How To Write 80,000 Words In A Weekend

This past weekend was designated as a writing marathon, meaning all I did during my waking hours was write. This is not a normal mode of operation for me, but after a month-long and much-needed vacation, I’m behind on deadlines and had to get caught up on things.

On Friday, I wrote 40,000 words. Unfortunately, I posted about it on Twitter, and in doing so, caused a minor stir. Many people were happy for me (and I thank them). A few were skeptical. And still others were unsure of what that actually meant — “40,000 words in one day”. So, for this week’s writing journal installment, here’s a lengthier explanation (not confined to Twitter’s 140 character limit) of exactly what it means and how I did it and why you may or may not want to try it yourself sometime.

The first thing you need to understand is that this doesn’t work for everybody. Writing 40,000 words in one day is really only practical for three things — pulp, porn, and first drafts. In my case, the first and last apply. I am a pulp writer. If I were of a more literary bent or a wordsmith like Peter Straub, Thomas Ligotti, Livia Llewellyn, or John Langan, we probably wouldn’t be having this discussion. These are authors who labor over each and every word, and their fiction (and our enjoyment of their fiction) are richer for their efforts. But that is not one of my strengths.

It was common for the pulp writers of old to write 40,000 a day. This is because they had no choice. They wanted to eat. To earn their pay, they were required to crank out journeyman novels and stories to beat ridiculous deadlines and for a low rate. (In truth, not much has changed since then… and I see a whole bunch of mid-listers, ghost writers, and media tie-in scribes nodding silently). Michael Moorcock infamously wrote several weekend novels. And there are authors who still write like that these days. Carlton Mellick locks himself in a hotel room and writes a complete novel in three or four days. Nick Mamatas can also crank it out when he needs to. In both of their cases, the quality doesn’t suffer. But it should also be noted that what they crank out is, in most cases, revised and edited later on.

And that’s the case here. On Friday, Twitter went splodey with the news that I’d written 40,000 words in a day. What I didn’t tell you was that over the space of three and a half days (Thursday night, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday) I wrote just a smidgen over 85,000 words — the length of a complete novel. Is that how I normally work? Of course not. If I worked regularly at that pace, we wouldn’t be having this conversation because I’d be dead. Before I became a parent again, and had all day to work, I averaged between 8,000 and 10,000 words in an 8 to 9 hour day. These days, I average between 3,000 and 4,000 words per evening (I write 4 or 5 hours per night).

But when I need to (meaning I’ve been on vacation and now I’m fucked because everything is due) I can do more than that. Here is how.

1. NO DISTRACTIONS: My youngest son was with his mother for the weekend. My oldest son was at work and on dates. Mary and my future step-son were in New Jersey. That meant I had the house to myself (except for my cat) from Thursday night until Sunday evening. All I did for the entire weekend was write and sleep. The only times I wasn’t writing or sleeping were to check Twitter a few times a day, to call Mary once per night, and to attend my youngest son’s karate class (which lasted an hour). Other than those few things, all I did was write. I didn’t mow the lawn. I didn’t clean the house. I ignored all incoming phone calls (sorry about that Wrath, Eryn, and all the drunks at CONvergence). I skipped out on attending events (my apologies Qwee, Michele, and Dirk), and I declined invitations to hang out with friends (next weekend Kelli and Coop). All I did was write. And when I got tired, I slept. And when I woke up, I wrote some more. Did my wrists hurt? Sure. Did I give myself carpal tunnel? It certainly seems like it. Do I feel bad that I missed out on things? Of course. But did I accomplish what I set out to do? Absolutely.

2. KNOWING WHERE I WAS GOING AHEAD OF TIME: The 40,000 words in one day constituted a complete novella (Sundancing) and part of a novel (The Lost Level). If you’re curious, Sundancing was 20,000 words long. The other 20,000 applied to The Lost Level. A few of you asked me on Twitter if this writing was based on an outline. It was not. I rarely work from an outline, because I prefer a more organic, loose-knit approach to writing (that’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with outlining. There’s not). But in both of these cases, I knew exactly where the story was going before I started the weekend’s writing. Sundancing is a meta-fictional account of my trip to Sundance this past January (and serves as a sort of bookend to my previous meta-fictional novella The Girl on the Glider). The Lost Level is a pulp fiction homage to John Carter, Land of the Lost, Joe Lansdale’s The Drive-In series, The Warlord, and other lost world stories.

