How to write a novel in 30-minute increments

Ambition is the root of all creation

It's important to have ambitions as a novelist. Having a clear vision for what you want to accomplish can go a long way to guiding you through the many opportunities you have to give up on the dream. Ambitions is helpful to guide your choices and provide the kick in the pants we all need to stay on track. And your ambition should be big.

So what are yours? Are they financial (financial freedom or getting rich)? Are they metric-based (a million books sold, listed on top of the New York Times Beset-seller list)? Are they merit-based (television or movie franchise made from your books)? Are they legacy-based (change the world with your work)?

Think about your big-picture goal. Create as real a picture as you possibly can about that ultimate place you want to reach with your lifetime of work. How would it feel to be at the end of your life looking back knowing you had accomplished what you set out to accomplish? How would you be living? Where will you be living? What does a bookshelf of your work look like?

My current ambition is to publish twenty novels in the next twenty years. I want to master the form to the best of my ability. I want own the self-identity of novelist. I want to write novels that entertain and inform and maybe even influence people to reflect on what it is to be human, to strive and reach for the greatest version of themselves (because that is what I am trying to do with my life). Success looks to me like respect from other writers, an audience who is affected by my work, and a life that ultimately requires no other sources of income to allow me to explore my creative self.

Momentum is the energy you need to harness to create

Using that lifetime achievement ambition as a flag planted in the ground to guide me, the big question I work on constantly is how can I find the time to create my novels when I have a busy life (work, family, travel, other obligations)? How does a person with creative ambition manage the competition for time to create and the need (want) to provide for my family and myself and live a standard, enjoyable, everyday American life.

I concede that I could drop everything in favor of my writing goal. Put everything else second. let my professional life suffer, spend less, live frugally, and one and on. Damn the consequences. Go all in and muster the pure will to mount the hill of my ambition. I could do that. But I would not be happy. People I love, people I chose to bring into my life (family, business partners, employees), would suffer and I feel it would be a selfish choice to abandon my role in their lives strictly for my own. In fact, not only can I not discard them all in pursuit of my ambition, I will not let my focus shift from what I need to do to make that part of my world work. I believe I can have both.

With focus, clear goals, and discipline, I believe I can create good novels in the space between the more real parts of my life. I can achieve my ambitions. I wouldn't be the first person to do it either. The world is littered with examples of people who achieved creative success starting from within the boundaries of a "normal" life. And the potential to be an example for someone else who is looking to do the same is exciting to me. That's real legacy.

The 30-minute novel

The challenge is more about focus and time management than whether or not it is possible to achieve my goal. I can write a book (create, write, edit, publish) in the space of year with only the fringes of time available. If I'm smart and if I'm ready to deal with the inevitable losses of momentum that will happen, I can make it. It's all in the doing.

I am a planner. I set goals. I create a strategy. I build a tactical plan. I organize my working life around accomplishing the tasks that need to be done every day to move me toward my goals. My approach to writing is no exception. I sometimes need to sit down and plot out a strategy to get a project done. I think best by writing so I wrote out the things I do to get my work done when I have limited time. The plan looks like this:

