How To Set Up Your Production Sheet
Last week I went through the many reasons why building yourself a tailored production sheet pays some very nice dividends, both in the long and the short term. You can find that post here.
I’m taking my time with these (now a series of) posts, because a production schedule is one of the most fundamental and useful tools you can create for yourself, yet not many people explain how to do it.
My way is just one way. You may find tweaks and changes that suit you better, or even a better way to do it (in which case, do share!).
Let’s get down to it.
Choose your tool
There are some very expensive tools and toys out there that will do everything but write your books for you. Some are dedicated editors’ production schedule applications—these are mostly in-house tailored programs that cost thousands of dollars.
Then there are project management programs like the very expensive (but perfect) Microsoft Project, and a host of other expensive and cheap project management apps and tools. If you already use one of them, then you have a great tool to build a production schedule.
If you don’t already have such a program, the learning curve to get comfortable with one is considerable. If you have the time to spare, I recommend diving in and learning it.
Otherwise, you can use a simple spreadsheet, as I do. It serves me well enough for now, although one day I may pay someone to build the schedule inside a project management app for me.
I personally use Microsoft Excel. You may find that Open Office or Libre Office spreadsheets, and Google Sheets do the same—although experiment with them to see if they can run calculations on dates, before you commit to one or the other. [Out of curiosity, I copied my production schedule into a Google sheet. It seems to work fine.]
Once you have your tool of choice settled, you can roll up your sleeves. There is some basic data you need to collect, to build the schedule.
Know how many words an hour you write.
This is a critical number upon which the whole production schedule is built. That is why I suggested last week that you keep track of your word counts for the week. If you’ve never tracked your word counts before, then you will only have a week’s worth of data, and this will change over time. You will need to adjust your production schedule as you learn more about your own writing speed.
If you’ve never tracked your word count and have no idea how many words an hour you write, use the universal average of 1,000 words an hour. It’s low, for practiced writers, and high for newbies, but it will give you something to work with. You will also have to adjust your production schedule as you learn more about your productivity levels.
In both cases, I encourage you to start keeping track of your word count from now on.
How much production time do you need?
This is where terms get confusing, because “production time” means different things to different writers.
For the sake of building your schedule, use my definition: Production Time = everything that comes after you’ve finished the first draft. It starts on the day you finish, and ends on the day you release the novel/story.
What happens in that production time is as variable as humans, but will usually include: Your revisions, editing and clean up, your editor’s time requirements, arranging covers, formatting books, building print editions, setting up pre-orders, uploading to booksellers, and all the pre-launch marketing and promotion you generally do.
Any work you don’t do yourself (editors, cover artists, formatters) requires lead time, and working time. Some of it can happen at the same time as other things (the cover artist can be building the cover while the editor is working on the book, etc).
There are “fallow” days in the production schedule where nothing happens, or you’re waiting for things to happen. That is why “everything after ‘the end’” gets lumped into a “production period”—so you can get on with the next book in your writing time, and can juggle several books at once that are in various stages of production (I currently have seven).
If you’ve self-published many books, you already have a good idea of the absolute minimum production time you need for a single book.
If you have no idea, then use a generic six week period. Again, as you keep track of these things, you will be able to adjust your production schedule to make it realistic and reasonable, as you go on.
Approximately how long does it take you to write a book?
This is a very rough, throw-away figure that you need to build your very first production schedule. You’ll not need it again after that.
Figuring this out will let you build a schedule that works, first time out, instead of endlessly plugging in variables until everything works.
If you already keep excellent logs and know exactly how long (in days) it takes you to (plot and) write a book, then you don’t have to go through this exercise. Meet me at the next stage.
Calculate this figure this way:
1. (How many words an hour you write) x (how many hours a week you write on average*).
For e.g.: I write a little over 1,300 words an hour with a keyboard. I spend 6 days a week, writing from 7am to noon. So that is 1,300 x 42 = 54,600 words a week.
Now break this back down to a “per day” average: 54,600 / 7 = 7,800 words a day.
The reason I suggest you multiply for a week’s total, then break it back down again, is because many writers don’t write the same number of words every day of the week. I used to only write a couple of hours per day on Saturdays and Sundays, for example. Now I’ve ditched Sunday altogether (which is now scheduled down time), and write from 7-noon on Saturdays. Doing it this way gives you a true 7-day average.
