Writing Sprints

by James Scott Bell

There are many ways to write a novel. That much has been made quite clear on TKZ and in the comments thereto.

Some outline, then write. Some write and don’t outline. Many do it a bit of both.

Not many do it the Dean Koontz way. I shake my head in wonder at his method and output. In Dean Koontz: A Writer’s Biography, he describes it thus:

I go through a manuscript, slow page by slow page. Every page may be revised as few as twenty times or more than a hundred. Then at the end of every chapter, I print out and read it, because it looks different in hard copy. I pencil the changes in and then go back and include them. Then I go on to the next chapter.


Of course, Mr. Koontz has been a full-time writer virtually his whole career, and has a work ethic second only to the harvester ant.

The rest of us mere mortals must find our own way. Especially those with what Brother Gilstrap calls “a big-boy job.”

For me, the daily writing quota has been the key. For most of my career the goal has been 6,000 word per week (I take one day off to recharge).

Early on, I’d sit down at my keyboard and type for as long as it took to reach my quota. Some days the words flowed. Other days it was like extracting moisture from a cactus.

Then one day I read something about exercise that helped change things. I always thought the benefits of aerobics was to do a certain minimum—say, thirty minutes straight of walking or jogging. But I discovered that three stints of ten minutes was just as good.

I liked that because I tend to get bored when walking, even if I’m on the treadmill watching a movie or listening to a book.

So now I try to get ten minutes of walking in early in the morning, to make twenty minutes later more doable.

And the same applies to my quota.

Even before I walk, I try to get some writing done. I sprint. I go for what I call a “Nifty 350.” Sometimes it’s just 250 (that number is important to preserve the rhyme scheme. I don’t know how to rhyme, say, 243, except with “afternoon tea.”)

Anyway, whatever I do makes the quota easier to complete later in the day.

I also carry my trusty AlphaSmart with me when I’m out. I may stop in at Coffee Bean and do more words there, come home, and do more. If I have to wait in an office, I peck out some words. (Young people always ask me what that is. When I explain that it’s just for text and runs forever on AA batteries, they’re somewhat astonished. I then tell them about rotary phones, manual typewriters, and Ed Sullivan. And words they will never hear, like, “Check your oil, sir?”)

Another benefit of writing sprints is that in between sessions my boys in the basement are working on the project. They send up notes for me to incorporate when I get back to writing. All they ask is that I send down some coffee and the occasional apple fritter.

Intentional writing sprints can serve you just as well. A friend of mine has written a several excellent legal thrillers on his commuter train ride to and from the city where he practices law.

So now I ask: Have you ever considered making writing sprints a regular practice? What is your method for producing the words (and I don’t mean by asking AI to do it for you!)

39 thoughts on “Writing Sprints

  1. I don’t really track word count. I write for a given length of time, then print out about 1000 words, more or less, to read to the Tuesday workshop. The story line isn’t about word count, more about scenes (roughly speaking) or sequences or story nodes (MC decision points), instances of conflict. It’s . . . complicated.

  2. I think writing sprints is all I do, except during the watch hour between my biphasic sleep cycles as Steve wrote about a couple of days ago. Exercise is different for me, because if I’m exercising, I’m dressed for it and it’s too much trouble to go for only ten minutes. If I’m outside walking, I don’t set a goal, I just walk until I feel ready to return home, somewhere between three and five miles. Writing happens whenever I can fit it in. I write some in the morning, might slip into my office mid-afternoon or early evening if ideas for the plot come to me while I’m doing other things. I read the last couple of sentences and go right into the story. Some of these sessions might net 4500 words or more. If I get interrupted (which I never do in the watch hour – love this, Steve) I might get only 250 words.
    I’m awake now after two and half hours of sleep and woke with ideas swirling in my mind to the point that I knew I had to get up and write them down before they disappeared like a dream. I wrote 1875 words and feel like it’s time to sleep again.

  3. When I’m feeling like I have nothing to say, I set my timer for 20 minutes and write whatever comes. Sometimes it’s drivel and sometimes it’s brilliant (insert modest blush), but it gets me over the slump.

