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Can Writers Earn a Living Writing Just One Book a Year?

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

When I’m out speaking to groups or chatting with people about my writing career, I’ll often get asked if I earn enough on my books to make a living at being an author.

So far I’ve been able to respond with something like this: Since I’ve only had two books published in the past two years, I’m still fairly “young” in my writing career and in building a readership. While my books have earned out their advances and I’m making royalties on them, no, my husband can’t retire early or quit his job to take care of the kids so that I can write more.

The truth is, it’s difficult to make a living as an author these days, especially if we’re only publishing one book a year.

The one book-a-year release used to be a common schedule for most authors. But a recent article by the New York Times, entitled “Writer’s Cramp: In the E-Reader Era, a Book a Year Is Slacking” summarized how times are changing. Publishers and authors alike are realizing that one book a year, and nothing else, isn’t enough to keep in the public spotlight.

And for most authors, one book a year isn’t going to bring in enough revenue to pay the bills. Author Elizabeth Craig recently had a post in which she shared her thoughts about publishing multiple books a year. She said: “I just don’t think we can make a living off a book a year if we’re midlist authors. (Actually…I know we can’t. Unless your book deals are a whole lot better than mine are.)” Elizabeth is currently writing four books a year (under contract with Penguin).

The hard reality for most of us (excluding that one-in-a-million author who soars to immediate fame), is that it’s hard for writers to see success with just one book a year.

Either we’ll need to keep our day jobs and write our one-book-a-year on the side. Or if we hope to make a living at writing novels, we may have to consider other options.

Obviously there are numerous ways to earn money by using our writing talents. Some writers supplement their novel income by copywriting, writing non-fiction, or even providing editing services.

But what about those of us who don’t want to stray too far from the novel-writing nest? What can we do to increase our potential for income and success?

1. Write more than one book a year. 

For some of us who can’t write full time due to other obligations or who have lengthy novels (mine are around 100K), writing more than one book a year is challenging.

But I decided to give it a try.

Last year I completed two full-length novels. At times, the pace was brutal and it required incredible self-discipline. But I found that challenging myself to 7000 words a week allowed me to complete the work and still remain sane. I was able to finish the first draft in approximately five months (which included time for research and self-editing).

I’m on track to complete two 100K novels this year too, with even a little time leftover to consider the next two options:

2. Hook readers with e-published short stories or novellas before the publication of books.

The above NYT article said this about short stories and novellas: “Publishers say that a carefully released short story, timed six to eight weeks before a big hardcover comes out, can entice new readers who might be willing to pay 99 cents for a story but reluctant to spend $14 for a new e-book or $26 for a hardcover. That can translate into higher preorder sales for the novel and even a lift in sales of older books by the author, which are easily accessible as e-book impulse purchases for consumers with Nooks or Kindles.”

In some ways, the short stories or novellas are becoming a new marketing strategy that can build hype during the months leading up to a book’s release. For a lower cost, we can give readers a glimpse of our writing voice and get them interested in us as an author so that when our book releases they're already hooked.

3. Consider how Eshorts can keep reader's attention between novels.

The Writer’s Lens describes Eshorts as: “E-published short stories ranging from 12-150 pages, usually linked to a series . . . often told from a perspective other than the main character in a series or tell of a side event that is loosely linked to the overall story.”

I think Eshorts could work for non-series too. For example, I often have readers who wonder what happens next to the characters in my books. An Eshort could be a way to give a glimpse into the future life of the characters readers have come to love. This could be true of minor characters as well.

The point is that we look for ways to stay in the spotlight with our readers between our bigger books so that our readers don't have the chance to forget about us.

What do you think? Do you think it’s getting harder for novelists to earn a living writing just one book a year? How many books a year do you write? And have you ever considered supplementing your earnings by writing short stories or novellas?

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55 comments:

  1. I have no idea about earning money, but as a reader I can tell you it's heart breaking when your favourite writer(s) are one book a year authors.

    You wait and wait and wait for the new release, then when it arrives you hold it in your hands, but do I read it? No! Because I know that once I do it's another 11 months until the next one. And then, like biting into a triple chocolate fudge brownie, you open the first page, promising yourself you're ONLY going to read the first chapter. That this time you're going to pace yourself, savour the experience.

    Then BAM before you know it it's 2am, you're turning the last page and morosely looking down the long empty months ahead until the next one arrives :(

    I will make this observation though. I have noticed that for a number of authors that I read, managing to turn out two fantastic books a year is doable. But there seems to be a breaking point around the three mark that results in at least one book not being up to their usual standard.

    And hey, I'm not too demanding. Two books a year is fine with me - it's 50% less time I have to wait before releases!

