Is There A Wrong Way To Write A Book?

by Sophie Hannah

How do you write a book when you'd rather do anything — really, anything! — besides sit down and apply yourself? Is there a right way? A wrong way? Yes, actually, I think there is a wrong way — and, until recently, I determinedly did it incorrectly.

Before my most recent book, Woman With a Secret, I used to set word count targets for myself that were ludicrously ambitious, and then, even when I met my daily goal, I would feel dissatisfied that I had “only” achieved the target and not, say, the 500 words extra that would’ve enabled me to feel really good about myself. Because I would aim too high, I'd be scared of starting, and I often wouldn't write my first word of the day until 4 p.m. Then, I'd have to stay up till 2 a.m. to get anywhere near where I'd told myself I needed to be.

Many nights, I would fall asleep over my laptop — literally. Many days, I would be too exhausted even to think about writing. Typically, during this dark period that lasted, oh, nearly all of my writing life so far, I would produce 4,000 words one day, then none at all for the next three days, then 3,000 words, then none for two days, then 5,000... you get the idea. My more productive days were only achieved with the help of at least three Marlboro Lights and sometimes entire packets of Licorice Allsorts (minus the awful bobbly ones that literally nobody eats).

I had lunch with a writer friend around this spiral, and happened to mention to her my working habits. She laughed, and told me I was a fool. I heartily agreed. Her method of writing a novel was much better: 2,500 words a day, four days a week, regular as clockwork. Some quick math: This nets her 10,000 words a week, which I'm sure everyone will agree is fantastic. And every week she gets three days off! How could that not be brilliant?

So, I tried my friend's method… but I quickly failed. Although I was brilliant at the three days off part, I found it hard to get started on the four “on”days. I reverted to my former pattern of only starting at 4 pm, and I rarely managed 2,000 words, let alone 2,500. There must be another way, I told myself.

Woman With A Secret by Sophie Hannah

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Thinking about it, I realized that what was stopping me from starting work on the novel-in-progress earlier in the day was a too-high daily word-count ideal. I decided, for my next book, to allow myself more days — as many as possible — with the aim of being able to write as few words as possible each day.

“Think of words as if they were cigarettes,” I told myself. “Fewer per day is much healthier.”

Many words bad, few words good, became my mantra. When I thought about writing, say, 1,000 words a day, that felt totally manageable and not daunting. In fact, 1,000 was so manageable, I could do it first thing, before even getting out of bed, and still have the whole day left.

I put my new theory to the test. I had 135 days, I worked out, before the next book had to be handed in. I started trying to do 1,000 words a day. Every single day, I was unfazed by this requirement. Every day, I tackled it first thing, and often found that by the time I got to 1,000 words, I fancied carrying on a bit. Many days I ended up writing 2,000 words or more. Then, I allowed myself days off in lieu. I finished my book, and handed it in on time without once having to fall asleep on my keyboard amid empty Marlboro Lights and Licorice Allsorts packets.

For my next book, I'm aiming even lower in terms of daily word count — which, of course, means aiming higher for my book and my mental state. I'm aiming to write 650 words a day every single day for four months. The book in question needs to be short-ish, so that should hopefully work perfectly. Wish me luck, and try not to think about whether I smoke cigarettes and eat Licorice Allsorts, anyway, even when there is no work crisis in progress.

Images: Carli Jean/Unsplash; Meredith Turits/Bustle