How to Write a Novel in 30 Days

Jeff did a piece called How to Write a Novel in Two Months a little while back, and when I read it, I smiled, because I’ve run that race, too. I wanted to post my thoughts on speed-writing, as I have many—and now, through the power of bloggery, I can put my essay right next to his! It’s like some kind of crazy magic. And because Jeff nailed a lot of the nitty-gritty, things, I can just blather. Best of both worlds!

So here’s the thing–I am a fast writer. I think this is a skill I developed in college, a combination of stress and a vital part of my personality: I am incredibly lazy.

Because I am incredibly lazy, it is very easy to convince me not to work, since I don’t want to work anyway. Which led to an abnormal number of papers completed the night before they were due…and then the early morning hours before they were due, then the not so early morning hours*…And if even once I had failed to turn in a paper, failed to churn out twenty pages on gender anxiety in Gawain and the Green Knight, if I had even once failed to get an A, I think I would have rethought my methods and come to some sort of conclusion about work ethics.

Didn’t happen.

So what my brain learned was not what it should have learned, namely that this sort of thing is about as risky and dumb as huffing whipped cream canisters. My brain learned that there was no deadline it couldn’t meet.

This is a dangerous thing for a brain to know, and I recommend failure to meet deadlines to everyone. Human behavior means doing something until it doesn’t work. This sort of thing still works for me. I do not expect it to work forever, and frankly, it giveth and it taketh. You get the work done fast, but your body is shredded and you end up with the interpersonal grace of Gollum on a meth binge.

But you’re not going to listen to these warnings.

The 30 days is an arbitrary number–it is kind of an absolute minimum for me**. I haven’t pushed myself to see just how fast I can turn out a novel, but I don’t trust myself with less than 30 days. I’m not crazy. Obviously, Nanowrimo influences that number (50k in a month, at something like 1400 words a day, is not actually very hard if you’re a fast hand at the keyboard and don’t have a day job) and now it can be told that I did Nanowrimo in 2002…sort of. See, those were heady days. I was 23. I was all balls-out and brazen and come-here-world-I’m-gonna-take-a-bite-out-of-you.

You know, totally different than now.

So I just did it on my own in early October (at the same Rhode Island Starbucks where Tobias Buckell started his first novel, as we discovered this summer) and I clocked in at a lot less than 30 days. The result? The beginning of my career, and how I met Jeff.

The key, really, is to never learn you can fail.

I really enjoy timed writing–with deadline from without (editor) or within (online project, personal goal, etc). I think it’s because I enjoy obstructions. Things created within boundaries, where the boundaries become part of the object, creativity fueled by restriction. It lights me up inside–your mileage may, of course, vary. This is not how I write every novel–it took me six years to write The Orphan’s Tales. As I said, I don’t recommend this: first of all, no one will think you can have possibly produced anything good in that time, because time spent = quality, obviously, and no other factors come into play. Second of all, you absolutely have to play by this first rule. No exceptions, no hall passes.

Rule #1: Be a Genius

Guys, I cannot stress this enough. See Kerouac’s Belief and Technique for Modern Writing. Rule #29? You Are a Genius All the Time. (Yes, I have that list nailed above my desk.)

I don’t care what kind of writer you are. I don’t care how many rejections you’ve had, I don’t care how long you’ve been doing this. For 30 days, you are a genius. Everything that flows from your fingers is pure light. You do not have the luxury of not being a genius–not being a genius is laziness and sloth and you just can’t tolerate that shit right now.

Writing this fast is an act of unadulterated, stupid, blind faith. Faith in yourself, in your voice, in your story, in your sheer ability. If your faith falters, you lose time. In my experience, if you’re working on a 30 day cycle, you can afford to lose maybe three days (non-consecutive, if you lose three straight days you’ll never recover) to self-doubt, internal criticism, and not being a genius. More than that and you’re running up against words-per-minute, and when you get down to it, typing speed is actually a big factor. Us Millenials who grew up in chat rooms have generally fabulous-fleet skillz, but seriously, this is no time for long-hand.

2. Tell Everyone

Make sure everyone knows what you’re doing. This will provide the heady ingredient of shame to the proceedings, and I find that shame is an enormous motivator. If you fail alone, in private, no one will ever know, and you can claim that writing a novel in 30 days is impossible, for hacks, etc, with impunity. If you post to your blog and tell all your friends, you have to admit to it if you fail. This is assuming you are not subject to the major reason for speed-writing: you have a deadline and you watched Alias reruns instead of working until the last possible second.

