How to Write a Novel in Two Months

As someone who has never thought of himself as a fast writer, I had certain trepidations about this Predator novel gig, exacerbated by being sick for a couple of weeks when I’d planned to work on it and unexpected but lovely distractions (like Utopiales in France). The result is that I basically wrote Predator: South China Sea in two months. I had more than six months to work on it, but only spent about eight weeks at the computer and writing longhand. I’m almost hesitant to mention this because I think some readers and writers equate length of time spent on a project with quality. And it’s certainly true that some ideas, some novels, require a long gestation period and an equally long time in which to revise, revisit, re-envision.

For example, long-time readers of this blog might recall that it took a decade to put together the stories that comprise City of Saints & Madmen and eight years to work on Shriek: An Afterword on-and-off. In my twenties, I was known to spend six months on a single short story or novella.

Factored into this time span, however, were all of the editing, publishing, nonfiction, and hours spent at a full-time job. I think you’d also have to factor in that as a writer in your twenties and, to some extent your thirties, you are still getting comfortable with your writing. You don’t know how to do a lot of things and so some of your time is spent puzzling out how the pieces fit together, how this or that technique works, why this doesn’t, etc.

Now that I don’t have a full-time job and am approaching the age of forty, two things have happened: (1) I can put more of the full force of my attention into a novel or short story more intensely over a short period of time and (2) I’m much more relaxed and as a result my rough drafts tend to be more complete than in the past; I still do a ton of rewriting, revision, and line editing, but I find that more of the initial vision in my head is in the draft right away.

These factors helped in writing a novel so quickly (for me). However, there were other little tricks and other factors that allowed me to work this fast without sacrificing quality. I am, of course, assuming that I’ve written a good novel, although ultimately that’s up to readers.

So, here’s what I’ve learned. With the caveat that…I don’t know how Star Wars and Star Trek writers do it, because they have huge bibles of information to absorb while all I had was three sheets of info on the Predator and two Predator movies. For this reason, what I learned really has less to do with writing a tie-in novel than just with having to quickly writing a novel and trying to make sure the quality control is still there. I hope some of this is useful. I’m sure that it will seem very basic to many novelists who work with tight deadlines all of the time.

Support

(1) Make sure your partner/girlfriend/spouse is willing to give you their full support while you’re writing the novel. I can’t tell you how easy Ann made this experience, since I rarely left the house and she did a lot of things I usually do for the household. I can’t thank her enough for that, and I owe her big-time.

(2) Make sure you have contacts that you can use for specialist information so you don’t have to do research. This ranges from small stuff to huge stuff. For example, Dave Larsen was my gun and heavy artillery guy, and he came through in a big way. I think his expertise probably saved me something like 20 hours of work. In addition, because he’s fired guns before and also has made knives, he gave me invaluable personal experience that enhanced the reality of the novel. However, I also had sources for information on a small scale. K.J. Bishop was able to give me info on the rough parts of Bangkok. Ekaterina Sedia was able to find just the right Russian word for “freedom,” which led in turn to a character coming to life that had not been as fully-fleshed out as I would have liked.

(3) Make sure you support your efforts with sound lifestyle choices. I have to admit I exercised less and drank more during the two months than is normal for me. However, I still managed to exercise intensely for two-to-three hours three to four times a week and limited the drinking to a couple of drinks a day most of the time. Eating healthy also helped keep my energy level up. This is important, because you’re doing a lot more typing and longhand writing per day than you normally would, and you have to make it count more, as well.

(4) Make sure you support your efforts with sound process decisions. Most of the time, I wrote new scenes in the mornings, revised existing scenes in the afternoons, and spent my evenings on line-edits and rewrites of individual paragraphs here and there. By structuring my time this way, I made better progress than if I’d just focused on doing new scenes all day until the novel was done. Because by the time I’d finished writing the new scenes, most everything up to that point had already then been through a second or even third revision.

(5) Have a good group of first readers willing to read the novel in pieces or in completed draft form. These readers should be a mix of people who usually read the kind of novel you’re writing and people who don’t. They should not all be fellow writers. A good percentage of them should be pure readers, because you are not really looking for the kinds of things a writer may be more invested in than a reader. (This doesn’t mean writers don’t make good first readers–just that you need to have a mix.)

Writing-Related

(1) Make sure your initial synopsis is detailed enough that you can divide it into chapters when you start the actual writing, and, if possible, make sure at that point that you have a one- or two-line description of the action for a particular chapter or scene. Know going into the writing for a week exactly what each scene is supposed to do and why. If you know that, you will find it is still possible to be highly creative and surprise yourself in the individual scenes. If you don’t know that, you will spend most of your creative energy just trying to figure out what should be happening. (UPDATE: Jay Lake notes that if he he knew “exactly what what each scene is supposed to do and why” it wouldn’t work for him, so your mileage may vary. Perhaps I should clarify in that I just needed to know the action that would occur, more than anything else.)