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  2. Kara! Thank you for leaving your perspective! I love it! You described exactly how I feel about my favorite authors too! I always hate finishing their book and thinking that I have to wait a WHOLE year to read another new one from them!

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  3. Wow - it's far too early in my career to consider this! I think it's hard for writers to earn a living, full stop/period for Americans. Especially since the economic crisis has had such a severe impact on arts funding and the publishing industry.

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  4. I've not heard about the eshorts to lead up to a book release. What a unique concept, but one that I'm sure would tempt new readers to buy the book. I just love learning new things!

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  5. I had not heard of these but I think they would be a great part of a pitch to an agent or publisher as part of a marketing plan. I would be fun to create some teasers that would come out early - make a free e book or download - that can create some interest in your soon to come out book. Hmmm. Something new to think about... thanks. Great ideas!

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  6. Ohhh. I already re-tweeted this article, it is SO good! Not that the others weren't (Why do I have George Costanza's voice in my head as I type this?) Since I'm not published...yet...e-published short stories and e-shorts is a great way to find an audience!
    It's hard for novelists to write more than one good book a year unless they have a nanny/housekeeper. And a chauffeur.

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  7. I can see why there's a push for more than one a year. Readers want more books by their favorite author/s and just aren't willing to wait. I think the novella/short story idea is a good one to help ease the pains while they're awaiting, "the next one." I just hope it doesn't lead to burn out for writers out there who struggle to write 2 or more a year...

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  8. I agree with Kara. It's hard to wait a year for your favorite authors (*ahem* Jody *ahem*) next book to come out!

    That, and on the more practical note, it seems like there is a "more time to forget" factor in there too, although I have no clue how this "logical" thought translates into effects on sales.

    That said, as an author, I KNOW writing more than one book a year is hard. I have yet to do it, although I'm a fairly new author so really haven't tried. I have another completed novel I'm trying to edit (and hopefully SELL soon).

    I never had any thoughts that I could replace my day job with my writing anytime soon. I AM hoping to supplement my husbands income so I can stay home with my Annabelle, which is really very needed in our situation. God knows though, so regardless, we're trusting him completely with things like booksales and new contracts. I learned long ago that GOD is going to be much more in control of all this than I ever will be, and I can't trust on my writing and selling ability, but on God's provision for us.

    Okay, sorry, tangent:-) Thanks for the blog today, Jody!!!! YEAH for good sales on your books! I've already pre-ordered your September book:-)

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  9. Oh. My. Goodness. Do I love this post!! So informative! Must bookmark now.

    I love the idea of e-shorts and e-publishing short stories/novellas between releases!

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  10. Jody, this has definitely been my experience so far. With Berkley, I'm currently on a schedule of two books (90-100k each) plus one e-novella (30-40k) a year. They are using the e-novellas like you said. For instance, this month my e-novella STILL INTO YOU released for $2.99. Next month my full length will come out in print and ebook ($10-15). Both are part of the series, so the hope is people will try me at the cheap price and then pick up one of my full novels.

    It's a lot to write that much in a year And I'm not a naturally fast writer, but I'm of the hope that I can make a decent living at this and this schedule is hopefully going to help that. I took a fast draft class recently and that has increased my speed. I was able to write and revise a 40k novella in six weeks, so there's hope that I can be more efficient, lol. Good luck with everything!

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  11. Some great thoughts here, Jody! I agree with Kara...two books a year seems a good amount for an author (in terms of me as a reader wanting to read their books). If they write more than that, the books feel rushed. You can just tell that there is a level of detail that's not there.

    Love the ideas of novellas and eshorts...as a writer and a reader! :)

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  12. Writing is one of the creative arts and I think it must be difficult to force or mould it into shape. I think one of the reasons some writers prefer to have agents and publishers is so that they can stick to the art and not have to deal with the business side so much. But that too has changed recently.

    Can you force inspiration? Can you compel the good ideas to come? If you sit and stare at a blank piece of paper or computer screen eventually you will write something. I love when the story starts to flow and the characters become real to me but I don't like having to push too much.

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  13. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  14. Great post! The other option is to change our definition of "success" as writers, which is where I am now. I think we get so focused on not being left behind in the industry that we forget to reevaluate our own careers and figure out exactly what success looks like for us.

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  15. Thanks for a great post, Jody. As a new author, I know I've got to pick up the pace if I want to succeed!

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  16. As a writer, writing more than one book a year seems incredibly daunting, but as a reader, I agree with Kara. In fact, I've put off reading books so I don't have to wait too long for the next one.

