Can you really write a book in seven weeks?

After John Locke writes a book in seven weeks, I question the clamour to have a go at it ourselves. Should we not worry so much about time and money and focus on good writing instead?

I’ve just read Joanna Penn’s short interview with John Locke, the chap who sold 1 million ebooks without a publisher. In it he talks about how he wrote a book – that’s an entire book – in just seven weeks. That’s very quick.
Now, I don’t got no beef with no one and I have no reason whatsoever to doubt Locke’s claim. However, I worry about the notion that to write a book in that time is something that we should all get excited about, or attempt ourselves.

Essentially, I don’t believe that you can write a quality piece of fiction in seven weeks. More importantly, I don’t believe that any writer can say that a book written in that time could possibly be finished. That it couldn’t be improved. That it was the best that they could do.

Don’t try this at home

To be clear about this, I have no problem with someone knocking a book out quickly and making a lot of money from it. But I do get pretty twitchy when this writing model is presented as a) sensible advice and b) perfectly achievable.

Let’s take the first of those. Just how good do you think your work in progress could be? If the answer is really, really good, then you’re going to have to collect lots of feedback, go through many revisions and find space to think in between. You can’t do that in seven weeks. It’s impossible.

And now the second. I don’t think that there are many examples of people having written books in under two months. You’re going to need a pretty empty calendar and a very clear plan of what you’re going to write.

Locke says his trick is to have it all ‘written’ in his head before he starts. I think he must have a brain like no other writer I’ve ever come across.

What I’m getting at

In all the stories about and features on Locke, we rarely hear about his writing. He and a few other high-profile indie writers have become poster-folk for self-publishing, but the focus is always on the sales and the money, or in this case, how quickly the book was written.

I totally understand why this happens. Their success is both significant for publishing and an inspiration for other writers who are looking to self-publish. Independent publishing is a legitimate way to get your work seen and to start earning money from writing.

But whoever you are and however you attempt to publish your work, please don’t be fooled by million-dollar headlines and glitzy blog post titles. Writing is hard work, there are no shortcuts and the chances of you completing your best work in seven weeks are slim to none.

In a nutshell

I believe that you should always aim to write the best book that you possibly can, and that alone should be motivation enough to take your time and get it right. Aim high, be patient and see if you can create something that’s truly great.

If what you’d prefer is a quick turnaround and to make an even quicker buck, then for me there’s something wrong. And you don’t sound like a writer that I want to read.

Share your thoughts

What’s your take on this one? Am I being idealistic and naive, or am I right to question this current trend for getting things written and selling on Amazon as quickly as possible? Let me know in the comments.


Anonymous 2 August 2011 Reply

Interesting post as always Iain, thanks!
What about those who take far too long to write a book. I guess what I’m trying to say is: how do you know when enough is enough? 2 August 2011 Reply

I think it depends on the circumstances. I took a long time to write my book, but then I did the whole thing while also working full-time, then when I got an agent I spent another few months editing and rewriting parts of it. 
That said, there does come a point when enough is enough, you’re right. But I’d suggest that if it’s taken a while and you can’t quite finish, the next step should be to get some help, not hit publish or start querying.

What do you think? 2 August 2011 Reply

How long is it? I think I read somewhere that not all his books are the full length eg. At least 60,000.
Totally agree with you, not sure how you can get any kind of quality in 7 weeks. 4 August 2011 Reply

You know, I’m struggling to find anywhere that says which book it was that he wrote in seven weeks. But that’s almost certainly poor searching skills on my part. I bought one of his novels and it’s 200+ pages.

Anonymous 2 August 2011 Reply

 You can definitely have a first draft in that time – wouldn’t strike me as that unusual. But then there’s the editing on top of that… 4 August 2011 Reply

Possibly, if you have a good plan and an empty calendar, but the editing is often the bulk of the work.

Anonymous 2 August 2011 Reply

As the author of a course titled ‘Write Any Book in Under 28 Days’, I guess I have to declare a particular interest in this 😉
I tend to agree with Claire Hennessy, though. You can certainly write a first draft in a month – look at the numbers who succeed in this every year in NaNoWriMo. But it will undoubtedly require polishing to bring it up to a decent professional standard. In my view, having written your first draft, you should actually put it to one side for a while, then return to edit it with fresh eyes. As someone once said, the best books aren’t written, they’re rewritten. 4 August 2011 Reply

The best thing about NaNoWriMo (the worst thing is that kinda-acronym) is that it gets people writing who haven’t previously written anything substantial. It’s a great community project with a good ethos. But as you say, and as I suggest in my post, those novels are not and can not be finished. They are lightning quick first drafts. And that’s a different thing to writing and publishing something in seven weeks. 2 August 2011 Reply

