How to Write a Novel, 15 Minutes at a Time

How to Write a Novel, 15 Minutes at a Time

“What do you mean, you wrote this in 15 minutes?”

The woman seated across from me at a writer’s group was waving my novel around like a flag. I’d just been discussing the 15-Minute Writing Method to the group who’d invited me to speak about my second novel, Dark Circle, and what my writing process was like.

“Just that. I write in 15-minute chunks, most days of the week. And then,” I waved my own hand toward the book she was holding, “voila!”

Of course, as I explained, it’s not quite that simple.

What’s the 15-Minute Writing Method?

The 15-Minute Writing Method is something I came up with while working on my first novel. I’d tried (and failed) quite a few times to complete a manuscript for a full-length work.

I would start out all shimmery and starburst, trying to replicate the writing process of famous, bestselling authors who write thousands of words or many hours a day. Hugh Howey, for instance, writes for four to five hours every day. Charles Hamilton, an English author, was said to have written 20 full-length pages each day.

However, an hour or two into my writing time, the glitter would fade. I’d get bored and set the novel aside. I always intended to pull it back out at some point, but I never did. Instead, weeks or months later, I’d dream up a new idea for a new novel. And then I’d start the process all over again.

Frustrated with myself after yet another failed attempt, I decided to try something new.

Writers with short attention spans — or those struggling to fit writing around a full-time job, a family or other commitments  — this is for you.

Here’s the plan: Write for 15 minutes, most days of the week.

That’s it?

While there is obviously a bit more involved, the basic premise is this: break down what can look like a huge, overwhelming task into tiny, bite-sized pieces.

Look at marathon runners: they don’t begin their training by trying to run 26.2 miles. Instead, they run many shorter distances to build stamina, and slowly increase the mileage as they get stronger. Why would you start writing a book by trying to write the entire book?

Here are five tips that will help you make the most of the 15-Minute Rule:

1. Look at writing a novel as simply forming a new habit

This perspective makes the task so much less intimidating! Have you ever trained yourself to floss your teeth? Eat healthier foods? Stop swearing? These are all habits, just like writing.

I highly recommend reading The Compound Effect by Darren Hardy, which describes how small, seemingly inconsequential changes add up over time. It’s up to us to decide if these little tweaks are positive or negative in nature.

Try to work with your natural tendencies, not against them. If you are most creative in the morning, squeeze in your 15 minutes of writing as soon as you wake up or before you leave for your day job. More of a night owl? Make your daily writing a before-bed habit, right after you brush your teeth.

2. Remember, it’s only 15 minutes

When I first started exercising as a teenager, I never dreamed I’d be able to run three miles (or even one). I was an overweight kid and adolescent, and the thought of doing really big things athletically was outside of my thought process.

But I could walk for five minutes, so that’s where I started.

You can do just about anything for just 15 minutes (or 10, or five), so start there. Think you don’t have even a few minutes to focus on your writing? Try giving up something that you don’t need, like watching TV (even the news), or setting strict limits on social media time.

3. Set a big goal and break it into pieces

Set a date to complete your first draft and mark it on your calendar. Make sure it’s reasonable, given that you’ll be writing in shorter chunks rather than marathon sessions. While writing my first novel, Epidemic, I was working full time. I wrote in 15-minute chunks before leaving in the morning, and completed a first draft (ugly, yes, but complete) in approximately five months.

Next, look at your calendar and work backwards, setting up mini-goals like “get to 15,000 words”  or “complete chapter nine.” Add in some fun rewards for these smaller goals. Nothing says “yay” to me like a bouquet of fresh flowers or some pretty new office supplies.

4. Avoid editing

While of course you want to produce a polished, well-edited final draft, there is a time and place for editing — and it’s not while you’re in the process of getting that icky first draft out.

Minimize the urge to edit by not re-reading what you’ve written. If you need to reorient yourself in the story at the start of a writing session, go back and read the last paragraph or two of yesterday’s work, but don’t allow yourself to look at any more than that.

5. Don’t beat yourself up

If you miss a day, or several, it’s ok — just jump right back into your process. Allowing that critical inner voice free rein here does no good and a lot of harm. Start fresh the next day, and keep going. Over time, it will feel strange not to have your 15-minute writing session!

Let the process of writing your novel be as messy and ugly as it needs to be. But don’t make it harder than it is by setting huge and overwhelming goals for your writing time or word count. Ease yourself into your new habit by working on your manuscript for just 15 minutes a day. You’ll be amazed at what you can accomplish.

Have you tried breaking your writing sessions into short, daily chunks? How did it work for you?

