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Writing a novel is no easy feat, least of all while writers juggle various commitments like day jobs, family and social lives. The Paris Review is a literary magazine featuring original writing, art, and in-depth interviews with famous writers. About 30 years ago, both superhero comics and fantasy novels went through a startling narrative transformation. If you can find just 30 minutes each day, you could finish a novel (to the point where you’re sending it out to agents, or self-publishing) in just two years. In case you have a particular aversion to slides, or want to see everything in one place, the rest of this post covers the same ground but with a lot more explanation. This should result in a novel of 75,000 – 80,000 words, completely finished (from initial idea to ready-to-go book) within two years. I’d strongly suggest, though, proceeding on the assumption that you’ll need all of that time. If you’re writing in a research-heavy genre (historical, hard SF, fantasy that involves a ton of world-building) then allow a couple of extra months for research before you start the plan proper.
If you’re writing in a genre where books come in around 50,000 words (romance, some YA) then you should be done with “writing the first draft” and “redrafting the whole dang thing” in 3 – 4 months rather than 5.
If your time is subject to a lot of interruptions, or if you end up cancelling writing sessions at the last minute, then plan time for catch-up sessions. If you can’t fit half an hour a day (or the equivalent) of writing into your life as-is, figure out what needs to change to make it work. The rest of this post will take you through the plan, month by month, with tips on tackling each stage of it. For an even more detailed run-through – with tips on potential “sticky points” at each stage, plus links to useful resources – download The Two-Year Novel. These days, though, with seriously limited fiction-writing time, I’ve made myself get better at planning. If you tend to jump straight into writing with a bare minimum of research and planning, I’d really encourage you to try holding back for the first couple of months.
In my experience, at least, the reason I sometimes take a year or more over a first draft is not because I’m spending days agonising over word choices and character motivations – it’s because I focus on the novel for a month or so, hit a busy period in my life (and potentially a sticking point in my novel), and then don’t write a word for several months.
If you have a plan (see months 1 & 2) and the commitment to sit down for 30 minutes every day – or the equivalent length of time across a week – then you can and will finish your draft in five months. Getting rid of anything that distracts you during writing sessions (put your phone somewhere else, turn off your internet connection).
Planning the scene before you start writing – you may have done this during the first couple of months, but you might want to revisit and flesh out that plan a little.
You might want to track how many words you time to see whether you’re speeding up – or at least to give yourself a good benchmark of what to expect from a thirty minute session.
If you feel that averaging 500 words in 30 minutes really isn’t achievable, then either extend your sessions a little (40 minutes instead of 30) or fit in an extra session once or twice a week. This may sound horrendously inefficient, but it’s the only thing that works for me: I write a whole first draft, print it out, then redraft from scratch. Obviously, some of the original words make it into the redraft – I may even retype whole sentences or paragraphs (particularly of dialogue).
If you prefer to edit what’s already there, rather than redraft completely, that’s absolutely fine too.
This might seem like a long time to allow for your novel to be edited, but unless you’ve been super-organised and booked up your editor months in advance, there’s a good chance that they won’t be able to drop everything to work on your novel. If you have several beta readers, as well as giving them plenty of time to read your novel – they’re probably doing it for free – you’ll want to allow time for asking them questions and perhaps even redrafting bits of material for them to look over again.
Give everyone you’re working with a clear deadline – it’s a good idea to make this two or three weeks prior to the end of month 15, so that if their work overruns, it doesn’t disrupt you too much. This is a fantastic stage to be at, because it’s when your novel starts to really take on its true shape.
While I’ve given a daily target above, depending on the edits you need to do, you may find that it’s easier to work with a weekly average.
Try to keep moving fairly fast at this stage: keep up the momentum as you watch your story come together.
A list of (hopefully) fairly minor changes and tweaks, probably include some typo-spotting.
Get ready to publish, with a finished blurb and product description, potentially a website or blog online, your copyright page and acknowledgements written, and a good idea of how to get your manuscript formatted and online (even if your plan is “pay someone else to do it”).
