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Field Report: I Wrote a Novel in 120 Hours (And So Can You)

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Tyler’s Note:  This is a Riskologist Field Report by James Holder from Sliced Up For Me. Field Reports are written by readers just like you, so be nice, enjoy the story, and take action on the lesson.

NaNoWriMo Winner 2010I want to help you draft your own full-length novel, especially if you don’t write fiction.

It can take a lot less time than you might think. A mere hour can suffice; you just have to join me in repeating that hour a hundred and twenty times.

Once you finish a hundred and twenty thousand words for a single piece, writing another five hundred words of blog post will feel like a warm-up exercise.

For me, that writing marathon all started with NaNoWriMo. The annual event challenges you to draft a fifty-thousand word novel in thirty days. Succeeding at that for the last few years provided three benefits.

First, the shorter, time-boxed writing goal helped me craft the first, much shorter draft that provided the foundation for the full-sized one. Compare this with the micro-businesses you might run to test a product or service idea before committing to a substantial investment.

Better to learn the ropes with only hundreds or thousands of your own cash on the line instead the millions of investors’ funds. In my case, I have other NaNoWriMo drafts that might never see the light of day but only cost a month’s worth of time. Even if I have to write off my investment of time into those works, the skills and experience gained in the process will always stay with me.

Second, the success required that I call myself a writer. No amount of self-doubt or imposter syndrom could stand up to the evidence of fifty thousand words on my hard drive. Given how our existing expertise looks obvious from inside our heads, witnessing that achievement changed my whole mindset. I might have never started on the full-length novel without this testament to my abilities.

Third, all those months (five and counting) of NaNoWriMo provided endurance training. I always aspired to at least two thousand words a day, enough to leave some runway in case of unforeseen events. Lunch hour turned into “writing hour” and the habit grooved itself into my mind.

By the time I finished NaNoWriMo 2012, I not only felt energized instead of exhausted but had to make myself take a break from writing. When it came time to start writing for my new blog, I found myself equipped to draft a five hundred word post in thirty minutes or less, without breaking a sweat, and do that most every day for a month straight.

How many bloggers do you know with an excess of drafts? With the right techniques, you can join their ranks.

Push-Ups For Your Fingers

Pomodoro Timer by Andy Roberts. License: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en. Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/aroberts/6332067642

Like with real muscles, exhausting your mind for hours at a time leads only to a lasting brain-drain and possible sprains. Thirty minutes at a time seems to work much better. The Pomodoro Technique capitalizes on that natural pacing and made all the difference when it came to my huge word count. To summarize:

  • Work for twenty-five minutes – one pomodoro – at a time.
  • Take a mandatory break of five minutes.
  • Re-assess your work and progress, then adjust the goals for the next pomodoro.
  • Start another session.

The regimen above multiplied my sustainability. Even a tired and worn-out brain could manage one more TV episode’s worth of effort. By slicing the full-size novel’s drafting into two hundred and forty pomodoros, spread over four months, I wrote it in the space of one Dr. Who re-run each night.

The best part? No commercials!

After the first few weeks of that, the absence of television and reduction of gaming in my schedule didn’t even register. Instead of spending a couple hundred or more on movies and video games, I’d created a novel worth editing into a sellable work. More than the distant hope of profit, however, the intellectual exercise provided immediate value.

Slow and Steady

I found another life lesson in writing the novel. Like a body built for endurance instead of brawn, a brain with similar training needs to stay away from trying to carry the day all at once. Anything more arduous will only serve to pull a mental muscle.

Exercising creativity gives us a mental workout. Even there, we need to pause between reps to catch our breath. My initial absence of breaks almost doomed the entire novel project and gave me a hard lesson in pacing.

The big takeaway: set time aside on your calendar to avoid writing, even if you feel ready to write more.

By writing extra words early in the process and staying consistent to the daily schedule, I could step away when necessary and keep the overall momentum going. We can’t reach Gladwell’s ten thousand hours towards mastery with only the twenty-four given us each day, after all, so better to pace it out.

Chart of ProgressBrace yourself for when you run into a frustrating lack of progress.

Someone on a diet wants to avoid checking the scale every day because they will not see any weight loss for a while. Even my first month of drafting the novel left me with over ninety thousand words to go. I decided to focus on a different number.

