18 Things I Learnt from a 48-Hour eBook Challenge

Last weekend, Karol Gajda and I took on the challenge of writing – and publishing – a short (5-10k words) ebook in 48 hours.

There are books out there called things like “Java in 24 Hours”. But that isn’t a real 24 hours – it’s 24 individual lessons of an hour or less. You couldn’t actually learn the programming language Java in a day, not even a long day with infinite coffee, free shoulders rubs and somebody stood over you yelling “LEARN THE DAMN LANGUAGE!”

Karol’s idea (itself based on something JA Konrath posted) was 48 contiguous hours, including sleep, mealtimes and flicking stuff about in lieu of working because your brain’s gone numb.

We had our ideas nailed in advance. My book would be a list of alternatives to nights out drinking – a book I’d been wanting to write for a long time. Karol, meanwhile, had decided to write one about getting free press passes, something he’d done in both Oslo and Barcelona.

Crucially, we both knew our subject areas well enough that minimal research would be required, and the words would (hopefully) flow forth from our fingertips.

I must admit to having been reticent as time got closer – quality is more important to me than speed – but I’m also interested in anything that I think could teach me something. Also, I love a challenge, and although I prefer hair-brained ones, this one was still quite appealing.

Did we succeed? I’ll tell you later in the post.

For now, here is what we – or at least I – learned….

1. The 48 hour-challenge scares people

We arranged an event and invited a whole bunch of people. As time got closer, the list dwindled downwards. I’m certain that all the people who backed out were genuine in not being able to make it, but I’m also certain that if the event involved me handing out gold bullion, that they’d all have found ways of making it.

I’m not sure what my point is.

Anyway, in the end, Karol and I were the only two that turned up. Which at least made it a lot easier to distribute the gold bullion.

2. You need a good venue

We chose our local cinema because it doubled as a community space, and it was free. Some aspects of this worked well – it was a good place for cheap food and drink, reducing the disruption of the need to keep oneself well fuelled. Other aspects less so – the wifi just wasn’t up to the business, and we lost significant time on Saturday wandering about town looking for a place that could compensate.

The other big issue was that there was a film festival on at the same time, meaning that the screening rooms would occasionally disgorge a load of people into the common area, before sucking them back up again when the next session of films started up, like some weird set of lungs.

3. Weekends are not ideal for it

We held the event on a weekend to keep it open for the 9-to-5-ers, but this created problems of its own. The local libraries, which are great places to work, are open for shorter hours at weekends, making them unfeasible choices. Added to that, Wroclaw’s co-working spaces are closed for weekends, further reducing the options.

And when we tried to decamp to a café, for the wifi, as previously mentioned, and also a change of scene to freshen things up, we found that they were all full of customers, ordering food and drink for themselves and chatting with each other in a friendly way, like the bastards they are.

Still, we had the cinema, and that suited our purpose.


4. Headphones are your friend

Headphones are part of my writing ritual, and help me get into the zone, both as a cue to myself that it’s time to write, and also to close off the outside world. Here they were vital as the noise being generated by the general public (*shakes fist at legitimate cinema-goers*) was far too high for me to have been able to concentrate otherwise.

But even if we’d had out own private space they’d have been good. Sometimes the tackata-tackata of other people typing (or tap dancing) can get annoying. I imagine for a novice this could be especially the case as it would ramp up the pressure – “Oh my God! Everyone’s getting loads done and I’m not!”

5. You can (probably) write quicker than you think

My first book – Dancing Feat: One Man’s Mission to Dance Like a Colombian – took around four years to write, edit and bring to market, and that’s not counting the seven months of doing the thing I was writing about (travelling around Colombia, learning to dance like a local).

Dancing Feat

Okay, so part of that lengthy process was to do with my trying to get published down the traditional road. Another factor was the sheer length of the experience I was writing about (7 months) and the length of the book itself (published at 136,000 words, but the first draft was more like 170,000)

But perfectionism definitely came into it too, as did a general lack of urgency – when you’ve decided in your head that something is going to take ages, it’s unlikely to do otherwise.

6. Not all hours of work are equal

I did maybe five hours of solid writing on Saturday, all breaks extracted. This is a normal amount for me to do in a day. The difference was that it was so intense and non-stop that by the end of it I was pretty wasted and my brain had stopped working properly.

