How to Write a Novel in a Month

Next month is the annual writing frenzy known as National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo for short. It’s not without its critics, and my blogmates and I have covered this action before.  
I extol the virtues of NaNoWriMo. The novel I wrote in November of 2010 was one I had under contract. It became, after editing of course, THE YEAR OF EATING DANGEROUSLY.
There are similar stories. Hugh Howey wrote his novella WOOL during that same NaNo year. The dang thing has sold in the hundreds of thousands as an ebook, and got optioned by Ridley Scott.
That’s a lightning strikes once or twice kind of thing, and most writers are not going to have that kind of out-of-the-gate success, but that’s almost beside the NaNo point. The point is to get you to get your story down, fast and furious (I wish that term hadn’t been purloined by political culture), and unleash the writer within. It’s to give you a sense of the value of finishing an entire novel (even though it will need massive editing).
As the great Robert B. Parker said, “A writer’s job is to produce.” NaNo is one month of pure production.
Here are ten tips to help you get the most out of it this year:
1. Take a week to plan
Use one week for creative brainstorming and organizing. I don’t mean you have to have a complete outline. In fact, it’s probably better that you don’t. NaNo works best when you let the book breathe and dance on its own.
But you also shouldn’t start out with a blank slate. A few, simple steps will get you to a much stronger story. Use my LOCK System (explained more fully in Plot & Structure).
LEAD. Spend a day brainstorming about your Lead character, backstory, goals and dreams. What is it about your Lead that will make readers want to keep reading?
OBJECTIVE.Be sure that the story objective involves some form of death: physical, professional or psychological. That is, your second act (the bulk of your novel) has to have the highest stakes possible. Take a day to brainstorm reasons your Lead will have to be involved. Think about moral or professional duty as a possible motivation.
CONFRONTATION. Now spend just as much care with your opposition character as you do with your Lead. Remember, the opponent does not have to be evil, just have an oppsoing agenda (think Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive).However, if you do want to use a villain, be fair to him. Justify his actions (at least in his own mind). Don’t create a stereotype.
KNOCK-OUT ENDING. This will no doubt be subject to change, but it’s good to have a destination in mind. How do you want the reader to feel at the end? Will your Lead be victorious? Sacrificial? Spend a day messing around with actual scene possibilities for the climax. Choose one as your “go to” scene, knowing you can toss it out as the novel progresses.
Then spend a day planning your TIME. Look at your schedule and block out every free chunk you can. Determine to cut as many distractions as possible during November. DVR favorite shows. Put an auto-responder on your email. Explain to friends that you’re taking time off. Go on a “social media” diet. 
2. Choose mood music
Get your iTunes list together, with soundtracks and songs that create the right mood for your story. Make a playlist for different moods. I have an “Energy to Write” list that is full of upbeat rock and movie music. I blast that sometimes to get my blood racing to write.
3. Watch a “movie in your mind” the night before NaNoWriMo begins
On October 31, plan to get a good night’s sleep. Before you do, get to a quiet spot, a comfortable chair. Put your mood music on softly and close your eyes. Now let a “movie” happen in your mind. Watch your story unfold. Don’t force anything. Let scenes happen, nudge your characters but never push them.
When you go to bed, tell “the boys in the basement” to work hard while you snooze.
4. Kill that first day
Make the very first day the most productive day of your writing life. NaNo works out to an average of just over 1600 words a day. Try to blast past it on Day 1. It will give your confidence a boost.
5. Make it your goal to begin each day with a “furious 500.”
Try getting 500 words down the very first thing in the morning (or second, after you start the coffee brewing). If you have to get up half an hour earlier, so be it.
6. Jot down notes just before you go to sleep
Take five minutes (that’s about all you’ll need) before you go to sleep to put down a few notes about what you might write the next day. Think one or two scenes ahead. If you’re feeling stuck, ask this key question: “How can I make things harder on my characters?”
7. Stick to the knitting
By that I mean the main plot. Make this your focus of attention. At 50,000 words, a NaNo novel is short, and cannot support multiple plotlines.
If you find yourself coming up with a subplot idea, jot a few notes and set it aside for a day or two while you’re on your main plot. If another idea occurs to you, jot that one down, too. After a few days, assess the subplots and choose one, only one. The best one. The one with the most possibilities for conflict. Integrate a scene or two. Then press on.
If you use Scrivener, you can color code the subplot scenes to keep track of them. One subplot only!
8. Write a 200 word nightcap
That is, find some time in the evening to write at least 200 more words. That’s not many. This is in addition to the words you write during the day. If you do a furious 500 first thing in the morning, and a 200 word nightcap, you’ve done almost half the words you need for your daily quota.
9. Break off in the middle of sentence
That’s an old Hemingway trick. And he won the Nobel Prize. Stop your writing stint right in the middle of a sentence. When you sit down to it the next day, you’ll be in flow.
10. If you get stuck
You will probably come to a few points where you don’t know what to write next. Fear will grip you like the cold hands of clumsy proctologist. You don’t want to waste too much time fretting over this, so: open a dictionary at random. Find the first noun you see on the left hand page. Start writing something, anything, based on what the noun brings to your mind.
If you’re still stuck, re-watch Misery and imagine that your number one fan insists that you finish by the end of the month.
And through it all, enjoy the vibe. NaNoWriMo is about community as much as it is about seclusion. It’s about ritual as much as product. It’s a month-long vibe and celebration of being a fiction writer. So enjoy it like you’re in some Hindu festival of colors, or at an Oakland Raiders football game. You don’t have to paint your body (though I’m not saying it’s illegal), but it’s fine to put up a NaNo poster or get a tee-shirt, and to interact online with your fellow NaNos. Check out the community website here.
And now, get ready to rock. November is almost upon us. 

