In order to lay out a project plan detailing how to write long-form fiction and non-fiction in less than nine months, we are wise to take lessons from the home-construction industry.
Writing a novel (or a non-fiction book) is a big job. The first draft of projects that are anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 words and more can take months, even years. It takes even longer to refine that draft into a publishable manuscript. In order to make it to the end of such a big task, it’s important to have a plan that spells out the journey from idea to finished product.
The challenge in writing longer works is how easy it is to lose momentum. Short-form writing is so much easier to complete. Knocking out a 1,500-word article is a single creative task. The first version can go down in one sitting. The re-write and polish done in a session or two.
In long projects, the work stretches out over a very long timeline. It’s common to start off with excellent momentum as you plow headlong into the first draft. I can turn out 1,000 words or more a day in no time when I am hot on a new idea. In theory then, a first draft should take me two to three months. Re-writes and revisions take less time per go-through, so I should be able to pop off a couple of book-length projects a year, right? But, and I think is common to many long-form writers, my current work-in-progress has languished for almost two years due to breaks in momentum (overwhelmed by other work, reach a sticky plot point and have to step out of the flow of writing to solve it), for example.
Picking back up after long delays is unhealthy for a book (or its author). You have to re-insert yourself into the flow of the story, re-pack the various story and character threads in your active, writing brain (the one that sits under your conscious mind and works at the story’s problems while you’re driving, showering, or doing anything else but writing).
Knowing this is going to happen though, it’s important to be prepared for it, to have a plan in place.
What writers can learn from the construction industry
My family and I live in a semi-rural suburban community in the greater Phoenix area. Nestled in an older neighborhood with 300 two-acre horse properties, we had been surrounded by mostly farm fields and open desert since we moved in. But lately, progress has marched our direction in the form of fast-turnaround, tract-home housing neighborhoods.
It’s amazing to see these projects at work. Modern home construction, from outside observation, is a remarkably efficient human enterprise. Land is cleared in a matter of days. Wooden frames appear almost overnights. Within a month or two, the first finished model homes are open for sale.
If you’ve ever had exposure to construction management, you’ll know that the efficiencies come from the following of a system that is much like the system it takes to create full-length fiction and non-fiction.
Construction projects are broken down into their elemental parts, working backwards from the finished product. You can’t move furniture into a new house until every detail in the interior is finished. The interior can’t be finished until the flooring and walls are in place. The walls and flooring can’t be finished until the electrical and plumbing and HVAC systems are installed. They can’t go into place until the frame is in place. Which can only be erected on a solid foundation. Which has to sit on land that is properly prepared.
This is an over simplification, but you get the point. Efficiency in construction is about managing those layered efforts, bringing in the right crews to construct the right layers in the right order. And within each layer, making sure that materials, plans, and everything else the crew needs to get their piece done as quickly and correctly as possible is in place.
The primary took constriction project managers use is the Gantt chart. Ever seen one? It looks like a color-coded spreadsheet. The timeline of the project runs across the headers. The project elements (the jobs that have to be done) and listed in the columns (in the order they have to happen).
From Wikipedia: A Gantt chart is a type of bar chart that illustrates a project schedule, named after its inventor, Henry Gantt (1861–1919), who designed such a chart around the years 1910–1915. Modern Gantt charts also show the dependency relationships between activities and current schedule status.
Build your next novel like contractors build a house
Writers can learn a great deal from construction. Have a plan. Break the bigger job into a series of smaller tasks that are needed. Set intermediate deadlines to keep the momentum going.
The exact steps and the timeline goals are for you to work out. For me (since this is a letter to myself), writing a novel breaks down to the following steps/timelines:
- Story idea and initial outline – two weeks. Not everyone is a planner when it comes to writing fiction. Some people have the amazing ability to just write their way through a first draft. I need a plan. It starts with a two-week budget for outlining the next book-length project. I start with the basics of the story – the main characters, the settings, the major story line. Then I break that into thirds (setup, climax, the middle bit). Then I plot out the scenes (about 100 total). I then write paragraph or two-length beats of the action in the scenes as a guide to follow when writing.
- First draft – 12 weeks. How fast this goes depends on how many words per day and how many days per week you can give it. I’m good for 1,500-2,500 words a day (when I have an outline to follow). I can write 5-6 days most weeks (work and life depending). Which means, a 100-scene first draft of about 80,000 words should take me less than 90-days to complete. The goal here is to get the first draft out in one creative push. The better you’re able to hold momentum during the first-draft, the more likely you are to finish.
- Re-write (1) – six weeks. In my experience, it takes about half as much time to read through, mark-up, and execute changes to a first draft to get a complete second draft. I make lots of notes of things I wants to fix, change, and improve, and only make the edits after I’ve read through and marked up the entire story. I print my manuscript for this edit because I find it’s easier to read/edit on paper than on screen.
- Re-write (2) – four weeks. You might need only two or three revisions. You might need more. The point here is to predict the phases of production you need to complete your book and stay focused on one intermediate goal at a time. At some point, you’ll have your best draft, something you can pass on to a few readers for feedback.
- Final draft – two weeks. Taking my final notes, and notes from the reader(s), you should be able to produce a best draft. Only then is it time for professional editing. Paying a professional editor to critique and revise your manuscript can be expensive, so you want to make sure I have my best-possible draft ready.
- Editor – four weeks. I plan to write another article about the different types of editors available (there are several), but if you’re serious about producing professional work, you need professional guidance. Editors work on contract and you have to book your window with them in advance. If you did not plan this deadline to deliver your final draft to an editor in advance, your project could grind to a halt when your story goes to the editor. Book your editor as soon as you know you’re going to have a first draft, a couple of months before you’d be ready to submit.
- Cover, copy, marketing – the same four weeks. While your manuscript is with an editor, take the time to get your marketing materials and cover done. I’l write more about this in another post, but there are numerous freelancers available to hire for cover creation. The book will also need blurbs for the back of the cover, copy for the listing pages, or your website . The book will need a dedication page, acknowledgements, references (if non-fiction), newsletter subscription page, a list of your other works, etc. Get all these things done while your edit is underway. Schedule them here so you don’t slow your writing down earlier in the book obsessing about things that don’t matter until. And, if you’re publishing through a traditional route, this is the time to dial in your query, synopsis, and cover letter.
- Copy edit – two weeks. Whether you use a third party of do this yourself, someone needs to go through every sentence of the book carefully and find the last stinking remnants of misspellings, double words, missing punctuation, before you dare say the book is ready. Try reading your book aloud to spot imperfections. Read each paragraph in reverse order, from the back of the book to the front of the book. Find whatever trick and tip you can to make sure you leave no mistakes in the manuscript before publishing.
- Publish and promote. Whether you publish independently through the various mediums available, or pursue traditional publishing, stop fiddling with the book and switch your brain into selling mode. Then immediately start your next project.
Completing a book-length project (for me) is, in theory, a thirty-six to forty-week project. Somehow, I’ve managed to stretch the current work-in-progress to out over two years by allowing my momentum to break in the middle of this workflow! To finish, I need build out this novel-production plan (Gantt chart) once more, identify where in the process I am with the current work, and re-insert myself into the production flow.
How about you? Do you have a production plan that you follow for writing your long-form work (fiction or non-fiction)? How different is it from this? What am I missing that you include? What do I include that is helpful to you?