How to write a novel in a month, not only November

Are you doing NaNoWriMo? I imagine when this goes out, it will all be over for this year, the hand cramp, the dreaded daily total, the prompts and the lingering sense of guilt because you haven’t donated any money, because, well, Christmas – but you really will next year, look, you’ve written it on the calendar – but yes, all over for another year, and was it all worth it?

Well, yes. It’s bloomin’ hard finding time to write, and somehow the virtual tick-tick-cheer of NaNoWriMo is really good at getting those words onto paper. But if you’ve missed it this year, or have no idea what I’m talking about, then here are my tips for getting that book onto paper at any time of the year.

  1. Only write for twenty minutes at a time, ideally the same time every day, ideally as early as possible. This may sound odd, because surely if you’re on a roll, you should strike while the iron is hot, but hear me out. I think it was the dreaded Enoch Powell, may he not rest in peace, who among all the terrible things he said made one good point about negotiating – if you want to strike a deal, go in to the meeting really needling a wee. In a sense, the twenty minutes deadline is a bit like this – with the pressure of time writing suddenly becomes the treat being snatched away too soon rather than the chore which must be done, and you don’t give yourself time to sit there wondering if you’ve got the right word. Of course, you can always add in a second or third twenty minute slot if things are going well, but at least if you get one done in a day, then you know something is going down on paper, and for a first draft, that is all that matters. Which leads me onto my second point –
  2. Don’t think, write. This I intend to have tattooed on the inside of my wrist, along with ‘never get a fringe cut’ and ‘People notice less than 20% of what you’re worrying about’ – in first draft territory this is crucial. Don’t ponder the perfect metaphor, don’t worry about what colour you said your main character’s favourite shoes were, don’t even stop if you can’t remember their name (just write XXXXXX and move on) – just write. At the very most, write a footnote to yourself like ‘sort this out later’ or ‘put the gun in before this’ or ‘mention the death of the first wife earlier’ and move on. All these things are picked up in the edit, that’s what the first edit is for. And to help you write and not think…
  3. Plan lightly, but always plan – So that you have a rough idea where you’re going, give yourself a structure however light to follow. Most, indeed all stories have a beginning, middle and end, so that’s a start. I like to then come up with chapter headings – opener, this is the main character, the fight scene, running from the police – things like that. I don’t bother too much about the order they come in, because again, that can and will change in the edit, but I aim to have about five or plot points for each section, bearing in mind that we’ll usually need a climax in the middle of section three, and probably a bit of a twist towards the end, that sort of thing. If you break things down that way, it’s easy enough to build a light structure you can follow, so you’re not worrying about where you’re going next. And finally –
  4. Have a rehearsal. Usually a book idea comes to me with a scene, a character, a moment in time, which is where the whole thing grows from. I write this first, setting aside one session in a week to indulge myself with it, reading it through, editing, making it sound good. I may try doing it three different ways, first and third person, second if I’m feeling naughty, and past and present tense, treating it like a paint pot tester to try out the colour of the novel before I start slapping on the paint. Once I’m happy with this, maybe even giving myself a month to work on it, then my basic structure will come from this as I’ll know where the story needs to go, roughly, and then off I go.
  5. Once you’re done, don’t look at it for a month or more. No peeking, no thinking, don’t even spell check. Lock it away, watch some box sets, read some books, don’t worry about it. What you’re trying to do is get a sense of distance from your words, like stepping back from a painting to check perspective. If you try and dive right into an edit as soon as you’ve written ‘The End’, you’ll either still be too in love with it to see the brutal truth (we’ve all even there, right?) or be far to cruel on yourself and do something stupid, like deleting the whole thing. Just give yourself the time to enjoy that warm, fuzzy post novel glow, before the heart breaking work of editing must begin.
  6. Then call Amanda! and read next month’s blog on ‘how to edit a book’.