(2) Make sure you know what kind of novel you’re writing. I know this sounds basic, but be able to say to yourself something along the lines of “I’m writing a relatively fast-paced action-adventure story with a subplot involving espionage and a tragic love relationship.” More or less a mission statement. You may vary from it, but being able to on the macro level tell yourself what it is you’re trying to do is very useful. You’ll note my example did not read “I’m writing a multi-generational saga about a powerful crime family.” There are some kinds of novels you cannot write in two months.

(3) Make sure you are using a relatively transparent style. I don’t believe it’s possible to write a good novel in this limited amount of time if you’re using a more baroque, layered style (and by that, I mean styles like the ones I used in the stories in City of Saints). This doesn’t mean that you can’t have complexity of character and complexity of style, but it has to be a more invisible complexity. The layering process, otherwise, will take too much time. In this case, writing a Predator novel, this would’ve been my approach anyway.

(4) Base at least some of your main characters on people you know and really like, BUT make sure they are not people you have spent a lot of time with. I know it sounds paradoxical, but it turned out to be a very effective way for me to generate depth of character, almost like having some of the work done for me, but not all of it. Let me explain. In the novel, there is a character named Horia Ursu, the same name as one of my Romanian editors. Horia is a dear, dear friend who I correspond with via email and who Ann and I have met twice. We have spent perhaps a total of seven days together. I feel very close to him, I admire him greatly, but I don’t know him in the way I know Eric Schaller, for example, who illustrated City of Saints & Madmen. I’ve known Eric for more than a decade and we’ve spent a lot more time together. I could never use “Eric Schaller” as a name to animate a character quickly because I know too many details about his life. With Horia, there is a space there, a lack of knowledge in certain ways, that allowed me to create a very entertaining character in the novel by riffing off of what I did know and then filling in and making up details. I used this technique with at least three characters in the novel and it worked extremely well. Usually, thinking about character would take a lot more than two months–it, along with structure, would be the biggest impediments to finishing a novel in such a short time. But, with the help of these real people who are my friends, by literally invoking them through using their names, I was able to find an effective shortcut.

(5) Don’t be afraid to use a host of multiple viewpoint characters. The quickest way to make sure a scene is truly dramatic is to make sure that the character with the most at stake is the viewpoint character. Early on, I had a very rigid view of this–I was going to have two or three viewpoint characters and that’s it. It soon became clear this would not work in the short term. It might have if I had time to think about it more and to work it out on the page. I didn’t have the time. So I switched to the idea of shorter chapters, with several viewpoints threaded through the novel. Each time, the viewpoint was of the character with the greatest stake in the scene in some way. This is especially true in the last half of the novel, which of course has a crescendo of action. I did, per Jay Lake’s suggestion, make sure that most longer chapters were from the viewpoints of major characters, however, so there would be an anchoring effect. (Thanks also to Elizabeth Bear for saying, “Oh, just go into as many heads as you need to.”) Anyway, the effect is simple: it takes less time to write a scene because you already are in the head of someone who wants or needs something from what’s going on. Then it’s just a matter of making sure you have enough sub-plot and enough over-arching plot (in terms of character machinations) that this approach doesn’t begin to seem repetitive.

(6) If using an exotic setting, make sure it’s one you can find a parallel to in your own immediate surroundings. I didn’t do much research on islands in the South China Sea. I just made sure the island had a semi-tropical climate like Florida and then I riffed off of the Florida landscape, with a few altered details. This allowed me to put some description that read like specific, accurate detail, to provide apparent authenticity.

(7) Don’t animate what doesn’t need to be animated. This might just apply to any novel, but it’s especially true when you’re under the gun deadline-wise. There’s a lodge in my novel and separate rooms for all of the guests, along with one common room. There’re maybe two scenes in the separate rooms and lots in the common room. So I spent my time detailing the common room and really didn’t describe the other parts of the lodge at all. There was really no point. In a more leisurely kind of novel with a more leisurely time frame, this might’ve been something I’d have liked to explore, but it wasn’t necessary here.

(8) Actually save time by playing against type. Dave Larsen pointed out that his Cambodian friend says Cambodians who speak English drop their plurals. I’d already written my Cambodian main character’s dialogue. I was also afraid of making the character sound too much like a caricature, no matter how true Dave’s observation was. So, my character was raised by Western missionaries until he was ten and is proud of the fact he doesn’t drop his plurals when speaking English. A possible lack of authenticity turned into a more unique detail.