Writing 20,000 words about my experiences at Sundance, and what going there taught me about myself and our industry, was as easy as telling a friend about it over the phone or over drinks (or both). And adding 20,000 words to The Lost Level, while not as easy as the former, was still a breeze because a) I knew that my characters needed to find a crashed Nazi flying saucer and then fight a giant slug, and b) it was fun as hell to write.

Had these been novels I was starting from scratch, or had the subject matter been something I didn’t feel as intimate or close to (Sundancing), or simply frivolous and fun to write (The Lost Level) there’s no way I would have written that many words in a day. Indeed, there have been times (Dark Hollow, Ghoul, and Take the Long Way Home come to mind) when the subject matter was heavy enough that I was lucky if I wrote 1,000 words a day. And you’ll have novels and stories like that. But you’ll also have ones that you absolutely can’t wait to get down on paper (or onto a laptop screen), and it is my personal experience that those types of tales seem to write themselves a lot faster. Which brings me to…

3. QUANTITY OVER QUALITY: As I said on Twitter (but which a lot of people apparently missed) these were both first drafts. I can not stress that enough. These are first drafts. The 80,000 words I wrote this weekend are not meant to be turned in to a publisher, nor are they ready for you to read. They are the basic foundations of the books to come. I always do at least two (but usually three) drafts of before I turn something in. Sundancing and The Lost Level are no exception. Consider the words I wrote this weekend to be a just-built house. Now, I’ll go back and start the second draft, which is when I’ll run the electrical wires and the plumbing, and hang the drywall and the vinyl siding. Then I’ll do a third draft, which is when we pick out carpet and furniture, and make it ready to show to buyers. But what I did this weekend is just unpainted lumber. It’s raw materials. It looks like a house, but you wouldn’t want to live there… yet.

So, that’s what I did and how I did it. Do I recommend doing this all the time? Absolutely not. Will it work for every writer? No. But is it something I recommend trying at least once in your career? Sure. At the very least, you might have some fun. Perhaps you will learn something about yourself as a writer. And who knows? You may even get a serviceable first draft out of it.

The important thing to remember is this — writers get too hung up on word counts. It doesn’t matter if you produce 1,000 words per day or 10,000 words per day. What matters is that you produce words. Novels and stories don’t write themselves. Ass in chair, fingers on keyboard, repeat as necessary is the best method I know. If you’ve written 1,000 words today and someone else has written twice that amount, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you’ve written. Be proud of what you’ve produced.

And now I’m off to dip my hands and wrists in a big vat of Ben Gay…

PS: And yes, I’m counting this Blog entry as part of those 85,000 words.

49 thoughts on “How To Write 80,000 Words In A Weekend

  1. Elizabeth West

    LOL! #3- Yeah, that’s what editing and rewriting are for.

    I could do this. I have to finish a book right now that is making me nuts. No one’s waiting for it, but it’s only a third done. When I finished the last one, that took an entire day of couch-typing and I was exhausted at the end. But I did it.

    I need to look up some stuff, or it won’t work, because there are a couple of subjects I need to review first. I’m in “How do I write this since I don’t know what the eff I’m talking about” Land. Bullshitting isn’t working.

    Thanks for the advice, Brian. Imma take the week to get those ducks in a row and then next weekend, when I don’t have a skating lesson, will be all about WRITING. And since I got DUMPED >:'( ARRRGGH– I won’t have any distractions.

    I’m actually looking forward to this. :)

    Reply
  2. Mitch from Omaha

    Uh, Brian? I think we had a talk about this, and you’re supposed to be taking it easy. Killing yourself over a weekend is sort of counter to that, wouldn’t you say? Distractions or not, you need to take care of your *self* first, and everything else can wait, deadlines be damned.

    Reply
  3. Ty Johnston

    I don’t doubt for a second that 40,000 words can be written in a day. Can I do it? Probably not. The best I’ve ever managed is 15,000 in a day, and that was busting my hump with no distractions. Still, I might have to give it a try sometime. Even if I only reached that 15,000 again, that would be nice.

