I wrote (most of) The Empress in 20 days. Here’s how.

by Gigi Griffis
The Empress in French

PSST…if you have ever wanted a private ask-me-anything call with me, now’s your chance! I’m auctioning off a half hour Skype call to raise money for Turkey and Syria. We can talk about how I got the Netflix gig, my books deals, digital nomad stuff, author stuff – whatever you like! Only three more days to bid, so if you are interested, time to get on it. And if you are a big book lover? The auction also has special signed editions of books from Neil Gaiman, Sabaa Tahir, and other big names.

Alright, enough PSAs. Here’s the skinny on The Empress

Every writer has their sound bites. Those tiny stories or bits of information that seem to perk people up. The stories we love to tell (and tell and tell so many times that they become ingrained).

For me, with The Empress, I’ve found several stories that keep coming up. There’s my introduction to Sisi’s legacy (when her portrait hung over the bed in my rental in Bad Ischl). There’s the fascinating little tidbit about her father owning a circus. And there’s the fact that I wrote most of the first draft of the book in one 20-day sprint. 

Every time I mention it, I get a request: will I write a blog post?

And indeed I will. 

So here’s the lead-up and prep work that went in before that 20-day rush and what the 20-day rush itself looked like, pulled directly from my notes during that time.

Before the 20-day rush: the audition

Before choosing me to write The Empress, Zando Projects (my publisher) and Netflix auditioned a handful of authors. Here’s what that timeline looked like:

Tuesday Oct 26: Project kicks off! I was given the scripts, details about the project, and an assignment (write the first few chapters and a synopsis as my audition for the project). At the time, I had no idea how many other authors were auditioning – I just knew I wasn’t the only one. 

Wednesday – Friday: I dove into the scripts and some preliminary research. I read and took tons of notes, brainstormed, and had a chat with my agent about my plans. 

Friday 29: I started officially writing the sample. I ended the day with lots more research and notes and 2.5 chapters on the page. 

Saturday 30: 5 chapters on the page!

Sunday 31: I took the day off from drafting to work on projects for my tech clients.

Monday Nov 1: After a quick polish of the five chapters, I sent the sample to my agent to get a second set of eyes on it before sending it off to the editor. For my original work, I usually have quite a few readers before my agent ever sees my work, but since this project was Top Secret, I relied on my agent to be the first set of eyes and let me know if I’d made any embarrassing mistakes. 

Tuesday 2 – Wednesday 3: I wake up to agent feedback, but client work has more urgent deadlines, so I sit on the feedback for a couple days.

Thursday 4: I make the appropriate revisions based on my agent’s feedback, flesh out the synopsis and send the polished version to my agent. Our word count is just under 7,000.

Friday 5: My agent approves revisions and sends the sample to the editor. I take a much-needed day off.

Weekend – Monday: The editor requests some simple changes, which I make and send by Monday.

Thur 11: A surprise editor call! She talks a bit more about her vision for the book and checks in about whether I’m willing and able to shift some things to match that vision. I went into this knowing it was work for hire and would be a collaboration, so I was prepared for these kinds of questions. I gave a resounding yes and answered her questions about my approach on various things as best I could.

Mon 15: My agent contacted me with good news: the publisher was hiring me to expand the sample! They wanted us to round out Act I and write it with the new direction in mind.

Tue 16: I started revisions on the opening and added one new chapter before client work ate the rest of my day. 

Wed 17: A full writing day landed the sample at10,600 words, including some snippets of later chapters.

Thurs 18: I finished and polished and pressed send on the new version of act I (11,100 words).

Weekend: Even though we didn’t have the final go-ahead, it seemed pretty clear that I was getting the gig, so I did my future self a favor and spent the weekend creating a much more detailed outline with every chapter planned for the book. Color coded, bullet-pointed, and lengthy. If I got the gig, I knew I’d need to hit the ground running.

Did I mention that I had covid? The good news is that I had almost no symptoms (other than not being able to smell or taste). The other good news is that since I was trapped in my room in quarantine anyway, this sprint made that feel productive. The bad news is, obviously, covid itself.

Now, the meat of the story: the 20-day sprint

When I say that I wrote most of the first draft of The Empress in 20 days, this is what I mean. The big push. The day I got the call saying YES, I got the gig. And then the mad rush to finish the draft by the end of the year.

Here’s what that mad dash looked like (blue line is expected progress and green line was my actual progress):

Dec 2:
Got the go-ahead to write first half! I already had a detailed outline, the original Netflix scripts, and just over 11,000 words from the audition. The goal was to land around 65,000 words on the first draft (though the final book is longer).

Dec 3: 12,800 words in the morning, 14,500 by afternoon

Dec 4: 18k

Dec 5: 19,900 morning; 21,800 afternoon

Dec 6: 22k

Dec 7: Spent part of the day making some revisions based on outline feedback from my editor (after having a quick call with her). Reached 25,100 by the end of the day. 

Dec 8: 28,200 

Dec 9: 31k

Dec 10: I took the day off from drafting to catch up on client work. (Luckily, I’d worked ahead like a fiend in the lead-up to getting this gig, so I really only had a few outstanding client things to tick off my checklist.)

Dec 11: 33k

Dec 12: 36,200

Dec 13: 38k

Dec 14: I delivered the first half of the manuscript to my agent to get another set of eyes on it (to catch any major faux pas before it went to my editor). She turned around comments same-day and I made some tweaks, ran a spellcheck, and landed at 38,800 by day’s end.

Dec 15: Finished a quick edit on the first half and sent it to my editor.

Dec 16: Reached 42k, much of which was written on airplanes and in cold airport waiting areas as I was on my way to pick up a visa in Croatia. (Because OF COURSE my visa run had to come in the middle of all this.)

Dec 17: 46k

Dec 18: Just under 50k, once again mostly written in transit on my way back from Croatia to Portugal.

Dec 19: 50,300

Dec 20: 52k

Dec 21: 58k 

Dec 22: 62,500

Dec 23: I finally wrote the words THE END, landing at 64,300.

Dec 25: An edit of the second half of the manuscript brought me to 65k (goal reached!)

Dec 26: Edits done! 66,500! Off to the editor it goes, a few days ahead of schedule.

As you can see, my highest word count was around 6k and my lowest days were 0. The big sprint was from Dec 3 to 23 with a few days of edits at the end before delivering that first draft to my editor.

And that’s all she wrote, folks. (Literally.)

Did I mention that I have another book coming out this June? Pre-ordering makes a HUGE difference for authors, so if you are planning to get a copy, I’d love for you to pre-order!

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