  4. As a plotter, I usually know what a scene needs to accomplish, but not always how to get there. Several times I’ve sprinted just to have something to work with. I’ve been surprised at how many of those passages are keepers.

  5. I do not currently, but want to get to a place where I make writing sprints a regular practice (also like your idea of setting a reasonable word count goal for each week and taking one day off each week). Too much chaos in my life to try that right now. Presently, I’m excited if I can just get 4 hours on a Saturday revising or researching for a story. That one day a week method doesn’t do much for keeping the story details in your head but I’ll take one day a week over no days per week.

    Aside from time, the other key for me in adopting the Nifty 350 will be getting better at having a good handle on my plot details. I’m still trying to find that happy medium between plotting/pantsing.

    I really appreciate TKZ for all this give and take discussion on our methods and approaches to writing and all the details that go with it.

    • Good thoughts, BK. Let me also emphasize turning off that inner editor when you write.

      Thanks for the good word about TKZ. We’re here to help!

  6. I use a word count goal, but not at one sitting, so maybe I’m doing sprints. I also am a firm believer in printing out a finished scene and reading it somewhere outside my office. For me, that’s in bed which is my reading place, so my brain might be thinking of the words more as a ”book” and less as a “job.” I make minimal markups, and that’s where I start the next morning.

    • I’m right there with you on reading hard copy, Terry. Only I usually edit the previous day’s work onscreen and wait for the hard copy read through until the first draft is done.

      • I do the complete first copy printout as well, but I’ve found it’s easier to look at recently finished chapters in small bits where I catch things like confusing POV, speakers, transitions, etc. By the time I finish the first draft, it’s reasonably clean.

  7. I set weekly goals. In case something unexpected comes up, I have time to make up for the lost writing time. 6000 words/weekly is my general goal. However, it changes as I work on other projects in different stages.

    Currently, I’m working on a new novel. Edit a non-fiction book. And outline a play.

    I try always to outline the next book while still writing or rewriting the previous book or screenplay.

    Happy writing! 💗✍🏻

  8. Funny and educational, Jim! Have you ever witnessed a young person’s reaction to a payphone? Complete and utter befuddlement. Hilarious!

    Once I slide on the headphones, my brain knows it’s time to create. Not sure why or how it works, other than I’ve conditioned myself to write this way. Someone once posited that it’s a form of hypnosis. Could be. All I know for sure is that it works for me. One caveat: If I don’t lay down some words first thing in the morning, it throws off the rest of my day. Perhaps I’m doing a Nifty 350 without realizing it.

  9. I like headphones, too, Sue. Bose Noise Cancelling. My fave background is either movie suspense soundtracks, or coffee house sounds with smooth jazz.

  10. Thanks for the inspirational post this morning, Jim. Lately, my life has become a sprint, rushing to get things done so I could get in the writing time. I sprint to take care of the blog, newsletter, email communications first thing in the morning, so I can have a few hours to write at the end of the morning. And, lately, a rental repair-to-sell project has chewed up the last eight months of my schedule. That is finally coming to an end.

    I always read my daily devotions first thing in the morning. I should add the nifty 350 after that, and add a “watch” sprint in the middle of the night.

    Thanks for the motivation this morning.

    • Steve, you remind me that in this world of ours sprinting may apply to just about everything. Ack!

      Remember that Broadway musical, Stop the World I Want to Get Off?

  11. Your post came at the perfect time, now that I’m writing a “reader cookie” prequel to help build up my mystery reader group and then will be diving into Book 2 in my library series.

    I’ve done writing sprints and they’ve been productive, but I’ve drifted away from them, I suspect because I attempted to do them throughout the day. I love the nifty 350 and a first thing in the morning sprint. I’m going to start doing something similar.I think setting a reasonable word count goal is important. I’ve set previous ones too high.

    I’m an outliner, and when drafting a novel, I’ll use a novel journal to brainstorm, write down thoughts, sketch out scenes, work out problems etc.