  1. Give something up. For me, television was the biggest culprit. I calculated how much time I watched television ion the evening and did some math and decided to swap that time for writing time. Not a direct swap (because I write better mid-morning). But free that time so everything I need to get accomplished can get accomplished and I also now have 2-4 hours a day that I can use towards my writing without sacrificing the things that are important to me (work, family, exercise, fun).
  2. Focus on productivity. Become an expert of focus, being able to turn on and turn off your creativity at will (it takes practice but can be mastered). Learn about and test out different methods for organizing your working day. I use the pomodoro method. It works for me. And I am a consumer of content of productivity and organization so I'm always looking for a new technique to try. What works for you?
  3. All you need is 30 minutes. With focus and a little preparation, you can accomplish real progress in a short amount of time. This is probably advice better suited to planners versus pantsers (writers who write their stories without much outlining and pre-planning, flowing organically with their creative process), but decide ahead of time what you need to work on next so when you sit down with a limited time window, you can jump right into the work.
  4. Start early and end late. It may not be fun to set the alarm clock 30-minutes early or sit down with my writing just as I was about to go to bed, but those fringes of time, when coupled with planning and a little focused energy, can produce significant advancement of the work-in-progress.
  5. Use your breaks. At my day job, I am not always great about taking a lunch break. I usually work straight through. But when I need to kick up some momentum on a writing project, lunch breaks become the perfect time to knock out a bit of work. When I'm really ambitious about putting in daily time on my current work-in-progress, I may even schedule in a mid-afternoon meeting for 30-minutes and use it to work on my story. These writing breaks make a great relief from the pace and responsibility of my day job and actually help me be more productive.
  6. Stop on the way home. When I need to get in a little extra time to work on a project, another trick I use to keep the work going is to stop somewhere on my way home from work. A coffee shop or a library usually. I plan ahead what I'm going to do with that time (beats, printed editable pages, marked-up page edits to enter), the knock out an hour or productivity before settling in at home for the night.
  7. Track your work. I created a spreadsheet to keep track of the work I do during every one of these mini sessions. When I'm writing drafts, I track word counts. When I'm editing, I count pages. I come up with a score for each session (word or pages-per hour). Keeping score lets me game myself to stay in track and accomplish my micro-goals. Because I'm working with limited buckets of time, being honest with myself about what I accomplish is important to being true to my ambition.

If you're not as much a planner as me, you may read the above and feel like I have managed to suck the magic out of writing (Where is the fun in sex if it's scheduled from noon to 12:45pm every second Tuesday?). Don't worry. There is just as much story magic in a disciplined and organized approach as there is in the free-form (panther) method. I still finish a work session and look back at the work I did and wonder where did it come from. I still feel flow when I write. I just have to organize my life so when its time to create, I can drop into flow immediately.

Again, this is what works for me. What about you? What is your big ambition (don't be afraid for it to be monumentally big)? What is your work process? How are you most productive? And what do you do when you get off the rails?


Loving the Pomodoro

On the search for better use of my time

For anyone who knows Italian, I am not talking about loving tomatoes (pomodoro is the Italian word for tomato). I do not love tomatoes. The opposite in fact. I think tomatoes are a slimy, foul-tasting cosmic error. They are like a collection of pepper seeds trapped in snot balled up inside rotten animal intestines.

And we are supposed to accept the tomato as a member of the fruit family? What kind of nonsense is the science of plant biology trying to foist on us there? Fruit is God's dessert, nature's vehicle for the the delivery of sugar, healthy food that gives the most pleasure. Does any of that describe a tomato?

A tomato needs to be transformed into something else to be palatable. And transformed in such a way as to hide its true nature. Think ketchup. Salsa. Pizza Sauce.

No, the pomodoro I have fallen in love with is definitely not the (air quotes) fruit (end air quotes), it is the pomodoro method of time management and work focus.

If you already know and use it, then there is no need to read this post. Really, just click off and go do something else. If you don't know it (or need a reminder of how frickin' awesome it is), stick around. It's about to get organized up in here.

You don't cook eggs using this timer

In Italy, a cooking timer (commonly called an egg time in England and the U.S.) is shaped like a tomato. The pomodoro timer has, usually and by tradition, a twenty-five minute maximum countdown.

As a writer, I struggle often with momentum and focus. I work on a project for a while then it bogs down or I get distracted. I also travel for work and can occasionally be sidelined by the demands of my two main sources of income when they overwhelm my days.

I am most productive when I work at least a little every day on my current writing project and lose momentum quickly when I miss even one or two days in a row. Breaking writing momentum strains my spirit and my belief in my place in the world as a writer. Picking the work back up takes days, even weeks sometimes.

Back to the pomodoro method. How do you work? Marathon work sessions? Are you a multitasker? A procrastinator? Marathon sessions lead to fatigue after even just two or three hours for most people. Multi-tasking might as well be called multi-failing because divided focus leads to no progress on more than front at the same time.

Italian efficiency expert Francesco Cirillo studied people's ability to create productive work and concluded that on average, we work best in short, focused bursts of attention on one thing at a time. We also benefit from breaks. And are capable of repeating that cycle for long work periods.

Getting your tomato on

The pomodoro method takes his lessons about focus and work/output and turns them into a simple systems. Which is this:

Start a timer for 25 minutes. Work on one focused thing (or type of thing) without stopping until the timer expires. No distractions. No responding to phone notifications. No breaks. Just 25 minutes of one-hundred-percent focus on one thing. Then take a five-minute break. Then repeat.