Filed Under: Craft
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  • Amelia says:

    I’ve written this way for years taking ten minutes or my lunch break at work to bang out a quick scene. I’ve written two books this way with one self published. Recently I was asked to not work on non-work material on my work computer even if I’m on my break. I’m supposed to leave my desk and write somewhere else if I want to write during my break. It’s completely wrecked my system and I’m trying to find time in my afternoons now to work with little success.

    • Hi Amelia,

      I’m happy to hear about your success with this method. It must be frustrating, though, to have your rhythm disturbed. Trying to think of some alternatives for you: could you write long-hand somewhere other than your desk? Dictate a scene on your phone to type out later, maybe while taking a quick 10-minute walk? Is there any other time of day that might work (early a.m., before bed, etc.)? Good luck to you–you sound very determined so I have no doubt you will find a way to make it work, despite the work trolls!

  • Hello J.P.,

    I loved this article, I love this concept. You are not the first person I have heard this concept from and I still find myself “surfin’ the net,” and reading blog-after-blog and article-after-article.

    Keep up the good work; your comments show that a lot of people are ‘”getting it.”

    • Hi Charlotte,

      Thanks so much for weighing in–you’re right, the idea to break a novel down into manageable chunks certainly isn’t a new one. I’m happy to hear that it inspired you though, and hope that it works well in your writing process!

      Be well,

  • Jaclyn says:

    This is great advice! My husband recently told me about a book called Mini Habits — the premise is that these habits should give you a chance at success every day, even if it’s a terrible day and you only remembered your goal as you climbed into bed.

    Inspired by that concept, I set a goal to just open my manuscript every day. That’s it. Open the file. I can do that via the Dropbox app on my phone if I forget until bedtime.

    The other night, I opened it up without even intending on doing any work on it, but ended up launching into revisions. Seeing the words in front of me gave me energy and ideas I assumed were impossible that day (I was exhausted, it was late, etc.).

    Successful projects are built word by word, not by setting unrealistic expectations for yourself 🙂

    • Thanks very much, Jaclyn. The book you mentioned, “Mini Habits,” sounds great. I read something that seems similar, “The Compound Effect,” by Darren Hardy, last fall. He talks a lot about the compound effect (thus the title!) of small, positive changes over time.

      I love that you’ve already put what you read into action. Good for you! Would love to hear how you continue/modify the method over time and how it helps your writing habit.

  • Christopher Faulkner says:

    Ms. Choquette,

    Here are some of my thoughts about your article.

    The article is well written, thorough, and provides real content. it came across as written in a friendly voice, while avoiding jargon and grandiloquence :-), which makes it easy to read.

    I especially liked “Writers with short attention spans.” Although, your were nice enough to provide me with an out by saying it is also for people who are too busy. Yep, that’s my out; I’m just too busy [I won’t mention that I‘m too busy because I can’t keep my head on straight]. 🙂

    Another item that especially appealed to me was your advice to work with our natural tendencies. It was so much more helpful than some set of ‘rules’ that might, or might not be true [usually not, actually].

    The first thing that came to my mind under the natural tendencies heading was editing. While you suggest we avoid editing while writing the rough draft, I must admit I can’t do that. I feel compelled to work with a piece until I am happy with it. Although, not 100% happy; that never happens. I will write/edit until I believe the piece is as good as I can get it at that time. There is always room for more editing, and more detailed editing, in the future [usually after it sits for awhile].

    As you already know from your own experience, my approach [writing/editing a piece ‘till I’m happy enough] won’t jibe with the 15 minute novel method. This is how I think I can’t work it out:
    1] Continue my writing/editing method when I have the time to do so [usually a few hours/piece].
    2] When I’m too busy [see above 🙂 ], I intend to switch to the 15 minute method with one minor adaptation.

    One of my biggest fears when writing, and the reason I write/edit, is losing a detail/thought by not addressing it right away [see ‘too busy’ above 🙂 ]. But there is a work around that will still let me write w/o editing in 15 minutes bursts: I can insert comments in the areas where I think change is needed and address them later when I do the more detailed edit.

    Your article is the one that inspired me to think of this work around. I think it’s because your article is both written in a friendly voice and contains useful, detailed information.

    Anchoring your article with “Don’t beat yourself up” was an excellent choice. For some reason, our Society seems to glorify self-reproach; it supposedly makes us better at what we do. However, when we are self-berating [or being berated by someone else] it makes us look back – at the past. It’s better to avoid the negativity caused by self-berating and concentrate on encouraging ourselves to do better next time. Life’s lessons are for the future, not the past.