Comments

  1. Jason says

    Just to let you guys know, the NaNoWriMo thing isn’t as crazy as you think. I know that both Stephen King and Holly Lisle write 2000 words a day, which is higher than the NaNoWriMo requirement of 1667 words a day, so I wouldn’t call it that fast. The two of those writers turn out fat books that happen to be incredible works of fiction. If 2000 words/day is a professional rate, NaNoWriMo is a good stepping stone to get up there.

    @JV: I don’t know if this is above, but how long is your novel in two months, word-count wise? Also, do you do much editing or revising after you’ve done your (first) draft? You said that you edit as you go along, which I’ve always been cautioned to avoid.

  2. L. Violet says

    Your article is terrific. Could you explain a little more what you mean by “relatively transparent style” and “invisible complexity?” (item #3) I take it to mean not using much in the way of subtext, hidden motivations, or conflicted characters. This might not be what you mean.

    I’m feeling dragged down at present by my suspense novel, which took a full year to write. Now am revising and by gum, it’s not going to take another year to revise! I got talked into writing this one “by the seat of my pants.” Never again. I’m going back to outlines. Thanks, Jeff.

  3. says

    Jason: I think the don’t edit as you go along is mostly for beginning writers who may have problems getting out of a self-critical mode while writing rough drafts. But the editing actually occurs in a separate session later in the day, on my material written perhaps a week before that. And depending on

    NaNoWriMo is kind of crazy, frankly. It really depends on whether you’re at a place with the development of the novel in your head that you can spew all of that onto the page in a meaningful way. It’s good for anyone in the sense of then knowing, hey, I can write a novel. But I doubt many of those books are any good without extensive revision afterwards.

    Stephen King’s style lends itself to high work rate. But 2000 words a day isn’t much, really. I’d say he probably writes more. Or maybe his process is different. I might write 1000 words one day and then 10000 the next.

    My novel turned out to be 85000 words. And I various parts of the novel were undergoing 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th drafts while I was still writing 1st draft material on the ending sections.

    I do extensive editing on my own original fiction after the first draft. I have done as many as 15 drafts of large sections of my novels after the rough draft.

    L. Violet–thanks. Good question. By “relatively transparent style” I mean not a dense style. I.e., if you write like Lawrence Block rather than Gabriel Garcia Marquez, I think that a novel in two months is more do-able. That’s NOT a knock on Block. It’s more of the idea that a lush style doesn’t just occur in the rough draft phase for many writers–it’s a layering effect. Whereas with a more transparent style, you don’t have to layer as much.

    Re “invisible complexity”–kind of the same thing. Trying to get fewer words to do more work, in less time. Not easy for a beginner, not really that easy for an experienced writer, necessarily. But, yes, I do think in my Predator novel there is less subtext. Where the novel tries to make up for that is in pacing, in doing other kinds of things with the characters. And, frankly, in hidden motivations and conflicted characters–those things don’t take extra time. But I have to note I would never have been able to write the novel I’m working on now in two months.

    Also, I don’t know if I’ve said it yet, but Tachyon Publications will be releasing my book How to Write a Novel in Two Months: A Survival Kit for the Twenty-First Century Writer. It’s a unique hybrid of writing and career advice that I will humbly say should be indispensible for any writer in any genre, including the literary mainstream. For one thing, I’m divulging a lot of trade secrets, and doing so in the context of web 2.0.

    JeffV

  4. says

    Wonderful instructions and writing tips. I cannot thank you enough for affirming what I’ve had to discover on my own and helping me connect the dots with things I didn’t know. Very best wishes for your every success!

  5. Cindy Conway says

    Just a quick “Thanks” for confirming my natural writing style. While I do have a supportive spouse, I reluctantly receive never-ending advice on styles, ideas, short-cuts, etc., that sometimes go against the grain. One particular piece of advice was to strictly avoid rewriting or editing until you have your first draft completed. In fact, I’ve read that advice in many articles and blogs, always secretly disagreeing.

    I stuck to my guns and persisted with my inclination toward writing until the well ran dry, whether that was two hours or eight…then the next time I picked it up I would invariably go back and re-read what I’d previously done – rewriting and editing my little heart out. It flowed naturally and when it was done I felt it was complete…well, not complete, but you probably understand what I’m trying to say. Rewriting could take several tries until I finally just walk away and decide it will never be perfect. Writing until the end and then going back to rewrite from the beginning…it was so unnatural. I’ve seen people who can’t seem to clean up their house without pulling out everything they own into a big pile and then putting it all back where it came from. They made a bigger mess than they had in the first place! That’s what it felt like to me – unecessary.

