How to Write a Book in Ten Days
Philip K. Dick Award-Winner Meg Elison On Getting It Done
Henry David Thoreau did not consider his time on Walden Pond a writing retreat, per-se. He was retreating from all of life, and he wrote about how brilliant that was. Despite his assured and unremarked privilege to externalize the labor of keeping himself alive (meals cooked and laundry washed by his mother or other women) he was aware that he was lucky in life: “Sometimes, when I compare myself with other men, it seems as if I were more favored by the gods than they, beyond any deserts that I am conscious of; as if I had a warrant and surety at their hands which my fellows have not, and were especially guided and guarded.”
With the favor of the gods and the labor of his mother, Thoreau took ten years to produce Walden; or, Life in the Woods, a work of less than 50,000 words.
Last fall, with the hospitality of my own mother and the freedom of ten days, I wrote a novel of 90,000 words.
Both Thoreau and I cheated. There’s no way to do this kind of work without help and doing it as quickly as I did requires the conditions of retreat. If you want to try to attempt the same, I’m giving you my cheat sheet. This is the story of what it takes to write a novel in ten days.
First, you must be a writer already. This is not a purity test or a badge check: a writer is a person who writes. If you have a habit of writing and you know your own worth and ways, that is enough. Writing a novel is grueling and surprising work. If you haven’t done it before, you may not understand the flummoxing frustration that lies ahead. Do not attempt to write your first book in ten days.
You must also, to the best of your ability, escape your everyday life. Doing something extraordinary requires leaving behind ordinary circumstances. This is not to discount the work of writers who get their word count in while babies sleep and the washing machine thumps in another room. I know most lives don’t allow for escape, and I have nothing but admiration for the people who produce art within their routine. However, I am advising you on a spectacular timeline. Escape is the groundwork for that.
Leave home, if you have the option. Go see family. Stay with friends. Beg a guest room, or the use of a cabin in the mountains. It doesn’t have to cost money. Mine didn’t.
My mother owns a house in a scrub-desert suburb in Southern California. I lived there as a teenager, and it has the comfort and claustrophobia cocktail of home. She has a bed for me whenever I’m in town, and a swimming pool out back. I called her and asked if I could come to stay for ten days, but not spend most of that time with her. This last is crucial; if you go visiting in order to write a book, make sure people understand that the visit is not with them.
Set boundaries. This is true even at a retreat, if there are other people there. Create a calendar of times when you are available for brunch or dinner, set aside one day to see the beach or the ruins. Do not let the days or the company dictate your schedule. Life will always win if you let it contend with writing a book. Mark out at least eight hours every day in which you will do nothing but write.
That time is sacrosanct and requires a great deal of discipline. Do not plan to write in a public place, if you can help it. Cafes and libraries are full of noise and distractions. The chairs will likely pain you after a day spent unmoving and crabbed over a laptop. You may or may not be able to get someone to safely watch your things while you take a bathroom break. Work in a home or an office. Set yourself up at the start with water, maybe a snack, and any tools you know you need to work. Set a timer. Set a quitting signal. Do not let up from your task until that moment arrives.
When it does, quit. Quit fully and completely, and get the book out of your head. For me, this means doing something physical. I’d walk away from a day’s work wrung-out and very tired, without much left in the way of sparkling conversation. I’d change into a swimsuit and dive into the deep end of my mother’s pool. I swam for at least an hour, talking to no one and listening to music. Afterwards, I was suitable for dinner with family and far less stiff. If you aren’t as lucky as I was to have access to a pool, take a walk. Dance. Stretch as much as you can. Do what works for you to get yourself out of your book and back into your body. This job is hard. Don’t neglect yourself to do it, not even for ten days.
Get off the internet. I do not say this lightly; I am a power user of Twitter and Snapchat and I believe it makes me a better writer when I use them both correctly. Using them while concentrating on producing a draft will absolutely wreck your progress. Every notification breaks your focus. Every returned text is wasted words. If you have a child or a sick parent, someone to whom you cannot fail to respond, leave your phone on. Otherwise, turn it off. Turn your computer’s wireless off. Make whatever arrangements are necessary; let your friends and your adoring public know what your hours are like, and then get off the grid. No exceptions, not even on your lunch break.
Write an outline. A full outline, with the major beats, chapter starts and ends, and notes on characters and their relationships made it possible for me to keep a pace of 10,000 to 15,000 words per day. Your outline must also include any research you need to write, because you have no internet. Do not turn your wifi back on to look something up, just for a second, just to be sure. We all know what will happen once that genie is out of the bottle. Write a placeholder and put a margin note in to double-check during redrafting. You must go in ready. I did; with a ten-page outline and a stack of research. I came out with a whole first draft.
We must return to Thoreau now, so I can tell you about my own mother. I have a hard time feeling compassion for the generations of writers whose mothers and sisters and wives led lives of quiet desperation so that the men in their houses could make art. Writing at this pace requires some externalization of the labor of your life. Even if you can live on microwave burritos for ten days (please don’t) the ongoing disruption of planning and obtaining your meals can really take apiece of your workday. In my case, my mother loves to cook for anyone who’s in her house and was gracious enough to make me breakfast on most days.
I comfort myself with being better than Thoreau in a few easy steps, the first of which is acknowledgement. I told everyone that this was how I kept my breakneck pace, and that my mother’s kindness and labor made my whirlwind progress possible. Taking her out and spending time with her is a pleasure no matter what, but was important to me in response to work like this.
Finally, I indict Thoreau on the worst of all charges: that no woman in his life ever published her own screed on the price of bread and the drudgery of her own life, because that drudgery left her no time or energy to write. My mother is a food critic, and I copy-edit for her whenever she needs me. My publication does not come at the price of her silence.
This combination of experience, kindness, discipline, space, and quiet helped me to produce a novel faster than I’ve ever done it. My practice is to separate myself from my work upon completion and let enough time pass that I may see it with fresh eyes. I am revisiting this draft now, since months have passed, and beginning the process of shining it up. It’s not bad—my haste is more evident in the roughness of the prose than in the shape of the story itself. My ten days of hard work and the work of others were worth it, it seems. It might be for you, too.
Thoreau also wrote in Walden that the price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.The price of writing is often quite steep, and the life you pay with isn’t just your own. Writing a book in ten days will cost you, and it will cost the people around you.
Make the work worth it.