How I wrote a Master’s Dissertation and Four (and a half!) Full-Length Novels in 2018…And How You Can, Too!

It’s the holiday season, which means one thing above all else: this is the time of year when slogans and cheesy inspirational sayings are all the rage. Phrases like, “the best present is being present,” and “a goal without a plan is just a dream,” permeate our cultural consciousness as people come together to celebrate their religious holidays and the New Year.

Last year, at the end of 2017, I was preparing to sign a contract with my first (and only!) literary agent and was eagerly awaiting feedback from Hallmark Publishing on my recent submission, The Christmas Company. And during my first meeting with Rebecca Angus (my lovely agent), I remember her asking, “What are your goals?”

At the time, this question completely caught me off guard. As an extremely new author, I figured that the goals were to get an agent and to get published, right? I had vague dreams of seeing my book on the shelf in a real store, but other than that, I hadn’t the slightest clue.

A little embarrassed at not having a real answer for her, after we finished our phone call, I picked up the nearest notebook and pen and scribbled at the top of my notebook: WRITING GOALS FOR THE NEXT FIVE YEARS. I wrote those out, and they included some of those pipe dreams of mine, such as being on the shelf in a bookstore and getting a starred review in a trade publication, but they also included more concrete things, such as “Write a high-fantasy romance,” and “Write that World War II Romance I’ve Always wanted to Write.”

With those goals in mind, I turned to another page and wrote, in big, scrawling letters, “GOALS FOR 2018.” And before I wrote those down, I decided to only write down the ones that would help me get to my goals that I had set out for the next five years. My 2018 were:

  1. Finish four full-length novels (or three fulls and a novella).
  2. Sell all three books already submitted to Rebecca.
  3. Find a critique partner and solicit feedback on each of the completed manuscripts.

46510730_10156964231619225_6689155643598700544_nAnd you know what, reader? As of yesterday, I accomplished all of those writing goals! I posted on twitter about finishing my fourth manuscript of the year yesterday, and after a few inquiring DM’s and tweets, I thought that I would share with you how I did it in the hopes that maybe it will also help you in 2019!

Step One: Planning for 2019 Actually Begins in 2018. 

In order to get the most out of your year, I highly recommend sitting down sometime between now and The New Year to plan your writing year for 2018. This way, you can hit the ground running on January first and go into the year with a plan in mind. In the frantic rush of the holiday season, I know it’s difficult to find time for yourself and your writing career, but trust me on this. Taking fifteen minutes before bed every night for a few nights to plot out your future will be extremely beneficial to your 2019 productivity.

Step Two: Creating Realistic Goals is Key. 

Everyone is different and every writer is different. As a grad student who had her mornings free to freelance and work on her books, I was lucky enough to have the time to write as much as I did this year, but the same might not be realistic if I was working a full-time job or if I had a house full of children! The key to making goals and keeping them is to know your limits, know your schedule, and push only a little bit further than you’re comfortable going. Your mental health, time with your family, and overall well-being is NOT worth a little bit of social media street cred, so when you make your goals, ensure that they’re realistic for you and your situation. Nothing makes you want to give up on your goals faster than thinking they are impossible.

Also, make sure your goals are specific. In my goals, I specifically wrote out that I wanted all of my full-length novels to be over 60,000 words, and this helped with planning my writing schedule!

Step Three: Build an Action Plan and Write it Out

After I made my realistic goals, I sat down with my 2018 calendar and blocked out my “no writing days.” This included things like my birthday, visits home when I didn’t want to spend time away from my family to write, Christmas, etc., and these days were vital to keeping me on track. By knowing what days I wouldn’t be writing, I was able to calculate how many days I did have to write.  This was especially important for me because from July to the beginning of October, I had a dissertation to write for my Master’s program, which meant no fiction writing for me!

From there, I made a chart in my notebook about what kinds of books I wanted to write. I knew I wanted to write two sweet romances around 70,000 words and two longer works around 85,000 words, and knowing that meant I was able to better plan out what book I would be writing when.