I think it’s possible to write a book in 7 weeks. I wrote the first draft of my book in a month (participating NaNoWriMo) having a day job. It is far from publishable, though, I’m still working on that. You write 2 hours per day, and there you go, you have a 50-60000 word manuscript. Then you can spend three more weeks to polish it. If you write full time, you can do that without sweating.But:- You need time to plan the book. Mr Locke “writes” his books in his head beforehand, I wonder how long does it take (I haven’t heard the interview).
– I need to develop some distance after the first draft to see it with fresh eyes, for me it takes several weeks.
– I definitely will ask some people to read my book before looking for publisher, and it takes time too.

So I think it’s doable, but I have my doubts about the quality. And for most of the writers rushing just doesn’t work out, we need some time to think and work some more on the manuscript.

Anyway, I’m curious now, so I will read a Locke book. 4 August 2011 Reply

Again, I’m not questioning whether it’s possible. He says he did it so he did it, and there are plenty of people in this thread who seem to have successfully tried something similar. As you say, I don’t think you can fit the necessary feedback and revision in that amount of time too.

Anonymous 2 August 2011 Reply

Hi Iain, I had to drop by! Thanks for the link back and I’m glad this sparked conversation, as John often does at the moment. Have you read his marketing book? or read one of his novels? 
John is absolutely clear that he is not Shakespeare and the books he writes are for a specific audience, they are commercial fiction. At 99c, literary fiction or big name authors have to write books that are 10x as good as his because of the price. So basically, he is aiming at mass market distribution. You enjoy the book enough at 99c that you buy another – they are like the old pulp fiction. I have read several, some I liked (Lethal People), others I didn’t (Saving Rachel).
But you cannot compare them to what you are writing – as we’ve discussed before, you write literary fiction and that’s the milieu you come from and write in. It is a world away from what John is trying to do.
Also, you and I have day jobs and other focuses – including how much we blog. John is a business man and set out to make his books a business, each one working for him. He does nothing else in those 7 weeks so producing a book is perhaps not such a big deal. So basically, you’re trying to compare different products.  
Have you also read Dean Wesley Smith on this? He writes about the myths in publishing – such as fast writing creates crap. He does the math on this, and is another example of a pro writer making a full time living with a lot of novels. I highly recommend his Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing series.
Why do I care so much about this?
I want to be a fulltime pro author. I also want commercial success. I want to write entertaining books that people enjoy reading on the beach or the commute. I personally don’t want to write literary fiction at this point – I’m clearly a genre writer. With those goals, John’s success and his methods are fascinating to me. My sales on Pentecost are around 2000 books a month now – if I had that with 7 more books, then I would have a decent income. 1 book won’t cut it so any help with writing the next one is good. I may not make 7 weeks but I hope to bring it down from 14 months to maybe 6 months with the help of John & Dean, and perhaps with number 3 it will get less.
Thanks, Joanna 3 August 2011 Reply

Thanks for the clarity, Joanna.  Literary writers tend to wax apoplectic over the fast success of others, but as you said, the two are ‘worlds away.’  Your comment was helpful to me.  I won’t say how long I’ve been working on my novel!  
Also, Edward P. Jones, author of Pulitzer-prize winning novel The Known World, spent ten years working the book out in his head before he wrote a very fast first draft. In my book, that’s more than ten years of work! 4 August 2011 Reply

Hi Helen
Nowhere in my post do I complain about or as you put it, wax apoplectic, over anyone else’s success. Write for Your Life is read by writers of all shapes and sizes and though I write literary fiction, I don’t have any issue with genre writers or people who self-publish. Good writing is good writing.

Iain 5 August 2011 Reply

Oh, Lordy, no, I didn’t mean you. I meant like me and my friends, writers who spend years on a book,  struggle to get published, and groan over the quick success of others.  I was not clear.  My bad. 5 August 2011

Yep, I get what you mean now, I think I just read it wrong. 4 August 2011 Reply

Hi Joanna!
I actually wrote a paragraph that said something along the lines of – ‘I love Joanna’s blog, it’s full of fantastic, practical advice for all writers and I’m not having a go at her, promise!!!’ But then I hoped that you would know that, so took it out!

Anyway, I have since bought his marketing book and one of his novels, yep. Read a few chapters of the latter and found it pretty awful, borderline offensive. I also think that his book covers, with their bare legs and thigh-high boots, have a slightly misogynistic whiff about them. Frankly, I think we should all aspire to more, but I suspect you knew I’d say that.