17 thoughts on “How to Write a Novel in a Month

  1. Great post and thank you for putting it up. I’ve always wanted to give NaNoWriMo a go but always felt overwhelmed. It took me almost ten years to write, edit and publish my novel “Back Kicks And Broken Promises,” after all. Your ten steps though make it sound doable and I came up with two new ideas last night so the timing couldn’t be any more perfect. Thanks again.

    Juan Rader Bas

  2. Your post gives great tips on approaching writing a novel, not just in November, but any time. Now I am inspired to finish the first draft of my current novel before the end of this month, so I can participate in Nano.

  3. Thank you for these structural guidelines – I plan to share them with my crit group as we’re all having Pre-NaNo jitters.

  4. Shoot, I think this is damn good advice for writing ANY novel. (esp like the bit about shoving the subplots to the back of the stage until you need them). But the Raiders imagery is too outre for me. I keep seeing that creepy dude with the black teeth and skull epaulettes…

  5. I’m not doing Nanowrimo this year, but I like the concept. The only one of the tips I struggle with is #7. I’m one of those geeks who has to write the story in order. So to me, working to omit the subplots is much harder work and more time consuming then just writing start to finish, plots/subplots and all. Even if a 50K finish means only two thirds of the book is done.

  6. I probably do not need to point out that Jim provides us with hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars worth of advise and help every week, for free. How to Write a Novel in a Month” is the latest example of his largesse, and one of the best. Thank you, Jim.

  7. Great post, Jim! These are some excellent tips.

    I’ve never done NaNoWriMo because it never lined up with what I was writing at the time, but I think this year I’m going to shoot not for 1 novel but for the 50,000 words because that’s about how much I have left to go in the book I’m currently working on. Like you said, this is a great motivational tool.

  8. This will be my first NaNo, so I really will take your tips to heart. I especially appreciate the advice about preparation. I’ve always gotten stressed over the idea of any type of numeric daily writing quota, but I think that advance planning will help. Thanks for sharing!

  9. Thanks for the kind words, all. You know, this does seem like a good way to write a novel, even if it’s the other 11 months of the year. Productivity is the thing for any writer. It’s also probably like running a 5k. You train, you run, but then you take some time off!

    Kathryn, welcome to the jungle. Why don’t you do the NaNo wrap up for TKZ?

  10. I am about to enter my first NaNo, and I am pumped. Thank you so much for your great post. I intend to share it as widely as I can with my virtual friends. I had three story ideas that I posted to my blogs and let my readers choose which one I would write for NaNo. That was fun, and I am not disappointed because I only put up the ideas I already loved! I am now in the planning stages with character sketches done, major plot twists identified, and a clear story premise identified. Thank you again for a timely and most engaging post!

  11. Excellent post, thank you. Haven’t tried the Hemmingway trick, I’ll give it a go.

    3rd year for me, aiming for 3 in a row.

  12. Excellent advice. For me, I always get a new scarf from a particular shop end of Oct to be worn in its first month only while NaNoWriMo-ing. Helps get me in the zone. Your warning about not introducing multiple plotlines is so right. In the four years I have “won” NaNoWriMo in terms of word count I have still not ended up with a properly structured piece of work, with too many stray plotlines, characters and so on. NaNoWriMo is really a National Novella Writing Month.

  13. Thank you so much for this. I’m participating again this year (3rd time is the charm?) and am committed to finishing. I’ve cleared my calendar of everything but necessities, prepped my family (if you aren’t bleeding or throwing up don’t disturb Mommy), and have been taking a great plotting class from Suzanne Johnson. Even with all that, last night I discovered a BIG problem with my plan and had to make some major readjustments, sending my self-doubt skyrocketing. But with these helpful hints, and a good night’s sleep producing something very usable, I’m moving forward excited and looking forward to completing NaNo this year. Thank you so much!

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