    Reply
  4. pat

    i think the most i ever wrote in one day was 18,000 words. and even then, like you say, i knew where i was already headed. congrats on knocking some junk out.

    Reply
  5. Carlton Mellick III

    Another thing: a great writer can create greatness in a short period of time.

    It reminds me of the Picasso napkin story:

    Picasso was sitting in a Paris café when an admirer went up to him and asked if he would do a quick sketch for him on a paper napkin. Picasso politely agreed, did a quick sketch and handed back the napkin — but not before asking for a rather large amount of money. The admirer was horrified: “How can you ask so much? It only took you a minute to draw this!” “No”, Picasso replied, “It took me 40 years.”

    Reply
  6. Chris K.

    Wow, Brian, amazing…and enjoyed reading your breakdown of the writing, and the house analogy was perfect. Years ago, John Urbancik talked me into a 7 in 7 exercise, which was worth doing, and the most I’d ever written was finishing up a first draft, which amounted to about 90 pages in around 2-3 days.

    Reply
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  8. Joe Nazzaro

    There’s probably a #4, which is momentum. Once you get into a groove, there is a process that can take over and when you finally come out the other side, you’ve sometimes written passages of which you have almost no memory of writing. And here’s another wonderful piece of writing wisdom that Terry Pratchett told me once- he was talking about fiction writing, but it’s applied equally well to my work as a journalist as well- which is that you don’t always have to start at the beginning. Maybe you’ve got a great ending, so you write that first and then go back and see how it began. Or maybe you don’t know how it begins or ends, but you’ve got some great set pieces for the middle, so you can write a big chunk of that. What I’ve discovered is that it eliminates most writer’s block, because you can start anywhere as long as you write SOMETHING. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve used that bit of wisdom in one way or another.

    Reply
  9. Horror Bob

    Brain,

    I don’t care how many words you write in a day just as long as you keep on writing. The more Brian Keene stories the world has the better off we are.

    Reply
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  12. Sushi

    40,000 words in a day are definitely doable. I say this coming from having done 50,000 in a day once (and a full first draft at that), which is probably why a friend pointed me here. As for repeating that? Never again.

    There’s a lot to be said about getting in a groove, as someone mentioned above. Watching the words make their way to paper and watching your word count or page count rise gives way to hitting milestones. One thousand more words. One more page. If a writer likes ending on round numbers, that’s another motivation to keep up that groove.

    Still, that groove is definitely better for first drafts than second or third or beyond drafts. There’s a saying that one can’t edit a blank page. It’s true. First drafts exist to give a writer something to edit, and if a writer’s anything like me, anythng to expedite that process makes things better all around.

    Reply
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  14. JimPI

    I don’t find it difficult to believe in the least. I average about 2,000 words an hour, if I’m hard at it, know where I’m going with it, and can confine distractions to a bare minimum. But, with that said, I’ve had to develop that ability because I am forced to write in short bursts here and there. Due to various and sundry reasons, I rarely have several hours to devote to writing. It is an hour here and an hour there.

    Given that Brian is quite a bit more experienced than I, doesn’t at all seem hard to believe he could double my output on a regular basis.

    Reply
  15. Dana Fredsti

    I admit I’m one of those writers who, when I first read about your 40K feat, wanted to crawl under a rock and hide because of my own current very slow progress on a book that is due. This post is actually pretty inspiring as opposed to intimidating, though, so thank you for sharing it. Now I must get back to typing: “All work and no play make Dana a dull girl” over and over.

    Reply
  16. A.P. Fuchs

    Brian,

    a) congrats. That is way cool and I find it a nice boost to the ol’ motivation as I have two novels due–in print–by the first week of Nov. and I’m only 12,000 words into one of them, which means between both books I have about 140-150,000 words to write, polish and publish by then in time for the Central Canada Comic Con.

    b) quantity over quality. Agreed. The first draft is just that: first draft. Get the story out and clean it up later. Your subconscious kept track of most of the plotlines and who’s who, etc, that you probably won’t find any grievous errors in the third and second drafts. I don’t know about you, but I love the second draft phase because you can massacre your own work if needs be with a red pen and it is always amazing to see how your brain automatically tracked the story even though it was written in spurts.