Anyway, the point of my post really wasn’t to have a go at John Locke or anyone else that wants to try and write a book in that time. And I’m not even comparing what he writes to literary fiction, because you’re right, it’s a different product for a different market. Not better or worse, but different.

Ultimately, I hope that all writers, whatever their genre or route to market, put writing as well as they possibly can on top of their list of priorities. I hate the thought that a talented new writer might be put off completely once the promise of a quick finish disappears and the reality dawns. I honestly think it’s impossible to write, reflect, collect feedback and revise any good novel in such a short space of time. 

Finally (lots more comments to answer!), and I’m not just saying this because it’s your post I linked to and because I’m a great bit suck-up (I am a bit), I think that the way you have and continue to do things is genuinely inspiring and I’m genuinely chuffed that it’s going so well. Those are awesome figures. Toot toot!

By the way, check out the podcast. We talk about this more and Manuela outright bloody disagrees with me! The cheek! On my own podcast! She does make some excellent points though, many along similar lines as you’ve written here. I do get the arguments for and against.

That’s it!


Anonymous 11 August 2011 Reply

I knew it wasn’t aimed at me Iain – and of course I’m not offended, and I hope you’re not! – it’s just John is an online friend, like you are. We are all in different places on the writer’s spectrum and I think “live and let live” – happy rainbow flower smiling…. I am not much for arguing 🙂 Let’s all write what we love and not apologise for it… 13 August 2011 Reply

Absolutely not, no! *catches rainbow* 2 August 2011 Reply

I’m with you, Iain.  I believe you can write a first draft of a book in seven weeks, maybe less, but the work that comes next will take longer.
I’m seeing too much fiction that’s being kicked out in a single draft and I find it, it you’ll pardon the expression, hack work. As Joanna points out, it’s pulp work, like what was done for a hungry press and magazine demands of the past. I’m not interested in reading this kind of work and I’m not interested in writing it. Even if writing genre fiction, I want it to be good. 4 August 2011 Reply

I think that’s the crux of what I’m saying Randy, yeah. I want to encourage writers to write well and with care. And as I say quite often, I think that we should try and write the best book that we possibly can, whatever the genre or route to market. I don’t think a book written in seven weeks can have the time or care required to make it as good as it can possibly be.

Anonymous 2 August 2011 Reply

Type your comment here.
7 weeks? I’ve been working on my book for 3 years! But, I
think my writing serves a very different purpose for me. My quest to answer my
big questions will take a lot of research, thought, time, growth, and
reflection. Quick, informative bursts of information probably do not. These
bursts have been perfected by such individuals as Seth Godin, who revises daily
blog posts to combine in his best sellers. Not to say Seth doesn’t reflect, but
they are short bursts of reflection rather than reflection over time.


I don’t think there is a right way or wrong way, I guess it just
depends on what type of author you want to be. 4 August 2011 Reply

I love Seth Godin, such a great blog and I really like what’s coming out of his Domino Project. Very nice. And though his posts are short, I honestly don’t think he writes them quickly and without time to rethink and revise. He seems a very particular chap to me! I know what you mean though and take your point. 5 August 2011 Reply

I subscribe to Seth Godin’s blog, partly because he has such good things to say about marketing, and partly to study how he probes deeply into something in few words, with great clarity. I’m trying to emulate this. The clarity part is what’s hard for me. !! 2 August 2011 Reply

I’m also very wary of the seven week turnaround – but then I guess it’s horses for courses. If John Locke is finding a market for his books then hats off to him: in that sense he’s serving a market need. And I guess we can’t knock that – after all, no-one is being forced to read or buy his books or others that fall into this category.
For my own part I fall into the write, set aside, rework, improve, set aside – and final rework…(maybe – it just depends whether new avenues in the plot open up along the way…!).  And even at the proofing stage I find myself editing…!  So seven weeks – absolutely not for me!  Interestingly I’ve just (10 mins ago) sent off my final proof the The Secret Lake for PDF conversion having spent a few days proofing the hard copy received from Amazon CreatesSpace, I was convinced there would be just minor typos to deal with – but even then I spotted inconsistencies that needed correcting… 

Karen Inglis
@kareninglis 2 August 2011 Reply

I have just finished reading Johns book about writing and I think that in his case 7 weeks is doable for the type of fiction he is writing. Having read some of his books I am impressed by how polished they are, certainly not a first draft by any means. As Joanna says they are pulp fiction but that doesn’t mean they lack polish.
Certainly for more literary fiction 7 weeks would be a stretch but this isn’t what John is writing. They are fun books for a very particular audience.

