How to Write a Novel in 30 Days (Or Less!) NaNoWriMo 2015

Man on a laptop.With so many writers embarking on National Novel Writing Month from November 1st through November 30th, I thought now would be a good time to write about how it’s even possible to write a novel in 30 days.

Writing a novel in 30 days means writing an average of 1667 words EVERY DAY. For some, this is an astronomically high number of words. Others may knock this out while their coffee is brewing in the morning.

In order to “win” NaNoWriMo, you’ll need to be intentional about your writing. In other words, you need a plan and a strategy days when things don’t work out as planned.

I’ve come up with a 5-point plan that can be done in an afternoon—or less. Also, as long as you don’t actually write anything before NaNoWriMo, you can do all of this before NaNoWriMo starts. With that in mind, here’s my advice on how to win NoNoWriMo:

1. Be content with writing crap -OR- turn off your inner editor.

If your goal is to blast through 50,000 words in 30 days, you absolutely CANNOT edit what you write while you’re writing. If you’re like most writers, you have other things going on in life than NaNoWriMo—after all, this is the month of Thanksgiving and Black Friday shopping for those of us in the United States—so the key to winning is keeping the goal clear and visible: 50,000 words. Any words. They don’t have to be perfect. They do have to move your story forward—spelling, grammar, and continuity mistakes can be addressed on December 1st. For the entire month of November, the goal is to keep on pace with that 1667 word daily average.

2. Get to know your characters.

You don’t have to know all your characters the moment you start writing, but you need to know at least one: your protagonist. Who is the story about?

To truly know who the story is about, you must know what they want. What is their really big desire? What one thing do they think needs to happen in order for them to be happy and find peace? Things like the protagonist’s gender, race, height, build, age—those can all change without significantly affecting the hart of the story, so long as that one big desire stays the same.

Now, once you know your protagonist, it helps if you also know at least one other character: the antagonist. This is the character who will keep the protagonist from getting what they want, either through direct and intentional opposition or through an indirect opposition as a natural result of their pursuit of what they really want too. Remember, a truly great protagonist has their own desires and is working toward their own goals.

3. Create a map.

A lot of writers like the challenge of sitting down on November 1st and throwing words at the blank page. I’m not sure how many of those writers are able to type THE END on November 30th with 50,000 words completed. Why? Because it’s hard to write without a map. The danger is, if you don’t know where your story is going, you can write yourself into a dead-end early on.

Having a map doesn’t necessarily mean having an outline. I tend to write with guideposts in mind. Some guideposts I usually plan out early are:

  • Opening image – The first impression readers get from your story.
  • Inciting incident – This is the moment where the story kicks into gear.
  • The mid-point crisis – I always try to create a crisis around halfway through the story.
  • Stair step to climax 1 – After the midpoint, I try to plot three twists leading to climax.
  • Stair step to climax 2 – Each stair step represents a problem, obstacle, or challenge to overcome.
  • Stair step to climax 3 – Each stair step challenge ends in failure, raising the stakes for the protagonist.
  • Climax – This is the BIG BANG of the story. It’s what everything is building toward.
  • Resolution – I try to keep this as short as possible. You want readers to have enough of a wrap-up after the climax so that they walk away satisfied, but not so much that they end up bored.
  • Closing image – the last thing the reader “sees” before the very end.

Come to think of it, that does look an awful lot like an outline.

What these guideposts allow me to do is set up a skeleton of the story in my mind. Instead of writing with no idea where I’m going, or writing with only the ending in mind, I’m writing toward my next guidepost. Notice the first half of the story essentially has 3 guideposts while the second half of the story has twice as many—that’s because I have an easier time starting stories than figuring out how to finish them.

4. Schedule your writing time and protect it with everything that’s in you.

Once you do all this story development work, you still have to sit down and actually write your story. That may require planning two hours every day. You may have to get up an hour early every morning in order to write. You may have to turn off the television every night (and DVR your favorite shows) in order to write. Carving out time to write every day is the key to successfully completing NaNoWriMo or any other writing challenge. This may be the hardest part of NaNoWriMo, even harder than the actual writing.

5. Adjust your daily goals to compensate for days you can’t write.

Now, if your religion dictates a sabbath, there’s nothing wrong with taking a day off every week. You just need to adjust your daily goals accordingly. Instead of averaging 1667 words per day, you’ll need to average 1924 words on the days you write.

Given that one of America’s biggest holidays falls toward the end of NaNoWriMo, it’s probably a good idea to plan on missing a few days of writing. If your daily average is 2000 words, you will reach your 50,000 word goal in just 25 days—giving you five whole days of grace. If your daily average is 2500 words, then you will reach your 50,000 word goal in just 20 days, or just under 3 weeks.

Or, you can be like some incredible NaNoWriMo writers and knock the entire 50,000 words out in just a single day.

Good luck everyone, and happy writing!

Also published on Medium.