With my calendar (and the help of Scrivener’s word count/deadline tool!), I mapped out my “deadlines” for each book, writing out how much time I would budget for brainstorming and note-carding, as well as how much time I would budget for writing. Once this was completed, I had a full writing plan for the year. For example, below is the blocked out writing period for Edge of a Star, the first novel I wrote in 2018.

Screen Shot 2018-12-21 at 12.03.03 PM

The action plan includes both the calendar portion, but also a word count plan, so that every day you know exactly how many words you’re writing in order to stay on track. Scrivener has been a huge help for me in this regard, but you can do it any way that’s helpful to you!

Step Four: Find an Accountability Partner

Some people use twitter, some people use their fiancé’s, but everyone should have an accountability partner! Basically, at the beginning of 2018, I asked my fiancé to ask me, every day when he got home, how many words I’d written, if I’d met my writing goal, and what I’d written that day. Not only did it give us good dinner conversation, but it also helped me stay accountable and helped me stay excited about the work I was doing.

Further, on days when I didn’t meet my writing goal (or days when I didn’t write at all!), it was nice to have someone to talk to about it, so I wasn’t stuck in my own head. Having a support system is incredibly important to achieving your goals!

Step Five: Find the Strategies that Work for You and for the Book (or Project!) You’re Writing

Every book is a special snowflake. Or, perhaps more accurately, every book is a complex puzzle crafted by the devil to make us work hard. But, either way, part of achieving your goals is making sure you know how to approach that book! For me, the two things that helped were

  1. Creating a rough outline of the shape of the book, even if that shape was, “These are the 20,000 words were they meet,  these are the 40,000 words were they go on a quest together and fall in love, and these are the 20,000 words where he succumbs to his hubris, screws things up and they have a war but also eventually fall back in love.”
  2. Making a stack of notecards, each one representing a different chapter in the book. Because I know how long my chapters tend to be (2,300 to 3,000 words on the long end,) I can usually track how many chapters a given novel with a given word count tend to have. This means that I can create a stack of notecards wherein each notecard represents a chapter and has information about that chapter written on it. (Usually the chapter number, the character POV of that chapter, and a brief description of the conflict of that chapter and what each character is trying to get out of that scene.) These come in handy when I’m stuck or have writer’s block, because it means that I can remind myself of where the story is moving or allow myself to go and work on a different chapter since I know I can always come back to chapters I’ve skipped!

Step Six: Work Hard, but Forgive Yourself 

This has been the hardest lesson I have had to teach myself. When you set a goal, it can feel like the end of the world to fall behind. I always get very blame-y, which often leads to me writing when I’m ill or on a train (or on my phone in the bathroom of my fiancé’s family’s house while we’re trying to have a family dinner…), but let me tell you right now: if you don’t want to get burned out and lose sight of your goals completely, you have to learn to forgive yourself and how to let go of those temporary hiccups. Tomorrow is another day to tell your story, and you can absolutely seize that opportunity!


Step Seven: Celebrate All of Your Success!

By December 31 this year, I will have written 346, 216 words, across five manuscripts, four of which are completed. If I include my dissertation, that number becomes 362,967 words. And that’s so exciting! It’s incredible to feel that I wrote so much, especially considering that this time last year, I didn’t know if anyone would even want to read what I wrote!

But, the real thing to celebrate isn’t how many books you write or how many words you get on the page. The real thing to celebrate is the goals you make and the goals you keep! Best of luck to all of you in this new year and happy writing! I can’t wait to see all of the wonderful things you create in 2019!

Alys Murray is the author of the Hallmark novel, The Christmas Company, available in-store from Target, Walmart, Meijer, select Hallmark Gold Crown stores, and from the fine retailers below. 



Additionally, in 2019, Alys will be releasing Tea and a Cowboy from The Wild Rose Press, as well as Society Girl from Entangled. 


11 thoughts on “How I wrote a Master’s Dissertation and Four (and a half!) Full-Length Novels in 2018…And How You Can, Too!

