Friday, June 18, 2021

Talking Shop: Quantity, Quality, and Fiction Writing • By Eric Dontigney

Lately, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the question of quantity in fiction writing. The long-standing argument is that quality takes time when you’re writing a book. It takes a lot of time. It can take a year, two years, even five or ten years if you happened to be named Thomas Harris. You can’t rush genius, so they say. I’ll grant you that genius works at its own pace. For that maybe half-percent of writers who qualify for the genius accolade, I hereby excuse you from the rest of this blog post. For everyone else, myself included, I’m forced to wonder what the hell is holding things up.

Let’s do a little math. Wait. Wait! Just hang in there with me for a little longer. I’ll do all the actual calculations. Let’s say your average writer works a day job, which holds true for almost all working writers. I’ll assume that your average productivity for a day is 500 words. I’ll also assume you only write about 300 days per year. After all, there are holidays, sick days, and “I’m blowing off work and taking my kids somewhere fun” days. I’ll also assume you’ll spend some of those non-writing days editing whatever you’re working on. So, 300 days per year at 500 words is 150,000 words per year.

Unless you’re writing Brandon Sanderson-level, Stormlight Archives-length novels, that’s at least a book a year. Depending on your genre and audience expectations, that might even be two books. Mind you, this is with the very conservative numbers of 500 words per day at 300 days per year. I can’t speak to anyone else, but I can crank out 500 words of fiction in an hour most days. It’s closer to half an hour on days when I’m bringing my A-game. Let’s assume that I write faster than average. Let’s say that writing 500 words takes you 1.5 hours. What must you give up in a day to make those 500 words happen? For most people, that means giving up one episode of something and cutting back on their Reddit or Facebook scrolling for 30 minutes a day. If that sounds like a big ask, writing books probably isn’t ever going to turn into a full-time occupation for you.

What about people who write books as their full-time job? I believe that those people ought to be able to manage 1000 words a day. If they’re writing at Eric-pace, they can knock that out before lunch. If they’re writing at half my normal pace, they can still knock that out before lunch. Assuming everything else stays the same, that’s 300,000 words per year. That’s absolutely two finished first drafts and could stretch into three. If you write short novels, it could be four. So, I’m forced to wonder, where are all the books?!

Now, for all the people who are about to start yelling at me about quality, 1000 words a day is a pretty leisurely pace if you write books as your job. There is no real excuse for not writing a very clean first draft. It shouldn’t take endless rounds of extensive revision to get to a pro-quality level final draft. If you’re in the 500 words a day club, the same probably holds true for you. More to the point, you can outsource a whole lot of that editing process. It’s not all on the writer’s head.

Now, over the past nine years, I’ve published five books. If I’d been writing 300 days a year at the 500 words per day pace, a pace that ought to be achievable by almost anyone, I should have written about 1.35 million words of fiction in those 9 years. Even if we assume that editing sheared about 200,000 words of fluff from that number, it still leaves 1.15 million words worth of books. My books trend a little longer, so let’s says my average book length is around 100,000 words. That’s 11-ish books. More than double the number of books I’ve actually published. When I consider that number, I start asking myself hard questions. Questions like:

“How are you spending your time, Eric?”

“Are you getting maximum value from your days?”

“Where are the books, Eric?”

I don’t have good answers to those questions. I suspect that most writers don’t have good answers for questions like that. The truly unsettling part is that some people consider me a fairly productive novel writer because I’ve published five books in a decade. They clearly haven’t done the math that I just did. I have no explanation aside from bad time management. I’ve allowed myself to fall into the traps that so many part-time fiction writers fall into. Writing takes time. You can’t rush the process. Etc. Etc. Etc. In other words, I let myself off the hook for getting words on the page.

Those are excuses. They’re the same kinds of excuses that let people drift through their careers without getting promoted or scoring substantial raises. They’re the same kinds of excuses that let people fantasize about their dream home but never actually build or buy it. At a certain point, you just need to look at yourself and say, “The problem here is me. I’m not putting in the necessary time and effort.” Unlike making big progress in your career or toward your dream home, putting in the necessary time and effort for fiction writing is comparatively easy. It’s an hour or so a day. That’s it. All you have to give up is an episode or two of television, sit down, and write.