This is a good point at which to get one final round of feedback to make sure there are no lingering issues – or to check you’ve not accidentally introduced a new problem. Hopefully, at this stage, you’re not going to get feedback like “the second half of the book feels like a whole different story from the first” or “there are too many subplots going on”. While your novel’s off being edited, you can get on with various admin tasks to put you in a good position to publish. Revise your cover letter and synopsis: at this point, your novel’s unlikely to change significantly. Note: If the previous revising and editing stages went really smoothly, you may well not need two full months. Do you feel, deep down, that they have a good point and that your novel genuinely needs significantly more work? Or do you feel that, while they have an interesting idea, it’s not really right (or necessary) for your novel? It’s worth allowing a little bit of your writing time to contact potential proofreaders (for month 22) and reviewers. It is incredibly hard to spot typos in something you’ve written, because you know what you meant to write. Instead, find at least one other person (preferably two) and get them to proofread the whole manuscript. If you’ll be self-publishing, this is also the time to contact reviewers, using the list you drew up last month. Note: for some tasks this month, like getting your book onto Amazon, it’ll be useful to work in longer sessions of 1 – 2 hours rather than 30 minutes. I’m going to assume that, at a minimum, you’re publishing on Amazon in ebook format (by far the most popular option for self-publishers!) – you may, of course, be publishing on other ebook sites in addition to this, or producing a paperback version of your book. Self-publishing your book might sound like quite a technical challenge, but it’s become more and more straightforward over the past few years. You can find out how to prepare your manuscript for Amazon here: essentially, you can use a Word document with Styles (not tabs or manual font size changes) to handle all the formatting – like chapter headings and paragraph indents.
Your “book description” – this is your blurb plus extra details about you and your book; at this point, you may have some quotes from reviewers to include. A biography for your Author Central page and your Goodreads page (important to get these set up as soon as your book is on Amazon).
Information on getting past “sticky points” at each stage: common areas where writers struggle, procrastinate or get derailed. Lots of links to further reading (books and blog posts) at each stage of the plan, to help you find out everything you need to know, when you need to know it.


If you’ve got any questions or if there’s something extra you’d like to see me create to go with the plan (e.g. A few days ago, I wrote a piece on my blog exploding the myth of the rich writer, and laying out (in terms the Royal Literary Fund described as “ruthlessly mathematical”) what authors actually receive when you buy their books. The blog was widely shared on social media, and viewed by nearly 10,000 people in its first week. Now, I understand that “indie publishing” is all the rage, but you might as well be telling Luke Skywalker to go to the dark side. I mute authors whose tweetstreams are 90% adverts in the same way I wouldn’t watch the shopping channel. I do not earn much as a traditionally published author but I earn more than I did as a self-publisher.
I could no longer take the feeling of inadequacy every time I read an article by a self-publishing success story telling me if only I worked harder and smarter, did all the right social media promotions, spent 90% of my time marketing and only 10% writing – oh and subscribed to their blog or downloaded their latest how-to manual – I too could earn at least 5 figures a month.
She has just sold Korean translation rights to her children’s books, which illustrates another benefit of traditional publishing.
Unless you've been hiding in the sixteen century, you may or may not know what book releases today: A Tale of Two Centuries by Rachel Harris! Without stopping or even slowing his stride, he grabs a map from a vendor and flips it open.
I sashay toward a person dressed as a shiny nugget of gold posing for pictures with children, feeling Austin watching me, his gaze on my every step like a physical touch. Rachel Harris grew up in New Orleans, where she watched soap operas with her grandmother and stayed up late sneak reading her mama’s favorite romance novels. I've been having s-to-the-pam issues, and I wasn't thrilled with Disqus, so sorry about the CAPTCHA! Graceling by Kristin Cashore: I liked it and wanted to do nothing but read it, buuut it's not like the fantasy novels I'm used to. I have like a month of college left (and then it's graduation, oh my gosh) so who knows what I'll be able to get read, but there's a good chance I'll be rereading parts of A Court of Mist and Fury five billion times. Which is why we've put together the ultimate guide on how to write a novel in 30 minutes per day.
No fiction will be taken on by agents - no matter how brilliantly written, how edgily contemporary, how weighty in subject matter - unless it has a strong story line.
One option is last autumn, when I was walking the dog past a construction site where a half dozen masons were third-floor-high, standing on scaffolding, laying bricks. The 92-year-old left behind one of the classics of writing instruction manuals as his legacy, On Writing Well .
