Rush to the finish line: lessons from writing a novel in 14 days

So, fourteen days ago I finished Insurgent. I decided to set it aside for two weeks, and work on something completely different, because I needed to clear my head so I could go in editing with a fresh frame of reference. I’d been seriously working on Insurgent for more than a year, and finally had to push myself to release it episodically, just so I could finally get it done.

The thing is, I’d had a rough couple years. The economy wiped out my dream job, and after consulting for a year (which sucked) I took a completely new job, in a new career, in a new location. My dad passed away. And basically for a couple years, I didn’t get any writing done at all. Insurgent languished in the background, and getting back into it was very difficult.

So something amazing happened two weeks ago. An idea popped into my head for a story. Not a long story, but one I felt passionately about, one that would be fun to write. And in fourteen days I wrote a full-length novel. Something that normally takes me years. This process has been … intoxicating.

So I thought I’d blog about the experience, which was frankly overwhelming. I’ve learned some things about my writing and my own creative process in the last couple weeks, which may or may not be of use to other writers, so I’m going to throw them up against the wall and see what sticks.

First, a shout out to Rachel Aaron, whose blog entry How I went from Writing 2,000 Words a Day to 10,000 words a Day got me thinking about my own writing process, and how to up my productivity to levels I’d never even considered. As someone who usually tops out at 500 to 1,000 words in any one writing session, I’d never considered the idea of 10,000 words in a single day. Impossible. Ridiculous. But when someone posted a link to this entry on Facebook, it caught my attention. Because there’s a secret about successful indie writers. Among other things, most of them are damn prolific.  Which I am not.

Rachel talks about finding three core requirements to be able to write quickly: knowledge, enthusiasm, and time. The knowledge component is simple enough: rather than struggling through, trying to write on the fly, sit down and first and block out your scene. Know what you are going to write before you write it. The second requirement, enthusiasm, is also simple: write what you feel passionately about. If you don’t want to write it, other people probably won’t want to read it.  And finally, time: she recommends finding the times of day, locations, etc. where you can write consistently.

I don’t get a consistent time to write, except between 4:30 and 5:30 am every day before work. Otherwise it is whenever I can squeeze it in, often after dinner and before bed.  The other two requirements, however, I could do something about.

With Just Remember to Breathe, I had a story I knew I wanted to write. The grounding of it was based in one of my own first truly passionate loves, and I knew that it would be fun to write. So I made a very brief outline, about two paragraphs, of where the entire novel would go. Then I sat down and blocked out the first two chapters and started writing.

The first day I wrote 7,000 words.  This was absolutely stunning.  The second day I wrote nearly 14,000, so I finished my first weekend working on the book with it almost one quarter of the way complete.  But then I was back to work, and squeezing in my time when I could. Writing one hour in the morning, I was finishing a thousand words, then three or four in the evening.

Unfortunately, at the end of the second weekend working on the story I hit a snag. I got up in the morning to start to write, but didn’t get anywhere. I checked Facebook, then went back to write.  Nothing. Checked Twitter. Checked my email. Screwed around.  I was stuck. I had “writer’s block.”

Given that I’ve gone through years of writer’s block in the past, I had to tell myself not to panic. I didn’t want to lose this story. So I sat and looked at it, hard, to try to figure out where the fault lay. And it became clear pretty quickly. I didn’t want to write the scene I was working on, because it was freakishly boring. Well, who wants to read boring scenes? And the reason it was boring? Because at the end of the chapter I’d finished the night before, I’d unintentionally eliminated the core dramatic tension of the book. I’d killed my own story.

Back to the Drawing Board

So, back to the drawing board. I scrapped what little I’d written that morning, went back to the previous chapter and re-wrote the conclusion so that the story tension was alive and well. Then I started moving forward again. I ended up writing 7,000 words that night.

So, a couple thought on writing rapidly:

  • First, be passionate about your story and your characters. Believe in what you are writing, and care about it.
  • Know where you are going.  Have a road map. I didn’t stick to mine, the story developed in its own ways. But I still kept the map handy, and once or twice I had to get back on track in order to make it work.
  • For me, going to bed thinking about the story is critical. The last thing I did, every night before bed, was write the first couple of paragraphs of the next scene. That way, when I woke up, it was already in my head.
  • Car time. Driving home, I popped on my playlist for the book (did I mention this story has its own playlist) and daydreamed the scene I was working on.
  • Finally, and this is the big one, don’t force my way through when I get stuck. Instead, diagnose the problem, move back, fix it, and move on.

I’m going to have a ton of editing to do. I didn’t think about spelling, grammar, pretty writing. I figured out things about my characters halfway through, which I have to work back into the beginning of the story. I changed the role of one secondary character halfway through, and his backstory is essential to how the book developed.

But frankly, that’s all minor stuff. The important thing is that I went from absolutely nothing, to a completed 80,000-word novel, in 14 days. While working 60-hour weeks at an exhausting job. This was something I never imagined was possible, and it’s damn exciting.

So now I have two questions ahead about what I’ve figured out:

First: Does the writing suck? I don’t think so, but I’m not an objective source.  I need space from this project to even be able to look at it now, because I’ve been living and breathing this story for the last 14 days.  Tomorrow I move on with editing Insurgent, and when that is finished, I’ll take a second look at Just Remember to Breathe.

Second: Can this be replicated? Can the process and mental state I used work a second time, for a different book? I don’t know the answer to that. But I intend to figure that out.  Over the next couple months, I’ll be editing and then publishing both Insurgent and Just Remember to Breathe.  My next project after that is Influenza, book 3 in the series I started with Republic and Insurgent. In scale, it’s going to be as big a story as Republic was, but on a more national scale, taking place in New York, Atlanta, Washington, and elsewhere. I’ve got a vague idea of where it will go, but not much more than that. So it will be a good experience. With a lot of luck, and some hard work, and plenty of coffee, I hope to report back sometime in November or December that the third book in that series is complete.

We’ll see what happens.


  1. Chris Gerrib

    I do think that some novels are easier to write than others. I’m working on a novel which has required a fair bit of research, a new requirement for me.

    • Charles Sheehan-Miles

      Yeah, research is a whole different thing, of course. What I’m hoping to do with the next book is do as much research as possible up front. Especially with regards to the medical and law enforcement stuff, which will play a big part in the story. Then I’ll push through the storytelling as quick as possible, and go back and fix fix fix. We’ll see how it goes, thanks for stopping by!

  2. Rachel Aaron

    This post makes me absurdly happy! I am so so so glad to know my methods helped you! This totally made my day, thank you!

    • Charles Sheehan-Miles

      Thank you for stopping by Rachel, you have no idea how much this experienced has changed my perspective. I owe you. Seriously. If you ever need anything at all, ever, just let me know.

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