It’s also important that your partner and social group knows not to expect you to be anything like human for the next month. Fortunately, you’re a genius, and geniuses are never expected to conform to primate behavior standards***. Just, you know, apologize later. If you are very lucky, you might have a partner or friend who is willing to provide any combination of the following salves for your chafed genius muscles: food, quiet space/leaving you the hell alone, a clean house, inspirational backrubs, crazy-ass genius sex.

But probably not.

3. Be Crazy

Jeff said that one ought not to try for much more than a transparent style when writing at breakneck speed. I, rather predictably, disagree. If anything, I’d suspect this doesn’t work so well for complex plot than complex language, but that’s likely because I find language easier than plot. Pick what you’re best at, and make that the focus of this marathon. I rather think that no technique is better suited to beatnik-pomo-style crazy writing than this–let go of your internal editor, of the ways writing is “supposed” to be (hint: it’s not supposed to be done in 30 days), any ideas your English professors might have given you about literature, and just open your brain onto the computer. Direct flesh-to-motherboard communication. Remember, this is blind faith we’re talking about. You are St. Teresa, and you are here to be transfigured. This is radical, revolutionary trust that what you are creating is worth the world.

You may not actually end up with a novel at the end of the month. But you’ll have something. Kerouac said not to be afraid to be a crazy dumbsaint of the mind. Quite so.

4. Sacrifice Your Body

Come on, you weren’t using it anyway.

The fact is, this sort of thing is a horrific strain on your human suit. You stay up late, you eat whatever is easy, you have to ice down your wrists at the end of the day. You burn your brain out, no joke. Make time for recovery afterward. Get out of the house occasionally, to Toby and my Starbucks, or the front lawn, or a laundromat. Look up at the sky. Accept the fact that you will fall down on your household chores–which is why this sort of thing is usually a childless writer’s gig–and that several times, you will literally want to die rather than write another word. Keep going. Talk to marathon runners. Rejoice, and conquer. Die, if you have to. Then get up and get back to work.

5. Don’t Fail

You don’t have time to fail. You don’t have time for writer’s block. You don’t have time to wibble.

And if you don’t fail this time, you’ll never learn that you can fail, and every time you don’t fail, your faith in your ability to not fail will grow until one day you’ll wake up and you won’t be a failure at all. It’s kind of awesome, if you can manage it. But the key is not failing, and the key to not failing is stupid dumbfuck faith that you won’t fail. Life is circular like that.

The reason I don’t credit Nanowrimo is not because I don’t think quality can be produced in 30 days. That would be a silly opinion, considering. It’s because they don’t think quality can be produced in 30 days. Their whole site is about producing crap and having it be okay to produce crap. It is okay. But I don’t have time to produce crap. Life is too short to produce crap. And the only way I know how to do this is to be absolutely convinced that what I’m writing is gobstoppingly amazing.

And I can only maintain that sort of conviction for short bursts. Say, 30 days.


*This is where being a classicist REALLY pays off. Ain’t no English class (see what I did thar?) can lick you–you know most of it before you set foot in the room, and your base of knowledge is broad enough that you can sound damn smart in a number of varied fields. I in no way mean to imply that in graduate school I did the research and the composition the day the paper was due. That would be crazy.

**I’ve done the 3 Day Novel competition–they expect you to produce something like 30k words, and that’s a novella at best.

***DO NOT DRINK ALCOHOL. You are not that kind of genius.

The Agony Column’s Rick Kleffel Interviewed on Amazon

Just breaking in for a second to post that Amazon has run my long interview with the amazing Rick Kleffel. Fascinating stuff about his interviews and about books. I don’t have the direct link because this is an auto-scheduled post I wrote back in July. :)

Have I Ever Told You About My Love/Hate Relationship With Confessional Poetry?

The art
of confession’s to focus attention on what’s
confessed while leaving the secret

mutations untouched. I once put the hose
of a vacuum on my penis and turned it
on. Honesty makes me feel so clean.

