Many authors want to earn a living as a writer. The good news is that you can. Previously, we’ve talked about a few methods for How to Make a Living as a Writer.
When it comes to providing for your family with your writing, one technique stands above the rest: writing fast.
The faster you write, the more time you have for marketing, editing, and other activities that help pay the bills. Put another way, the more books you can publish, the more you can make from those additional books because each book promotes your other books.
Everyone starts out as a slow writer. Fast writing is a skill you can learn. If you want to succeed in the business of writing and publishing, you need to learn how to boost your writing speed.
What if you could publish one million words per year?
Does that sound impossible?
Chris Fox says it’s possible. The key to writing faster is to write smarter, and Chris would know. He’s published over 40 novels. You probably know him as the 5,000-words-per-hour guy or the write-to-market guy.
He is officially a friend of the Novel Marketing show, and I recently interviewed Chris about his course How to Write 5,000 Words per Hour (Affiliate Link).
Thomas Umstattd, Jr.: So back in 2018, we talked about how you write 5,000 words per hour. How do you go from 5,000 words per hour to one million words each year?
How do you publish one million words per year?
Chris Fox: It’s important to understand 5,000 words per hour doesn’t scale. People assume that if they can write 5,000 words in one hour, they can write 25,000 words if they write for five hours a day.
At that rate, you could write a ton of books. But fast writing requires mastery of the writing craft. We need to practice writing good words quickly and understand how to edit them.
Producing that many words requires a process.
Much of my time is spent researching, editing, and thinking about characters or world-building, which are all important skills to master. I don’t write for five hours per day. I typically stop at exactly or very close to 5,000 words a day. I don’t try to go beyond that because that eats into my thinking, researching, and editing time.
Thomas: Authors can learn from athletes and musicians in this regard. An athlete will train all week to prepare for two hours on the field. A musician will spend weeks and months preparing for a one-hour performance.
Chris: There is definitely a process. I first heard about it when I met Robert Jordan’s wife, Harriet. She edited Orson Scott Card’s book Ender’s Game. It’s one of my favorite science fiction novels of all time. She told me he wrote the book in two weeks.
But before he started writing, he spent six to eight months meticulously plotting, developing characters, and thinking about all the events. When he sat down to write the book, it was very much like watching Michael Jordan play in an NBA game at the peak of his ability.
That’s when all the fundamentals you’ve been practicing are tested. No one sees the training, but the practice makes a difference when you sit down to write. And that’s when you start hitting 5,000 words per hour.
Thomas: It’s amazing how much easier cooking is when you have all your ingredients premeasured in little glass bowls like they do on TV. Cooking shows make cooking look fast and easy because they did the preparation ahead of time.
Chris: Exactly. Preparation is the part you can’t shortcut.
How do you prepare for your writing blocks?
Thomas: Walk us through the process. How do we chop the garlic ahead of time so that it’s ready to dump into the soup when the time comes.
Chris: I call this process Plot Gardening, and I wrote a book that explains it. When you are plot gardening, you’re trying to come up with an outline for a basic story.
You know your story ends with a big confrontation between the good guy and the bad guy, so you want a general idea of the plot you’ll follow to get there. But once you have that general idea, don’t think of it as a straitjacket. Think of that general idea as a planter box. You’re dumping soil, adding nutrients, and pouring water into the box to help grow the seeds.
In terms of writing, the general story idea is your seed in the box. As you work, you start dumping in plot events, characters, and the random idea you jotted down when you were in the grocery store line. You’ll do a little bit of discovery writing where you write from your protagonist’s perspective without an outline. That piece might become chapter 16. Over time, you create little bits that help you understand the story world and the characters in it.
That’s the sort of writing you’ll do as you work on your outline. I typically do that kind of work for four or five months before I write a book.
As I’m working on Book A, I’m plotting Book B and maybe Book C at the same time. I’m creating all this stuff for subsequent books that won’t get used for a while.
When I finally sit down to write it, it’s easy. I already know all those characters. I know the plot, and I kind of know the end I’m writing toward. I can write 100,000 words per month that way.
Thomas: Brandon Sanderson has a similar method, and he publishes 1,000,000 million words per year through a traditional publisher.
Chris: He’s definitely the record-holder for traditional publishing.
