Strapped for writing time? Fret no more: This incremental approach will lead you from first draft to finished manuscript in no time. Learn how to write a novel in mere minutes a day.
Writing a novel is a complicated equation involving a lot of variables and moving parts—not the least of which are the authors themselves. In fact, the process of writing a novel is so arduous and soaked in magical thinking that many writers struggle to explain the process coherently, and about the only thing anyone seems to agree on is that writing a novel requires an author . While artificial intelligence has certainly come a long way, you still need a human being to get a great work of fiction . And if you ask that human being about the most important aspect of their writing process, they’re likely to say “time.”
In fact, “not enough time to write” is probably the number-one complaint of most writers when asked . Between jobs, school, families, chores and everything else that comes along with a busy life, it often takes a superhuman effort to find time to write, much less write a fully fledged 80,000-word book. Much less 80,000 words that make some kind of sense.
Except that’s actually a fallacy. Because all you need to write a novel is nine minutes a day.
FAMOUS FAST NOVELS
It’s common knowledge that every year a bunch of perfectly mad writers challenge themselves to write 50,000 words in one month—and plenty of them succeed. There are also loads of examples of well-regarded published novels that didn’t take long to write:
- On the Road by Jack Kerouac: Three weeks.
- The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne: Two and a half days .
- The Gamblerby Fyodor Dostoyevsky: 26 days.
- I, the Jury by Mickey Spillane: Nine days.
You get the drift—great novels don’t need thousands of man-hours. Of course, there are caveats. Kerouac spent months on the road making notes and experiencing the things he synthesized into fiction. Dostoyevsky was broke and desperate and agreed to deliver a novel by a specified date or lose the rights to future works, providing inspiration . But the fact remains that if John Boyne can write a novel in less than 72 hours, you can write a novel in short daily segments.
STRIP IT DOWN
None of that means the struggle to find writing time isn’t real. We have only so much mental, emotional and spiritual energy—all three of which are required to write something true and beautiful.
Most often, the real problem isn’t so much time, but how we use it. This is one of those situations in which Perfect is the enemy of Good; we’re often stymied by the desire for a “perfect” writing environment—the right spot, with the right implements, in the right mood, with the right music, sipping the right cup of tea, basically the right everything, including the right amount of time.
But very few things in life can be perfect. The first step toward writing a novel in nine minutes a day is to think objectively about where your writing time actually goes. For the majority of us, much of it probably isn’t actually spent writing . We search the internet and do on-the-spot research, we review yesterday’s pages, we procrastinate. Sometimes that’s part of the process, of course—but sometimes it’s just wasting time. Chances are if you strip away all the rituals and the idea that everything has to be optimal before you can concentrate, you’ll find that much of what you think you need isn’t really necessary to the process.
After all, aside from those novels that were written super fast, many great works have been penned under terrible conditions. Jean Genet wrote Our Lady of the Flowers while in prison, mainly so he’d have something to, uh, entertain himself with. Peter Brett drafted his debut epic fantasy, The Warded Man, on the subway commuting to and from work. And William Carlos Williams wrote most of his poems in-between seeing patients while working as a doctor .
Like them (and countless other writers who are typing “The End” on novels every day while working under imperfect conditions), you don’t need a perfect nook or endless free time. You just need those nine minutes.
DO THE MATH
Part of the mental challenge in writing a novel is the monolithic concept of reaching 80,000 to 90,000 words, or daily word-count goals in the thousands, which can be discouraging when missed. After all, if you arrive at that slim window of writing time every day tired and stressed out, how can you ever expect to form a coherent, contiguous storyline?
Here’s the trick: Don’t think of your novel as an 80,000-word (or 50,000, or 150,000) manuscript. Mentally framing it in terms of length is setting up it to be a bogeyman. Word counts can be counter-productive, too; instead of setting a word-count goal and feeling like a failure every time you miss it, start by figuring out how many words you can write in the time you have.
Here’s a simple exercise: Put one minute on your phone’s stopwatch and write some flash fiction, right now, based on this simple premise:
A man enters his home and notices that several things are just slightly out of place. He lives alone.
Don’t think too hard about it. Just start writing—it doesn’t have to be good . All right—go!
So, how many words did you manage? Chances are you can write somewhere in the range of 50 to 100 words in a minute. Which means you can write between 300 and 900 words in nine minutes. Which further means you can write 3,000 to 6,000 words a week. And if you do that 50 weeks out of the year, then you’ve composed a novel. Heck you could write and revise a novel in just those nine minutes a day—or even write two novels.
