I Wrote a Novel During the Pandemic (Process, Tools, How Long It Took & More.)
I mentioned in my year end wrap up for 2021 (plus here and there in previous reports) that I'd been working on a novel for the better part of the last year.
In fact, it's done!
Well, not really done (can any creative work ever really be done?!), but I finished a first draft, a major revision, and a light polish. The current version of the manuscript file is v2.5.
I thought I'd take this chance to deep dive into what it's been like, update on my progress, and answer some basic questions about my process and what I hope to do with it when it's really, truly finished.
(I like reading this stuff from other writers, which is the same reason I do blogging income reports, so why not?)
A brief history of my writing... history
I've never written a novel before.
But I have done a ton of writing in various forms over the years. Enough to give me the confidence that I might be able to do this.
I won't bore anyone with my entire CV, but here are notable creative writing endeavors I've tackled over the years.
In late 2010, I (somehow) scored a gig doing contract writing for The Onion News Network — a television show The Onion was producing for IFC.
I wrote jokes, sketch & headline ideas, but no full scripts — those were left to the proper staff writers. I did come up with the main joke and several sub-jokes for the sketch that lead off the pilot premiere – you can still see it here – which has basically been the highlight of my writing career, to date.
Around the same time, I was learning to write feature film screenplays.
An action-thriller that I wrote, called LATE, won 3rd prize in a big, international contest later in 2011.
It attracted a lot of initial buzz, and before long I had a manager that was sending it around "town," though nothing ever came of it. If I were smarter and a more seasoned writer, I would have leveraged that into something like a career but I ultimately wasn't ready, and frankly, neither was the script — even though there was some good stuff in it.
(In 2011, I was 24, for reference. I had some writing skills but, to put it lightly, jack shit to say about anything.)
I'm just realizing now, but I didn't really write anything creative of any substantial length for, like, 10 years after that!
I tinkered with some screenplays and wrote some good essays, but I guess I got busy trying to figure out how to use my skills to actually make money.
Why I decided to write a novel
And the good news is, I more or less figured it out! Eventually!
I got a job doing copywriting and content strategy for a marketing agency.
Then I left to write fun, journalism-adjacent things at Upworthy.
And finally, I was able to leave the "working world" behind completely by growing my own publishing business.
After a few years of blogging and writing things that are, mostly, incredibly transactional and boring to anyone but the very specific type of person who might be Googling for them, I felt like I really needed to resuscitate my inner creative.
I've never felt more alive and riveted than when I was waiting to hear back if I got The Onion job, tuning in to watch the pilot and seeing my joke leading off the whole series, getting an email from my manager that Lionsgate(!) was "considering" my thriller script. Ultimately, I never get more work for The Onion and I never sold a script, but I really missed being in the thick of it, suddenly.
So I decided I wanted to write again.
This time, though, I wanted to write a novel. Why? Only because I felt boxed in when my screenplay never sold. What do you do with a screenplay? No one reads scripts for fun. You can't self-publish or even post it anywhere, really. It's not a finished product until it becomes a movie, and I wanted a finished product. Even if all I did was self-publish or send it to family and friends for sympathy praise.
I think what I forgot, in all of the initial excitement, is how much creative writing is a fucking GRIND sometimes.
But more on that later.
What's the book about?
I really set out to write this novel for fun.
Obviously, I was hoping it would end up being good enough to publish. I'm still hoping that. But really I just wanted a creative project that I would be proud of at the end, that I would enjoy working on.
So I decided to write what I know. Nothing that needed tons of deep research outside of the occasional Google. Nothing that would be too difficult to execute like shifting POVs, tons of characters, literary fiction with complex themes, etc.
I chose a relatively simple story that I could write in a commercial sort of way that fits with my natural writing voice, and something where I could explore things that I know and care about like:
- Men's issues that have nothing to do with "Men's Rights"
Here's the concept and current title I came up with:
DAD CAMP: John and his 11-year-old daughter, Avery, are inseparable best buds — until she turns into an eye-rolling zombie of a preteen who avoids him at all costs. He drags her to a "Dad-Daughter" summer camp retreat for one last adventure before she starts middle school, but discovers that making it to the end of the week and reviving his relationship with Avery are both going to be a lot more work than he thought.
Genre wise, it'd probably be called contemporary commercial fiction.
How long did it take to write?
I began the first draft of DAD CAMP in May of 2021, and that was after a couple of weeks of brainstorming and outlining.