The adjacent chart illustrates the difference between “today” and “to date”. Compare the blue line, which shows my new word count from each day, against the red line that traces the relentless ascent of my total word count. Whatever action you take towards your own projects work in the same way. Each pomodoro session of writing brought me all that closer to my final total, one half hour at a time.

You can also use these kinds of numbers in reverse. Make a note of when you reach your halfway point (like five hundred words in a day) and remember that you have only downhill momentum from there. By the last month of my novel project, I had to write a mere third of what I had typed to date. That re-framing let me coast to victory. I still had to clear plenty of things out of my way en route, though.


Creatives like you and I hear about the dangers posed to productivity by Facebook and NetFlix all the time. Framing it as a negative, one of avoidance, works about as well as a diet of “eat less”.

Focus on how you fill your time instead. I let my replacement accomplishments speak for themselves instead of boasting about a cable-free life. People will forget a show in a year; A finished novel provides personal inspiration (and profits) for a lifetime, assuming you can afford to write it.

Consider investing in your local coffee shop:

  • Your game-filled desktop computer must stay at home, blocking out that distraction.
  • You feel the sting in your wallet every time you reach towards a snack, saving you dollars, time, and calories.
  • Your social instincts will tell you to follow the example of the crowd and a space full of hard-studying students provides excellent inspiration.
  • Uncertain access to power outlets and table space make smaller, lower-powered laptops or netbooks into the clear hardware choice, making it even harder to take those “short” gaming breaks that devour whole evenings.

If the coffee shop or equivalent proves hard to reach, then all kinds of software exists to simulate the productive environment. You can leave your Facebook friends to chat among one another for an hour out of each day. You have to take care of yourself first. Like the wise dieter that counts his calories or points, do you take time to track your own progress?

Good Company

eBook PhotoI used to keep a running to-do list, a master list of every prospect, until I felt crushed under the weight of months of unfinished business. This necessitated a switch to a “day-sized” list, one restricted to the number of items that I could expect to complete before bed each night.

Might I forget about something important? It turns out that the majority of such neglected things never belonged on the list in the first place. When they get pushed off of the bottom of the list by an hour of writing every day, I end up with a novel instead of frustration. I would make that trade any day.

In fact, I make such a trade regularly. While my to-do list stays day-sized, my list of accomplishments always grows larger, just like my total word count. I can look back and see page after page of productivity when I need a morale boost.

Summarizing my accomplishments on a couple different forums each night, I add public accountability to the mix and create even more incentive to avoid breaking the chain. Have you looked into exchanging lists of goals with an accountability partner of your own?

Sources of support abound. Email a few friends in search of beta readers. Invite your favorite bloggers to read (small) samples of your work. Strike up conversations with strangers at your new favorite coffee shop. Start a mastermind. Experiment with one of the previous items every day.

A few social expectations can go a long way towards setting a fire under your bum. Let me add one last bit of kindling to that.


This assignment requires no more than half an hour, guaranteed. I want you to experiment with the pomodoro technique described above.

  • Pick a task that you would expect to take more than half an hour. For example:
    • Write five hundreds words of that novel (without editing at all).
    • Separate out the interesting emails from the spam in your inbox.
    • Update your résumé.
    • Edit that completed first draft of a blog post.
  • Set a timer for twenty-five minutes and then start on the task.
  • Stop after the timer goes off, even if the task remains incomplete.
  • Enjoy your five-minute break, the one that you just earned. I recommend a little meditation.
  • Consider starting on the task again.
  • If the above process worked, repeat.
  • Whether you finish the task today or not, let me know how it went.

It seems so simple, yet this very field report resulted from numerous pomodoros. If you can stick it through the half hour, then the next one, so on and so on, then the productivity will follow.

Taking that long-awaited risk on your new business or trip may depend on a leap of faith but it will also take discipline to see it through. All the more reason to start exercising those mental muscles right away. Good luck, and tell me how it goes.

James Holder runs the Sliced Up For Me blog for crafters of fiction, code, or writing of any kind. When he manages to escape the orbit of his text editor, he partakes in all manner of gaming, plans for world travel, and tests out new pickup lines on unsuspecting baristas. You can ping him with all your writing questions.

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What smart people are saying about this...

  1. This is awesome James! So many people think that it takes an act of God to make big things happen or to create change in our lives. This method and your example prove that’s not the case. Big things happen in baby steps. Doing what’s important a little bit every day, no matter what. Persistence. Perseverance. Commitment. I’m sure you’ll have many successful novels as you follow this practice. Bravo!

