How to write a novel in one month

It’s often said that everyone has a novel in them, but it’s probably more accurate to say that everyone fondly imagines that they do. I’ve certainly lost count of how many times I’ve had conversations with people where they talk about how they totally want to write one, and outline some of their plans – and, in the back of their minds, are clearly already walking onto the podium to accept the Booker.

But then their ambition peters out into the same five words we always use to defer non-urgent, hard-seeming things: “If only I had time”.

I used to be one of those people who would bang on and on about wanting to write a novel, but never managed it. I used to be certain that if only I could pause my oh-so-kerazee life to open the spigot of my creativity, sheer genius would flow onto the page, and plaudits would inevitably follow. It was in the same category as my much-cherished plans to become incredibly fit, learn Thai cooking, enter Tropfest, make a credible indie record and learn jazz piano, none of which I have managed thus far.

What’s always particularly daunted me about the idea of writing a novel is the word count. The average novel is around 70-80,000 words, and while I’ve known people who managed to churn out even more than that for a PhD (around 100,000 words, as a rule), it took them at least three years of backbreaking toil and a significant portion of their sanity to do so. I’m comfortable writing pieces of around 1000 words, like this one – but seventy of them, back to back, in a way that makes sense? That seemed ridiculously hard.

I sat down to start a novel just over a decade ago, but about 10,000 words in, it got confusing and hard and I got busy. The superficial problem was that I couldn’t figure out how to make the plot make sense, but the real problem was that I just wasn’t putting in the work.

And it’s an awful lot of work, I now know, because I ultimately found a way to trick myself into writing one. I enrolled in a creative writing masters’ degree, and my sheer pride, along with the money I’d invested in course fees wouldn’t let me drop out – so, by the end, I had the draft of a novel.

I found a way to overcome my tendency never to finish anything, and I’m still enormously proud of the novel I produced – writing that many words, which I’ve now done a few times, is undoubtedly the hardest thing I’ve ever had to accomplish.

But while I ended up paying quite a lot of money to a university so they’d impose deadlines on me – a system which worked brilliantly for me – there’s another, free way to force yourself to do something that you might not have considered possible.

I was astonished a few years ago when I discovered a community of people who gather each November to write – get this – a novel in a month. And they didn’t even choose a long month – November contains a mere thirty days, which means you have to write 1667 words a day to get there.

Yes, that’s right – sixteen. Hundred. Words. A. Day. It’s kind of like Tough Mudder with wordprocessors and without electric shocks. A seriously hardcore, almost cult-like way of accomplishing a goal.

And yet people manage to write the 50,000 words, and they’ve been managing it since 1999, when a guy called Chris Baty and 21 pals in San Francisco did it, dubbing the month of their labours National Novel Writing Month  or NaNoWriMo for short. Last year, more than 300,000 people signed up.

Ah, but how many finished, you may wonder? 14%. So, not all that many, but still – that’s 42,221 people. The number that really amazes me is that 3.5 billion words were written which, but for NaNoWriMo, probably would never have seen the light of day.

The best thing about the crazy-brave NaNoWriMo approach is that it makes the solitary drudgery of writing a novel a task that can be shared with others. NaNoWriMo participants gather the world over – including across Australia – for “write in” sessions, where they encourage one another to churn out words. There’s a system of rewards, which you unlock by pasting in the text of your novel (sure, you could cheat by pasting in something like this  but why would you?), and if you finish, you get a little virtual trophy. 

Even if you don’t want to meet up with other writers, you can tell other people you’re doing it in the hope they’ll keep you honest. Which is why I’m telling you that this November, I’ve decided to join them. And I reckon if you’ve always thought you wanted to write a novel, you should, too.

There’s a map of worldwide word counts for November 2013, and I can see from it that some Australians managed to finish their fifty thousand words. So, it’s been done before, even though it’s a beautifully warm month here in Australia – the opposite of the horrible weather in San Francisco that led them to choose this time of year for NaNoWriMo. I hope to be among them, and hope as many people as possible will join me.

You probably have lots of objections at this point – here are a few I thought of, and how you can overcome them.

But I don’t have the time!

Nobody has the time. Nobody. I know people who’ve taken leave to write novels, and ended up faffing about on a full-time basis. There is never a good time to write a huge number of words, so you may as well do it now. Starting tomorrow, on the first of November.

But I don’t know how!

This is the true beauty of NaNoWriMo, I reckon. There isn’t time to mull – you need to be typing continuously. Some novelists painstakingly plan their masterpieces, but if you’re going to do it in a month, there isn’t much time to plan. You just have to come up with a vague idea, and bash it out.

My first novel evolved from a 1000 word rant by a guy who hated playing terrible music at terrible 21st birthday parties, and I somehow got 70,000 words out of that. Once November’s finished, you can edit – but until then, don’t even think about it, just keep writing.

If you’ve read a novel, ever, you probably have a decent idea how they work. You need a protagonist (whether it’s a first-person story from their perspective, or just a main character), a situation and a challenge which somehow threatens their situation. Then you explain how they overcome, or fail to overcome, the challenge.

Yeah, I know narrative structure is more complex than that – but it’s a good way to start your thinking. If you want to know more about how to structure a novel, here’s a simple guide, and here are four common kinds of plot.

But I don’t have Word!

Well, that’s no problem, as it’s far from ideal for writing a long document. What you need is Scrivener. It works on Mac and PC and has a 30-day free trial, perfect for NaNoWriMo. Also, it’s cheap. Here’s an article I wrote about why it’s the best novel-writing software there is.

But I don’t think I can do it!

Yeah, you can. But even if you don’t get to 50,000 words, you’ll still have made a start, and that’s the main thing. 

But I honestly don’t know how I’ll find the time!

Everyone has to find their own way to make themselves write, but here’s how I do it: I go to a place that serves coffee. I don’t much like buckling down and working, but I do like coffee – so I’ll take my laptop to a place that offers it but not free WiFi (essential, lest you be distracted – and don’t kid yourself that checking Facebook is “research”), and type while the caffeine is bouncing around in my brain. And the idea is not to stop until I’ve hit the limit.

I seriously doubt my ability to do that for thirty consecutive days, but I won’t find out until I give it a shot. Starting tomorrow.

But… but… but…

There are some people in life who react to an impossible-seeming challenge with abundant common-sense reasons why it’s a bad idea, and there are others who rush on in with gusto. I’m usually the former, but this November, I’m going to try to be the latter.

Will you join me? At the very least, you might begin writing a novel about someone who wants to write a novel in a month, but keeps getting distracted. It’s a sad ending, admittedly, but if we bust our guts for a month, we might just be able to come up with some happy ones.

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