It took me "five months and 15 years" to write my 2010 book about Bible translation: five months of actual writing, and 15 years of research.
How long, then, did it take me to write the roughly 10,000 words that comprise "Checkpoint," the inaugural tale in The Warwick Files?
I touch-type about 75 words a minute, because even though I ignored most of middle-school, I did pay attention in typing class, where a strict but effective teacher trained me to type 10,000 words in two hours, 15 minutes.
Now, I'm a notorious procrastinator, so we have to pad that considerably with time for things like grabbing a snack, checking my e-mail, and checking the postal mail, even at 9:30 a.m., just in case the post office suddenly revamped my delivery schedule and didn't tell me. So call it a long morning to type 10,000 words.
But of course that's the easy part.
It takes much longer to decide what to write, something I usually do while driving or bicycling. I came up with the premise for "Checkpoint" on the way home in late summer. Then I filled in details on subsequent drives and rides. So that's a couple of weeks.
But even that isn't the hardest part.
I wanted to create a brand new world to form the backdrop of The Warwick Files, with nuanced details of a rural town and individual people's speaking styles. These little things all work in concert to enhance the readers' satisfaction while they read the story. (Though they might prefer I not explain it in pentameter.)*
While "Checkpoint," like every episode in the series, is a complete story, it's also part of a larger picture that readers discover bit by bit, so my early decisions would have long-lasting consequences.
I needed the main characters, starting with the hero, Coyote "Kai" Goodman. The reader meets him when he's in his 30s, but I had to create the life experience that formed him: his childhood, teen years, first love, first job (which is classified, so please don't ask me), and so on, as well as his general temperament and personality.
I had to do the same for the important auxiliary characters, some of whom don't even appear in the first few stories, and even for the minor roles, because this kind of detail keeps things interesting.
And I needed somewhere to put everyone. The thoroughly charming village of Warwick, NY provided an excellent start. All I had to do was modify the real town slightly, and invent some places that are vital to my storylines but which were inconveniently overlooked by the village planners and so don't exist.
I'd put the total time -- again, mostly in the car and on my bicycle -- at somewhere around two months, on and off, bit by bit.
But the real investment in time isn't writing at all. It's reading. While I've been doing that since preschool, it wasn't until I was in my late teens that I started making mental notes as I read: Why does what I'm reading work so well? How did the author pull it off? What would I do differently? And so on.
In this regard, I'm grateful to my favorite authors: John Grisham and Tom Clancy, who introduced me to fun-filled fiction; the incomparable Uri Adelman, who died much too young; Lee Child, whose books are still my personal favorites (even though, obviously, I love all my indirect mentors equally); and more.
So it took me a morning, two months, and more than 20 years to write "Checkpoint."
And yet you can read it in about an hour.
J.M. Hoffman authored two non-fiction books and contributed to over a dozen others before writing The Warwick Files, a short-story series featuring a police chief with a secretive past who lives in a quiet New York City suburb where, according to the official count, there are no spies.
He signs his non-fiction work with his full name and title, and his fiction with the shorter "J.M. Hoffman."
Find him on Facebook or at www.JM-Hoffman.com.
(*)I wanted to create a brand new world
to form the backdrop ofThe Warwick Files,
with nuanced details of a rural town
and individual people's speaking styles.
These little things all work in concert to
enhance the readers' satisfaction while
they read the story. (Though they might prefer
I not explain it in pentameter.)
Follow Dr. Joel Hoffman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/JoelMHoffman
One of the most popular posts on the Thesis Whisperer is How to write 1000 words a day and not go bat shit crazy. Last year a Twitter follower brought to my attention a post called How I went from writing 2000 words to 10,000 words a day by the fiction writer Rachel Aaron.
I did a double take.
Can you really write 10,000 words a day? Well, Rachel says she can, with three conditions:
1) Know what you are going to write before you write it
2) Set aside a protected time to write, and
3) Feel enthusiastic about what you are writing
I read the post with interest. Much of what Rachel did conformed with what I suggest in my earlier post, but I couldn’t bring myself to really believe Rachel’s productivity claims. To regularly write 10,000 words: It’s the dream, right? Imagine if you could reliably write 10,000 words a day, how long would it take to finish your thesis… A week? How about a journal paper – a day?
Or so I thought.
I’m now a 10,000 words a day believer because I have been watching students write even more than this in a single day at the Thesis Bootcamps we run at ANU.
The Thesis Bootcamp formula was developed by Liam Connell and Peta Freestone of the University of Melbourne. Thesis Bootcamp (and the veteran’s days which follow) is a total program designed to help late stage PhD students finish their thesis document (In some countries this document is called the ‘dissertation’, but I will use the Australian term ‘thesis’ here). The Thesis Bootcamp concept is simple – put a whole lot of PhD students in a room for a whole weekend and set them the goal of writing 20,000 words each.
Yes – you heard me right.
At every Thesis Bootcamp we have run, at least one student will achieve this goal, and many write many more words than they thought they would. In a previous post Peta Freestone and Liam Connell wrote about the ideas behind Thesis Bootcamp. In this post I want to reflect on Rachel Aaron’s threefold advice and put in the context of thesis writing.
1) Know what you are going to write before you write it
Composing a Thesis requires you to do different types of writing. Some of this writing is ‘generative’ in that it helps you form and articulate ideas by… just writing as much as you can, not as well as you can. It works best when you don’t second-guess yourself too much. The philosophy is ‘make a mess and then clean it up’. Perfectionist writers have a problem doing this, which is why we see so many perfectionists at our Bootcamps.