In the fantasy sphere, Sanderson has created wonderful material. He probably has a better way of explaining it. He compares writer-chefs and writer-cooks.
If you want to be a really good writer, you want to be a chef, and you need to understand how the ingredients of character, plot, and conflict work together.
If you want to be a cook, you’re just saying, “I saw something work in a popular story, so I’m going to write a book called Barry Potter.”
Thomas: Sanderson also has a rhythm of daily discipline. Of course, he’s writing every day. In addition, he’ll write the first draft for one book, and then he’ll move on to the second round of revisions for a different book. Then he’ll plot a third book.
He’s always simultaneously working on several books, which are in various stages. He’s almost like a book factory. He rests different machines so that when he goes back to a certain book, he’s looking at it with a rested mind. At the same time, he’s resting from one project by working on another project, which is why he has released so many books.
Chris: I’m a pulp writer, and I write at pulp speed, as Dean Wesley Smith calls it. Pulp writing requires speed. We have to put out books fast because we have to pay rent. It takes time to set a book aside so you can do it justice and edit it the way it should be edited. Pulp writers don’t often have that time.
I typically get a book 85% of the way there, and it could benefit from another editing pass or two.
For the first time in my career, I recently had a chance to do five more editing passes than normal for my Shattered Gods epic fantasy, and it really benefited from those additional passes.
Thomas: If you have enough books in process, setting one aside to edit later doesn’t slow you down much because you’re using a different part of your mind. If you write your 5,000 words for the day in the morning, you could potentially be editing your other project that afternoon.
Chris: That’s one of the best takeaways from writing fast. If you’re in a flow state and you’re cranking out 5,000 words of quality content early in your day, you can spend the rest of your day plotting, thinking, and deciding what your next chapter will be.
When I learned that skill, there was a huge turning point in my writing speed.
What is flow state for the writer?
Thomas: What is a flow state?
Chris: Flow state, also known as theta state, is a state of the brain where the world and the mechanics fade away. You’re not thinking about how your fingers are typing on the keyboard. You don’t think about the words you’re using.
When you’re writing a story, it’s the state where you are in the story, in the moment, and in your character’s head. You are unified with the story.
Flow state is our peak performance in something that we’re good at.
Performing in a flow state is the goal of every athlete, creative, and professional. Almost everything that you enjoy in your modern life, from an athletic performance to a piece of art or a novel, was created by someone in flow state. They utilized this neurological brain state to create amazing work.
Thomas: Athletes call it being “in the zone.” It’s the state of perfect focus.
You’ve probably experienced flow state when driving.
When you first learned how to drive a car, you were thinking about the blinkers, the road, and the other cars. But with enough practice, you got to the point where you became one with your car. You’re so unified with your car that if you got into an accident, you say, “Somebody crashed into me,” not “Somebody crashed into my car.” You see your car as an extension of yourself.
You can do the same with your writing. Your writing becomes an extension of yourself, and you get into flow state.
How do writers get into flow state more consistently?
Flow state is the holy grail for me, and all my material focuses around it. If you can harness flow state, you can write great novels quickly.
Thomas: Is your book How to Write 5,000 Words an Hour (Affiliate Link) still available for free on your website?
Chris: Yes, and it always will be.
You don’t have to pay a dime for Lifelong Writing Habits. If you email me firstname.lastname@example.org and say, “Hey, Chris, I can’t afford a copy,” or “I don’t want to take a chance on it,” I’ll send you a free copy.
My goal in writing these books is to help authors and get more people telling good stories.
How do authors get into flow state to begin with?
Thomas: What are some quick tips on getting into flow state?
Chris: The number one thing you’ll need is a Tortoise Enclosure, a term coined by John Cleese. I love that man.
When he was trying to be creative, he needed to erect boundaries of space and time. Practically, you need to say, “For the next half hour, I’m turning off the internet. I’m in my office with the door closed. My cell phone is turned off, and all distractions have been removed.”
Create an environment where nothing will interrupt you. Then for 30 minutes, you can write whatever you want. You can think. You can experiment. You give your brain permission to get into that place of creation where no one is judging you. You can do your thing without worrying about what people will think about what you’re doing.
That’s when you create great material.
