The quick and dirty guide to writing a novel in 30 days

I had been asked to teach a class of high school students for a day, to go over my advice to them on completing a novel in 30 days. They’re starting the project today, and due to unforeseen circumstances – a cracked head on my Jeep – I never got the chance to talk to them about it. Still, I had spent some time preparing and it’d be a shame for the information I’d compiled to go to waste.

Note that this isn’t a guide to write the Great American Novel in 30 days – this is merely a “spew 30,000 words in 30 days”, and hopefully have it make some degree of sense when it’s done.

The project is for a creative writing class, and was inspired by “NaNoWriMo” – National Novel Writing Month, which takes place in November. While I’ve never completed NaNoWriMo, I have written a couple of novels in a very short period of time.

There’s an old cliche attributed to Ben Franklin: “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” I hated it in college, where I heard it often from teachers who didn’t care for my planning methods and thought I should be doing exactly what they told me to do. (I may or may not have a slight problem with authority.)

There are two basic tricks you’ll need to get the project done: outlining and committed writing time.

When I was in high school and later college, I had teachers who stressed the necessity of outlines. Outlines, I was told repeatedly, were a skeleton to help me organize my papers; the actual writing would flesh it out around the structure I’d built. Personally, writing three to ten page papers, I never found the need. I instinctively knew how to organize a paper, so the outline didn’t do much for me.

That changed when I started novel writing.

Sarah Hoyt wrote on the subject of “pantsing” vs “plotting” some time back. With all due respect to a veteran author who’s been at it way longer than I have, if you’re writing your first novel on a tight deadline of thirty days, you can’t afford to be a pantser. You need to plot.

Even among those of us who plot, the level of detail that goes into outlining a novel differs wildly. Some authors write fifty page outlines of a three hundred page novel. Some have character sheets/notes/files for every character in a novel, including detailed backgrounds, motivations, and physical descriptions.

When I first started out writing novels, I did a scene-by-scene outline. It wasn’t as complicated as it sounds – most of the scene descriptions were a single sentence, or even a phrase. It was a good way of organizing my plans for a story without losing track of story threads (which makes editing far more arduous). A number of authors I’ve talked to, including my mentor, use this technique for plotting their novels.

I’m actually a bit looser than that now. Destiny’s Heir and Dead Man’s Fugue were both written with a chapter-by-chapter outline. Basically, each was plotted to be a twenty-chapter novel, with a brief one to two sentence description of the major story changes/developments for that chapter.

Any way about it, that outline will give you the structure you need to start writing, which leads into the second part: committed writing time.

You must commit time to write. Just like a basketball player spends regular time shooting hoops, and runners usually have a time of day they always run, an author must have a regular writing time. With a project like this on a tight deadline, anything less will be a failure.

Writing fiction takes a particular frame of mind. Some authors have a very easy time slipping into it. Louis L’Amour, the famed North Dakota author, could sit down and write anytime he found a few free minutes, and he wrote prodigiously. Jack London wrote 1500 words a day; Stephen King just 2000.

However, it’s easier to write if an author-to-be commits certain time to it. It’s the same reason children are raised with routines – it gives structure to life, and makes day-to-day events easier. A five-year-old girl with a strict bedtime routine will quickly fall asleep at the end of her regular path because her mind is trained to do it. Setting aside a certain time of day each day helps the brain switch into writing mode, with less work and stress, leading to a more productive writing session.

(Stephen King works on novels in the morning, and consider afternoons “for naps and letters”, with evenings for “reading, family, Red Sox games on TV, and any revisions that just cannot wait.”)

And here’s where the two combine – plotting (outlining) and committed writing time.

Every writer eventually encounters “writer’s block”, which is a phrase without a real useful definition. The blocks happen for a variety of reasons – pantsers may not know what should happen next in the novel; an author may know what comes next, but doesn’t know how to write it; or even simple desire to not write the next scene, because it’s necessary but “dull” or just doesn’t speak to the author.

And there’s the beauty of an outline: you don’t have to write the story from beginning to end.

Don’t want to write the next scene in your novel? Don’t! Skip forward and work on a scene that you’re ready to write! You’re on a deadline – you can’t afford not to write, just because you’re feeling ambivalent about a scene in your novel. Come back to it when you’re ready, and work on something further down the road.

If you stop writing, you’ll never finish in time.

Dead Man’s Fugue was outlined but written pretty much beginning to end. Destiny’s Heir, on the other hand, had chapters written in a very wild order that didn’t make much sense, but the outline pulled it all back together.

So, to recap: use an outline, write every day (at the same time if at all possible), and write what you want to write.

If you follow those basic rules, you can finish the project in time – and you may surprise yourself with what you’ve written.

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