How to Write a Novel in 30 Days (or the First Draft, at least!)

Just staring at the number – 70,000 – astounds me. How did I manage to write that many words in 30 days?

One word. Nanowrimo. I honestly couldn’t have done it without the framework built by Nanowrimo (See: Eight things I love about Nanowrimo). It is an annual gathering of professional and first-time novelists every November with the aim of writing at least 50,000 words in a month (the view being ‘The Great Gatsby’ is around the 50,000 word mark, for example).

But how. How? There were a few things I did specifically for the project to get the novel over the line. Here they are:

  1. The month of October became my trial run. I told myself that if I can blog every day for a month, then I can write every day for the month of Nanowrimo. The first two weeks of October were fine but then I sort of hit a slump around late October but I made up for it. The result? I did manage to blog everyday so, on October 27, I signed up to do Nanowrimo.
  2. Two weeks prior to the November 1 kick-off, I started planning what I’d like to write about. It started with my spy caper idea, then something closer to my life story then it evolved to the idea I have about a 12-year-old girl who died prematurely and her journey towards reincarnation. I had a rough outline of 30-odd scenes, with the view that I will write 1700 words on each scene every day.
  3. On Day One, I still didn’t know how I would start the novel. One of the big no-no’s in novel writing is doing the prologue. However, I needed to write the prologue to make sense of why I decided to embark on this journey. So I wrote the Prologue and a working intro. First 1,700 words sorted! (Of course, the prologue won’t make it in the published version. Wah!)
  4. Just days before Nanowrimo was due to start, I already had an idea on how the first half of the novel would look like and I figured I’d work out the rest as I go along. I also had an idea of what the ending would look like but I didn’t want to be tied to it too early. To be honest, I’m still trying to figure out which of the alternative endings I’m going to choose. Just keep writing. You’ll find inspiration and sub-plots along the way.
  5. Around the mid-month period, I hit a snag: I felt I lost the plot. I literally went off the rails in terms of what the novel was all about. So I thought really hard about my key themes and soldiered on. Even as I was trying to think about my main themes, I still wrote bits and pieces of the novel, aiming to stay on top of the 1,700 word target. I knew that it would only take three days of being behind that it will become impossible to catch up. Imagine, that would have been an extra 5,200 words on top of the daily 1,700 word count target if I skipped a few days. I think this is where a lot of Nanowrimos fail. Very serious tip: never let a day go by without writing at least 800 words!
  6. Watch How-To Novel Writing on YouTube. I wish I did this sooner but as it is, you have to make do with the time you got. I was on YouTube watching and listening to a lot of how-to guides from Ellen Brook, K.M. Wieland and Creative Penn. I also liked a couple of websites from a film academy and a screenwriting channel. For first-time novelists, there are plenty of how-tos online. Pick the one that suits you.
  7. Read How-To Novel Writing Books. This is a tricky one. I read STORY GENIUS by Lisa Cron AFTER I’ve written 70k words. She had great ideas on how you need to nail the Internal Struggle and the key turning points of your protagonist’s development. On the downside, I wish I did all that thinking sooner. On the upside, she was so right about so many things that had I read her book before doing Nanowrimo, I would have been too intimidated to start. My advice? Definitely read STORY GENIUS but read it months BEFORE starting Nanowrimo.Another book I purchased online is The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne. Again, this is a personal preference. He has a very extensive approach to plotting, involving charts and spreadsheets. But if you follow his technique, you’ve got a really good chance of producing a well-structured novel.
  8. Don’t edit your copy and don’t read what you wrote the previous day. Do the creative writing for 30 days and THEN, only then, should you start editing your work.
  9. Devote two hours a day. This doesn’t have to be in one block and it’s not all about writing. Some of that period should be devoted to thinking about your structure or reading/watching how-to books/YouTube channels. For example, I would set up my alarm at 6.30am, do a word sprint until 7.30am and then get ready for work. Then on the bus to the city or from the city, I would listen to Creative Penn interviews or Ellen Brook/KM Wieland tips. Finally, at night, I’ll do another 30-minute word sprint or review my outline. I’ll also be thinking about what I’m going to write the following day, with the view that hopefully my subconscious is already processing the scene while I’m asleep!
  10. Give something up. I wanted to make sure the novel-writing didn’t interfere with my work or with my social life but something had to give. I decided it was going to be Facebook and TV Shows. I went cold turkey on both, only checking FB irregularly over the month. That freed me up quite considerably that I reached the 50,000 word count mark by November 18!

The most important thing is that you do the outline of your novel before your 30-day period begins. If you can do the character sketches, the research and the world-building well before then, you’ve got a good chance of hitting the 50k mark and have a first draft that you can work with. I was sort of doing it before and during the month.

But ultimately, the endgame is to just write. We live such busy lives that the book idea we have within us never gets to see the light of day. Through Nanowrimo and its various features such as pep talks and word count trackers, it’s got a fighting chance. Just do it. 🙂

[Working Title]: A Monsoon of Butterflies

Leave a Reply