That Tortoise Enclosure, or writing sanctuary, is a cornerstone for most people’s careers.
Take time to erect your Tortoise Enclosure. Clear your decks so you don’t have interruptions. Make sure you get a glass of water and use the restroom before you sit down to write. You’ll be much more productive.
After I’m in my Tortoise Enclosure to write, I use a writing sprint.
I set a timer for 20 or 30 minutes and begin writing. I keep writing until the timer goes off at the end. I won’t go back and edit while the timer is running, and at the end of my writing sprint, I usually have a complete chapter. That’s how you start writing faster.
The writing sprint gets you into flow state. It’s a mechanism to train your brain. After six months or a year of maintaining that habit, some people get to the point where they stop using the timer entirely because they can just get into flow state on command.
Thomas: The athlete’s version of the Tortoise Enclosure is their headphones.
Michael Phelps, the greatest Olympian of all time, listens to music right before he swims. He’s tuning out the crowd and the drama of the Olympics. He’s intensely focused with a look on his face that says he’s either going to kill you or beat you in a race.
When I’m writing, music often plays a role, but I find that I can’t listen to music with words in it.
I have a playlist in my music app on my computer called “Wordless Working.” It’s a list of instrumental songs I play when I want to focus and get into flow state.
Chris: I have instrumental playlists for different moods like nostalgic childhood, nostalgic teenager, nostalgic twenties, happy, and angry. Music is such an amazing tool, and if you need to write a very tense scene, having tense music is an amazing help.
Some of my writing prep work involves choosing music ahead of time. If I’m planning to write for an hour, I’ll have an hour’s worth of music picked out. Choosing those songs is something I can do at the end of the day to plan for the next morning’s writing sprint.
Thomas: A lot of people try this for five minutes, and then they get distracted by Facebook, the great killer of many books.
How do you fight distractions?
Chris: There is a module specifically about distraction in my new course. You need to ascertain where you get your dopamine.
The human brain is wired to seek dopamine, and that means you’re looking for positive experiences. Maybe your morning routine to get dopamine is to go buy a Starbucks coffee and a pastry. That’s your big reward.
Everybody is seeking dopamine all the time. When you see a little red badge on Facebook, you get a rush of dopamine. If Facebook is a distraction, delete the app, and tell yourself you only get to check social media in the evening after your work is done.
The work of writing those 5,000 words then becomes the dopamine. And remember, we always need dopamine. If we go too long without it, we’ll get dissatisfied and feel like losers. We’ll feel frustrated and upset with ourselves. But you want to feel frustrated until you start achieving what you want to achieve.
If you remove the low-hanging fruit of Facebook, which is the easy dopamine, and force yourself to write words to get the dopamine, suddenly you’re getting your words done.
That’s why my words are the first thing I accomplish every morning.
When I wake up, I get to my desk as soon as I can. I might work out first, but after that, I’m sitting down to crank out my words. By the time I head into the house to watch my child at 10:30, I have 5,000 words written. It’s already done, and I’m not turning to social media to get a dopamine fix to make me feel better about myself.
Thomas: I love that. If you’re writing 5,000 words per day, you only need to write 200 days per year to hit a million words. That gives you 150 days off to rest on weekends and have a life.
If a million words seems impossible, do the math. If you only write five days each week, but you write 5,000 words per day, you’ll write more than a million words in a year.
Back in 2018, when we did our first interview, neither of us were dads. But now we both have this adorable force of chaos.
How has having a child affected your approach and output as a writer?
Chris: If I’m honest, it kicked the legs out from under my career.
Some people get lucky and have a baby who sleeps. Our first baby slept for about two hours a night. We weren’t getting any sleep at all. For the first year of our baby’s life, my wife and I averaged three and a half hours of sleep at night.
That makes it hard to write 12 books in a year.
I had to return to fundamentals. I had to spend more time plotting my stories, leaning into my habits, remembering why I was writing, and reminding myself that I wanted to write novels as a career for my child.
Every morning when I woke up, even though I was exhausted, I’d go to my computer to write the words. Sometimes I couldn’t manage a 20-minute sprint because I felt like garbage that day, so I’d do a five-minute sprint and dial back my goals.