    So, the thanks to you is because this process you describe came so naturally to me and I couldn’t seem to defend my style to my critic(s). Now that I know I’m not alone in my opinion that this process can work, and successfully, I’ll probably print out your blog and nail it to the door of my office! :)

  6. Luis Santana says

    I wrote a 50.591 words novel in 31 days!!! Ten pages a day ((A5) book format). From 4a.m to 7a.m. Seven days a week. Using the Nine-Act Structure. I used the same structure for my second book (novella)(39.242 words) – I Wrote That Book in Sixteen Days. Both are out this October, ’08 (along with a short-story collection)(three books altogether). I wrote these books at the first attempt (the exception is one short-story which i revised a few times because it was my first one to write and i was a bullshit writer, in what a style was concerned. Now i write Urban Literature style)(i write like i talk but i edit automatically (in my head before i press any keyword at the pc) in formal language to ease the experience to the reader). I write only what comes to my head while sitting at my computer. I relax before write a single word. Usually i start, the book/novel/novella/short-story only when i have my first proposition, line or phrase. I LET IT COME TO MY MIND, I DON’T FORCE IT. I USUALLY LAY ON THE BED OR ON THE EXECUTIVE CHAIR IN FRONT OF THE COMPUTER. Then i can end the job for the day. Next day i make only the first paragraph out of that first line. And that’s it, for that day. On my third day i wanna make only a page or two. Then on the fourth day onwards i do write 10 PAGES A DAY!!! No revisions. I do take a lot of time in research — Internet, local library and Mentors. I write autobiographical, historical, fantasy and science fantasy – as in one. Now i am using the following structure to write fact +fiction > YIN, Robert K. (1984), Case study research, Design and methods, Beverly Hill, Sage. It must be fun to write, know the market, have something to say even when still chaotic in our heads, and put away all unnecessary distractions such as Dictionaries. It is a must not finishing the day untill our daily pages are accomplished to give us a sense of professionalism as a set of rules to go on writing untill is done. After, a while, a couple of hours a day, will suffice. To keep in mind (1) figure out all unnecessary, (2) all tools to write faster. In the morning i write faster and am very lucid. In the evening i am tired and my writing tends to slow down BUT gets even better because i have figured out that writing slowly is not a bad attitude only must concentrate in character (as opposed to plot in the morning). So write plot, action in the morning, and character in late hours when tired. What is necessary for one writer, is unnecessary for another writer. The trick is to figure out how to leave out the most of the unnecessary rituals when actually writing. And use all at hand to easy write. Be creative either way. Any smalll thing is a gift and helps you on the way to enjoy and be a better writer. All is very important if it helps you writing. I made a list of nearly 200 small and big publishers in my contact groups, in my email account. Everytime i wrote something i sent to this 200 at once. I did that for four years (well actually not for four years but i should have done it at that time also because since i’ve done it, it turned easier for me – i did not miss one publisher that otherwise would not publish my stuff) (As it turned to happen a few months ago. It paid off.) I could not have been published otherwise. It is not lucky it is being smart. Lucky is related with time of book release as it happens to be the best time to put the book out at the bookshops. And with the luck stretching a bit further you have a fast or best seller. Meantime i had to write more, and figure out how the market was allthetime i needed to start a new book or story. At the end it paid be attentive and stand up for my job. I write like a kid with a new toy (without a worry in the world, just enjoying the ride) and, also, for the money. Having fun and getting the money is my motto. I am a penniless guy and i’m on my way to write a few bestsellers. My first book i guess it will be. And my sixth problable so.

  7. Mary May says

    Are there any huge limitations in writing a book? I’m trying to write a book and i keep having to stop and ask myself questions. Am i allowed to use real cities? can I use the actual name of the tiny little dress shop in downtown New Albany, Mississippi? I want to keep writing but i keep getting scared I’m doing things wrong. What are my limitations!?

