second half of the book devotes a lot of time to exploring the mystery of his missing memories, and telling that story excited me. By Sunday night I was done. My brain felt like mush, my butt ached, and my wrists were killing me, but I’d written a book in a week.
The novel is called Burn Baby Burn. It’s the story of Sundancer and Pit Geek and their crime spree, and the heroes who band together to stop them. Sundancer is the twenty-five year old daughter of the world’s most famous terrorist. She’s a radical revolutionary with the power to channel the sun’s radiation with enough intensity to vaporize steel. Pit Geek is a brain-damaged drifter who doesn’t know his name or age, but has memories of robbing banks on horseback. He’s also seemingly immortal, healing from any wounds, including decapitation. Sundancer is focused and goal oriented; Pit meanders through life from one misadventure to another. The clash of their two personalities as they work together to avoid capture provides the book with many comic moments and forms the foundation of an unusual love story. The novel is a fast-paced, super-powered slugfest mixed with ruminations on the meaning of friendship, love, life, and death. For a book written in a week, there’s a lot packed into the pages.
Now that I know it’s possible to produce a book so quickly and have it turn out to be a worthwhile product, am I tempted to quit my day job and crank out 52 novels a year?
Well, no. The only reason I was able to write this particular novel so quickly is that I’d been thinking about it for so long. More importantly, I had some things I wanted to say about life that didn’t quite fit into the five epic fantasy novels I’ve written since publishing Nobody Gets the Girl.
One of the key plot lines of Burn Baby Burn involves one of the characters being diagnosed with cancer. After writing Nobody, I met a woman who developed a metastasized cancer and passed away a few years after we became a couple. A lot of people die in my fantasy novels, but usually because they’re getting eaten by dragons. It makes for exciting fiction, but it doesn’t really provide a forum to talk about the genuine emotions involved when someone you love develops a disease and slowly passes away. Since Burn Baby Burn is set in the modern world, with CAT scans and chemotherapy, I was able to tackle the subject directly. The key to writing this book was that I had something to say that I’d been holding inside for a long time.
I felt something similar working on my latest fantasy novels, Greatshadow and Hush. I had the basic idea for Greatshadow over ten years ago. But, at the time, the idea was an empty bottle. It was the body of a story, but it had no soul inside. In the intervening ten years, I’ve fallen in love, experienced loss, and fallen in love again. I’ve faced some of the darkest moments of my life, and faced some of my greatest triumphs. Now, when I’ve finally gotten around to writing Greatshadow, my storytelling is shaped by these experiences. The book has greater depth than the work I put out ten years ago. It wasn’t that the books I produced then were shallow. They reflect the world as I understood it at the time. But, one thing I’ve learned is that I never stop learning. I can only presume that by the time I’m in my mid-fifties, the writer I’ll be then will look back on the work I’m producing now and think, “Hah! What I didn’t know then could fill a book!” And, if the pattern holds, I’ll write that book.
So how long do I need to write a novel? Only a lifetime, plus a week.