I would be interested in knowing how much time he spends thinking about the stories beforehand, whether he plans much and whether that is included in the 7 weeks. 2 August 2011 Reply

I absolutely agree that the planning is key.  If I had mapped out my plots in advance down to the last detail, then a huge amount of time is saved. The trouble is that I find that plots take on a life of their own once you start writing…  But that may be because I’ve not thought/planned enough in advance!  Each to his/her own I guess….  And btw I’m not prejudging John Locke’s work – I’ll be interested to read one of his books at some stage…just to see what can be done in that timescale…even if I’m not sure it will be my particular type of read…. 4 August 2011 Reply

He says that he has it all mapped out before he starts, that it’s pretty much written already… in his head. I can barely remember what I had for dinner, but then I am unbelievably forgetful and flighty. 🙁 4 August 2011 Reply

Totally, people are buying his books so good luck to him. It may seem inexplicable to me (see my reply to Joanna Penn), but who cares what I think? John Locke doesn’t and nor should he.
I’m afraid your writing process sounds much more familiar. Sorry. 2 August 2011 Reply

We’re in a revolution, but the players haven’t changed–they’ve just changed costumes.  Once there were Penny Dreadfuls, written fast for bucks and shock, scorned by the lit elite, source of the story of Sweeney Todd.  There’s room for everyone.  I have no interest in John Locke’s books, but it’s possible that he’s got the kind of mind that can write something interesting very, very fast.  How memorable it will be is another story.  But if literary writers can get more attention because of people like him, may the Force be with him. 4 August 2011 Reply

Hi Helen, I think I may have misread what you meant by your earlier comment. Apologies if that’s the case. Why do you think literary writers will gain more attention because of him? I’m not sure I follow (again). 5 August 2011 Reply

Thanks, that’s gracious of you.    I meant that Locke is proving that self-published books can be highly marketable, which  will probably benefit literary as well as genre writers.  –Bringing more writers ‘attention’ via the increased viability of self publishing.  

Anonymous 3 August 2011 Reply

I wrote a book and published it in print and on the Kindle within a month 12 months ago …
Two points to note
1. I’d be researching it for years
2. I just published the second edition a year later with things that came to me afterwords

– all made possible by the new publishing paradigm 4 August 2011 Reply

Hi Tom
How long was it? Was it fiction? And yes, the ability to update your work is one of digital publishing’s Godsends, especially for non-fiction writers. WordPress 2.2 for Dummies anyone? I’ve got a copy right here. In print. 3 August 2011 Reply

Hi Iain,
Great blog btw, it wings its way into my inbox every day and I keep a beady eye on what you’re up to.

Delurking for once. I’ve watched John’s progress with interest via JA Konrath’s blog in the States.   I agree with Joanna’s comments absolutely, you cannot compare literary fiction with John’s work.  Recently, I found a published copy of Saving Rachel in my local library.  John’s writing reminds me of the penny reads my grandfather bought with his pocket money.  And if I remember correctly, Saving Rachel wasn’t more than 25,000 words. It didn’t float my boat, but then I’m not John’s target audience.  If I ever came across a man like the hero, he would be singing soprano for a month, lol!

First and foremost, John is a businessman and marketing guru.  He’s recently published an ebook on how to do it.  For writers who don’t have marketing experience, the second part of his ‘how to sell a million copies of your self-pubbed novel’, is where the meat and potatoes are.  A point I would make is that it does not matter what you write – be it a work of literary fiction or category romance – the marketing system he has devised is generic. The system is about interfacing and connecting an author to his readers and to build a fanbase to increase reader numbers.  He’s proved it works – for him.

But back to your question, Why the hurry?  It depends on the writer and what he is working on and how much time he spends writing.  If you’re a single parent with a career and a life, it would be difficult to create quality work in seven weeks, in my opinion.  However, if you can spend eight hours a day, seven days a week writing, it might be doable to get a first draft down.

I know one writer who’s at her desk at 8.00am and works through until 4.00pm every day, including Saturday and Sundays.  She finishes a first draft in about six weeks and takes, on average, another six weeks to edit and revise.  She can write up to four/five books a year.  Her earnings for last year were $65,000,000.  She has 350million of her books in print and is probably the most successful author of her generation.  Her name is Nora Roberts who also writes as JD Robb.

I began taking my work seriously almost two years ago.  I’m in the fortunate position of being able to spend six to eight hours a day writing.  Recently, I was runner-up in a competition run by a top publisher in the USA.   And finalled in three other competitions where the entries were anonymous.  Feeback from readers has been incredibly valuable and I can see where I hit the spot, or not.  I do not write literary fiction.  My aim is to make the reader hold her breath, gasp out loud, laugh, cry and root for my protagonists.  Not quite there yet, but almost.

