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.

What I Didn’t Expect

Becoming an author has some odd quirks to it – things I didn’t expect. Maybe some of it is being an author in small-town North Dakota, where few people do big or unexpected things. (And believe me, writing not one but two books, particularly in scifi/fantasy, is rather unexpected.)

I’ve been asked to talk to a high school Creative Writing class.

Now, granted, it was my wife who asked me directly, but some of the other area teachers have expressed at least moderate interest in having me speak, and I’ve had several suggestions that I should do so at area libraries as well.

One of the oddest things about indie writing is publicity. I’m responsible for all of it. If I want my name in the paper, I need to make phone calls, write emails, send press releases, and so forth. So, when I get a chance for publicity, I jump at it–including talking to high school classes.

This particular class is going to be tackling a month-long novel-writing assignment. (Hence, bringing in the novelist.) It’s inspired by NaNoWriMo, though it’ll be taking place in March this year. The students will have 31 days to write 30,000 words of cohesive story, and I’m being brought in to tell them how to do it. Sort of.

This would be easier if I had figured out how to do it myself!

A new year, a new novel: Six-Guns and Sorcery

I’m a reader – maybe even more of a reader than a writer. (I know, scary thought.) In the past few days, I’ve read a number of “2013 – A Year in Review” type writeups, mostly focusing on how bad a year it was. Even on my Facebook feed, a number of acquaintances exclaim how they hope 2014 will be so much better than that dastardly 2013.

Personally, 2013 has been a great year for me. I quit my management job at a Fortune 500 company to pursue writing, penned two novels that have seen overwhelmingly positive feedback, doubled the size of my house (while doing the vast majority of the work myself), and saw the birth of my first son.

That’s sure as heck not a bad year, as far as I’m concerned.

But 2013 isn’t the point of this post; as the old saying goes, past is prologue.

I’ve been working on a plan to get writing done in a timely fashion – after all, success in the independent world requires regular feedings of the beast (or in my case, liquor for the  (Angry Villagers so they don’t ever get riled up enough to take those torches and pitchforks after me). Nothing breeds success on Amazon (and the lesser ebook sellers) than putting out high-quality fiction on a regular basis, with a huge emphasis on “regular basis.”

Now, I already missed one deadline – I wanted to have Contract Hunt done by Christmas, and I’ve written a whopping two chapters. Now, granted, I was very productive during the period between the Dead Man’s Fugue release and Christmas, but it wasn’t the kind of productivity that brings in royalty checks.

So,  I’ve been working on a new writing schedule to keep me focused – which is, I know, boring and dull stuff. (And no, I’m not going to post it here. You guys don’t need to know how badly I miss my own projected deadlines.)

Written into my new schedule is, one day a week, time set aside for “free novel writing.” Yes, a free novel. (Not free writing, which is something else entirely and seldom yields anything readable from me.)

The new novel is a project that’s been pestering me for a while, but I’ve kept pushing it to the side because I didn’t think it’d sell. For that matter, it still probably isn’t salable in large quantities, so it’s going up here on Writing Under Duress first. After it’s completed, it’ll be pulled down, edited, and made available on the various ebook platforms for a small price.


You now have a reason to visit Writing Under Duress on a weekly basis!

Urban Fantasy is all the craze right now, from the titular mad wizard Harry Dresden of The Dresden Files to more militarized versions like Joe Nassise’s Templar Chronicles to the ever-devolving Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter series which has turned into a parody of itself. So, being a good writer, I’ve been plugging away at a new urban fantasy novel (in contrast to the high fantasy of Destiny’s Heir and the science fiction of Shattered Expanse).
That isn’t the novel I’m posting here.
No, what I’m putting up here is a prequel of sorts, set in the rough and tumble days following the American Civil War. It follows the footsteps of a Confederate veteran whose family was killed during Sherman’s March to the Sea, and sets out into the post-war West to exact revenge on the Union officer who ordered the killings. Unfortunately for him, nothing is as it seems, and he quickly finds himself over his head dealing with citizens of the Old World who are decidedly unimpressed with little toys like black powder, and with an enemy seeking power – the kind of power to reshape a world.

You can expect the first chapter of Six-Guns & Sorcery on Friday, January 3rd.

North Dakota Author: Josie Blaine

North Dakota is a small state – according to Google, we have around 700,000 people right now. (We probably have more than that, as oilfield population is hard to keep track of, and the Bakken has definitely increased our headcount.)

We’re a fairly rural state, as such things go, with a slowly urbanizing population and small towns fading a bit more each year. We have a reputation for being a bit backward and a fondness for hunting that is usually associated with the deep South. (Personally, a deer is a regular part of our meat diet for the year, and not drawing a tag hurts us pretty badly.)