My most recent novel, Oblivion, took me four years, mainly because of the number of redrafts I needed to do. I tend to know the start and the end, and have a rough idea of what happens somewhere in the middle, before I get going. After all, I plan my non-fiction writing in detail – and I know I save a ton of time that way. I know that can feel weird and unproductive when you’re used to measuring your progress in words written … but a couple of months now can save you a good year or more of work further down the line. Chances are, it’ll be a better draft than if you’d taken a year or more over it, because you won’t have lost track of what you were doing multiple times along the way. First drafts are normally rough and ready, full of clunky phrasing, cliches, and other infelicities. I enjoy revisiting each scene but getting it right (or close to right) – in many ways, this can be more enjoyable than the first draft. By this point, you hopefully know whether you’re on track to finish by the end of month twelve.
Unless one of your beta readers happens to moonlight as a designer, you’ll need to provide a synopsis of the story and an idea of what elements should appear on the cover. You’ve had feedback from experienced readers, and you’ve probably got a whole list of issues to address – big and small. Sometimes, you’ll be cutting a whole chapter and adding a new one; at other points, you might just be tweaking a handful of sentences in a chapter. It’s easy to get bogged down or to procrastinate on making changes, particularly larger ones – and this is the point at which novels can drag on and on. Your editor or beta readers may offer some suggestions that you decide don’t suit your conception of the story or the characters. This might be someone who read the earlier draft, or it could be someone who’s coming fresh to your novel. Instead, you’re likely to find that there are just a few little niggles to address – perhaps a scene gets off to a slow start, or some of your dialogue isn’t quite convincing. The blurb is what goes on the back of your book (if you’re creating a paperback); the product description is what goes on Amazon in full. You may want to pay your editor to look at these as well as your manuscript (especially if they have significant experience of either being published traditionally or working in an agency or publishing house). Allow for this time when planning, though – better to finish early than end up rushing to get your novel to your proofreader(s).
You’ll probably find that some chapters can remain almost untouched and others need quite a few detailed tweaks – that’s fine. Come back to your manuscript and your beta reader or editor’s feedback afresh – and go with your gut reaction. I know how frustrating this can be – but better to allow a couple of extra months now than to rush out something that you know isn’t really as good as it should be.
Keep in mind that Amazon may remove reviews from your friends or family, so you might want to cast the net a little further afield (try friends of friends, or people you’ve met in writing groups or forums).
If for whatever reason you think your book has a fair number of typos, then hold off on sending it to reviewers until it’s been proofread. You may want to simply upload your manuscript to Amazon yourself, or you could outsource this to a freelancer or a company like Book Baby. There are countless blog posts about pricing your book as a self-publisher: if you want a super quick answer here’s what I recommend. If you can, get it full size (to use for a printed version), and in a smaller version (to upload to Amazon as your book’s cover image – this will appear on Amazon and on readers’ devices). You might use the blurb, for instance, but also include information about your writing process. The simple answer for many of us is nothing at all, after that heady advance in the case of my most recent novel, which was ?5,000 for two years’ work. The shock, agreement and commiserations were followed swiftly by people telling me what I really need to do is self-publish. Despite royalty rates of 70%, I think self-publishing is a terrible idea for serious novelists (by which I mean, novelists who take writing seriously, and love to write). I invite you into my house and the first thing you do is show me the advertising blurb for your book and press me to check it out on Amazon. The vast majority of indie authors have tweetstreams that are 90% adverts, perhaps a reflection of the fact that they must spend 90% of their time marketing.


You look at a few cabinets, you read a few books about how to make a cabinet, you practice the technicalities of things like dovetail joints. It was accomplished on the back of three complete novels (plus two half novels) that didn’t quite make the grade (even though two of them were represented by well-respected agents). With genre fiction, self-publishing can turn you into a successful author (if you can build a platform, if you enjoy marketing and are good at it, if you are lucky). I published 7 books in 4 years and in that time only one of them went into profit – and that less than ?100. Rachel also wrote My Super Sweet Sixteenth Century, so you know her latest is bound to be a fun time warp.
Tired of her sixteenth-century life in Italy and homesick for her time-traveling cousin, Cat, who visited her for a magical week and dazzled her with tales of the future, Alessandra is lost. As I frantically attempt to match his stride, I must pant or wheeze because he finally looks down at me, no doubt pink-faced and wide-eyed both from the sensory overload surrounding us and my huffing at a near jog to stay beside him.
Giggling and drooling children clap their adorable hands from their belted saddles while a spirited tune blares overhead.