  8. Luis Santana says

    Hey, Mary May: There are no limits, only the ones you put yourself. I advice you to have one book or several as a reference, must be books you feel are near to your own writing — it must be one book for the style (eg. Urban Literature) and another book for the Literary Genre (eg. Autobiographical Novel or Mainstream Commercial Fiction, …). In that way, you know how to write in the genre you feel like at easy. For instance I wanted to write a autobiographical novel but did not know if I could write the things I wanted to say, so I looked at the book of Henry Miller (TROPIC OF CANCER) to see if I ‘could’ write it, the way I wanted — and yes, I could. BUT Henry Miller style was not mine, so, i had to find another book to use as a reference which was a Mainstream Commercial Fiction book. The Mainstream book written in a way that seemed nearly ‘true’ all of its content, but of course was fiction. I wanted to write autobiographical like Mainstream — And I’ve done it! I just sticked to what I felt right to me, and chose the books I liked for the purpose at hand — I needed to write in a easy way like I speak (which was Urban Literature style). At first I did not know what style was but I got the right book to study its style. Yes, you are allowed to use real cities. Yes you may use ‘tiny little dress shop in downtown New Albany, Mississipi’. The ONLY thing you must be aware of is, when you end the book, before sending it around publishers, you MUST changed all real names of any people you use in your book — you may use real names only in your draft — not in the oiece you send around the publishers. And ALSO you must not identify your people in any means that they are recognized in your fiction. When doing that you are allowed to do whatever you feel like. No need to be scared, write away, just when you finish changed real NAMES and make them unrecognizable to the reader, to preserve (them) THE RIGHT TO THE GOOD NAME, and, THE RIGHT TO THE IMAGE. Do whatever you want and keep an eye on the market.

  9. Warran Tucos says

    Hi Jeff!

    I just wanted to say I was impressed with your take on the Predator series! It was interesting to see how you talked about an organization-Onyx, that knew about the Predators and how to deal with them. What was really great was the prologue. I could just see this scene on film! Again, great job and I hope you will be able to write more Predator adventures in the future.

    Sincerely,

    Warren

  10. says

    i appreciate the response Jason, would love to see a post on this. personally i am a guy who spent 3 years alone in a room with several computers learning everything there is to know about internet, electronic devices, and all the possibilities for its future. now out of that, with several schematics in the brain, putting together the exec summary, biz plan, prototype, etc, find myself with no network. and when you work 14 hours a day getting your dream together, its hard to do anything aside from building your tech . thank you for your brain on the screen. i must figure out the one element i see that you see as a necessity… a team and a network.

  11. says

    Frankly, Writing a Novel in Two Months is incredible.

    For some, writing a novel is a dream that never seems to materialize. It may be that one is too busy, or too stuck, or just to daunted by the sheer fact that that all of those pages have to be written.

  12. says

    I agree with Mark Downson.

    In my opinion, It is quite hard to get published particularly if you’re writing fiction. However it’s not impossible.

    There are a number of publishers that charge you to publish your book but they’re not really the ones you ought to be seeking.

  13. says

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  14. says

    Hello,

    I am use it (tips on read), good post.

    Also i am share this page, my social account.

    I am following you, since today :)

    Good luck man !

  15. says

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  16. says

    Nice one Jeff! Having a full plan and storyline is really important to write with limited time and budget. I’ve experienced it before and it helps me a lot to publish novels with limited resources :)

  17. Scott says

    I’m writing a book i found these tips useful so far. i’ve done 63 pages and aiming for about 300 roughly.
    on my book.

    Also on another subject when are you going to write another predator book? i’ve read the south seas one and enjoyed it. I’m a big fan of the predator/aliens fransiess or you could write one about the aliens?

  18. Chaz Kader says

    Reading this novel now. I waited to buy until I saw on the shelf at my favorite used book store. I am writing myself now and am enjoying how you have broken up the storyline. Your work is well paced. Thank you for this blog and add me to any update lists if you wish.

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  1. [...] How to Write a Novel in Two Months via boing boing This was written by rob. Posted on Wednesday, January 16, 2008, at 9:48 am. Filed under Writing. Bookmark the permalink. Follow comments here with the RSS feed. Comments are closed, but you can leave a trackback. ‹ Bloody Omaha © 2008 ¶ Thanks, WordPress. ¶ veryplaintxt theme by Scott Allan Wallick. ¶ It’s nice XHTML & CSS. [...]

  2. [...] I’m also itching to get moving on this book thing. I spent all of last year saying to myself, “2009 is a story year, 2010 is a book year.” My fingers are twitching. Everywhere I look I keep running into things like the Novel in 90 thing that Elizabeth Bear is involved in, or Catherynne Valente’s post about writing a novel in 30 days (that includes a link to Jeff VanderMeer’s post about writing a novel in two months). [...]

  3. [...] How to Write a Novel in Two Months, by Jeff Vandermeer Okay, I’ve never read Jeff’s works (I just found this article today after seeing Mur Lafferty mention it in a retweet from Colleen Lindsay), and it’s over a year old, but I think this article is worth reading. Jeff’s also got a book coming out soon (Booklife: Strategies & Survival Tips for the 21st-Century Writer), and I have to agree with Mur that it sounds like it will be good reading. Good enough for Mur is good enough for me. [...]

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