The Importance of Quotas

By Mark Alpert

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We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: If you want to write fiction for a living, you have to set a quota for the number of words you write each day.

Right now, I’m working under a relatively lax quota, 5,000 words per week. That shouldn’t be so hard, right? When I told my kids I needed to write a thousand words every weekday, they were quite unimpressed. “Hey, that’s only four pages! That’s all you do for the whole day?”

Still, it adds up. I’m writing a Young Adult novel now, the third in a trilogy, and the total word count will be about 80,000 words. I started the book at the beginning of May and now I have 60,000 words, so I’m three-quarters done. At a rate of 5,000 words per week, you can knock off a YA book in four months and a regular-length novel in five.

The key to sticking to the quota, at least for me, is giving myself some margin for error. If I don’t finish the 5,000 words by Friday night, then I work on the book over the weekend until I hit the magic number. And if I’ve already hit the quota by Friday, I work a little over the weekend anyway to give myself a cushion for the following week. It’s a great feeling to be a thousand words ahead of schedule when I start work on Monday morning.

I also try to limit the interruptions, at least the ones I can control. I schedule fewer doctor appointments and lunch dates when I’m on deadline. I don’t exercise as much either. (It’s too hot to go jogging or biking in New York anyway. The city is sweltering under something called a Heat Dome, some kind of weird high-pressure system that’s trapping all the hot air over Manhattan. And yet the city is still jammed with tourists and Pokemon Go players.)

The quota is more than just a goal — it adds some badly needed structure to a writer’s life. It turns a nebulous hobby into a disciplined profession.

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Some good news about THE SIEGE, the second book in my YA trilogy: the novel got a great review in School Library Journal. And Booklist recommended THE SIX, the first book in the trilogy, for all those Pokemon Go fans who might want to read about imaginary monsters instead of chasing them across Central Park.

Speaking of parks, I recently did an outdoor event in Isham Park in Manhattan, reading excerpts from THE SIEGE and THE ORION PLAN, my science thriller about an alien invasion of New York City (see photo above). Attending the event was my favorite geologist, Sidney Horenstein, who is famous for his lectures about the natural wonders of the New York area. Sixteen years ago, my wife and I went on a bus tour he led to an anthracite mine in Pennsylvania. We also visited the abandoned town of Centralia, where a coal-seam fire has been burning underground since 1962. (Another excellent subject for a science thriller!)

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About Mark Alpert

Contributing editor at Scientific American and author of science thrillers: Final Theory (2008), The Omega Theory (2011), Extinction (2013), The Furies (2014), The Six (2015), The Orion Plan (2016), The Siege (2016), and The Silence (2017). His latest thriller, The Coming Storm (St. Martin's Press, 2019), is a cautionary tale about climate change, genetic engineering, and Donald Trump. His website: www.markalpert.com

8 thoughts on “The Importance of Quotas

  1. I set a daily minimum and then have my weekly quota as a ‘backup’ if I don’t hit my count one day. I try to keep the number reasonable (minimum of 1000) but high enough to keep my on target. After finishing 3 manuscripts in under a year, those quotas made sure I was going to meet my deadlines.

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  2. Wish I could agree, Mark, but I don’t believe in quotas. To be a great writer you have to sit at your keyboard and wait for inspiration. Every word you write has to be perfect, you see, so it’s worth the wait. So what if it takes you ten years to writ a novel? If the novel doesn’t sell, you’ve got another ten years to write one that might.

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    • Why am I picturing a skeleton, festooned with cobwebs, sitting at a keyboard, waiting….and waiting?

      As the mug sitting beside me says, “My muse is sleeping off a drunk behind a dumpster somewhere.” So I’ll just write without her.

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  3. Congratulations on the good reviews, Mark. I’m behind on my three chapters a week quota because I’m reading good blogs like this one. Back to work.

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    • That brings up another interesting phenomenon — how the speed of writing sometimes depends on where you are in the story. I really slow down at the start of each chapter and really speed up at the end.

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  4. Great news about the reviews–congratulations!

    Your discipline is remarkable. It sounds so simple when you lay it out that way, but it really is consistent act of will against resistance. Most of the successful writers I know run quotas, and all of the bestselling ones I know definitely do.

    I don’t think it’s an accident that you can pair a blog about quotas with excellent review news. Like Elaine, I have chapters to get back to!

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    • Thanks, Laura! On a day like today — 95 degrees in NYC — writing in an air-conditioned room seems like a very sensible option.

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