    No real point to the above rambling, but quantity over quality, eh?

    Reply
    1. Jo Davies

      Agree wholeheartedly. The problem I’m having this time (my fifth novel) is getting over 40,000 words without padding. Hats off to people who do 100,000 or more.

      Reply
  17. Kevin

    Wow! Only 80,000? Crack that whip Mary! We need more output from him! Chain him to his desk if need be.

    ;-)

    Reply
  18. Bryan Smith

    I believe you, of course. Many pulp writers of the old school regularly achieved similar word counts. I believe you are cut from very much the same cloth. Geoffrey Yates wrote hundreds of mysteries as Carter Brown in the 50’s and 60’s and apparently it was common for him to write 40,000 words overnight. From a personal standpoint, it’s timely that you did this and reported on it, as I have been gearing up to attempt something very similar.

    Reply
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  22. Amy Ennis

    I recently wrote 20k in a week, writing for an hour or so each night. This is quite an accomplishment for me. I have written 20k in one day before with no distractions but I have a 2 year old now. I think the biggest lesson here is quantity. I live under the myth that some day I will write a brilliant first Draft. I really need to get over that.

    Reply
  23. Martin Lake

    I thought this was a brilliant post, Brian, it made me think and it made me laugh.

    It was good to be reminded that jobbing writers always had to write fast and fluently. I guess that some people like to think that great art should be agonised over but I doubt this is always the case.

    I also loved your comparison with building a house, that will stay with me. I might even try a marathon sprint like you did (although I doubt I’d make 40K. I’m astonished when I write 2000.)

    The best bit of the post for me though is when you said, ‘What matters is that you produce words. Novels and stories don’t write themselves.’

    Thanks for an entertaining and illuminating post.

    Martin Lake

    Reply
  24. David Alastair Hayden

    Haters are gonna hate, and so many wannabe writers hate the idea that a book can be written fast, because it means they’re not working hard enough. This is my job and I admit I don’t work hard enough, and I’m okay with that.

    Readers don’t care how fast you wrote the book. Is it good? That’s all they care about. Many classics were written in a few weeks.

    Reply
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  26. Juli Hoffman

    That’s fan-friggin-tastic! This is something I’ve thought of trying. The most words I’ve ever written in a day, is around 20,000. Thanks for sharing this! Loved the house analogy. :)

    Reply
  27. Griffin Hayes

    Thanks Brian, this was an awesome blog post. Very inspiring! Hemingway supposedly said “The first draft is always shit,” and I always try and keep that in mind when I write. It’s so liberating.

    Reply
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  29. Raoul Flannagan

    Came across this blog accidently whilst searching for novels that consist of 50,000 to 60,000 words as reserach for my novel. Some brilliant advice on here and seeing Carlton Mellick’s name crop up put a smile on my face. I’m the “Fine wine” writer. I write around 1,000 – 2,000 words a day and take my sweet ass time as I like the story to mature like a Fine wine, but I think I will try this out one day. Shut myself away from the world and write like a bastard leap frogging from the devil’s flames.

    Thanks Brain! I’ll follow you on twitter!

    Reply
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  33. Kat Clements

    Thank you for sharing this inspiring story. I was sure that 40,000 words in a day had to be for a rough draft, but I hadn’t considered that the kind of story you are writing can increase or decrease a daily word count. And I did not know that pulp fiction writers often had to do this regularly. I’m glad that you got the chance to do nothing but write for a weekend, and hope that other writers (myself included) will be able to do the same at some point.

    My favorite lines from this entry:

    “I wrote just a smidgen over 85,000 words — the length of a complete novel. Is that how I normally work? Of course not. If I worked regularly at that pace, we wouldn’t be having this conversation because I’d be dead.”

    Too true! Thanks once again for sharing!

    Reply
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  35. Deborah (@DebzMic)

    Wow. I have a whole five days to myself and I thought I would use them to write the last two parts of a first draft. Boy did you ever put a dent in that. After reading this, I vow I will have a completed the second draft finished by Wednesday night.

    Reply
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