Engineering the Story—How to Write a Novel in 80 Days

I’m a writer. I love words. But before I was a writer, I was an engineer, so I also love numbers. The typical word count for a novel is around 80,000. Non-novelists often baulk at the idea of writing that many words, and no question, it’s a mammoth task. To make it more manageable, I use the analogy of learning to ski.

Bird Tracks in Snow
Bird Tracks in Snow

When I was a university student, my now-husband, Barto, took on the monumental task of teaching me to ski. Day one, he insisted I take a beginner lesson and all was well. Day two, on an unfamiliar mountain, he accidentally took me on a lift where the only way down was black. For my non-skier readers, this means it’s bloody hard. I peered down, but the mountain was so steep, I couldn’t even see over the edge.

Trembling, from fear not cold, I freaked out. “I can’t do this. It’s impossible.”

Barto, realizing our relationship was in serious jeopardy, stayed calm and moved a metre down the slope. “Can you get from you to me?”

“I guess.” Battling tears, I slid sideways to meet him.

“How about from here to here?” He side-stepped another metre.

We inched our way down, bit by bit. It took an hour to reach the bottom of the slope, but I survived and our relationship endured.

Writing a book is similar. Can I sit down and write a book from end to end in one sitting? No way. But can I write one scene? Sure. Then the next one? No problem.

A bunch of disconnected scenes don’t make a story, so how do you turn individual scenes into a book? This is where the great pantser[1] versus plotter debate arises. Some novelists—pantsers—start with a great idea, write scene by scene and see where it takes them. Others, like me, need a plan. Just as builders work from engineering drawings, I start my novels by writing a plot outline using the classic three-act structure. Simply put, this gives a story a beginning, a middle and an end, with trigger points along the way, such as the inciting event and the hero’s darkest moment. Some writers document each character’s life story and every scene in the book before they start writing. I don’t go this far, as I find it takes some of the fun and spontaneity out of the actual writing, but I develop the bones of the story. I love this problem solving part of the process.

Once I start writing, the characters often take me to places I didn’t imagine when I developed the plan. When creativity flows, it’s like diving into an abyss. This sounds terrifying, but it’s actually quite wonderful leaving reality behind and existing in an imaginary world.

Word targets keep me on track. I can comfortably maintain 1000 words per day—more when I’m on a roll, less when I have to figure out the detail of what happens next (which is why some people plan it all before they start.) At this rate, it takes approximately 80 days to write a novel. Working a five-days week, that’s 16 weeks or 4 months. Of course, that assumes I’m not working on anything else. By the time I take out a day a week for my blog and weeks at a time editing previous novels, not to mention pitching for an agent/publisher, 4 months can easily blow out to 8-10 months. And that gets me to a first draft. Then, backbreaking editing work begins.

In this way, I engineer my stories. Day by day, scenes turns into chapters, chapters become a novel. Who would have thought that being an engineer would help me to become a writer?

[1] The term pantser is derived from the expression fly by the seat of your pants.

Next time: DIY Project One
Next writing blog: Real Versus Fictional Blogs

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