    What I’m bad about is tracking word count, something you’ve advised me to try before. I’m going to start with setting that reasonable work goal, and then adding 10%, and track it weekly to keep me accountable 🙂

  12. I always feel so good when I do the nifty 350. Until recently I was always a morning person, getting up at 5, but for some reason now it’s more like 7 and that’s thrown me off.

    Did you know that exercising 10 minutes will bring your blood sugar level down at least 20 or 30 points and sometime 50.

  13. Laughed out loud at “Check your oil, sir?” Words once so common, never to be heard again.

    I love reading about different people’s approaches to writing. (I’m awestruck by Dean Koontz!) You convinced me a long time ago, Jim, to write to a daily quota. (I include blog posts, short stories, and grocery lists in my total word count. 🙂 ) However, the quota does vary depending on the stage of the novel I’m working on.

    Interesting that you posted this subject on sprints today. I’m getting ready to go to the track to run intervals, something I do once a week. (I’m slow, but I’m still determined.) Intervals are great because they’re fast but only last a short time. I like the idea of writing, then taking a break, catching your breath, then resuming. There are days when my schedule really lends itself to this type of work.

    Have a great week.

  14. I don’t technically outline but I do think of at least the setup (goal + conflict) of the next scene in my story, then write the entire scene in one sitting. My scenes run 800-1,500 words, but usually somewhere in the middle. My goal is to write at least a scene a day instead of a set number of words. Most of the pre-scene thinking happens during the magical hour of an evening cigar.

      • Cigars. I never smoked cigarettes and smoked pipes only briefly. At one point in my life, I’d get home from work on Friday, shower, nuke a TV dinner, go down to Thrifty, buy a cigar, and smoke it in my back yard. I did this for about 7 Fridays. On the 8th Tuesday, I got a very strong urge to smoke a cigar that night, a sure sign of addiction. I stopped smoking cigars.

  15. I don’t use a word quota, I use a scene quota. Meaning, I have to finish chapter in set number of days. Also, my word flow seems to turn on and off every few months. So in a good writing period, I can finish a chapter in two days. Other times, it takes up to a week, but I make sure no longer.

    I write best at night, but I’ve been trying to start earlier in the day, put down a hundred or so words by afternoon, and it always gives me more productivity.

  16. Like a couple others here, I shoot for a scene in a day. Usually in one sitting, but sometimes broken up. And I notice that over time, while there’s always a mix of lengths, my scenes are getting shorter and shorter on average. My last novel had 135 scenes (and that’s in 55k total words). Maybe I should call them “snips” instead of scenes!

    • I like that idea of setting a goal of a scene a day. That seems like a good marriage of keeping word count goals without getting hung up on it, but also moving the story ahead in your mind scene by scene, day by day.

  17. I never follow word counts. I never track word counts. Depending on what I am writing, I either use hard core (Mongolian Traditional Throat Music with a heavy metal slant) heavy metal/ warrior music or really sweet, quiet classical music to write. I use pen and lined paper or the laptop. Once the music is established, volume corrected, pen ink colour decided upon, and the dog settled, I write until my hand cramps. Sometimes, I write for hours and hours and hours and sometimes it an hour or two. When my brain fries, I stop. Somedays, I write all day and into the night. I sleep all the next day and into the early evening. It’s like vampire writing. If I have TOTAL quiet, except for music, the words flow easily out of my hand, as they are doing now. I have (5) stories in process at this time. They circle around each other, add to each other and encourage me to write more. I HATE a few of my characters, they are ugly people, inside. I LOVE most of my characters! When I kill them off, I cry for them. When the characters are happy, so am I. I listen to their music, eat what they eat, sleep when thye eat. I guess that I am obssessed? I use PINTEREST to find their clothing, music and their other essentials, I keep a large # of pins for the main characters.

  18. My family laughs at my AlphaSmart. It’s currently mingling in a box with our grandkids toys. The grandkids love it but I quit using it because everyone giggled at the silly little thing. I guess my pride couldn’t take it anymore. But Jim, you’ve inspired me to maybe take it out of the toy closet and put it back in my car. 🙂

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