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  17. Love your points. It's probably true that authors need to put out 2 books/year. It's harder, especially for someone like you Jody who writes 100k books. I love the ebook short stories idea:) What a great way to have stories about other characters in the book!
    Thanks for these ideas...great post :-)

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  18. Wonderful post today, Jody. I have stuggled with this idea, too. I am one of those 1 book a year authors, and the pace is a good one for me. I am a perfectionist and my writing pace is slow. (Not to mention the day job and three kids at home.)

    I think the issue for me comes down to quality and personal satisfaction. Can I write two books a year without sacrificng quality? Some authors manage this beautifully. I'm not sure I could. The other factor, is that if I stress myself out by trying to push too hard, I'm afraid I will lose my passion and joy for writing. That eventually will bleed into the stories and my readers will notice.

    In my current life situation, I don't need to make a full-time living off my books. My husband and I both work full-time day jobs. The writing income is supplemental and mostly goes into college funds for the kids and our retirement.

    For now, I will stick with one book a year and strive to keep my quality high. But I might have to look into those e-shorts. Maybe that would help tide readers over during the long months of waiting between books. Definitely food for thought!

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  19. My goal is two books a year, though more because it seems to be "expected" of eBook authors. I can't imagine writing four, like Elizabeth Craig does, but then again, I'm not a full time fiction writer!

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  20. I'm with Karen :) I would love to do more than one book a year, but with all the research required for my novels, publicity/social media, kids still at home, a part-time job, and volunteer work that rejuvenates me, I don't see that happening for a while. I'm already stressed as is :)

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  21. James N. Watkins, who's published 15 books, two of them award-winners, says "If you want to be famous, write books; if you want to make a living, write articles."

    I do both, and I must say I make more money from the articles. But nowhere near what I'd need to make a living. My agent says the rule of thumb is to have six published books you are drawing royalties from before you consider quitting your day job.

    Maybe I can quit the day job when I'm seventy or so...

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  22. Jody, I'm always anxious to get to your blog posts! I agree with Kara, as a reader it's so hard to wait between books. I love when I find a fairly new author that already has a couple books out - that way I can savor each one while I wait for the newest release!

    As a writer, unpublished, my mind can't even comprehend writing more than one book a year - but someday I hope to be in a place to do just that!

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  23. This has been heavily on my mind lately, and I don't even have an agent yet :) As a new college graduate, I'm at that point where I'm trying to step into a career, or at least some semblance of financial security. I've started a freelance writing profile online, and I'm going to have to find something else as well while I try and build it up, but this is helpful in thinking of how to manage a full-time writing career.

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

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  24. I've seen all this talk about the pressure authors are under to write 2 (or 3 or 4, eek) books per year. I'm pretty new at this, so I'm not sure I could keep up that pace. I write slowly...but I know I'm going to have to speed up my pace at least a little. It's a lot to think about, and it makes me feel a bit stressed, to tell you the truth.

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  25. Hi Jody! :)
    Hmm, let's see if you remember this reader.. (Hint: she loved the Doctor's Lady)
    But first your question. Very good post by the way, thank you!
    Actually the amount of money a writer can earn in his or her work is one of those things that scares me as hopeful, future writer.
    But, yeah, I'm thinking 1 book a year is not the ideal really.
    I'll be sure to keep in touch more (hope you don't mind.) I really like your advices.

    Ganise (did you guess the name before you got to the end? ;)

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  26. I responded to your question on FB, but I'll say again that as a reader I'd love to have multiple books available every year from my favourite authors, but as a writer I question whether pushing to write faster and publish more per year can result in quality stories.

    Some authors write faster than others, of course, and some genres have shorter word counts, so I don't think it's possible to say everyone should be able to produce X number of books in a year. I'm not a big fan of short stories, but am intrigued by the idea of having one serve as a transition between books, especially in a series.

    Making a living from my writing wasn't something I ever expected to do. I get occasional magazine articles published so have that as an income supplement... a bonus. :)

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  27. Ooh, I love the idea of supplementing full-length novels with short pieces of work before or in between. Thanks, Jody!

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  28. You've got me thinking, Jody. (As you usually do!) My novel just came out last month and my next one comes out -- you guessed it -- next May! I've already had some readers saying they hate to wait a year for my next book. While that's encouraging -- it's also making me think: How do I keep my readers engaged for the next year?
    You've certainly got me thinking ...

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  29. I'm not a writer, but am a reader. I don't mind if a favorite author has one book a year, as long as, all my other favorite authors' books would be published at other times. So many of the books come out in the same month. You read five, favorite authors' books in one month and that leaves the rest of the year. I wish the publishers would spread out the publishing.