At Bootcamp we teach our students to focus the generative writing energy to productive effect. An important step in this process is for the student to spend at least a week making a ‘Thesis map’ before they come to Bootcamp. The map is essentially a series of sub-headings which the students use as prompts for composing new text, or re-using existing text.
Students, particularly those in the humanities and arts, tend to agonise over the Thesis document ‘structure’. I think the anxiety stems from the idea that ‘Thesis structure’ is some kind of perfect platonic form they need to discover.
It’s important to realise that structure is made, not found. Thesis structure is strongly influenced by disciplinary precedent and the content of the Thesis itself. A history PhD it might follow a timeline from the past to the present; a science PhD might echo the order of the experiments that have been performed. But multi-disciplinary PhDs, or PhDs in ‘polyglot’ disciplines like education, do not have comfortable traditions. This means you’ll have to make the structure up. Try the following technique:
- Try to capture an overview of the Thesis by completing the following sentences from the work of Rowena Murray):
- This Thesis contributes to knowledge by…
- This Thesis is important because…
- The key research question is….
- The sub-questions are….
- Decide how long your Thesis will be. Most universities have a maximum word count. Aim for your Thesis to be at least 2/3 of this total (it’s likely you will write more than this, but this gives you some wriggle room).
- Make a document with chapter headings and word counts next to them. Include an introduction of 2000 – 3000 words followed by up to seven chapters of equal length and a conclusion of around 4000 – 5000 words.
- Under the conclusion heading write a rough list of points you think will go in there (hint – these should be answers to the research questions you have posed). Study these closely – have you got data, theories, evidence and arguments to support these conclusions? These concluding points, singularly or in combination, will form the ‘key learnings’ of the Thesis – the knowledge and ideas you want your readers to absorb.
- Each chapter should have at least one key learning in it, maybe more. Under each chapter heading note the key learnings in the form of a brief synopsis of up to 300 words. This synopsis is like a mini abstract that explains what the rest of the chapter will be about.
- Then make a list of the material you will include in the chapter as dot points. Don’t worry about the gaps and stuff you haven’t written yet – just make a note of them. These should be short sentences that will act as subheadings
- Now ask yourself: If, at the end of the chapter, I want the reader to be convinced of the validity of this key learning, what needs to appear first? What comes next? And so on. Rearrange or write new subheadings as you go until you have arranged all the subheadings of the chapter in a way that tells the research story.
Following these steps will help you to create the Thesis map – but it’s important to remember that this is merely an aid to writing, not a plan set in stone. You can change, add and move stuff around as you write.
In our Thesis Bootcamps we ask students to just pick a spot on this map and start writing as fast as they can, not as well as they can. Does this generate perfect thesis ready text? Not necessarily, but many students say that the writing they produce at Bootcamp is clearer than the writing they did before it, when they are worrying over every word. I think the thesis map is a big part of this clarity because it keeps the focus tight.
This organising technique works best for very late stage thesis students, but it can be a way of creating order at any time in your journey and working out what you need to find out or write more about. I’ve made a downloadable cheat sheet which shows you my own Thesis map, generated by the above method so you can make one of your own.
2) Set aside a protected time to write
I’ve written so much about this, so I wont rehash it all here. If you are interested in some techniques and ideas for creating protective writing time, have a look at the following posts:
3) Feel enthusiastic about what you are writing
I think this is the ‘secret sauce’ in the 10,000 words a day recipe. Rachel Aaron did some deep analysis of her productive writing days and compared these to the occasional not-so-productive days. The days Rachel was able to write 10,000+ words were the days she was writing scenes she had been ‘dying to write’ – she called these the ‘candy bar scenes’. Days where she found it hard to muster 5000 words a day she was bored with what she was writing:
This was a duh moment for me, but it also brought up a troubling new problem. If I had scenes that were boring enough that I didn’t want to write them, then there was no way in hell anyone would want to read them. This was my novel, after all. If I didn’t love it, no one would.
In the fiction world the answer to Rachel’s dilemma was simple – make the boring scenes more interesting! Unfortunately in Thesis World this is not always possible. There will always be parts that are functional and unexciting; I call these the ‘dry toast’ sections – you need to do a lot of unproductive chewing before you can swallow.
There’s a term that describes this process in gamer culture – ‘grinding’. Grinding is being forced to perform the same action over and over again before you can ‘level up’ in the game and get more powers / weapons / armour or whatever. The level up is the pay-off.
One of the most genius ideas Liam and Peta incorporated into Bootcamp was the squeezy lego blocks. We give these out for each 5000 words written in a particular colour order: green, blue, red and gold. The blocks clip together to make a little lego ‘wall’ that the students can display at their writing station. When first presented with the idea of the blocks the students laugh, but all too soon, they are typing furiously with single minded purpose – to get the next block. We have a little ceremony every time someone gets a block, clapping them as they walk up to write their name on the board. It’s cheesy, but it works to turn writing from a source of pain to a celebration. So think about how to reward yourself for every 5000 words written.
Up for the challenge? Have a look at the testimonials on our ANU You Tube channel. I’d love to hear about other ways of doing writing marathons and what you think about this kind of ‘binge writing’.
If you are an ANU student, click this link to find out how to get involved in Thesis Bootcamp on campus.
If you are in the UK, Dr Peta Freestone is available to run Thesis Bootcamp in your university.
Rachel Aaron’s post ‘How I went from writing 2000 words to 10,000 words a day‘
“How to write 1000 words a day and not go bat shit crazy”
Video testimonials on the ANU Youtube channel