Writing a novel can be incredibly time-consuming. Some authors commit years to the task. Others, decades. But who has that kind of time nowadays? Is it possible to write a novel in a lot less time — like a month?
Yes! You can write a novel in just 30 days. I know because I’ve done it. Twice. I’ve got five tips to share — each of which I’ve personally tested — that will help you do it, too. Let’s get started!
When to write your novel
What’s the best month to write a novel in 30 days? Last month, as the saying goes. But if you have a choice, the ideal month is the one that perfectly combines the high energy of the holiday season with the dreariness of bad weather and long nights.
That’s right, November: month of antsy domestic drama and environmental ennui. Lucky for us, November just happens to be when NaNoWriMo takes place.
What is NaNoWriMo?
NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, is an annual month-long writing challenge that’s been around for more than two decades. This 100% free online write-a-thon is held every year from November 1 to 30. The rules are few and simple:
- Start writing a novel on November 1
- Keep going until you have at least 50,000 words
What do you win? Bragging rights, pride at having succeeded in a herculean undertaking, and a nifty online badge that you can post all over your social media, like this:
If November is a no-go with your work or family schedule, there are online “camps” held at different times of the year that are more flexible, allowing writers to work on any sort of project of any length they choose.
Only you can decide that. It’s fun. It’s also awful. But in a fun way. You just have to experience it. Even if you don’t “win,” coming up short of 50,000 words by November 30 or dropping out early on, you’ll still reap some powerful rewards. You’ll establish a writing habit. You’ll learn to let go of your inner critic. And you’ll finally do that big, scary thing that’s been nagging at you for years — namely, write your novel.
But how do you … y’know, actually write that novel? Here are five simple tips that will make your month of novel-writing memorable and successful.
How to write a novel in 30 days
1. Make sure you know what a novel is
So, you wanna write a novel … but are you sure you know what a novel really is? This may seem like a patronizing question, the sort of thing some smug lit professor would lob at an earnest undergrad. But the fact of the matter is that genuine, published novelists haven’t been able to come to a consensus as to what, precisely and universally, differentiates novels from other literary works. Maybe what you really want to write is a memoir, a work of creative nonfiction, a short story collection, a screenplay treatment, or some really intense free verse poetry.
Before you start, take a look at this helpful resource at The Delve to brush up on the basics of novel-writing, from length and genre conventions to structure and style.
2. Plan your schedule
50,000 words. That’s a lot of words. But not if you break up the task into manageable chunks.
Do you want to write 1,667 words a day, every day? Or would you rather do a series of longer sessions on the weekends? Are there certain times of day when you can consistently write, completely uninterrupted? If not, what do you need to do to your schedule in order to carve out some time?
There’s no right way to tackle the word count — only a right way for you.
Have you scanned your daily schedule and decided you can’t possibly allot enough time to write for a full month? Don’t despair — just give it a try anyway! I was sure I didn’t have time to do NaNoWriMo the first year I attempted it. I was working full-time at a newspaper as a journalist. I was writing all day — I was 100% certain I had neither the time nor the mental capacity to write outside of work. Until, that is, my boss challenged the members of the editorial department to sign up for NaNoWriMo. To my surprise, the impossible task proved to be very, very possible. Thirty days later, I had a 50,000-word novel, and I still had my job, as well as my sanity.
If I could find the time and wherewithal to do it, I guarantee you can, too.
3. Prepare to write
What do you want to write about? What genre will your novel occupy? Who’s your protagonist? Your antagonist? What do you want your reader to feel as they read your story?
Within the novel-in-a-month community, there are two competing camps: the awkwardly named pantsers and plotters. Pantsers write “by the seat of their pants.” They do not prepare, they just pour words forth, fast and furious. The plotters have a plan and they stick to it.
To outline or not to outline: that’s the question.
Personally, I believe in the power of outlines. Or at least a game plan of some sort: a few plot-points you’re working towards, a general narrative arc, something other than the infinity of unbridled possibility. In my experience, there is a thing as too much freedom, and there’s no worse demotivator than writing yourself into a corner purely due to poor planning.
Your outline can be brief or highly detailed. Here’s an outline on the extreme end of the curve. It’s from my latest novel, The Deadfall and the Deep, a multi-year writing effort that involved a ton of research:
You don’t have get that granular before you start. If all you have are key details about your protagonist’s background and current situation, the genre you want your story to function within, and the critical plot beats of your story, you’re good to go.
4: Start writing!