    About novellas, I'm not really crazy about them. One author I like has written some novellas, but they are only six chapters long or so. That's too short imo. I think the best thing with a novella is to do a sequel to a book you've already written or take supporting characters from your other novels and use them as the main characters. Their family and background would already have been introduced in previous books and your readers would run out to buy it so they could get the rest of the story.

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  30. Jody,

    Great post and great suggestions, especially since you're actually trying them yourself and not just tossing out frippery. I appreciate your openness and vulnerability and I am committing to pray for you as you juggle this gift and your family and other aspects of your life. You are a vessel that the Lord is using to further His kingdom and I know He's got you covered!

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  31. Hi Everyone!! I appreciate hearing from everyone today! Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

    I'm also really appreciating hearing from readers. Thanks for jumping into the discussion and sharing your likes/dislikes too. It's really important to discover what our readers want most!

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  32. sharing wise words ya,
    Mistakes are life experiences, learn from them. Do not try to be perfect tuk. Try to set an example for others.
    hopefully can be useful and well received. Greetings and success always, okay: D

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  33. I understand publishers' desires for authors to produce more than one book a year, but it's very concerning when thinking about the variety of new published authors, in my mind. Aren't rich and compelling stories often bred from diverse life circumstances, challenging experiences? If only those of us with enough time and money to put in the number of hours writing required under the new expectations, won't we as readers miss out on a wealth of stories from those less fortunate but just as inspired?

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  34. Red face. Add "publish" after "expectations" in the last sentence of my comment and it might make sense ;)

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  35. Great article, Jody. I read an article just yesterday that presents the "other" side of the conversation about authors cranking out so many stories to remain competitive (citing the same NY article that I read last month/that you mention). Paying the bills is a top priority for everyone but this article asks if quality suffers at such a high output: http://t.co/WyD9scZL. I guess I can see both sides of this story.

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  36. I say the publishing climate is definitely changing. It used to be that if you wrote more than one book a year, you were considered a hack. Now we have become more enlightened to the fact that writing is a job, and that if we want to make a living out of it, we need to produce. Not all books have to be someone's magnum opus.

    I like how Ebooks are opening doors to new ways of thinking about publishing. They give us opportunities to write short stories and novellas, tie ins to novels, etc. that would normally be hard to market in traditional formats.

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  38. Brandi, You're so right. The publishing climate is changing, thanks to ebooks and the speed of epublishing. The nature of traditional publication has always been slow--it takes time for books to make it down the publication pipeline due to a variety of factors involving editing, marketing, and sales. But now with self-epublished authors being able to move more quickly, it's forcing traditional publication to re-evaluate their timetables too, in order to keep up.

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  39. Thanks for the link to the article, Melissa! I already have a post planned for next week about whether quality decreases if we write more frequently! So the article will give me more food for thought!

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  40. Robin Jones Gunn has two very good books that she calls novellas. They are 155 pages and twenty-three chapters. To me that is about right. A novella can be good when you're not trying to have a couple meet, date, fight, date, fight, run away and then reconcile all in six chapters. One leaves the story wishing it were a full-length novel.

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  41. This was a fantastic post, although now I'm depressed... I honestly think there's no way for me to write more than one novel a year. But I think you're right -- the eReading public wants us to write faster. I just published my debut novel, BABY GRAND, and some readers read it in a matter of days and asked, "When's the sequel?" Which is great! But when I said "the summer of 2014" (I'm finishing another novel in between), they were, like, "What?!" Now I feel this intense pressure. Should I stop what I'm doing to write the sequel? Should I stick to my plan?

    As for income, if I didn't work as a freelance writer, I'd never be able to write novels. But I really like your idea of putting short stories out there for readers to buy in the interim, while they wait for your books. Something to think about.

    A great, great post. Thanks!

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  42. I know several people who have written one book a year while having a full time job. I think it's doable. But that's not actually the problem. The problem is, if you get picked up/published is promoting book 1, while writing and/or editing book 2, then coming up with idea for book 3 (because your publisher hasn't taken you up on their option yet) while finishing their edits for book 2 and promoting book 1 still. Then writing book 3 while promoting books 2 and 1... and doing your full-time job and trying to have a family life...

    Also, because there is no money for marketing now - even with the big publishers (for new authors) so as well as writing and editing and pitching and blogging and twittering they're got to go to conferences and write magazine articles because their publishers demand it of them.

    However, big fan of short stories - I do this a lot - mainly because I'm still editing my first draft of my current WIP!

