Five Lessons from Writing a Novel in a Month

National Novel Writing Month WinnerYesterday I announced that I had finished writing my 2008 National Novel Writing Month effort, a post-apocalyptic sci-fi novel called The Least. This was my third attempt at writing a 50,000-word novel in 30 days (that’s 1,667 words per day). While I’m definitely a winner because I finished (that’s all that matters with NaNoWriMo), The Least is definitely my worst novel by far. I did learn a lot in the process though.

1. Sci-Fi is Hard
I knew it would be, but science fiction is an especially hard genre to write, especially in 30 days. The biggest hurtle is that you have to create an entire fictional world. If you pick a contemporary setting, you don’t have to wonder what kind of clothes people will wear or how they find food. I knew this would be a problem and ended up deciding a few things and running with them, even after I realized some of my assumptions wouldn’t hold up. I love the thought process and imagination involved, but you end up putting a lot of effort into the setting and it’s easy to neglect the plot or characters.

2. Preparation is Huge
I did less preparation for this novel than either of my previous two. I basically nailed things down in the final days leading up to November and that didn’t give my ideas much time to stew before I had to put them to work. The result is that my characters are pretty weak and some of the setting elements were never really nailed down (I rarely described what my characters looked like and I never mentioned the season—I couldn’t decide on one, and rather than pick one I just never mentioned it). More than anything I think characters need time to develop. If you can think about your characters for a month before writing a lot of the other elements will take care of themselves.

3. Momentum is Your Friend
Momentum is why National Novel Writing Month works. You set out with this crazy goal, you know where you have to be every step along the way, and you just do it. This time around more so than the previous attempts my schedule got messed up. We left for Thanksgiving break almost a week early for a funeral and I had several days when I didn’t write at all. That hit to the momentum is practically death to the novel. Each time I started up again after a few days off I had no energy for the novel, no idea where it was going to go and I felt like I was writing crap just to write. But if I kept up with my daily writing goals and stayed on track, it was a lot easier to keep going. You have to keep writing every day, even if you don’t want to. Otherwise you’ll never do it.

4. Plot is Good
When I sat down to write my previous two novels I knew roughly where the story was going to go. I knew what the climax would be when I started. I had no idea how to get there and that was the fun part. This time around I had no idea what the climax would be. With no end point in site, it made the writing a lot harder. At one point I had to stop writing and sketch out a rough plot just so I could keep things moving forward. I’m not big on plotting out my novel beforehand—I like to leave the story open to the twists and turns that come to me in the moment. But I think having a big picture destination is important.

5. Read to Write
I have poor reading habits for a writer. I used to read all the time (I love public transportation), but working at home and having a two-year-old makes that a lot harder (excuses!). Now I have bursts of reading followed by long dry spells. And I think it makes a big difference in my writing. On the way home from Thanksgiving I listened to a book on CD in the car and it served as a huge challenge to step up my language, my descriptions, my pacing—everything. When everything comes out flat and stale it helps to read something genuinely good and give you something to aspire toward.

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