It's like magic for focus and getting shit done. When I use the pomodoro method, even if I can only go two or three deep in one day due to time constraints, I always make significant, measurable progress on whatever I chose to work on.

I use the pomodoro method when I work on my fiction. For first-draft writing, editing, typing in edits, proof-reading, story creation, etc. It works well for me. In 25 minutes, I can write 700 words or so. When I'm working on a new draft, my goal is to get three or four pomodoros in a day. That's usually around 2,000 words. Which makes writing a full-length first-draft novel an eight or ten week project tops. On the weekends, I can do as many as 8 and really not miss much of the day (that's only four hours of focused work).

Throwing tomatoes at things other than writing

I've even adopted the pomodoro method into my day job(s). When I have a pile of tasks or a particular goal for work, I just schedule in a block of time and use pomodoro's to focus my energy. It is an amazing system for regulating focus and helps me come out of the low-momentum periods that disrupt my writing ambitions.

I encourage you to learn about the pomodoro method. Try it yourself. Adapt the time periods to works for you. And share your thoughts. And if you use some other method for getting your work done when there isn't the luxury of unlimited work time, tell me about your system instead.


I started to track my daily writing production…


... and it amazes me how much gets done in so little time.

A year ago, searching for wisdom on the Internet about writing fiction and modern fiction publishing, I came across Rachel Aaron. Her blog was a great find; besides punching out a successful indie career, she writes openly about the daily work of writing, her journey from a 'want-to-be' to a fiction writer making a living at it.

She amassed so many writing process articles that she eventually released a compendium in eBook form called From 2k to 10k, about how she'd applied thought and technique to her daily work to increase her writing production, a shift she credits in allowing her to succeed (more writing meant she wrote better and more efficiently, she produced more finished work, she had more chances to draw readers, who then discover her older work, etc.).

One technique that she writes about early on her blog and in the book is that she believes you should start tracking your writing output. Keep a record of what you produce and when you produce so you can optimize way you work to produce the best results in the most efficient timeframes. For her, she says this process was about getting her word counts up to finish novel-length fiction on the faster timetable that the short attention span of the digital and indie book buyer. turn projects into finished works faster to keep her readers engaged with her as an author.

When I read Steven Pressfield's The War of Art and immediately embarked on my put-writing-first and write-every-day crusades, I remembered Aaron's lesson on tracking your writing, re-read her old article, and sat down to create a way to quantify the work I am doing on a daily basis.

All those years of Microsoft Excel pay off in my writing.

I created a spreadsheet and thought about what data I wanted to capture. I knew I wanted the information to motivate me to focus ion the right things, to hold myself accountable against the goals I set, and to analyze so I can take my fiction writing to the professional level.

The first thing I wanted was a simple word count for first-draft writing. When I say I am embarked on a mission to write every day and put writing first, I mean that I plan to add news pages to a first draft every day. So for each morning's writing session, I enter the following: The name of the project I'm working on, the time I start, the time I stop, and the new word-count total for the project when I'm finished. From this, I can extrapolate the amount of time I've worked, the total net new words added to the project, and the words produced per hour.

Because I want to keep working on first-drafts every day and you can't publish first drafts, I recognize that I need to spend time daily editing, reviewing and making changes to drafts of other works-in-progress. So I created a second set of columns: time started, time finished, total pages edited/reviewed/proofread.

To meet the goal of writing new draft material every day, I need a maintain a constant pipeline new stories ideas. I don't want my momentum to crash when I finish a draft. I immediately want to start on a new story. I created a third set of columns to keep track of time spent outlining. As well as keep track of time spent on the business side of writing (creating content for other writers and readers so I can (next step) begin to build a social media and email following to share my fiction with.

In fact, the only time I am not recording is time spent learning. Because that's happening all the time (when I read before I go to sleep at night, when I have a chance to listen to an audiobook on writing, when I get a few minutes to web surf when the day job slows down).

Who knew so much could be gained for so little invested. 

I have just wrapped the first week of keeping track of my writing production so I will hold off on conclusions just yet but so far, a routine is developing. I write early in the morning for 75 minutes to 2 hours. I edit previous novel drafts in the evenings for an hour of so. I am shocked by how little time this actually takes.