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  43. As A writer, I like Julie's comment that we need to define success for ourselves and not get so worried about the business end that we forget about the art of writing. As a reader, I'm willing to wait for a high quality book. Many successful authors (as in commercially successful) often conform their writing to a predictable formula, which I don't like. I guess like so much else, we need to find a balance. Looking forward to your upcoming post on quality!

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  44. I guess it depends on how you want to spend your time. I mean, you could write one crackerjack book and spend time promoting it across the many existing and emerging platforms, translate it into many languages etc. Or you can concentrate on the writing with limited self promotion.

    But it is getting easier to find wider audiences though. The self publishing world is shrinking at a phenomenal rate with more and more options available. What is difficult now will be easy next year. It really is the beginning for self publishing in my opinion.

    Some day soon, publishing and self publishing will merge into an, as yet undetermined process. Exiting isn't it!

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  45. 4. "Write a Breakout Novel." - Don Maass

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  46. Thanks for the great post, Jody. I'm a non-fiction author. We also have to release content quickly. Unlike fiction authors, non-fiction readers want to read shorter books. In 1998, NF word counts were 100,000-110,000 per book. The average is 40,000 to 45,000 words now.

    Perhaps you could 'restructure' certain stories into 3-act 'plays' so you have a 3 e-book series for every story. One way would not print the full version until the end of each year. Each 'e-Act' could be 35,000 - 45,000 words.

    Another option would be to have each Act typeset as a POD. At the end of the 'series,' your publisher could do an offset run for the 'whole' book. Booksellers could pick up the 'acts' and the whole book.

    I'm writing an 8-book series and decided to do all the research upfront. I write and edit the one book and research future books. I come across ideas, statistics, or interview folks as they cross my path. As a corporate writer, we never work on one project at a time. It seemed natural to do this with my books too. I understand how as fiction authors you 'live' with your characters. It'd be like turning a 'TV channel' from one book to the next.

    I'd use one notebook to research all the books in my series. Once that book's page was filled, I'd assign a new page for that book on the next free page. I'd only have to remember to take one notebook with me. Every few weeks, I'd drop the 'research' into MS Word. It's been great to know that books 2, 3, 4, etc., are all coming along.

    I tend to work on 2 books at a time. The book I want to write and publish first, and the second book that I get into shape and work on if I'm tired or 'stuck' with the first book.

    I laud all of you who'd not want to compromise the quality of your writing. Make any book one that you'd enjoy sharing with those you love and your readers.

    A comment to the gal about how to 'turn on' writing on the blank page. In my mid-20's, I studied with Duke Ellington's former music arranger. He only had 4 students. If I didn't write enough, I'd be gone. His music was incredibly beautiful; he did not cut corners or compromise. He taught me to write better AND faster. I learned to 'turn on' writing like a spigot with good creative 'water pressure.' I'd sit down and sketch 40 to 44 pages in an hour or two. The key was to start and NOT stop in those two hours. I would not leave my piano bench until I had written my sketches.

    The next night, I'd play and pick the best 2 pages of the 44 as my base. I'd reserve the 42 pages of ideas for another piece.

    I do something similar when I write books. My first outline takes 45 minutes. I may do 5 outlines before I finish a book. That first outline allows me to start writing. I don't walk away until the outline is done. The mental pathway to the 'ideas jar' opens up and soon you can find 'it' more easily.

    When you love the ideas that come to you, you'll write and explore those ideas with passion and integrity - for yourself and your readers. You'll be less 'tired' when you do write - even if you've had a few bumps or stalls along the way.

    I waste far less time getting a book done. I am retraining myself to edit each paragraph before I get on to the next para. I'm not good at it, but I'll keep working on it.

    May you be happy authors and birth your books as you'd want them to be.

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  47. Hi Julia!

    Thank you so much for sharing your ideas here! I appreciate all of the great thoughts! I wish you all the best in your writing endeavors. Sounds like you have a good plan in place!

    Blessings!

    Jody

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  48. Great post and great suggestions, especially since you're actually trying them yourself and not just tossing out frippery. I appreciate your openness and vulnerability and I am committing to pray for you as you juggle this gift and your family and other aspects of your life. You are a vessel that the Lord is using to further His kingdom and I know He's got you covered!

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  49. Hello. I just stumbled across this by random, because I am thinking of becomming an author when I'm older. I agree that nowadays it is a lot harder to get more money from publishing books, and sometimes it is more focused on the quantity, not quality.

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  51. This was very helpful, thank you.
    Now I have an idea of what to expect with my novel.

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  52. Great informative post - and thanks for the e-shorts/novellas tip. Good to know. I'm experiencing (as someone who has only finished one, as yet unpublished novel, and working on a second) writing is the straightforward part of the process - it's the marketing & PR which are much harder to wrap my head around!

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