–Bill Hicok

Some of you know I started out as a poet. Some of you might have surmised as much from reading my books, which generally treat plot as a back-door lover, to be treated with suspicion and kept in ecstatic servitude. There’s training to be had in poetry just like there’s training to be had in fiction, but the training in poetry tends to be more like acting class: find your deepest, most horrible, painful, darkest experience and drag it up for the joy of the crowd, who is really only there to see real, honest tears and breast-rending. Kind of like NASCAR fans.

It’s like the Xtreme Sport version of Write What You Know.

In the days before I got the bright idea to start writing novels, I ran that particular obstacle course. I dutifully ate the scorpions and walked the highwire, dredging up my childhood abuse and past relationships and anything else that seemed suitably dire to please a professor. It really makes for an alarming personality type: someone who has lost all notion of appropriate social filters, and views their private pain as public discourse.

You know, a blogger.

The thing is, I never learned my lesson, even when I turned away from what I had always been taught was “real” Literature, the literature of displayed agony, and started writing about monsters and pirates. And honestly, I think it makes me a better writer. Most literary rules are better off bent, and combining the ritualistic self-flagellation of confessional poetry with genre tropes makes a much more delicious cocktail than either the bucket of emo-blood or elven mead alone.

Because you have to write what you know. And most of us know two things: what we’ve read and what we’ve done. What we’ve read is speculative science and folklore. What we’ve done is starve for love, bloody ourselves black for parental approval, take stupid risks for stupider reasons, get lost the dark of life and maybe, if we were lucky, found our way into the light again.

Cue the old “you got chocolate in my peanut butter” ditty.

A lot of contemporary fantasy fails to satisfy me because it does not have the creamy center of genuine emotional experience. Most contemporary realism fails to satisfy me because it lacks a crunchy exterior of awesome. It’s not enough to create a magical world, you have to show me the hand of god in that world, and the author is god. If there is no emotional core, I don’t care how many tribes of elves you’ve invented. The fact is, none of y’all know what it’s like to be a young, blond farm boy dreaming up at the stars when a wizard shows up to dump the fate of the world on your shoulders and also hands you a crown and a girl. Life doesn’t work like that. The best books serve two masters: they show us what life could be like if everything was different, and they make us recognize ourselves with a start. They make us say: yes, that’s what it’s like.

To strike that balance, you must be like unto a World of Warcraft heroine: wear sparkly, leathery, fantastical armor that nevertheless shows all your secret parts.

You may not know how it feels to cast magic missile, but you do know what it’s like to irrevocably lose someone you love. To be abandoned. To be betrayed. To find joy and grace at the end of suffering. Those things are universal, and a legion of poetry professors exist to help you dredge up the details of those experiences. So use them, not the generalized LIFE ISSUES(tm), but the genuine and specific things that have happened to you–let it hang out, let your fetishes and your griefs and your hoary, bloody innards fall all over the page. The best writers can’t fool anyone. We know what they want, what they’ve never had. No one ever thought Delany was a straight, monogamous guy. Stop caring who sees your private places–or care, and teach yourself to be an exhibitionist. Readers are sadists–they’re there to see the wreck, and they want to see you cry.

You have to put your penis in the vacuum cleaner. Honesty will make you whole.

And then put in the dragons.

I’ll Be Your Writer This Evening! Let Me Tell You About Our Specials…

Hi! I’m Cat Valente, and I’ll be your guest blogger for the week. Jeff already introduced me, but allow me to take this very special opportunity to remind you that authors enjoy long walks on the beach, sunsets, and eating–and to therefore link you to my most recent novel and my website so that you can, perhaps, help me with one or all of those things.

I have several posts ready to go for the week, but as today is a Monday, and I am exhausted, having spent the weekend in New York whilst all of New York was at ComicCon, and it is grey and blustery despite being nearly August outside, I am going to lad with a thud on this here blog and open up the comments to questions as a little get-to-know-each-other exercise.

Then, tomorrow, I’ll tell you about my love-hate relationship with confessional poetry.

So, in the comments, ask me anything you’d like about the writing life. Or the writing death. Or long walks on the beach.

Shriek Limited From Wyrm Publishing

One last post before the next guest blogger–here’s the cover of the limited of Jeff’s Shriek: An Afterword. Complete with printer marks. The design is by John Coulthart. The art is by Ben Templesmith. (Check out a larger version here.) John also designed the interior. It will come with some short additional material in the back, as well as a copy on DVD of the Shriek movie and a CD of The Church’s original soundtrack for the book. (This is not the movie music, although it includes elements of that music. Also lyrics taken from the book.) Signed and numbered as well.