  1. lrrutherford says:

    Congratulations! What you have accomplished is truly AMAZING! I would love to get some advise on how you started to get a publisher. I am looking for an agent now and I have no idea what on Earth I am doing. (HELP!) I look forward to reading your novels and watching your success grow.


  2. Justicereads says:

    First of all, congrats again on your debut novel, The Christmas Company and on completing your dissertation! I’m so grateful that you took the time to share parts of your writing journey and planning process with us! I’ve definitely got some new ideas now. One question came to mind because you mentioned writing in different genres. Will you need to change your pen name/psudo name when you’re published in a different genre? I ask because I have the same genre writing goals as you! Also, out of curiosity, out of your now five completed novels, which one/genre did you write the fastest and how long did it take you? Thank you again for your shared experiences. I can’t wait to read more of your work!


    • alysmurray says:

      Thank you so much for your kind words! At the current moment, I don’t have different pen-names differentiating my content. Next year, I’ll have a sweet romance, a slightly warmer romance and a New Adult romance with more adult themes coming out all together under my name. In my research, I’ve found that most romance readers will migrate cross genres with authors they like, so I’m hoping to find readers across plenty of different genres and introduce them to/help them fall in love with something new! Now, I think this is probably easier because in all of these genres, I never write on-the-page sex, which is usually the line romance authors draw when they create distinct personas/pen names!

      Out of my nine completed novels, The Christmas Company was the one I wrote the fastest (20 days!) and the longest, Edge of a Star, which was a 90,000 space fantasy romance took me about two and a half months!

      Again, thank you so much for reading and giving me your thoughts and questions! Best of luck to you in your writing journey!


  3. Janet Ch says:

    What an amazing output! None of these books are particularly short– You must have been very focused to do so much in such a short time.. Did you have Hallmark in mind when you wrote The Christmas Company or were you just writing what you loved to write?


    • alysmurray says:

      It’s funny, actually, I was about halfway through writing it when I saw a twitter post that Hallmark was accepting manuscripts, and I just sort of knew in my heart that it was the right place for it! After that, I just had to hope that they liked mine enough to publish it! Thankfully, they did!


  4. Janet Ch says:

    And then you sold to Entangled and WRP too! That’s brilliant. It’s interesting that you decided to have an agent. Hallmark was taking unagented submissions at the time and Entangles and WRP both take unsolicited manuscripts. Did you want to be able to focus exclusivley on your writing?


    • alysmurray says:

      Yes, I did! It was a wild year! I decided to pursue representation for a few reasons, actually. One, you’re totally right, my ultimate goal is to be able to support myself with my writing, so I wanted an agent who could be in my corner and push me in that regard. Two, I eventually want to sell a book to a Big Five publisher, and in doing that, I know I’ll need an advocate in those negotiations and in talking with them. Three, I wanted someone to whom I could ask all of my publishing questions and who knew the industry from the inside-out to help me develop my career path. My agent is the first person I pitch potential projects, titles, series, etc., to, and she also edits all of my work before it ever goes to a publisher, which is incredibly helpful! Four (and this is a selfish, silly reason!), I wanted someone who knew publishers well enough and had a good enough rapport with that she could ask, “Hey, what’s the status of this manuscript submission,” or, “Hey, when can we expect an answer from you on this?” It’s been great having someone who can advocate for me in publishing houses and with editorial staffs, so I think it’s been the right choice so far, especially when it comes to the entire process of putting out a debut novel!


  5. Janet Ch says:

    I didn’t realise agents did so much! Yours sounds so helpful. And the great thing is you don’t have to chase up publishers yourself (which must be difficult for those authors who aren’t naturally pushy.–for me, that alone would be a strong reason for deciding to look for an agent!) I’m only planning to target one particular publisher, but were I to sell there’s then a contract to go through –and and then I’d be wondering what I needed to be aware of when reading through it.Thank you. Your posts are very interesting and have given me lots of food for thought. 🙂


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