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.

Comments

  1. says

    *glee*

    Also, Their whole site is about producing crap and having it be okay to produce crap. Yeah. That’s been my problem with Nano for as long as I’ve heard about it. I know I could produce 50K’s worth of crap in 30 days. I don’t need to prove that to myself. I want light to bleed from my fingers in the best possible way.

  2. says

    Interesting post. I wrote The Translation of Father Torturo in 90 days…but I had limited internet access so didnt get into browsing the web—-which is actually the thing I find to be the most distracting.

    I have read a number of Fantomas novels and the authors of those (there were 2) wrote 32 novels over a period of about 2 years…

    And they are pretty good…..

    The main buy behind them, Marcel Allain, wrote around 400 novels in his life.

    Personally, there is something about the quick novel that attracts me.

  3. says

    I share Amal’s feelings about Nano, the “writing crap” thing, and it’s why my writing has slowed down lately (to not be crap). This, however, is a wonderful plan of attack. There are so many differences, subtle and otherwise, between how you frame planning for intense writing and how Nano does. Thanks for writing this.

    I’ve been enjoying your guest blogs here this week, along with your journal. Your take on confessional poetry & inspiration was wonderful, and together with Nick Mamatas’ recent “stop caring if you live or die” post, there’s enough good writing mojo floating around to sink a dozen tempests-in-teapots. Thank you!

  4. says

    As a follow up, you mentioned about not drinking alcohol…

    I think I remember that On the Road was written in a week or something, with Jack doing a bunch speed and writing about three books worth of material which was later edited down to the classic we have today.

    Not to say that this is recommended, but there are certainly many good books that have come out of heavy drugs and less heavy drugs.

    Faulker was a boozer and stopped drinking when he wrote.

    Not sure what my point is, if there is one, but just throwing info out there for the fellow that feels like trying to write a novel in a few days over a bottle of port or two.

  5. says

    The rules here are great, and funny. :-) But Nano got me writing, so I’m not going to knock them. Yes, their website is all about “write crap” but they’re geared towards people who aren’t already writing. There are a lot of people who can look at a site that says “write 50,000 words of crap, but just write” and say to themselves, “okay, I’ll try it, but maybe I’ll also try to write something a little better than crap” and yet would look at a site that says “write 50,000 words and this is how to make them good” and say, “no way, I’m not a writer, I can’t do that.” And never try.

    And if you follow the message boards there, talk to others who know what they’re doing, look into their suggestions and links, you actually can get good tips and seriously useful information on writing. Just don’t look for it from their main pages. They’ve picked their target audience. Sometimes, to get people to switch from burgers and fries to chicken mole and poblano relleno, you need a trip to Taco Belle in between, and yes, there’s the problem that many might stop there and not go further, but it’s an initial taste, it makes it less scary. Just think of Nano as the Taco Belle of writing workshops. :-)

  6. says

    Cimeara: If Nano works for you, that’s great. But for me and a lot of people, the lack of encouragement to bring your A-game makes it less exciting, less challenging, and less likely for us to participate. Some people need permission to produce whatever they want to, some people need high expectations to fuel them to be their best. YMMV, as always.

  7. Timblynod says

    Catherynne, on a similar note, how long would you say one should spend on a short story? And are the rules the same, or do you apply another set?

  8. Catherynne M. Valente says

    Timbly: Hm. I find short stories easier because they take far less planning. I like discreet units, so I’d probably say, to challenge yourself, a short story in a day, or if you’re too fast for that, pick a number of hours. But I’d apply the same rules–easier, you only have to be a genius for a day!

  9. Jeff VanderMeer says

    Great post! I’d say I didn’t use “transparent” as a pejorative in my original post, but obviously if someone writes in a richer style, they’ll be most comfortable writing fast in that style. I think what’s interesting is my rough drafts do not in fact always have that richness–that often comes later, which probably why I mentioned using a transparent style, since it’s a layering effect in my revision process. Also, I’m unclear if you’re saying you finished a novel draft in a month or you actually finished the novel including revision. Which was the focus of the novel-in-sixty-days post I did.

    Jeff

  10. Cameron Chapman says

    Finally! Someone who writes the way I write. I felt like I was reading my autobiography when you were talking about college and high school papers the night before or the day they were due. If I had ever failed, I probably wouldn’t write at the break-neck speed that I do. I just finished the first draft of my novel in five days. It’s currently only ~45,000 words, but I expect to double this in revisions (description and setting are my weak points, and this is a fantasy novel, so that’s going to take up a big chunk, and I’m considering adding at least a couple more chapters). I’ve written screenplays in less than a week before, with revisions, and have gotten good reviews from peers (other screenwriters that I did not know and had no reason to tell me wonderful things about it if it was truly crap).

    Every other author’s blog I’ve read has talked about how you need to devote YEARS to writing your novel, and I just don’t have the patience to that. I’m glad that someone out there is writing novels in a month or less and not expecting the final result to be crap! Thanks!