I’m keeping an eye on your workshop idea, Iain.

Christine 3 August 2011 Reply

I’d like to hear more about the workshop idea…this is the first I’ve heard. 4 August 2011 Reply

I think Christine is referring to the Write for Your Life conference which I’m looking to host sometime early next year. Exciting!
More info: 4 August 2011 Reply

Hi Christine
First, defo not comparing his work to literary fiction. See my response to Joanna Penn’s comment above.

I’ve bought his marketing book and will give it a read. You don’t sell that many books without having some marketing know-how, although I suspect I’m going to read a section somewhere that tries to justify the bare legs and thigh-high boots on almost every one of his covers (again, see my response to Joanna).

The rest of your comment I completely agree with and it’s something that inevitably skews my approach to writing. My novel (and this blog, of course) is all written around a full-time job, which can be very difficult at times. I suspect if I were to be writing fiction full-time, I would be able to speed up my own writing process no end. Although not quite to seven week pace. Life circumstances always play an incredibly crucial role in how, when and what we write.

And glad you’re interested in the conference/workshops. Should be brill!


Anonymous 11 August 2011 Reply

Hi Christine – Nora Roberts is totally my hero as well. I don’t actually like her books but I like her work ethic. I also think that writing comes with practice and even with my second novel I am reaping the benefits of how the first was written. I think I will write this one faster and may even manage to get it down to 6 months next time. We’ll see. I want to make an excellent living as a writer – so Nora is a great example. Thank you.

Anonymous 3 August 2011 Reply

I couldn’t agree more with this. I can’t see how it’s possible to write a book, get feedback, process the feedback, revise the original and then send it out for more feedback to start the cycle again in 7 weeks. That only seems possible if: a) it’s an incredibly short book, b) it’s a badly write book or c) it’s book made up of other people’s work re-quoted. 
Quality before turn around time any day! 4 August 2011 Reply

Yeah, I’d agree with that in principle. 3 August 2011 Reply

Why do we never see a critical review of these miracle stories?TB 4 August 2011 Reply

See my response to Joanna Penn in this thread. There’s one. 4 August 2011 Reply

I managed to write a book in that time. I’ve let it sit for a couple of weeks now. Just went back and re-read it. I still think it’s a great story! But publish it now? I’d be asking for a quick death as an author. I also admit that I lost my job and had all day to crank out pages. There was NO other focus during that time. 
Now I’m off to revise, rewrite and revise some more, but not on the book I just wrote. I still think it needs more percolation time. 4 August 2011 Reply

Sorry to hear that you lost your job Betsy, it’s such a nightmare time at the moment. However, I am pleased that you have managed to plug the gap with lots of writing. And it sounds like you have a wonderful mix of writing quickly but wanting to edit and revise. Double trouble! Huzzah! 14 March 2012 Reply

Well I agree with you 100% and i dont write literary fiction, I write genre fiction (romance). There are many genre writers who have lost fans because they stopped writing and now have poor writing and poor editing such as Laurell K Hamilton. So maybe they make money but I couldnt live with myself knowing I basically scammed my readers with a poor product. I mean would you go to party looking without showering, looking your worse then look back at pictures and gloat thinking, “well I put no effort into how I looked that day but I’m not a model, I had a genre specific look and my target audience was homeless people so I looked good in their eyes…” uh no you wouldnt. You’d be embarassed. I’m not trying to be Tolstoy but I’d still be embarassed if I looked back on a published buck full of errors and poor descriptions. I havent read his books but have been told they do have a lot of errors. Now I am not hating on John Locke, he sounds like a great buisnessman, but I agree with the idea that writing fast is not something to aspire to. I also read somewhere he still works as an insurance salesman so it doednt soind like he quit his day job. He still writes full time. Now what I REALLY want to inow is why no articles or blog posts I read about him mention that he looks like John Locke from Lost, writes as John Locke (or is that his real name) and has legs on all his covers? Is this a marketing gimmick too? Did he use the name because it was searchable and would attract Lost fans? Are the legs cover related to the chracter’s issue with his legs or maybe geared to ferishists? Am I the only one who finds this strange? 14 March 2012 Reply

Oh my gosh, sorry for all the typos. I am posting from my phone and it is such a pain using the touchscreen. 23 March 2012 Reply

Thanks for the comment. I don’t know about the Lost thing, but I find the tone of his covers reprehensible.

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