    • James Holder says:

      Thanks for the vote of confidence, Paige!

      You summed up the most fundamental takeaway of the report: baby steps. Case in point: I might have over 45,000 more words to go until winning Camp NaNoWriMo this month but each pomodoro gets me that much closer.

  2. Jacqueline says:

    This makes writing a novel actually achievable! Great read. I liked hearing about not just the technical details of how, but also the social aspects. And your picture with the Kindle is great. Now I have to go to your blog and see if I can find where to get the novel you wrote. Thanks!

    • James Holder says:

      A lot of people underestimate how much other people matter to their writing experience, don’t they? I wanted to remind them of who, like you, will read the novel that results.

      I haven’t published Planet Oz yet but email me about that.

  3. [...] Every six months, repeat all of the above steps. [...]

  4. Lucille says:

    What a great achievement! I’ve tried Nanowrimo many times but have not made it to the finish line. The only way I’d reach the daily goal would be if I was a hermit. Even to write these few lines, I’ve had two interruptions from my kids! I think I have a short attention span from years of multi-tasking and sleepless nights!

    • James Holder says:

      Oh, Lucille, the memories of college life and next-morning exams. Camp NaNoWriMo just started up again yesterday, though, so I want to see you give it another shot!

  5. Kathy Brown says:

    I’ve done NaNoWriMo 3 times & won twice. The first time, ‘life’ got in the way & I only got to 38k. The other two times, AI didn’t have the same stresses & coasted thru to over 100k quite easily. Keep trying Lucille. Even if you don’t get to the magical 50k you are still building skills & resilience that will eventually get you there. Whether you ‘win’ or not, you will be learning what works for you & what doesn’t & that will stand you in good stead for future attempts.
    I agree with James that techniques learned & confidence gained from seeing such a huge overall achievement (to say nothing of the awe in which your friends will hold you) are a great springboard into making other achievements we previously thought too big. I’ve learned a heap of new skills I would have thought too scary before.
    One thing I would add tho: don’t get hung up on following James’ formula. That’s the schedule that worked for him. People have to fit around different timetables & are wired differently. For me, I found I got on better if I didn’t watch the clock. I preferred to write until I had completed whatever was happening in the story & knew what it was going to lead into (as much as my schedule allowed).
    Another thing writing taught me is, if you can’t think what comes next, just write something. Doesn’t matter what, so long as it gives you some momentum. If it’s really too corny, it can be edited out later. But you never know! I had one bit of filler in my last NaNo novel about two old ladies running a bakery shop. At the time I felt sure it wouldn’t make the final cut. WRONG!!! They ended up being pivotal characters. Be prepared to take risks. Who knows what it might lead to.
    Oh, and most important of all, have fun!!!!!!!!

    • James Holder says:

      Seconded and third, Kathy. It feels like you read my mind, in fact, because you prescribed exactly what I do during each pomodoro. For example, I ran off-outline here on just the second day of Camp NaNoWriMo.

      Great minds, Kathy, great minds.

  6. Lucille says:

    Thanks Kathy for your encouragement. I will keep trying and silence that inner critic!!

    • James Holder says:

      That critic can prove such a pain, can’t they? I found that the book No Plot? No Problem!, written by a founder of NaNoWriMo, helped me quite a bit with him in my first year.

  7. Annie says:

    This is just awesome. As an artist who has no idea how to write but wants to develop a novel (or at least a story), I really have to take this post to heart.

    You’ve accomplished something truly challenging and shared a lot of knowledge here. Kudos to you!

  8. Erick Widman says:

    This post pumped me up big time. I am going to start trying out my own 25 minute pomodoros ASAP. I love that you accomplished something huge in bite-sized chunks.

    And encouraging us to focus on how we fill our time and what we accomplish – instead of being overly concerned with what to avoid – is the way to go.

    • James Holder says:

      So true, Erick. It continues to amaze me how so many seemingly “essential” things lose that title (and their time-sink status) once we have more important tasks at the top of our priority lists.

  9. Margaret says:

    Great post! I’ve heard of pomodoro technique, and I’ve wanted to try NaNoWriMo, but I think I will stubbornly stick to finishing the current novel by September, to tie all you NNWMers! (I just had a big headstart)… also, No Plot? No Problem sounds like it might be a good resource for me, given the way I started writing this one. Thanks, and kudos to your achievements!

  10. [...] Every six months, repeat all of the above steps. [...]

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