Writing Full Time: What does it look like to you?

I haven’t written a post in some time, because I was working furiously to finish the first draft of Uneasy Spirits, the sequel to Maids of Misfortune, my historical mystery set in 1879 San Francisco. The manuscript is now out to my first set of beta readers, I have just finished a week of family visits and entertaining my grandchildren, and, to keep from obsessing over whether my beta readers will like the new novel, I thought I would try to take stock of my writing process. I was particularly interested in looking at my own speed after the lively discussion on blogs this past month over this topic prompted by Dean Wesley Smith’s post on writing four novels a year.

Last fall I made the decision to retire completely from teaching (see this post) and start to work on my writing full-time, as the number of sales I was making of Maids of Misfortune began to increase enough to compensate for that loss of income. In December 2010, after my last set of finals were graded and turned in, I went off to visit my daughter and family for Christmas, and when I got back I took out the outline I had written over for Uneasy Spirits and started to write, January 3, 2011. I finished the first draft, June 28, 2011, almost exactly 6 months later.

During this six-month period I kept a log where I recorded the number of words I accomplished for each day that I worked on the novel. I was very surprised when I added up the number of days I wrote and discovered that over that period (181 days) I only wrote on 90 of them (50%). Suddenly my full-time writing looked part-time. So where did all the days go?

First of all, I wasn’t always in town, because I am definitely part of that generation who is sandwiched between family responsibilities. With a father with worsening Alzheimer’s, and a daughter who had a second baby in sixteen months, I was away from home on four visits that totaled 23 days. So, I really had 168 possible days to write. This got me up to working 55 % of the available days.

Then, there is the question of weekends, because the 181 days figure included all the days of the week. Now, while I have found myself working seven days a week on some aspect of my writing and publishing, to be fair to myself, subtracting the days I was out of town, and the weekends of the days I was in town, left me with 127 writing days in that six month period. Given that figure, I wrote on 71% of the days available for writing.

Suddenly I don’t feel like such a slouch, particularly when you figure in the amount of time I spend as an indie author in the other aspects of the business of publishing, and that as an officially retired senior, I could be just living a life of leisure. (Smile)

No longer feeling like such a slacker, I considered the issue of actual writing speed. Smith says he can write 750-1000 words an hour. This of course has caused a great deal of discussion among the author community, and, I can only say, more power to him. Personally, I find my writing speed is much slower. I always start a writing day rereading what I have written the day before and making at least minor corrections. This gets me back into the story, but it certainly eats into my average words per hour. Writing a historical novel means that I often spend a great deal of time looking things up, often on the internet. For example, I frequently check to make sure a word I have used was in common usage in 1879, or the correct name for the architectural detail of San Francisco houses of the period, the name for a piece of women’s clothing. Former president Grant was in and out of San Francisco during the time period my novel was set, so I had to keep checking to see if he was in town on particular day to weave that into the narrative. While I sometimes make a note to look something up later, I have found that most of the time if I don’t do the research right then, I have trouble moving on.

As a professional historian, this part of the writing is a lot of fun, and I don’t want to deny myself that fun for the sake of speed.

As a result, given those detours, figuring out the number of words per hour didn’t make sense (I started out trying to keep a record of this and gave up very quickly.) So the most I could come up with was average words a day. In the six months, I wrote around 140,000 words (yea, I know, that’s a long novel, but my first book was 117,000 words and nobody complained, and I expect I will be cutting when I get into the revision period of this one.) This turns out to be an average of approximately 1500 words a day. The least number of words I wrote in one day was 360, the greatest number of words was 3376. I was really on fire that day!

What does this mean? Well, I figure that it will take at least two months to get feedback and rewrite. During that time I will be getting the cover designed, reworking my website, planning my launch, and putting out a new edition of my first book Maids of Misfortune, with a preview of the sequel, and probably a 99 cent price for promotional period. Then there is the formatting and uploading of Uneasy Spirits which I don’t anticipate taking more than about a month, including time to ship the POD proofs. Then during the following two months, I expect to spend time marketing, including writing and publishing some more short stories, and I will begin to outline the next novel. In short, six months to write the first draft, six months to get that draft rewritten and the book well launched. If all goes as planned, I will be starting all over again next January on the third book in my series.

Turns out, instead of being a four book a year writer, as Smith proposes, I am a one book a year writer. Yet if I was thirty years younger, and needed less than eight hours sleep, and wasn’t taking a trip to visit family every fifty days, and was willing to write shorter books, I could certainly produce at least two a year. And, if in addition, I was at the start of my life as a writer and could reasonably expect that at the end of four years I could have six to eight books out there producing, potentially forever, as ebooks, this would be a very economically sustainable career.

I’m not any of those things, but nevertheless, one book a year makes for a very satisfying retirement career. That is, if my beta readers don’t hate the new manuscript!

So, what does writing full-time look like for those of you out there fortunate enough to have made writing your day job?

2 Replies to “Writing Full Time: What does it look like to you?”

  1. A novel a year is admirable and, for many, a tough goal to meet. Most authors that regularly make the NY Times Bestseller List say they work at that pace, and that’s with a publisher’s gun to their head to meet the annual deadline.

    No need to aspire to the rarefied air that Mr. Smith apparently breathes. After all, it’s a good thing to have a life.


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