  11. says

    I sometimes wonder if my writing skills were like Dracula’s – I never seemed to be able to start composing/revising until the clock struck midnight (or the LCD changed dates, I guess). I remember well writing a 20 page paper on Stendhal’s Julien Sorel and how his depiction was related to the cultural aftermath of the French Revolution. Due at noon. I began writing at 8 PM, finished (with many breaks and a revision) at 9 AM. Then I had to drive 3 miles to the university computer lab (this was in the 1990s, I didn’t have the money for the computer equipment back then) and I began typing over 6000 words (and an additional 1000 in footnotes) in. Finished it, printed it out, and rushed it over to my professor’s mailbox. It was 11:55 AM. I was one of only two out of five who turned it in on time, it turned out. Not my best work, only a B+, but since I had already passed my MA exams, it didn’t matter to me. It was my last graduate school history paper.

    Your post reminded me a lot of how I was at 23. I wonder if I could do all that and keep my sanity at 34. I fear I might have a breakdown after the second week, but then again, there are those daily lesson plans to write an hour before they are due… pressure? Nah….

  12. says

    Love this, Catherynne. You’ve inspired me to embrace the craziness. Should be easy, because in the next 30 days all I have to do is write the last quarter of my novel, not the whole thing. So I should have at least 12 hours between the time I deliver it and the time I start guest-blogging here. Piece of cake. I’ll be halfway back to lucidity by then.

    I’m printing out Rule #1 and posting Kerouac’s quote above my desk. Right next to the quote from Steve Prefontaine — “To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.”

    I’m printing out Rule #2 and giving it to my husband.

  13. says

    Jeff: I can now do the revisions in that time too–speed takes practice and I’m faster now than I ever was. Again–it is incredibly high stress and I didn’t write the Orphan’s Tales that way, something of that plot complexity I’d find very hard to do in this fashion, but I /can/ do some kinds of work at this speed.

    Larry: Well, I’m 29 now.

  14. says

    This sort of thing applies to other media, too.

    I’ve been working on a crazy sci-fi Tarot deck for most of the past ten months. In February, I went to talk with a local gallery who agreed to show the whole thing at the end of this August. I kept on going for a while at the same on-and-off pace, until the beginning of April when I sat down and calculated that I’d have to generate a finished piece of art every three days to have enough time to print and frame it all.

    I have not been able to allow myself to think I will fail. I have had to remove distractions – my freelance day job got cut back to a couple days a week, and then to nothing once I’d put the current project there to bed. I have been much scarcer to my boyfriends than I would like. It is alternatively invigorating and awesome, and completely horrible.

    The horrible mostly comes when my subconscious knows that all the sketches I have right now are wrong, but I haven’t let myself admit this and am plowing through trying to make myself take one of them to the finished state anyway. The invigorating and awesome part comes every time I get another one done (after knocking out a revised sketch, if that was a problem) and see that I’m still mostly on schedule. Over the course of four months, I’m only six days behind for having the whole set done, and that is mind-boggling to me. Future projects will benefit from this, even if I try to never do this again.

    And yeah, I learnt these kinds of fast-work habits the same way: by always being able to sit down and crank out something the teacher would be fine with on the night before. I can’t fail about anything I give a shit about.

  15. says

    Dear Catherynne: If ever we are at a place that sells drinks, let me buy you several.

    What a great article! Mostly because it describes me to the letter, from my school-day attitude of putting off papers, but still turning them out at the last moment, to putting obstacles in my path. Everything is spot on. Announcing it on blogs and to all my friends and family. Hell, I even have another fast writing, and we duel every weekday we can, to see who can produce the most words that day. It’s delightful. We each produce about 6,000 good-words a day.

    And I agree with your views on NaNo, and have shied away from it because of it. I can’t knowingly put down crap. It’s got to be the best I can, whether I go fast or slow…it’s got to be the best I can do at that moment. It has to matter and excite me.

    …I’m not really bringing anything to this discussion, I’m just expressing joy at the article. For whatever reason, speed-writing is what flips my switches. Quality? It mostly takes care of itself, if I work hard and I give the story everything I’ve got. But quantity…ahh, that’s an exciting challenge. (Not least because, I’m not a natural novel-writer, and thus I DO need the speed. Otherwise, it can go stale before I’m done. Or I can change as a writer, and suddenly I have half a novel that doesn’t work.)

    I’m sorry. I’m blithering. but I’m happily blithering, so maybe that’s all right. Cheers!

  16. says

    Thank you for your fabulous posts at Ecstatic Days. You and Vandermeer may live to regret this, but this entry inspired me to get writing. Two chapters already. There are Ninjas, Nazis and naked mole rats (I didn’t listen to the alcohol injuction…). I’ll write to you when I’m done.

  17. says

    encouragement
    the kind that makes you go
    damnit! YES LADY! you’re absolutely right.. that IS how my mind works!!
    (and then i promptly take off on my imaginary horse to do a ton of pseudo awesome time limited writing fun… eyeaaahh..)
    thank you :)

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