Sometimes you can’t hit the goals, and you have to just admit it. You might have to dial it back and do an easier activity. It’s important to understand the truth of where you’re at when you have a life change, like a child.
Thomas: We have to adjust our goals accordingly. Ultimately, we need to realize that this human baby is way more important than a book baby.
Plus, your human baby will change and grow up. Soon your baby will be a human child and then a human adult, and you can still work on your book when they’re grown.
My daughter is going through a growth spurt right now. She woke up five times last night, and we don’t even have our newborn yet. My wife and I were like, “How are we going to handle the newborn if our toddlers are waking up five times? How are we going to function?”
A lot of authors are writing with kids in the house and with distractions, and it’s hard.
Chris: This is going to sound terrible, but it’s not that hard.
You just need to understand how a habit works. Learn how to instill a writing habit.
If you have a habit of only writing ten minutes per day and you get 500 words down every single day of the year, you’re going to write 182,500 words in a year. I mean, you’re going to write two or three books in one ten-minute break.
People always want to find more time, but if you can find a second ten-minute break, you can get even more done.
A lot of romance authors, many of whom care for six kids, look for those little windows in their days. They get up earlier than everybody else so they can write for 30 minutes. Some of them find that second window.
Flexibility matters. I mean, how bad do you want this?
Thomas: Most people can find time to write 500 words a day.
Chris: And for those of you who don’t work in word-counts, 500 words is two pages. Two pages.
What advice do you have for the person who can’t type fast?
Thomas: Some people physically could not type 5,000 words an hour even if someone was dictating it to them. What advice do you give a slow typist?
Chris: I love talking to people, and first, I tell them the truth. When I’m physically typing, I can only write about 3,500 words per hour. That’s my typing speed.
Then I tell them about dictation. I put on a headset with a microphone and speak into a voice-to-text program, and suddenly, I’m at 5,000 words per hour. Plus, I can do it as I’m holding a child.
With voice-to-text software, you have to speak your punctuation too. You’ll say, “Thomas invited me on the show period then we talked period.” But if you dictate your story, you can get words down very, very quickly.
If you are a slow typist, try dictation. If you don’t like it, there are several typing programs that will help you get faster. Improving your typing is worth the investment, even though it’s very daunting. Typing 50 words per minute will transform your writing habit.
Thomas: If you’re willing to pay a little for your dictation software, you don’t even have to type your dictation.
When we’re done with this interview, Chris, we’re going to run it through Sonix.ai or HappyScribe (Affiliate Link). Sonix will transcribe this audio file and keep your language and mine separate. The software makes sure the right words go with the right person.
Both tools are pretty accurate, and they do insert punctuation. We have to pay $10-$12 per hour of audio for the transcription, but it’s not like paying for Dragon or using the built-in tool on your Mac.
Some writers don’t like to speak their punctuation. Once they get into the zone with a story, they don’t want to consciously speak punctuation. However, voice-to-text technology has really improved, and if you’re willing to pay for it, you don’t have to speak dictation anymore.
Chris: That’s good to know. I didn’t realize that. How do Sonix and HappyScribe handle carriage returns?
Thomas: They listen for pauses and insert paragraph breaks. They’re not perfect, and the transcription is not perfect either, but it’s easy to go in and fix.
You can also train the software with a custom vocabulary. If you keep changing the same word over and over, you can start to build a custom vocabulary. That feature becomes helpful if you write epic fantasy and you have strange words that the software struggles to transcribe.
AppSumo has deals on transcription tools all the time. There are actually only two or three companies that do it. Google and Amazon both have a voice-to-text library. These other companies just license their API, which means they’re all basically the same if you’re paying by the hour.
They are paying Google to transcribe your text for you. And Google’s really, really good at it because people have been talking to their Google devices for a long time.
When do you edit?
Thomas: When you’re writing 5,000 words an hour, do you always edit in the afternoon? Or do you like schedule editing windows where you spend a whole week doing nothing but editing? What is your protocol for editing?
Chris: I sometimes edit in the afternoons, and other times I schedule editing weeks. I write my 5,000 words for that day, and at the end of the day, I read what I wrote, make corrections, fix typos, add description, or tweak dialog. It’s kind of relaxing at the end of my day.
That takes about as long as it would to read four or five chapters. It might add an hour to my day.