So, I’m throwing down the gauntlet to myself (and anyone else who feels suddenly guilty about their fiction production levels) to meet the base level of production for the rest of the year. There are about 200 days left in the year. So, I’m going to put myself on the hook for 175 days’ worth of writing. That’s 87,500 words between now and the last day of the year. Since the book that I’m currently working on is a space opera for Bruce, I’ll make periodic updates here and more frequent updates on my own blog and social media profiles. If you happen across one of my profiles, feel free to hold me accountable and ask me about my current word count. If you’re buying what I’m selling here, sound off in the comments below from time to time with your own progress.


Eric Dontigney is the author of the highly regarded novel, THE MIDNIGHT GROUND, as well as the Samuel Branch urban fantasy series and the short story collection, Contingency Jones: The Complete Season One. Raised in Western New York, he currently resides near Dayton, OH. You can find him haunting obscure sections of libraries, in Chinese restaurants or occasionally online at



Pete Wood said...

I can crank out writing at a pretty good clip for a first draft. It's the editing and revising that kills me. I wrote a novel two years ago in three months, but it was absolute crap with some bright spots. I kept revisiting it and eventually knocked it down to a novella. Still unsold, still far from perfect.

Eric Dontigney said...

Yeah, that can happen. In my experience, though, the more regularly you write, the cleaner those first drafts get. I think of it as exercising neural pathways. If you only write fiction periodically, those pathways get dusty. If you use them every single day, you strengthen them. I've also got love-hate relationships with editing and revision. They're absolutely essential parts of the process, but there's no good guidance on when to stop. You can quite literally edit and revise the life out of a story. I've done it.

Roxana Arama said...

I'll try to do that for the rest of the year. If you post updates on your wordcount and work, it would help keep people like me on track. My biggest problem is that I stop and go back to the beginning to revise, then I lose my momentum, though I assume I'll end up with a pretty solid first draft. But days can go between new words being added to the manuscript.

Pete Wood said...

My first drafts are better than they used to be, but they still need a lot of work. I may do more revising than other writers, but that's the process that works for me.
But if you have cleaner first drafts, my hat's off to you. Not a skill I have learned. And nothing to do with my brain pathways being blocked. I write a lot.
I enjoy revising, though. I ruminate a lot on works in progress. Part of the fun for me.

~brb said...

I had that habit of constantly restarting from the beginning embedded very badly. What I finally did to break out of it was to save my work in progress in little files, a new one each day. At the end of the day I'd save and close the file I was working on, leave myself a few notes as to what I thought I'd be writing next, and then the next day, I would look at only those notes before I began my new writing for the day.

It took a few weeks of sticking rigorously to this method, but eventually I was able to produce new content consistently and resist the urge to rewrite until I'd gotten my first rough draft to "The End." Then I'd collect the contents of all those little files and start quilting them together.

~brb said...

@Pete -- Every time I think I've written a brilliant and perfect first draft, I put it aside for a week, because odds are, I'm delusional.

Mark Keigley said...

My own efforts atm are poised more in the screen writing arena. I recently had a producer contact me after a table read and tell me he thought my short script could be turned into a series.

What that means is, I am having to learn the technique of writing a series outline, PLUS turn a 22 minute short script into a one hour pilot episode. (60) pages

Different skill sets and crafting than short storying or noveling. Still, I am in a place of "don't rush it!" something the producer told me, also. It's coming along good. I'm 41 pages into the 60 page pilot atm and it's a pretty clean manuscript.

All this is to say...I wouldn't have this level of confidence or crafting if I hadn't already spent a lot of years and time churning out a LOT of short stories.

Eric Dontigney said...

I'll post updates here periodically. I've set up a word count tracker on my website that you can see on the homepage under the heading 2021 Writing Challenge ( I'll update that one more or less daily. I don't think anyone wants me posting daily updates on my word counts here. That would get tiresome. I'll probably post updates on here weekly.

ray p daley said...

I don't write long form. I also generally don't post word counts until I do my end of year writing round up.

Admittedly, I have started posting word counts for my weekly story I write so people on Twitter know what's possible. Anything over 2000 words for me is long. My life is flash or short fiction.

Arisia said...

Eric, good article. I needed it. But it was Judith's above story that really got me moving. That part about what happens when you start writing after retirement.
Pete, I enjoy ruminating over my stories, too, only it has become an obsession. I can sit in front of my computer for hours, dreaming up intriguing paths and not typing a single word. Then I wonder where my day went.