By early October, I had a finished first draft — so the first pass took about 6 months.
In screenplay-land that's crazy talk. It's hard to remember now, but I don't remember first drafts of scripts taking anywhere near that long when I had a solid outline.
Novels are just so, so many words. The first draft of the manuscript came in at 62,000 words — and that's actually a little too short.
After finishing the first draft, I didn't look at the manuscript for close to a month. Then I printed it and read it from start to finish just after Halloween.
I was pretty happy! My words didn't make me want to wretch like they sometimes do. But still, the novel needed work. So I re-outlined, making some pretty big structural changes, and began a fresh draft.
The second draft took about 2 months or so. I probably rewrote about 40% of the novel from scratch and re-used or made smaller alterations to the rest.
Then I read through it again and made smaller tweaks on the line level, scene level, etc.
Around mid-January 2022, about 8ish months past word one, version 2.5 was ready for eyeballs.
How the heck did I do it?!
I really couldn't tell you.
Just kidding! Sort of.
I heard a stat the other day that something like 3 people out of every 100 that start writing a novel will ever finish a first draft.
For me, it was never a question as to whether I would finish a first draft. That was non-negotiable, in part because I have a lot of practice and confidence in knowing that if I start a writing project, I can finish it.
Will it be good? Who knows! But I can finish.
First, having an outline helped. My outline for the first draft actually turned out to be quite sparse when you consider the level of detail that needs to be in a novel, but at least I knew the main landmarks I needed to hit and where the story was going while I was writing.
Eventually, I got sick of outlining and just started writing. The outlining phase was (for me) important, but it doesn't feel creative. I need to discovery the story by getting into it.
From there, it was all process. I'm a big believer in process goals and not outcome goals. My process goal was to write 500-1500 words per weekday, usually in the afternoons once I had done a good amount of actual, paid work. (I also needed to change locations from where I do other sorts of work. I needed somewhere quiet and comfy, often bed or the couch vs my desk.)
It feels incredibly slow, and there were days where I wanted more time (and other days when I could barely hit the minimum), but if you keep that up for months, you'll be amazed what you can accomplish.
Once I limped my way over the finish line of the first draft, I knew enough to put it away for a while and give myself a break. Reading with somewhat fresh eyes is key to revision.
For the second draft, I wanted to make sure I hadn't forgotten or gotten lazy about certain critical elements of story. Was the goal of the story clear and tangible? Were there stakes and were they clear, and did they escalate throughout the story? Could I increase the urgency of the story in key spots?
Most of the rewrites centered around improving those fundamental things. I also cut basically the first 50 pages of the manuscript to get into the story much, much faster.
Once I had re-outlined the story and figured out what to do, it was back to process. Just puts words on the page, every single day, and I knew I would get there. Even though starting nearly from scratch in some areas was a bit demoralizing, I knew it was an important part of the process.
The second draft clocked in around 82,000 words. By the time I was done polishing, it was up to about 86k, which is right in the sweet spot for an adult contemporary novel — my guess is that if it were printed in paperback, it'd be around 300 pages or so.
Any tools or resources that helped?
I like using the Save the Cat beatsheet by Blake Snyder as a rough guide when outlining. It's not gospel, but it helps you attack a blank page (that somehow has to turn into tens of thousands of words) in smaller chunks.
I listened, and still do, to a lot of The Shit They Don't Tell You About Writing Podcast. Incredibly informative listening to an author and two agents dissect queries and opening pages from emerging writers.
For writing, I wrote the first draft in Google Docs, which was a massive mistake. My formatting was all off, so getting it to look like an actual manuscript was hell. I wrote the second draft in Highland because I'm a fan of everything John August does.
I also browsed the PubTips subreddit and read a lot of query letters mid-workshop and people's feedback on them. You can also find a lot of success stories there to keep yourself motivated.
Like I said, the manuscript isn't really done. It needs work and I know this. But it's time to see how people are responding to it, get some feedback that can help me make it better. I've taken it as far as I can alone, for now.
I've hired a really talented professional editor and author over on Reedsy to take a look and give an assessment.
And I'm going to start letting a few select people who show interest check it out.
I don't want to be overly precious about it! It's not perfect, but I am proud of what it is so far.
I would love to have the manuscript in excellent shape by the spring, around 1 year after I started it, and see if I can get an agent interested in it and one day get it published.
But before that can happen, I'll be back in bed or on the couch very, very soon, chipping away at my daily word count.
That's the life of a writer!