Once I have finished the book, I have an edited manuscript. I’ve read the book a couple of times and fixed the typos.
When it’s in pretty good shape, I will go through it and give it a real content edit. I’ll add or cut chapters. I might add more description. The book gets two full edits from me before I send it to my wife, Lisa, who is my editor. She’ll edit the book on the side while beta readers are reading it.
After a couple of weeks, beta readers send me a bunch of emails with some feedback. The last phase for me is to implement some of the suggestions that beta readers gave me. Then Lisa will come behind me and make sure I didn’t introduce any new typos.
Then it’s off to the store.
Thomas: Wow. That’s a really compressed editing phase. I come from the traditional publishing world where three different people do different types of editing in addition to the beta readers.
Chris: My last book, Shattered Gods, has a 4.8 average rating on a five-star scale. I have no one-star or two-star ratings, and we wrote that book at lightspeed.
Thomas: I believe you because that’s how flow state works. It’s not just about swimming and being more focused. It’s also about swimming better and faster.
When you get out of your own way, your performance tends to be better. Athletes crave flow state because they play better when they’re “in the zone.”
We all work better in flow state, which is why interruptions so frustrating for authors.
How do we get back in the zone after we’ve been interrupted?
Chris: I try to have a process. When I sit at my desk, I go through the exact same series of steps every time. If I get interrupted, I go back to that routine and restart it.
Sometimes the act of sitting down at my desk will fix it because my brain has been through so many writing sprints after I sit at my desk. It’s become a habit. I can shake off those interruptions a little easier.
It doesn’t always work though. If the interruption was emotionally disturbing, it’s hard to shake it off. If it’s just a random interruption where a child knocked at the door, it’s not so bad.
I just try to limit interruptions as much as possible. I don’t think there is a good way to quickly get back into flow state. No matter what the interruption is, it’s always tough to get back into flow state.
Thomas: It’s fascinating how similar this approach is to a pro athlete’s process. Athletes also have routines.
When a batter walks up to the plate, every one of them has a unique ritual. Maybe they do the sign of the cross over their chest, or they tap one side of the plate and then the other side. Then they do a certain number of practice swings. It’s always the exact same ritual.
You see the same thing in basketball before a free throw.
Writers often complain when a kid knocks on the door. They say, “It took me out of the zone.”
But in sports, there’s an opponent whose job is to take you out of the zone. When a quarterback gets sacked, he has to get back up. It requires mental toughness.
Chris: Everybody gets better at it over time. If you’re trying to get into flow state, it may feel a little daunting at first. But you will find it eventually if you keep after it and keep sprinting.
I have worked with probably 100,000 authors who’ve purchased the book, and less than 1% have had a problem making writing sprints work for them.
How do deadlines work for this million-words-a-year process?
Thomas: You’ve talked about rhythm, flow state, and habits, but you haven’t talked about deadlines. Are deadlines a part of this process?
Chris: Parkinson’s law says that a task will expand to fit the time that is allotted to it. If you give yourself a year to write a book, at the end of the year, you’re going to have one book.
If you believe you have to release 12 books this year, and you set up preorders on Amazon for books you haven’t even plotted yet, that’s going to motivate you to write books.
If I don’t meet my preorder deadlines, there are consequences. I will be banned from the Amazon preorder program for one year if I fail to deliver on that date.
Set a deadline with consequences, and you are much more motivated to hit that deadline.
That’s harder to do if you’re an amateur writer, but you can still do it. Put notes on your calendar to pop up every Friday saying, “Have you written X number of words yet?”
Making yourself accountable through deadlines is very useful.
Thomas: If you’re just getting started, promise your critique group that you’ll give them all Amazon gift cards if you don’t hit your deadline.
I’ve seen a lot of authors do this, and it’s interesting. You’d think it would cause your critique group to cheer for you to fail. But in reality, they cheer for you to succeed, even though they won’t get compensated if you meet your deadline.
It puts some friendly stakes on your deadline if you have to send a $20 Amazon gift card to your whole critique group.
How many hours does it take to write 5,000 words per day?
Thomas: One hour of performance requires hours of preparation. How many hours should we budget per day to meet the million-word goal this year?
