Write Fastest: Only a Lifetime, Plus a Week


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?”

His reply?

“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.


17 comments to Write Fastest: Only a Lifetime, Plus a Week

  • What an utterly terrific essay. And what an insane project. 🙂 Now I kinda want to try writing a book in a week… 🙂

  • Why am I not surprised to hear you say that? ;-p If you do try writing a book in a week, you have to blog about it for us, too.

  • Oh. My. Gosh.
    I am so totally impressed.
    Like Catie, I want to try this.
    This puts NaNo to *shame!*
    Okay. I have a short novella in mind. I’m going to put the brain (hindbrain, unconscious brain, snake brain) to work on it. And in March….

  • Wow. I don’t know if I could do this. It would involve a complete abandonment of my writing routine; I’d have to come at the project in a totally new way. Which, of course, is what makes the idea of it so intriguing. Thanks for the essay, James. And congrats on the wedding!

  • First off, congratulations, James. I’ll be celebrating my 20th anniversary in March, and marriage has been good to me. I wish you a happy marriage as well.

    Thanks for sharing your story, and thanks to Edmund for suggesting you do it! Burn Baby Burn sounds like something I’d like to read. I’m glad you decided to write it and publish it yourself, and I wish you the best of luck with it.

  • I kind of love this idea (no surprise there), though it does leave me with a sucking hole in the pit of my stomach: we are clearly all such under achievers. That said, my book wouldn’t be done in a week even if the first draft was. I’d need to put it away for a while, then read it very slowly as I edited. Could I crank out 60,000 words in a week of unbroken work? Maybe. Would they all be good words? Not so much.

  • Congratulations on your marriage, James! Hm, a week off to write a novel. That sounds like it could be so crazy and so fun and so wild, but so worth it. I’ve tried taking off a week for writing, twice, and both times it ended up being filled with obligations and plans. And sleep. Now I have to try to find some way of getting away with this. *ponders*

  • I’ve got way too many things around keeping me from trying this, plus, I’m the two-finger kid. Never could get the hang of keyboarding. They even made us take the class in school, of which I think I ended with a D. Terrible at it, but if I get a rhythm, I have hit close to 5k in a day, though I had no distraction that whole day. Wait till the little’n starts going to school all day and I’d try this out. Though, I’m just happy with the count I do get.

  • We got back from our honeymoon last night. Thanks, Ed, for posting this, and also for noting why I couldn’t drop by earlier to respond to comments.

    To David Coe: Shaking up my writing routine and trying something new was a big plus for me. When I was writing my last epic fantasy, Hush, I didn’t know at the time that I was suffering from a complete collapse of my thyroid gland. I struggled to write 8k words a week for almost three months before I finally went to see a doctor. By early summer, I was on the right dose of levoxyl and back to “normal” brain function. When I was working on the second draft of Hush, I felt like a runner who’d been wearing cement shoes and was now running barefoot. But, I also had a bit of existential fear as well, that my body could fail so subtly and drag my brain down with it. I feel like I have a lot of books left in me, and my old out put of one novel a year is too sluggish. I need to write fast while I can. Again, epic fantasy is a different beast than a superhero novel. Burn Baby Burn has only three POV characters. Some of my epic fantasies have over a dozen. The next novel I’m about to work on is going to run to about 240k words to tell, though I’ll be splitting it into two major arcs and publishing it as two books. A week is obviously not enough for a project like this. But, I’m definitely upping my first draft goal from 10k a week to 15k a week.

    To AJ: Just to be clear, all I had at the end of the week was a first draft. I still needed a few more weeks for rewrites. But I feel like the 60k words I cranked out in a week were less in need of revision than 60k words I would crank out over six weeks. The most important thing was that by keeping my momentum, I was able to hold on to character voices and not have them shift on me or worse, simply vanish from my head, leaving me writing scenes were the character is there in name, but is just a little lifeless doll I’m moving around until the spirit returns. Again, it helps that 80% of the dialogue in this book comes from two central characters. Some of my favorite writing moments come when I feel like I’m not writing, I’m just typing up the conversation I’m overhearing that my characters are having without my involvement.