[*This figure comes from your writing schedule, and is generally 50% of all the available time you have for writing per week – the other 50% is given to admin tasks, production tasks and all the business of being an indie author. If this is new to you, then check my post, “How to Set Up Your Writing Schedule, Kill Stress and Get Things Done”, which explains all this.]
2. If you use your dedicated writing time to plot books as well, what is the average number of weeks it takes to plot them?
For e.g.: I first reasoned out that it takes me a week to plot out a new book in a series, that is approximately 80,000 words long. That comes out at an average of 80000 / 6 days of writing time = 13,333 “words” of plotting per day. I’ll round down to 13,000.
I have since built better statistics and grown more efficient at plotting, so I know my average plotting is around 17,000 words per day for all but first in series titles, but I’ll use the rough estimate for this example.
If you’re a seat-of-the-pants writer, then you won’t need this figure, but your per day word figure will be lower, on average, than writers who do outline first.
3. Add the two together for a total period, in weeks, of the time it takes you to write your average-length novel to the end of the first draft.
How long are your novels, generally? Not sure? You can count up the combined lengths of all the novels you’ve written so far, and divide for an average.
Or do you have an ideal length you’d like to aim for? This is genre and brand specific, by the way. If you write contemporary romances, for example, you could average 50,000 words. Epic Fantasy comes in at the heavy end, generally – 100,000+. If you’re George R.R. Martin, or want to be, then you’re looking at 250,000+.
I would use about 80,000 words as my average. This is probably a bit high, but we’re building in slack, remember.
So, an 80,000 word novel, would take me (80,000 / 13,000) = 6.15 days to plot, rounded up to 7 days.
The same novel will take me (80,000 / 7,800) = 10.25 days to write a novel from start to finish.
Plotting + writing = 6.15 + 10.25 = 16.4 days
Round up to 17 days, then add 1 more for slack.
Final rough calculation = 18 days to finish the average novel.
Keep your averages on the easy side. It’s better to out-pace your production schedule than to be constantly behind (which impacts your stress levels).
So, how many books can you write in the year?
Again, simple mathematics. 365 / 18 = 20.27 books a year.
This is an unrealistic figure, of course. There are few people who write that many books a year. My average is 13 books (one every four weeks), and I have trouble sticking with that schedule because of life rolls and other schedule-buckling events, including my prodigious and wildly creative talent for procrastinating. Also, my average book length might be off—I suspect my average length is higher than this.
But this figure gives you something to work with. Look at the figure and slide the number downwards to what you think is realistic, or do-able. This is where building in slack with save you heartache later.
You can also use exact figures and build a “fantasy” production schedule, just to see what would be possible in an ideal world where you were perfectly productive. It’s actually quite inspiring!
Now we get into the real stuff.
Set your release dates.
This is the fun bit.
Now you know how many weeks it takes to finish a book, and therefore, how many books you can release in a year, you get to figure out what books you want to write, and when you want to release them.
Mine is a rigid release schedule: Every four weeks, like clockwork. I chose this schedule to gain Amazon’s algorithm favor. Amazon likes authors who release books less than 30 days apart. My production logs and word logs told me the schedule was do-able, and so far, it is.
If you’re still writing part-time, or your time is limited for other reasons, or you don’t care about algorithms—or the idea of every 4 weeks scares the crap out of you—then pick a schedule that seems to fit with the averages you’ve already figured out.
Try to spread your releases out evenly. It may mean having “spare” days at the end of shorter books, in order to release regularly. Juggle the calendar and your releases, and see what happens.
Also, you don’t have to choose what books you want to write for the year ahead right now. You can decide very loosely: “I want to write three SF and three fantasy this year” – then give SF1, SF2, SF3 estimated release dates, and slot the others in between.
Have fun with it, but keep in mind what your readers would prefer.
I mix up the sub-genres of my releases, so the historical romance fans who won’t touch science fiction romance with a barge pole are not left hanging for months and months for a new release, and vice-versa.
Now, you get to build the schedule, finally.
If you haven’t already, sign up for my newsletter and grab the sample production schedule I provide, so you can follow along as I work through this.
…and as I suspected, this section is already very long.
I would rather spread this post over a few weeks than scrimp on explanations, so next week I will get into the actual mechanics and formulas involved in building your own production schedule.