Chris: It’s going to be different for everybody. Many people look for nooks and crannies in their day that are not being used. You may have six ten-minute sessions sprinkled throughout your day when you can do a writing sprint. Get those words down in ten minutes, then jump into whatever else you would normally be working on.
In general, most people spend about two hours writing 5,000 words. Once they feel competent getting the words down, it can be a lot longer than that.
It gets shorter the longer that you do it, but I would budget a minimum of two hours to get it done.
Thomas: One hour of prep and one hour of performance equals two Netflix shows at night.
Do you write in the morning?
Chris: Yes. At 4:30 or 5:00 AM, I start my writing.
Thomas: I’ve noticed that high-performance, high-productivity authors, almost without exception, use their sharper, rested minds to do the writing in the morning.
You don’t do the writing at the end of the day with your tired mind. Instead of watching Netflix, go to bed earlier and get up with a sharp, rested mind. You can cut more trees with a sharp ax, and you can write more words with a sharp mind.
The stress of your day tends to dull your ax, and your mind is less sharp in the afternoon and evenings.
We’re just better versions of ourselves in the morning.
Chris: I’m actually uniquely positioned to contrast writing in the mornings and afternoons with data science. At different times in my career, I’ve written at different times of the day.
Everyone has different life circumstances, but all of us are fighting for every minute. And the earlier you can get this done, the better.
When I first started writing, I worked at a startup job 12 hours a day. I rode down to San Francisco on a bus, and then I rode it home. I was the only software engineer at this company, and I had an extremely difficult job.
I needed to figure out how to write 5,000 words per day while I was still working this full-time job. I wrote during my morning bus ride to the office to maximize that window of time and try to get down as many words as I could.
Normally, I would type 3,500 words an hour on my morning bus ride. On my way home in the evening, I’d write only 2,200 words an hour. There was a sharp reduction in productivity if I tried to write later in the day.
Thomas: And I’m guessing those fewer words were probably worse words. You were probably giving your future self a bigger editing job.
Chris: Absolutely. I ran into a lot more instances where I didn’t know where to go with the writing, and I would have to stop.
When that happened, I would flip over into plotting and try to plot the next day’s words. I had to accept that I had missed my goal that day.
Thomas: I find I’m personally more productive if I wake up early and get to work right away. I’m sharper early in the day before the drama grinds at that edge of the ax.
Chris: Mark Twain gave us the “eat the frog” analogy. He said that if the toughest thing you had to do every day was eating a frog, you should do that first.
Brian Tracy wrote a book I love called, Eat that Frog. The message is very simple. If you have to write, and it’s the most important thing you’re going to do that day, get it done by 7:30 AM. Then for the rest of the day, you’ll know that the most important task you need to do for your career is done.
That’s the other reason I think mornings are so important. Many people are diabolically opposed to waking up early. But I’d urge you to try it. Try waking up a half-hour earlier and see if you can add more to your day.
Many of us have found that even though we hate getting up early, the reward it gives to our lives makes it worth it.
How can writers avoid burnout?
Thomas: How do we pick a pace that is sustainable over time and avoid burnout?
Chris: Listen to your body.
I see many authors put out a book that makes $20,000 in the first month. Their immediate response is to write another book, then another, and so on. Eight books into their series, they’re exhausted and breaking down.
Take care of yourself. Don’t push too hard. Hit your daily goals, but if you start to feel exhausted and burnt out, take a break. Take a longer break between books. Spend time watching your favorite shows. Read your favorite books. Refill the creative well, and you’ll thank yourself later.
Thomas: It’s incredible how similar this is to professional athletes.
Athletes practice hard, but they also rest hard because you can’t overwork a muscle. Your body needs time to rebuild itself and regenerate.
You can overtrain, and you can overwrite.
We’re not talking about forcing yourself to write past your level of endurance, where you’re borrowing from your core energy to write a scene. We’re talking about building up stamina and getting into a state of flow. When you do, you can develop a sustainable writing pace for the long run that generates high-quality books.
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Mercy was helping my wife put away her and her brother’s laundry. She said, “I have so many clothes, Mercy giggled!”
Margaret asked her, “Did you just say, ‘Mercy giggled?'”
Mercy replied, “Yeah!”
When your children are narrating their own lives, perhaps they are reading too many books.