You’ve got your schedule and your outline. It’s November 1. Time to start writing! Writer’s block? What’s that? You don’t have time to wallow in that dank swampland. Inspiration is for suckers — you have a word count to hit. If you’re really stuck, online writing prompts, plotting exercises and character interview worksheets can be a big help. Just keep writing, and whatever you do, don’t edit or rewrite.
Joe Bunting at The Write Practice has some stellar advice for those of us who can’t stop self-editing as we go:
“Change your font color to light grey, making your writing difficult to see. If you can’t see your writing, you won’t have the temptation to break your rhythm to edit. Change your font to 4 pt. If you make the font too small to read, you can’t self-edit. Turn off your computer monitor [or] set the brightness on your computer screen so low you can’t see the words.”
Part of the appeal of NaNoWriMo is the communal aspect of this month-long writing stunt. Take encouragement from your fellow NaNo-ers if it helps you, but if hearing other writers brag about their word counts starts getting you down, you’re allowed to disengage. Your word count, your writing process, and your novel are your priorities this month, not comparing your progress and your experience to anyone else’s.
5. You did it! Now what?
You’ve won NaNoWriMo! Congratulations!
Or maybe you didn’t make your word count — so what? Congratulations to you, too!
Whether you hit the arbitrary 50,000 words or not, you still “wrote your novel” this month. Time to celebrate a major personal milestone. You’re a writer now, and nobody can take that away from you.
But before you break out the Champagne, there’s one thing you need to know. Whether you wrote 250 words or 250,000 this month, you only “wrote your novel.” You did not “finish your novel.”
“Yes, I did!” you might protest. “It’s done. It’s fantastic — better than I ever dreamed it could be!”
No, it’s not.
It’s a first draft. It’s a fabulous, wonderful, superb first draft! But I promise you it’s NOT DONE.
NaNoWriMo, or any 30-day writing marathon, is an exercise in quantity over quality. Don’t force your draft upon your friends and family. Don’t send it to literary agents or publishers for consideration. And for the love of all that is good and right in this world, do NOT upload it to Amazon and try to sell it. As Kelsey McKinney of Vox wrote, “The tagline for the organization is ‘The world needs your novel.’ (Whether it actually does is debatable).”
Your masterpiece needs to be pondered. It needs to be reread and reconsidered. It needs to be rewritten one or twenty times. It needs, desperately, to be edited. Then, and only then, will the world be ready for your novel.
You doubt me? Okay, I knew it might come to this …
Here are the unedited opening lines of Bad Words Shakespeare Taught Me, the first novel I wrote in 30 days. It’s the newspaper-boss-challenge novel I mentioned earlier. I know, from agonizing personal experience, what a “not ready for prime time” NaNoWriMo novel looks like:
Here’s a list of bad words Shakespeare taught me:
Bitch (well, referring to a female dog, but still)
Ronyon (You don’t even want to know what that means!)
That’s right: I found every single one of these words in one of Mr. Willy Shakespeare’s plays. Shocking! I’m that kid you saw on that famous BoobTube video that was all over the Internet a few months back: “Shakespearean Pirate DORK.” It made it onto late night TV and even got spoofed on a few sitcoms. Yep, that’s right, I am that dork. Even though I’m sure you’ve seen it like a hundred times, let’s watch together, shall we?
Look, that’s me, Francis, reciting Romeo and Juliet dialogue with my older brother, Adam, both of us in full Elizabethan costume, ruffs and all. Which one am I? Well…okay, I’m the one playing Juliet. Don’t feel bad for laughing. Everyone in school saw it about five minutes after it got posted, which was about half a minute after I spake mine final line, and died dramatically, as Shakespeare intended. I totally wanted to die in real life, I swear. The thing is, I wasn’t always this world famous clueless viral video dork. I really wasn’t! Let’s rewind to September …
It just goes on like that. Painful … so painful … who doesn’t want a YA novel that opens with a string of profanity? It’s gold!
And here’s my second NaNoWriMo novel, which underwent countless drafts and revisions, heavy editing, all the proofreading and more, and an excess of last-minute tweaks:
It might have taken just 30 days to write, but as all novelists know, it’s the months (and months and months) after the first draft where the real work is done.
Are you working on a 30-day novel right now? Or planning to give NaNoWriMo a try this year? Give me a shout on Twitter and let me know all about it!
Katherine Luck is the author of the novels The Cure for Summer Boredom and In Retrospect. Her latest book, False Memoir, combines the high stakes of a gritty psychological thriller with the guilty pleasure of a sensational true crime tell-all. You can read more of her work, including the “Dead Writers and Candy” series, at the-delve.com.