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How to Write a Novel in 30 Days or Less

Seven Steps, 30 Days (no mental breakdowns required)

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Every year in November, tens of thousands of would-be authors, publishing novices, seasoned veterans, and those who fall somewhere in the middle, come out of their writing caves – blinking into the light – to join the global furour that is NaNoWriMo (otherwise known as National Novel Writing Month).

NaNoWriMo challenges writers to complete 50,000+ words of a novel in just 30 days. But the problem is… they don’t have to be “good” words.

Meaning 99% of authors (and soon-to-be authors) will sit down and try to hammer out 50,000 words of “whatever comes into their heads”.

Now, while I appreciate the goal of NaNoWriMo – and other writing events (getting people writing) – I believe there is a better way to write a book. Instead of just sitting down and “hoping for the best”, I always advocate having a plan of action.

 

 

So for this article, I’ve enlisted the help of Joe Nassise (pic above) – a NYT Bestelling author of over 40 novels (in several languages – and with over 1m books in print) to share his process for writing like a speed demon, without sacrificing quality. This is all part of a process we call Story Engines.

So, whether you’re planning to take part in the next NaNoWriMo or not, you can use this process to significantly increase both the speed and quality of your writing. And, if you’d like to get some more detailed training, check out our full “Story Engines” video series for free right here:

 

And in the meantime, let’s dig into the detail… (Note: we are switching between UK and US grammar and spelling now – so any grammar hounds out there, please keep it clean).

Enter Joe…

For so many authors, the idea of writing a 50,000+ word novel in 30 days is enough to get them worked up into a frenzy of stress. And while writing a full draft in 30 days might seem like tall order, it is actually very doable if you approach the process from the right perspective and have all your ducks in a row before hand.

To be certain that you do – have all your ducks in a row, that is – I’m going to walk you through the very process I would use if was intending to tackle a challenge like this. Am intending to use, in fact, because I’m going to be participating in NaNoWriMo again myself this year. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to be sitting around until then – this is a process you can use every day to get those words out.

Before we dive into that process, though, let’s be clear on what we need to accomplish to reach our goal. To hit 50,000 words in 30 days, we need to write 1,667 words per day. Believe it or not, that’s pretty manageable. If you set aside and hour or two per day, you’ll be surprised how much you’re capable of [EDIT FROM NICK: A little FYI… This article is 2,500+ words long and it took Joe about 2 hours].

Doesn’t sound all that tough when you put it like that, now does it?

“But wait!”, I hear you say. “How do I know which specific words I need to write each day? Who are my characters and what’s their story and how do I put it all down on paper and not get lost in the telling and…and…and…”

Breathe, Grasshopper. Breathe. (And an extra ten points to those of you who get the reference)

You are going to know which words you need to write each day because you and I are going to figure all of that out ahead of time. When Nov 1st rolls around, you’re going to have your entire story planned out, using the “Story Engines” process we’re talking about in this article, and you’ll be set to hit the ground running with nary a worry.

So how do we do that?

My process is simple and it involves seven specific steps.

  1. Idea
  2. Premise
  3. Characters
  4. Brainstorming and Ordering My Scenes
  5. Verifying My Structure and Confirming My Final Scene List
  6. Writing the First Draft
  7. Editing, Rewrites, and Polishing the Final Draft

Each step moves you along the path and confirms the “rightness” of the step before it, so you don’t get halfway through the project only to realize you’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere. The process is designed to save you the time and effort needed for massive rewrites and to keep you moving briskly forward toward completion. You need to complete steps 1-5 before Nov 1st. Steps 6-7 are what keep you moving briskly forward once the challenge kicks off.

Now, bear in mind – each of these 7 steps will involve building your story around a specific story structure. That is, making sure your book consists of “the right scenes in the right order”, to give your story the right pacing and impact (to keep readers hooked). We’ll talk about that more in steps 4-5.