I think the intensity came from a mixture of the speed of writing combined with the continuously changing subject matter. As I said, my book was to be a list of many different things to do instead of drinking. Well each ‘thing’ was to have its own section, and required me to think up an intro and something interesting or funny to say about it. I wrote about 34 ‘things’ in the end, and it was actually like writing 34 micro blog posts. I didn’t consider that this switching between subject matter could be so mentally draining, but it was.

7. You can’t work at this rate continuously

There are people out there who rattle off 8,000 words a day, every day (I wrote maybe 8,500 in 24 hours, and the book came in at just over 10,000 after editing). But then (a) we’re not all wired the same (b) the level of pre-planning by said people could well be higher, perhaps working from pre-prepared ‘beat sheets’ (c) I hate them all and choose to diminish their efforts in whatever way I can.

I have found previously that I can do six hours (all time squashed together, breaks removed) for three days in a row, but on the fourth day my brain will likely say “No more!” and I’ll have to take a day off. At four hours per day, however, I can carry on more or less indefinitely. Although not if I was working as intensely as above.

8. You can focus when you really need to

Focus is one of the main battles I have with myself. But there’s nothing quite like a challenging goal to make you think ‘I actually may not have time to goof around on Facebook all day today.’ Certainly it helped me keep my mind on the writing when I might otherwise have been distracted.

9. Working in blocks helps

How brains work doesn’t change just because you’re doing a 48-hour ebook challenge.

There are certain administrative tasks I can work on consistently without needing a break, I guess because they’re not all that taxing. But when it comes to writing, I find my brain wants to stop at somewhere between 45 minutes and an hour. So I took note, and took frequent breaks of 15-20 minutes a times, as I normally do, then went at it again.

10. You have to be realistic

More specifically, you have to be careful not to row your boat out too far if you want to make it back to the shore before sundown. All the words you write are going to have to be edited and proof read. And that takes time.

As mentioned, my book was going to be of the ‘X things…’ variety, and I wanted X to be as high as possible, so I charged ahead building them up one by one. I reasoned that as long as I called a halt to the writing phase by the end of Saturday, and then focussed purely on editing (and cover, and publishing) on Sunday, that I’d be fine.

With hindsight, this was wrong. I rowed out too far with my writing, leaving myself with too much editing work to do on the Sunday.

But did I get finished in time? Keep reading to find out…

11. It’s an opportunity to challenge your existing way of working

My way of writing is generally to edit on the fly, and get it all in place from the word go. But then my way of writing is also quite slow. Karol suggested that, since I was going for high output, I should just push on through and keep churning the words out, and edit it for quality later. He had a point – getting the quantity of words out was important at that point, in a NaNoWriMo kind of way, so I gave it a go.

It worked well in terms of getting end-to-end quickly, and also quickly reaching the required level of output – the book runs to over 10,000 words.

The unforeseen impact was that it lengthened the edit time, and, since I didn’t take that into account… well, I’ll tell you shortly.

12. Aim for the minimum viable product (MVP) – or aim to fail

Karol took on a project of a good, manageable size, with a definite ‘we’re done now’ upper limit (he was able to reach a point where he felt like anything else he added would just have been fluff). But mine was different – I could just keep going and going, way beyond the 48-hours, if I chose, adding more and more ‘things’, and increasing ‘X’.

The best approach in such circumstances (with hindsight, I might add) is to take a software developer’s approach and build the smallest possible product that you can still ship. Something I recall from my own coding days, and which Karol noted is known as the MVP or Minimum Viable Product.

In the case of my book that would have meant getting to the following as quickly as possible:

  • An intro
  • 5 things you can do if you don’t drink (This is arbitrary – it’s the lowest number I would feel comfortable with)
  • A cover
  • A description

And that’s what I’d do if I did it again. I’d get everything right for the ‘5 copies’ version, then I’d compile and iron out all the formatting issues. And THEN I’d scale it up, a few ‘things’ at time, writing and editing in blocks, until time ran out.

13. Overcome your perfectionism is liberating – but it doesn’t come easy

I have perfectionistic tendencies. It’s really important to me that my writing reflects what I’m capable of. But in order to get a book out in such a short time-frame, there’s no room for that. You have to accept it won’t be perfect, and instead aim for ‘good enough’.

