One Thousand Words at a Time

So it is mid-March, and I’m living the dream. I have a book contract, and a hard deadline. And so I have a book to write. 80,000 words total. I’m writing them 1000 words at a time.

Now, I’ve got friends who’ve written books. And I have taken classes, sat in on panels, and had conversations about the process. So I know what I’m doing, or at least I hope so. But as I was working on my schedule, working back from my deadline, it occurred to me that I know so much more about what it really takes to write a book than I did ten years ago. I thought I’d share my process in broad strokes. Throughout the year, I will check back on where I am in the process, and let you know how it is going.

First Step: The idea. What is the story you want to tell? Who are the main characters? If you are writing a mystery, what is the crime? Who is the victim? Who is the sleuth? Who is the criminal? Where are you setting your story? Who else is in the world? What does the world look like?

Second Step: The plot. I am a plotter, which means I think about the dramatic structure of the book, what needs to happen to move the story forward, what scenes are needed to do that? For each scene, what is the goal? Who is in it?

Third Step: First draft hell. This is where I write and write and write. I may go back and tweak scenes, or add some, but I don’t stop, or second guess, or go back and edit. I just let the characters tell the story, and try and transcribe it. This is where I am right now.

Fourth Step:  Rest. I need to give my brain time to forget the specifics, so I put the manuscript in a drawer right for a bit.

Fifth Step: Read it. How does it hang as a story? Does it make sense? Do I need to move scene around? Do I need to add some, or take some away? How is the tension?

Sixth Step: Rest again. And then dive in, and edit. Add descriptions. Elevate the language. Ratchet up the tension. Make it better.

Seventh Step: Go through it one more time. How close to perfect can you get it?

Eighth Step: Give it to someone else for feedback. Or a couple of somebodies.

Ninth Step: Read the comments, and either ignore them, or make the changes.

The loop of steps 7-9 can take a while, but that is fine. It should. Because before you hit send to your editor, or query the book to an agent, it needs to be as close to great as you can get it.

This takes TIME. 1000 words a day means an 80,000 word manuscript takes 80 days. Almost three months. When I wrote my first book, I didn’t understand steps 5-9 as being part of the process. That my first draft wasn’t perfect, and that fixing was part of writing. Understanding that, and giving it time, is critical.

So, this is my process. How do the rest of you tackle writing a book? Any tips you want to add?


J.A. Hennrikus writes short stories. Julianne Holmes writes the Clock Shop Mystery Series.


54 thoughts on “One Thousand Words at a Time

  1. Although my back list of published novellas does not require 80k words each (33 of them at 30k to 50k words, which I am now converting into eBooks) my way of working is very similar. The discipline is in putting the manuscript away for a time so that I can come back to it fresh.

      • I tend to have more than one project on the go at a time. So when the first draft of one is complete I will either be researching another or doing a final edit to a previous manuscript. Always reading something. I vary what I do so each is fresh. I think it helps to move forward with the next one.

    • Not failure, process. Really. My first book (which lives in a drawer) I cut the first three chapters out of it four times before I found my beginning. The rest was the backstory I needed, but the reader didn’t. Good luck with the revising.

  2. Great post and congrats on the book contract! Your process reminds me a lot of my own. I got a similar 80K word contract last year, for a nonfiction book. I went at the book 1,000 words at a time too (as I had the structure but taking time in between to make sure the chapter outlines made sense). It has helped me be much quicker and efficient than if I had tried to force myself to write more at a time.

    • Yes, I agree. I print it out a couple of times. The first time is after the first “rest”. Later in the process, if I am concerned about pacing, I do a print preview with as many pages as I can get on the screen. I don’t look for the words, but for how the pages look. Are there huge chunks of text with no break? Is one chapter too long? Seeing it from a birds eye view also helps me.

  3. That’s pretty much how I do it! I try to fire out at least 1000 words a day and I just write. I go back and tweak and edit later on, but I mostly write.

  4. I currently have 3 short novels in a young adult 5 part trilogy stuck at step 4. I keep getting distracted by new ideas to write. But I plan to work really hard at getting at least the first novel edited and finished this year. It’s a life goal-bucket list sort of thing.

    And as I don’t have a hard deadline, I just write when the inspiration strikes me. I find if I force myself to write, then (for me, anyway) it all turns out junk that I just have to take out or re-write later anyway. Writing is such a personal thing.

    • It is so personal, and so hard without a deadline. But keep working on that first novel, and get it as polished as you can. It is very empowering, the best way to learn how to write a novel, and it lets you move on. I also have writing bouts where it is all junk, but sometimes that helps clear the way for the clearer idea. Best of luck!

  5. I am so happy you are wanted! How did the idea for your book come? Did you WHAT-IF it, or did some scene in it pop into your head? And…when you write…how closely do you stick to the outline, or do you let the characters run and fix in in the second draft? Thank you so much, Silent

    • This idea was part of the frame for the contract. But for other work, I keep working on ideas until they start being fleshed out, and then I work with an outline. For another book, I had the whole thing plotted, and then this secondary character started to take on a bigger role, and I had to make adjustments. I definitely let the characters run, and fix it in the next draft. And sometimes I’ll write something like ****THIS NEEDS TO BE FIXED*** as note to myself. Don’t judge yourself on the first draft–words need to be on paper in order to get to the next step. Best of luck–are you working on an idea?

      • Interesting…the keep writing no matter what. I have that part down.

        I have two very clear ideas that probably belong in separate works. One would probably be in Part 2 and the other in Part 3. They are not the climax, but, just an interesting WHAT IF.

        Thank you for the encouragement, Silent

      • Silent, do you use Scrivener? I have a couple of friends who are pantsers, and when they get an idea for a scene, they write the scene. Using Scrivener, they can then move it to where it needs to be. Just an idea. Happy writing!

  6. I have bookmarked it and will print out your steps later to have ready access to. It was helpful reading this as 10 steps with brief, easy to understand explanations. Thanks!. Just what I needed today.

  7. I work a full-time technical job and do a lot of “writing” in my head, often in my job-to-job driving. Not having a goal (or much free time) seems to leave many of my short stories (not to mention two novel ideas) dangling and unfinished. I tend to stick to stories since my time is so short. Perhaps goal-setting would help short pieces too? How do you handle your story if/when it (or the backstory) keeps on changing in your mind? After a while I get distracted, give up and move on, leaving a string of unfinished stories all over the place.

    • Short stories are hard to write, and take a lot more editing. Maybe a goal to finish one, and not second guess yourself? And if it isn’t working, either change it in revisions, or write another one? One of my biggest challenges (that I should have mentioned) is that it is never as good on paper as it sounded in my head, at least at first.

      Finishing is tough. Starting is tougher. Best of luck!

      • Thanks I appreciate the advice! Some of my stories are epic in my head…I guess we write to meet the challenge of making it sound epic to others.

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  10. Thanks so much for these nine steps! I’m currently editing the first draft I wrote for November’s NaNo. I took a two month break before I even read it again, let alone begin editing. I’m glad I waited. Once I’m done, I’ll read it again. When I’m truly comfortable with it, I’ll have others read it (I’m thinking around summer time). I feel much better after reading this post; the wonderful advice is one of the many reasons I love this blog. Lily

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