Now a Cajun cowgirl living in Houston, she still stays up way too late reading her favorite romances, only now, she can do so openly. I'm Rachel, an avid reader and aspiring author who tends to write incoherent-yet-coherent reviews. Natalie Goldberg writes about this in her book, Writing down the Bone s and it is advice I go back to time and again. A single hod carrier was mixing mortar on the ground and running it up a ladder, along the scaffolds, to each of the masons.
Since its first printing in 1976, the book has sold 1.5 million copies, and Zinsser made sure to update the book often.
Can you rely on ready meals or takeaways three nights a week, so you don’t have to spend so much time cooking and washing up? The daily target here is very much an average – you might zoom through 6,000 words of manuscript in one 30 minute session, then spend the next session tackling just 500 words. If you’re relying on unpaid, amateur help – like a spouse or a friend – then try to get several people to proofread.
Self-published authors should expect to spend only 10% of their time writing and 90% of their time marketing. Then you read me the blurb for someone else whose book you’ve agreed to promote if they’ll do the same with yours. Then, with hope in your heart and breakfast in your sawing arm, you grab some wood and set to work.
Yes, it can be frustrating, having your beloved book (months or years of hard work) rejected by traditional publishers. But an author who writes literary fiction is dependent on critical acclaim and literary prizes to build their reputation and following.
And before anyone says it’s because I didn’t work hard enough, my friends and family who barely saw me for 4 years will tell you that I worked my butt off. With access to proper distribution networks, they can get physical books into real bookshops.
It results in many flashy-looking websites from authorpreneurs keen to sell success secrets to other aspiring authorpreneurs. I glance over my shoulder, confirming I have his complete attention, and then with an outward shrug (and an inner dance), I reply with every ounce of confidence I can muster, “Yes. She firmly believes life’s problems can be solved with a hot, powdered-sugar-coated beignet or a thick slice of king cake, and that screaming at strangers for cheap, plastic beads is acceptable behavior in certain situations.
I love all things bookish and am constantly adding books to my majorly overflowing shelves and TBR pile.
The self-published author who came to my blog to preach the virtues of his path, claiming to make five figures a month from Kindle sales of his 11 novels, puts his writing time percentage in single figures. Then you tell me how many friends you’ve lost today, and that I can find out how many friends I’ve lost by using this app. If genre fiction is chart music, literary fiction is opera: the audience is small, and there are limited ways to reach it.
All these things are provided by a traditional publisher, and what’s more, it doesn’t cost you a penny. So hard in fact that I attracted the attention of two separate traditional publishers who took me on (one for my adult books, one for my children’s books).
They can represent you at the major book fairs and sell your books to international markets. With Amazon’s Kindle and CreateSpace as the major outlets, it continues to put money in the coffers of the company largely responsible for destroying author incomes in the first place.
The child in the front seat waves to his mother as the cart dips, and his squeal of joy tails behind him.
On Austin’s slow ascent back up, he pauses to look me in the eye and an emotion crosses his face. Self-published books are not eligible for major prizes like the Baileys, the Costa and the Man Booker, and getting shortlisted for major prizes is the only way a literary novel will become a bestseller. And when you do, you will be very glad that the first novel you wrote was not the first novel you published, because it will now feel embarrassing and amateurish. The chance of a self-published novelist getting their book reviewed in the mainstream press is the same as the chance of my dog not eating a sausage.
If a self-published author wants to avoid looking like an amateur, they’d better be prepared to shell out some serious dosh to get professional help in all the areas where they don’t excel. For those who prefer orchestrated backing to blowing their own trumpet, who’d privilege running a narrative scenario over running a small business, who’d rather write adventures than adverts, self-publishing is not the answer. But how will she return to the drab life of her past when the future is what holds everything she’s come to love?
Does this lead me to conclude you are a successful author, whose books I might like to buy? Paying some poor bugger in the Philippines a fiver, or bunging ?50 to your PhotoShopping nephew will not result in a distinctive, professional-looking cover. You’ll find it hard to make a good impression if the first thing anyone saw from you was that wonky cabinet with sticky drawers. And don’t get me started on the value of good editors, copy-editors and proof-readers, and how many times they have saved me from looking like a twonk. Indeed, many indie authors keep themselves afloat financially by offering these services to other indie authors: the new “authorpreneur” pyramid scheme. Which is all very well if what you’ve always wanted to do is start your own writing-related business.
But if you’d rather be an author, why not practice your skill until you’ve written something a publisher will pay for?



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