But boy does that sting. It might sound ridiculous, but I found it really hard to call the book ‘finished’ when I hadn’t at least put one bit of humour (or at least ‘humour’) in every single section. On the subject of which, what are the basic units of humour? ‘joke’ doesn’t seem to work as a catch all for every type of wry, smart-arse comment.

14. Solidarity makes a difference

For a good time, Karol and I were neck and neck in terms of writing speed. Every now and then, we’d compare word counts. Karol had jumped 400 words ahead of me early on, when I took a break, but then we maintained that gap the whole time, right up until he exhausted his own subject matter.

All that time, I found it pushed me on – there was a semi-competitive edge to it.

It didn’t stay like that – he switched to editing way before me – but it was good while it lasted.


Working – well, posing for a photograph if we’re being honest – during the 48-Hour eBook Challenge

15. Having the right tools helps

Scrivener is a wonderful tool for publishing ebooks – getting the text into the kindle format is just so quick and easy given what a pain-in-the-backside said format can be.

Canva, too, made life easy for me. I spent maybe an hour on the cover, and it cost me a dollar (the fee for the stock image).

If I did the same thing again, the only thing I would change is that I’d write it in Word first, then transport it to Scrivener for formatting. It’s almost a sacrilegious thing to say in writing circles, but I find Word much more intuitive and user friendly during the writing phase than Scrivener. Perhaps that will change with time – who knows.

16. Having prior experience of those tools REALLY helps

Despite Scrivener being great for creating ebooks, it’s a powerful tool and hence complex. It took me many hours, and much researching, to format Dancing Feat correctly. However, having this experience under my belt meant I was in the ball park with the very first attempt on my 34 things book, and it only took me an hour or so to get it just how I wanted it.

It was the same with KDP – Amazons book-publishing engine. The first time I went through this, every single option required some googling so I could understand the issues involved (e.g. do I add DRM or not?). But this time I whizzed through at high speed and had it done within minutes.

The one tool that bucked the trend was the website Canva, which I used for the cover. It was the first time I used it, and the learning curve was so simple that I don’t think I could have done what I did much quicker. I don’t think the cover’s amazing, but it’s good enough, and that was part of the idea.

34 things cover

17. I didn’t really ‘enjoy’ it

I went out on Saturday and Sunday night for an hour or two to wind down, and everyone was saying how tired I looked. I felt it, too. And I was stressed, and found sleep hard to come by.

I like a challenge from time to time, but I couldn’t live like that. I’d rather take twice as long to do the same thing and live a happy, healthy, well-balanced life.

18. But I’m really glad I did it

I’m very happy with the outcome. I’m happy with the book I brought out, and I’m delighted that I now have two books on my Amazon bookshelf, even if one of them is about 14 times bigger than the other.

Most importantly, I pushed myself somewhat and got a sense of what I’m capable of.


Karol certainly did – he completed within the 48 hours, even allowing for the clocks being put back – and here’s his book to prove it:

Travel Passes Book Small

I’ve read it and it’s really good. He pitched me the idea before we started the activity and I told him instinctively “I’d buy it.” Which was true. And I did. And whilst it only runs to 6,500 it’s worth every penny because you can recoup it so easily using the advice given. I’m pretty sure I’ll be putting it into practise myself.

His book is called The Insider’s Guide To Getting Free Press Passes and you can buy it here.

As for my own book, I failed to get it out there within the 48-hours. But I soldiered on the next day and finally clicked ‘publish’ late that evening, some 78.5 hours after we started. Which is not great, but still quicker than 4 years. If I’d gone for MVP first, then I’m certain I would have succeeded within the 48-hours, but overall I’m happy with what I accomplished.

Those 78.5 hours includes sleep, food and faff time. Actual project work, timed with toggl, clocked in at just under 21 hours.

34 things small


My book is called 34 Things to Do If You Don’t Drink and you can buy it here.

Over to you…

Think you could do the same? Interested in finding out?

Karol is planning on running a workshop in the near future, so if the idea intrigues you but you feel like you need some support then go ahead and sign up. You may or may not succeed, but you almost certainly won’t regret it.

Do you think you could write an ebook in 48-hours? If not what could you do in 48 hours? Clear out the garage perhaps? You’ve been meaning to do that for ages, haven’t you? Well go on then – what’s stopping you?

[main image by Flickr user Robin Maben / conqenator]

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