I’ve attached a very short sample from four of The Church’s songs: church-music_0001

You can order the book here. It will be out in September. Below find the original “trailer” for both book and movie (the music there is, again, in the movie, not on the CD accompanying the book). Yep, that is Tim and Steve from The Church speaking at the beginning…

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Catherynne M. Valente: Ecstatic Days Guest Blogger (July 28-Aug 1)

I’m very pleased to introduce my friend Catherynne M. Valente, a multi-talented writer, as this week’s guest blogger on Ecstatic Days. Catherynne M. Valente is a past Tiptree Award winner, Million Writers Award winner, and World Fantasy Award finalist for her potent re-imagining of folktale with The Orphan’s Tale, published in two parts by Bantam Spectra. She has also written poetry, criticism, and short stories for various publishers and magazines.

Weird Tales Writing Contest

In honor of the release of issue #350 (on your newsstands shortly), Weird Tales is having a writing contest (based on internet weirdness, of course).  Check out the details at Weird Tales.

Winners will be announced at WorldCon at the Weird Tales party, naturally….

For details:  Weird Tales Contest

(Ann, how many times are you going to use the word weird?  I have to use it in every weird sentence.  It’s in my weird contract!)

A Week of Books Received and Other News

While Jeff is at the Shared Worlds Camp, I have had the pleasure of checking the mail each day (btw – he’s having a blast at camp and just spent the last few days with guest writer/lecturer Ekaterina Sedia).  Here is a photo of all books received this week – above – some for review and others just because…

And I also am excited to present the working cover for Best American Fantasy.  ARCs will be out very shortly and the actual book is scheduled for a  November release.  Here’s the cover:

In other news, the next issue of Weird Tales is about to hit newsstands any day now.   Lots of good stuff in there, including fiction from Norman Spinrad, Karen Heuler, Nick Mamatas, Kelly Barnhill and others as well as an interview with Mike Mignola by Elizabeth Genco, Lost in Lovecraft and other Weirdisms.  Check it out.

More photos after the cut and a bit of help from Jackson….

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Epilogue: For an Anti-Autophagic Writing

For some time now, I´ve been writing, with my friend Jacques Barcia, a blog written in English, the Post-Weird Thoughts. I created that blog not only to communicate with readers and writers from all over the world, but also because I don´t think I´m communicating very well with Brazilian writers.

A friend of mine interviewed Tim Powers in 1990 for a long-deceased SF magazine, the Brazilian version of Isaac Asimov´s SF Magazine – it was one of my first jobs as a translator; I translated for them short stories and novellas by James Patrick Kelly, George R. R. Martin, Frederik Pohl and Kim Stanley Robinson, among many others that, unfortunately, were never published again in Brazil, neither in short form, nor in novels.

Powers cautioned us against the danger of autophagism – That is, if all you read is SF, you probably won´t write anything really good and new in the genre. This is not necessarily an absolute truth, but it made quite a sensation down here. Especially for starting writers like myself, who wanted very much to “make it new” (Ezra Pound sixty years late, go figure). Remember from the last post: I had just read Neuromancer, and I was thrilled at the possibilities the cyberpunks opened for science fiction in literature.

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The Three Epiphanies of a Brazilian Science Fiction Writer

My first literary epiphany was the discovery of Jorge Luis Borges in 1984.

I was 15 when I broke up with the Catholic Church and went searching for a religion which could fulfill me and give me solace. I´m not boring you with the details, but three years later I was meditating in a Buddhist monastery in Rio de Janeiro (it is still there, in a hill in the middle of the city; from there you can see the statue of Christ the Redeemer really close) and I found one of his books in the meager collection of books that passed for a library there. The book was Ficciones; I found the Brazilian Portuguese translation there, Ficções. The first short story of the collection I read was The Library of Babel.

That story was for me the cosmic equivalent of the laser beam that pierced Philip K. Dick´s head. It was a hammer falling on my head, a rubber blanket wrapping around my skin and pushing not so gently its way into my skin. I felt suffocated. I needed air. Strangely as it may sound, it felt good. I felt alive.

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