Sure, some things have had to make way for those three hours to become available for writing. And looking back on my routine before I started tracking, I would say those three hours were spent in front of the television. The production I've yielded in those two to three hours day has been, to my eyes, amazing. In one week, I wrote 15,000 words in my current novel, edited 150 pages of my latest work-in-progress - which means the novel under edit might make it all the way to publishable stage by Summer and the new novel will be in second draft in just a couple of weeks. Which also means I get to start on my next one already!). Amazing progress in such a short time.

The other way I gain by tracking my daily production is that I find it very hard to leave those data fields unfilled. Maybe this is a little Asperger's coming through but I do not want to go to bed without being able to fill in that line of information. Same with a day off from writing. Who says I should write seven days in a row? The spreadsheet does. Why not take a day off every once in a while? Spreadsheet says no.

By keeping track of the investment of time I am making, I can be realistic with myself about what I can accomplish, what I am actually producing, and I can be forward-looking about my writing when planning future novels. if you don't currently keep empirical records of your writing production, I highly encourage you to read Rachel Aaron's book and start today.

See above for a screen shot of how I laid out my spreadsheet. Thanks again to Rachel Aaron for the inspiration. If anyone wants this spreadsheet for themselves, just hit the Contact Me button.


Get stuff done!

Empty_Mailbox_ScreenshotI was at lunch with a sales rep the other day and the subject of how we each manage our daily work in a world where communications are coming at us from an ever-growing number of tools. I mean, I get emails, phone calls, texts, Facebook messages, Direct messages in Twitter, Instagram notifications, and I am forwarded the contact requests through our website. But I was able to show my rep that I have an empty email inbox - meaning that I am able to stay on top of the flow of work coming at me as it comes.

I manage myself mostly through email and to-do lists and as new opportunities to work come up, be they reactive (me replying to or work being triggered by communications coming to me through all the methods listed above) or proactive (tasks generated from meetings, discussions with employees, reps, partners, thoughts and ideas about the business I have in either intentional sessions of off-work hours), I stay ahead by making an immediate, momentary decision from one of four possible dispositions with each opportunity.

Do It Now: If I can, I reply, resolve, or do the thing right then. A customer emails me with a question I can answer quickly, I send a reply right then. A phone call comes in from a customer, I answer if I am able and deal with the call right then An employee has a question, I answer now if I can answer quickly and without a major disruption to the flow of whatever I am working on at the time. For the things I can or don't need to deal with right then, I...

Delegate it: I get an email from a customer about a shipping or a billing issue - something not directly related to my direct mission of driving sales - I pass it along. We sell an order to a customer and it's time to put the final paperwork together, I turn over all the information I have and the team takes over to make sure we deliver. A customer calls with an issue with a product, I ask them to email me the details so I can refer it to someone who takes care of product issues. As soon as something crosses your desk that requires action, that is better handled by someone else, pass it along immediately. If it can't be delegated...

Schedule it: I schedule work that I need to take care that I cannot attend to immediately. Rather than let these items pile up in my email or other inboxes, with no through to when they need to be taken care of, I use free or very inexpensive technology to schedule them. First, I keep a folder in my Gmail called 'Pending' to hold emails that I need to reply to but can wait until I have time to batch-process them. Second, I use ToDoIst to schedule things that are time sensitive but don't need to be done at a specific time (make sense - meaning I need to take care of it tomorrow but not at 9am tomorrow). Third, I use Google Calendar for things that are specific-time sensitive. Simple tools for a simple organizational work-flow system. For everything else that comes across my desk, that can;t be done immediately, can't be delegated, can't be scheduled...

Throw It Away: Sometimes, that email., that Facebook message, that Twitter DM, is not worth the time it would take to reply. Not every opportunity to do work should be taken. In fact, working smart means separating the work that advances your agenda from the work that detracts from your agenda. Time is a finite resource. Spend too much of it on work tasks that don't advance your professional goals work against your future. Do not be afraid to simply throw away work you don't need to take or pass along.

That's it. A simple but effective set of rules to filter opportunities to work through that allow me to end every day with the beautiful empty inbox and to-do list.