The more urbanized parts of our state aren’t exactly considered high culture. Areas like Minot, Williston, and Dickinson are all associated with oilfield work; Bismarck is the state capital, Grand Forks and Fargo are college towns, and a good number of western North Dakotans would just as soon give Fargo to Minnesota.

What I’m driving at is that North Dakota isn’t anyone’s idea of a home for great artists.

That isn’t to say we haven’t had some great people come out of North Dakota. We’ve had at least a few representatives in almost everything, like basketball great Phil Jackson and boxing legend Virgil Hill, or the more notorious like Paula Broadwell.

But as far as authors go, there’s only a few that really pop to mind, and Louis L’Amour is far and away the most famous of those. (If you don’t know who he is, you need to go buy a dozen of his books and read, and then be ashamed of yourself for missing out on a freaking legend.)

So, I’ve rambled enough to make my point.

Now I’m going to take it up a notch.

My hometown in North Dakota (to which I returned three and a half years ago with my wife) has a population of about 1200 people.

And I’m not the only author.

There is, of course, my brother Cory who spent seven years writing a humor column for the area paper called Neu’s Ramblings and published a book of short stories entitled My Horse Got A FlatYou could say that’s not even unexpected – we both have our own flair for storytelling. But this post isn’t about him.

No, after 370 words, I’m finally getting to the subject of this post – fellow hometown author Josie Blaine.

Josie’s first book, published in September just a few weeks after Dead Man’s Fugue, is called Something about Sophia. I may be looking toward the future or other worlds when I write, but Josie is looking into the past. Something about Sophia is the story of a German immigrant to the plains of North Dakota – a story that echoes many of the families here in one way or another on the central plains.

And, like me, Josie’s not content with just one book. She has been working on several more books to come in the next year (including a Kindle version of Something about Sophia, which should be out early next year), so there’s more to look forward to.

If you’re looking to support another North Dakota author, and one who pens stories far more realistic than my own, pick up a copy of Something about Sophia. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

I’m not sure if it’s something in the water here, but this town sure has produced a surprising number with a literary bent!

Natural Born Thrillers

NBT Final Cover Art


I had the honor of being included in a bundle deal, Natural Born Thrillers, with some excellent authors. I really feel like the little kid at the adults’ table here, but go pick up this deal for the so-low-you-stole-it price of $0.99 on Amazon!

Books in the bundle:

  • BENEATH by Jeremy Robinson – the bestselling, parsec award nominated, sci-fi thriller that takes a crew of astronauts and scientists to Europa, the sixth moon of Jupiter, in search of life beneath the ice.
  • THE HERETIC by Joseph Nassise – the first book in the bestselling Templar Chronicles series, where modern Templar knights battle supernatural threats and enemies.
  • THE CRYPT OF DRACULA by Kane Gilmour – For too long, evil has slumbered. But now, the prince of darkness has arisen…and he thirsts.
  • SILVER by Steven Savile – the first book in the international bestselling series pits the Ogmios team against a terrorist organization calling itself the Disciples of Judas. History, religion and conspiracies collide in this explosive thriller.
  • DOURADO by David Wood – In book one of the bestselling Dane Maddock Adventures series, the search for a sunken ship sends Dane Maddock on a search for the sword of Goliath.
  • THE CURSE OF ONE-EYED JACK by J. Kent Holloway – An FBI analyst begins an investigation into the disappearance of her brother. The trail leads her to a dark, dangerous parcel of Appalachian wilderness where even darker things lurk…including a man named Ezekiel Crane.
  • MAGIC MIRROR by Sean Ellis – It begins with a mysterious disappearance…it will end with the world on the brink of destruction. What will be revealed?
  • KIM OH 1: REAL DANGEROUS GIRL by K. W. Jeter – You know you’re having a bad day at work, when partnering with a psychotic hitman to kill your boss is your best career move.
  • PARALLAX by Jon F. Merz – a Mafia hitman and a former terrorist with a psychic connection embark on a cat-and-mouse game with huge stakes on the streets of Boston.
  • KIDNAPPED by Rick Chesler – A priceless biotechnology, an FBI agent, and an unspeakable act of familial betrayal collide in a Hawaiian kidnapping more twisted than a DNA double helix.
  • DEAD MAN’S FUGUE by yours truly – A man is resurrected by his life insurance policy to find the criminal underworld and law enforcement alike are after his head…but he doesn’t remember why.
  • PHAROS OBJECTIVE by David Sakmyster – A legendary treasure chamber beneath the ancient Pharos Lighthouse has defied discovery for over two thousand years…Until a team of psychic archaeologists dare the impossible.

Grab your copy today!