But what if you only manage 25 to 50 words? Do the math again: Even then, you can still write one book in the next 12 months by writing nine minutes a day. The trick to it is twofold:
- Stop thinking in terms of huge blocks of words, and start thinking about small spurts of words.
- Make sure you take that time, every day. It’s just nine minutes, after all—don’t tell me you don’t have a window in your life that can’t be re-allocated. Maybe it’s waking up a little earlier, or staying up just nine minutes later. Maybe it’s learning to write one-handed on your phone while you straphang on the subway. Maybe it’s the tail-end of your lunch hour. All that matters is that you carve out those minutes daily.
And if you really, truly, somehow can’t carve out nine minutes? Try for five. Try for one .
PLOT YOUR WAY FORWARD
Of course, even when you break writing a novel into several hundred tiny steps, it’s still a huge undertaking. Therefore, the more groundwork you can lay in support of your efforts, the better your chances of pulling it off. Here are some guidelines that will help you get into the habit of making those minutes count:
- Plot Some. If you’re not a Plotter, it might be time for some “Plantsing” (a hybrid process wherein you write by the seat of your pants until you manage to confuse yourself, then switch to plotting until it all makes sense again ) in your spare time, so you can hit the ground running. The great thing about plotting and other mental efforts around your novel is that it doesn’t require that you write it down—at least not in the moment. Literally any minute of the day in which your mind isn’t otherwise occupied can be used to think about your story, characters or setting. And the more organizational work you do outside the nine minutes, the more productive those minutes will be.
- Don’t Insta-Revise. If you’re the sort to review every sentence immediately after placing the period, tweaking it before the pixels have stabilized—stop. To paraphrase Don Draper: This novel only moves in one direction—forward . Leave revision to after you’ve actually written a first draft, and then you can use the same technique, revising every day for just nine minutes.
- Change Up Your Tools. If you’re used to working on a desktop computer, a huge old typewriter, or any other kind of stationary thing (an old IBM mainframe, maybe, inputting via punchcard) teach yourself to write with something more portable—a phone, a tablet, a small notebook and pen, anything you can carry around with you to snatch seconds for your work.
- Try the Fleming Method. Ian Fleming was a famously fast writer: He wrote the first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, in about three weeks. But he had a cheat: He wrote the first draft as a skeleton, with only the action, dialog and fundamentals of the story—that’s what took three weeks. Then he went back and added details and description. Boiling your novel down to basics is one way to get huge amounts of story on paper or screen when you only have a few minutes every day.
Plenty of writers dream of having all the time they want to write. Barring a Twilight Zone “Time Enough at Last” scenario, though, chances are you’re going to have to carve it out of your existing schedule. As I say in my book Writing Without Rules, writing is “stacking words together to form sentences, sentences together to form paragraphs, and paragraphs together to form The Sound and The Fury.” And with nine minutes a day, you can arrive at The Sound and The Fury (97,000 words) in just under four months. WD
This article originally appeared in the January 2019 issue of Writer's Digest magazine. Subscribe today to get advice like this all year long.
 Also: Snacks.
 Sure, novels have been written by AIs, but their tendency to devolve into “kill all humans”-style scenarios, even in Romance and Cozy Mystery genres, is worrying.
 Also when not asked.
 This is insane, yet true—when I came across an interview with the author in The Irish Times reporting this feat, I nearly spit up my breakfast. The sheer amount of coffee required must have caused kidney failure, though John Boyne doesn’t mention a hospital stay.
 Also proving that the best way to motivate a writer has always been desperation and financial disaster.
 For example, 96 percent of my writing time is spent desperately trying to reconstruct sentences, paragraphs and even whole novels that my cats have vanished by stomping on the keyboard when I’m not looking.
 In New Jersey, no less, which—let me tell you from personal and ongoing experience—is its own kind of obstacle.
 To be a constant reminder, I’ve had those words tattooed in mirror-script on my chest.
 More math: If you write 50 words a minute, and you manage just one minute of writing a day, you’ll hit 80,000 words on the first draft of your novel in about 4.5 years. That’s a long time, but it’s also one more first draft of a novel than you’ll have written if you don’t write 50 words a day. Just sayin’.
 Or until your head explodes.
 Of course, when the novel fails and turns into a few thousand poorly organized words, I think of my other favorite Don Draper quote: “This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened.”
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