    So, to make a long story short [sort of], I am going to incorporate your method when needed, with the one little adaptation that allows me to work within my natural tendencies. Thank you for taking the time to write and share this information with us.

    Chris F.

    • Hi Chris, this is a great insight. I love the addition of using comments within the piece to remind you that a particular area needs more attention/editing. What a creative idea~I’d love to know how it works out for you.

      And please know that I’m never offended if anyone doesn’t like my method or wants to change it up. I think that’s how creatives work best: give us a general idea and then see all the cool ways that we can tweak it to make it work even better for our particular makeup/personality/place in the process.

      Thanks again. Glad you found the article helpful!

  • rose says:

    Hello! So glad I came across this website and found your article. I’m a new writer who has procrastinated for almost two years trying to write my book/s. I seem to get to a certain point, the reason I now have two books in progress, and just stop. I’m going to try the 15 minutes per day and see if I am able to complete these books.

    • Hi Rose, so glad to hear that the article was helpful. I hope you have good success with trying the 15-minute writing method–would love to hear how it goes for you! Good luck.

  • Jee Ann says:

    Amazing! I had the same problem. I’d write a lot when I’m excited with the story, and when the enthusiasm fades, I neglect the story for a while, and suddenly conjure up another idea for another novel.

    Since I work at home, I think I’ll do more than 15 minutes, but I’ll definitely keep in mind your method! I’m definitely setting up mini goals and doing a few thousand words a day to keep me motivated.

    • Awesome, Jee Ann~glad you found this information helpful. I think that the enthusiasm waning is extremely common for most writers.

      Mini goals sound like a great idea (but I’d caution not to make them too big as little efforts are easier to maintain long-term). Good luck and please keep me posted on your progress. I’d love to hear how you’re doing with this new focus!

  • I love this idea! I feel like I’m always coming up with vague ideas for a novel (or more likely, novella to start out), but the idea of jumping into a project so big seems so daunting! I have a notebook of ideas, but they’re mostly for segmented conversations or situations that I haven’t figured out how to turn into a full story yet. Maybe if I write each of the ideas out in short snippets, I can figure out how to make them come together.

    • That sounds like an excellent start, Brittany! Sometimes–if you’re a “pantser” like me, meaning you write “by the seat of your pants”–it’s best to just begin and see how the story unfolds. This may sound counter-intuitive, especially if you tend to be very organized/like planning things out in real life. But often our creative sides want to be FREE and allowing the story to just come, even in tiny bits and pieces, works well.

      Good luck and thanks for your comment.

  • Wendy says:

    My problem is: after the initial scene pops into my head, I’ll churn out 1,00 words or more. But then, either I finish the scene and can’t seem to come up with the next one, or I have to quit for some reason, and when I come back to it, my rhythm’s gone and I stare at it without anything adding to the page. I often end up editing just so I’m doing SOMETHING with the story.

    Not to mention I used to write on an Alphasmart 2000, which kept me from getting distracted by the games and videos on my laptop, but the cord started getting unreliable, and they don’t make it anymore (Why they couldn’t have made it to take a standard keyboard cord?) If something inspired me, I could just pop it on and type it in, but now I have to plug in my laptop (the battery’s shot), wait for it to boot up, decide which program I want to use, and oh jeez, my fingers went ahead and opened a game of spider solitaire.

    • Wendy, just want to say that I can relate. I think that’s the beauty of this method though, that you don’t have a chance to lose focus or get bogged down because it’s just a tiny chunk of time each day.

      And yes, laptop “extras” can be distracting for sure! Once the writing becomes a habit (it really doesn’t take too long to make it so) you could use the “fun” stuff like solitaire or Facebook or whatever as your treat for a job well done!

      Hope that helps … let me know if you try it and what your results are.

  • Wow….this was great! There really is no excuse to getting those books out. Just 15 min a day is a little over 90 hours of writing a year! Thanks for the reminder of sticking to the daily routine. Best of success, Ted

  • Avril Sabine says:

    It can be quite surprising how much you can write in 10-15 minutes when you’re lacking in time. Or even if you have less time than that. The year my youngest was born three months premmie and slept one hour each day, screaming nearly all the other hours, I wrote a book almost one word at a time. He didn’t scream as badly when someone held him and paced the floor with him. Every time I paced past my laptop, that was set up on my kitchen bench, I would type in a word or two. It took me a year, but I wrote my story. It was probably the slowest I’ve ever written anything, but at least I completed it.

    • Wow, that’s dedication, Avril. It reminds me of the quote by Hemmingway: “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” It looks like you did that, even with a screaming infant accompanying your words! 🙂 Hope your next book is a bit easier on you …

      • Avril Sabine says:

        That was a while ago now and I’ve written many since them. Some during other major challenges. I truly believe that if something is important to you, it’s possible to find the time to do it. Even if it takes a very long time.