    To Laura: I’ve been looking for this free week a long, long time. Eventually, the opportunity will come along. The key is to be prepared when the moment arises. There’s no way I could have done this if this had been my first novel. But this was my 11th novel. At this point, I’ve got some of the fundamental skills practiced to a degree that they feel like instinct. Keep writing every chance you get, and when you finally get the big chance, you’ll be ready.

    To Daniel: One of the fastest typists I know was a two-finger tapper. He never mastered the “correct” form of typing, but he lived on his computer day in and day out, constantly hunting and pecking, and eventually his “hunting” disappeared and he pecked so fast it sounded like a jackhammer. I was a terrible typist for many, many years, despite typing the “correct” way, with all my fingers on the home keys. But, typing is probably the only physical skill I can say with some confidence that 47 year old James Maxey is 10 times faster than 17 year old James Maxey, or even 27 year old James. In any case, it’s no longer my typing that provides the limits on my writing speed, it’s the ability of my imagination to think of details for my fingers to type.

  • Could you imagine having 52 novels done in 1 year? You could open your own bookshop with just your books after a couple of years.

    Having “completed” my first novel I’m planning out books 2 and 3 (it’s a trilogy) and hoping to sit down and write my way through both in one hit over the course of 3 months (so 200,000 words more or less) so the whole story flows like one thread. I think it would be awesome to 1: have the week to devote to writing and 2: actually do it.
    I like the idea.

  • My daily best so far is at just over 7,500 words. I don’t think I could ever do 60,000 words in a week.

    What you wrote about having a story you wanted to tell–things boiling inside of you that you’ve experienced but couldn’t work into what you were writing before–actually strikes me more about this post than the novel-in-a-week bit. It’s those spiky, difficult, painful things that require just the right handling to express, and finally being able to get that out really helps.

    I lost both my grandfathers in the space of two weeks while I was living in Japan, and I couldn’t go home again for four months. Because they were already removed from my life by distance, I couldn’t quite wrap my mind around it. By the time I was able to get home, it had been four months, and most of the grieving was already over–except I’d not been able to take part. I didn’t get that catharsis, or even that sense of it really having taken place.

    Then I rewrote the beginning of my fantasy book, The Mark of Flight, and killed my main character’s handmaiden off the page, as the MC is being kidnapped. I was able to add a scene at the end that not only allowed the MC to feel what I felt at that time, but pivoted her emotionally in the direction she needed to go for the second book.

    Writing the heroine coming back to a home that has already moved on, in a sense, from a death she hasn’t had the chance to grieve was a huge thing for me. What you said in this post expressed perfectly what I had done in writing that.

  • Lauren, Wonderful story about using your experience regarding your grandfathers in your novel. I’m sorry you had to endure that situation yourself, but you tunried it into something real and powerful. Well done.

  • So, a novelist and gaming friend of mine (Matt Forbeck) is aiming to write 12 novels in 12 months in 2012! These will be 60,000 words each. If anyone can do it, it would be Matt. He’s got a kickstarter project together, and will be doing a superhero trilogy first, based on his Brave New World game he did for Alderac Entertainment Group (AEG). Here’s a link, in case anyone is interested: ” title=”12 for 12″>

  • Lauren, thanks for sharing your story.

    Christina, 12 short novels in a year seems ambitious today, but back during the pulp magazine era it was just the way the game was played. Lester Dent wrote 159 Doc Savage novels in sixteen years, earning $500 to $750 a novel, big money in the 1930s.

    For what it’s worth, I think that the rise of ebooks is providing a possible path for the return of this sort of pulp novel career, where readers could get hooked on the promise of a new book every month in a crime/adventure series by a reasonably competent writer. “Pulp” novels don’t have the best reputation today, but if you measure success by the sheer number of people who actually read your work, the pulp authors of an earlier time reached far more readers than most modern novelists can hope for.

  • @Christina – I saw this link when you posted it on FB. Gave me a really good idea for something I’ve got on the backburner too, since it’s so difficult to sell a serial in traditional markets (at least as far as I’ve heard). It might be a good avenue to explore something like a serial, especially something written to novella length in each installment.