  • This sounds a bit like my writing method. When I’m writing a chapter book for kids, I aim to write a chapter a day – that takes me about 20 minutes or so 🙂 It works for me.

  • Sue Whiting says:

    J.P., I wrote my novel PORTRAITS OF CELINA during my daily train commute to work. The commute is over an hour long, but I had a twenty minute window when the train was almost empty and I could write comfortably. It worked a charm, but sadly I have found it hard to write the next book that way. I guess every book has its own journey. Perhaps I should try to snatch fifteen minutes from a different part of the day for this one …

    • That’s a great way to write a book, Sue! Have you heard about the program that Amtrak was offering? It sounds very similar to what you were doing on your commute. Here’s a link to that article, in case you missed it:

      Good luck with this next novel. I think you’ll find the perfect way to fit it into your schedule. Sometimes just figuring out the “when” is the hardest part … then it becomes just another (good) habit. 🙂

  • Ty Barry says:

    Thank you. I have been struggling trying to find the time to write my novel. I have a full-time job and a family. I was feeling guilty that I don’t have hours to write. 15 minutes per day is manageable. I eagerly await your book. I would love to read it.

    • Thanks, Ty, and glad that the article was helpful to you. Guilt is such a hard habit to break, isn’t it? With a full-time job and family you must have your hands very full. I hope that this method is helpful and would love to hear more about your progress. Good luck!

  • This is great advice for all of us out there trying to balance our writing with work, kids, commuting, and everything else.

    If you can write 150 words in 15 minutes (which is pretty easy to do) then after a year, you’ll have 55,000 words minimum.

    • Hi Jason,

      Thanks for your comment. You make a good point: it’s not just fitting in the writing (which sometimes is daunting in and of itself) but the balancing. How we can follow our dreams and finish that book while also taking care of our families, doing a good job at work, etc.

      Do you have a work in progress? If so, how do you find time to write within the busy-ness of a typical day?

      • J.P., I’ve got one novel I’m querying right now, and then another in the clean-up stages. The balancing act can sure be difficult. I’ve got an hour drive to work both ways and two young kids with another on the way next month :0.

        My wife and I both write and blog, so we really just take turns doing what we can. I get up a 5:00 every day so that I can leave work early enough to write for an hour or so become I come home. I split that time up into three or four parts based on what I need to do that day (blog, query, revise, resubmit short stories, social media junk, whatever) and get as much done as I can.

        Thanks again for the great article.

        • Wow–I’m cheering you on right now. That’s an incredibly busy schedule. Good for both you and your wife for continuing with your writing in the midst of so many other responsibilities!

          Good luck with these two books and all your future work. And congrats on baby #3!

  • Hi JP!

    My friend sent me the link to your blogpost today and she said, “sound familiar?” And then I read it and realized I’VE MET YOU ON TWITTER!

    WOO HOO! Someone who thinks like I do! In fact, my new book “How To Write A Novel In 10 Minutes A Day” will be released March 26! For some of us, fifteen minutes is even too long. 😉 I’m totally sold on this method and I’ve been blogging about it for years! Our dreams are far too precious for us to wait until conditions are perfect!

    Thanks for posting this and championing this great idea!

    • Oh, Katharine, I’ve been waiting for this day~when I meet someone from Twitter out in the “real world” of blogs/websites! Thank you for reading the article and for your comment. 10-minutes a day? That is quite a feat~and something to aspire to. 🙂 Good luck with your upcoming book!

  • Lizzie says:

    This has come at the perfect time for me! I finished the first draft of my novel pretty quickly (in about 2 months) and now I’m in the editing stages. For me, editing is much harder than writing and uses much more brain power, so I’ve been trying to do a little bit every day. So far, I’m managing around 20-30 mins a day before I lose my mind but it’s nice to see that it’s coming along bit by bit.

    I think breaking down large projects into smaller chunks is so important (for me, anyway), otherwise it’s too easy to get overwhelmed and not do any of it at all.

    • Hi Lizzie–congrats on finishing your first draft! That’s an incredible accomplishment. I hope you are doing something special to celebrate.

      I agree, breaking large (sometimes overwhelming) tasks down into bite-sized pieces is very important. It’s also quite freeing~who CAN’T do just 15 minutes (or 20-30 as you’re aiming for) to write or edit?

      Thanks for your comments; good luck with the rest of your edits.

    • Forgot to ask, Lizzie, do you have an “end goal” marked somewhere on your calendar?

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