So, let’s take a look at them one at a time…

 

Step One: The Idea

This sounds almost elementary, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve worked with a student who really doesn’t know what they are writing about. It’s damn hard to write 50,000 words on a given subject if you don’t really know what that subject is.

The first thing you need to do is figure out what you want to write about. Don’t get fancy, just generalize. Maybe you want to write a novel about the discovery of a lost continent. Or one about a kid growing up in the Wild West. Or perhaps the story of a princess who has a terminal illness and the prince who valiantly tries to save her.

The ideas can even be combinations of existing ideas, presented in a new way. Eg:

Samurai in Space: Star Wars
Time Travel and Sherlock Holmes: Dr Who
Dances with Wolves on a Different Planet: Avatar

You get the gist. It can, quite literally, be anything as long as it is interesting to you and captures your enthusiasm. Without that, you’re going to have a hard time keeping focused.

 

Step Two: The Premise

A premise is a working summary of the story you want to tell honed down to a sentence or two. It effectively answers the question “What is your novel about?”

In this step, we take the general idea you came up with in step one and give it specifics. When done properly it should tell you who the main character or hero of the story is, what they must do to win the day, and both the nature of the opposition and the stakes at risk if they fail.

One simple way of doing this is to plug your information into a simple formula:

(Novel Name) is about (character info) who must (goal that needs to be achieved) in order to (stakes and opposition)

For example – The Heretic is about a modern Templar knight who must retrieve an ancient artifact from a powerful necromancer before it can be used to create a literal hell on earth.

See? We’re turning the “idea” into something more fully fledged by adding characters, goals, opposition, and stakes.

Character: the Templar Knight.
Goal: retrieve ancient artifact
Opposition: powerful necromancer
Stakes: hell on earth

Introducing the opposition and stakes also brings conflict into your story – which is incredibly important (without conflict, the story is dull). And fun fact: you can use your premise to write your book description or “blurb” later.

 

Step Three: Characters

Now that you have your premise, you know who your hero and your villain are. It time to flesh them out a bit, to bring them to live in your mind so you can figure out what the story you intend to tell about them will be.

I always do this be asking myself a few specific questions about each of them (and about any other major character I want to detail at this point.) Those questions are:

  • What does the character want? (What is their specific, concrete goal?)
  • What drives the character toward that goal? (What motivates them?)
  • How will they change during the course of the struggle? (What do the learn or discover about themselves?)

It is key to remember that stories are about conflict. Without it, you’ve got nothing more than a slice of life. In order to have conflict, the goals of your hero and your villain need to be diametrically opposed to each other. Let me say that again – the goals of your hero and your villain need to be diametrically opposed to each other.

 

Step Four: Brainstorming and Ordering My Scenes

The act of creating your premise and detailing your characters will no doubt get the creative juices flowing. You’re probably already seeing individual scenes in your head featuring these characters. That’s good – that’s exactly what we want.

Without editing yourself in any way, start writing down those scenes. I tend to use a set of index cards and just jot down whatever comes to mind, one scene per card. They don’t have to be too detailed; the idea here is to just capture the scene so that you don’t forget it.

A scene card from a recent novel of mine looked like this:

“Cade’s presence in the reliquary sets off an arcane warning system set up by the Templars when they abandoned the facility and a squad of knights are dispatched to investigate.”

Every scene I envision goes down on a card. Doesn’t matter if I know where it fits in the story yet or even if it sounds utterly ridiculous at the moment – if it comes to me, I write it down. I’m basically doing an uncensored imagination dump, just letting my subconscious throw stuff up to the surface and getting it down on paper (note: you can write these down on actual “cards” or use software, like Scrivener).

 

Step Five: Structure and Final Scene List

Next, I lay out all my cards and start trying to build a story around them. I identify or create my three game changing moments as per the Story Engines structure:

  1. The Preparation Phase (introducing the characters, setting, and creating a connection with readers). Here, you get a glimpse into the “daily life” of your hero or heroine – making them more relatable and helping to establish an emotional connection.
  2. Game Changing Moment (GCM) 1: The “event” that forces the hero or heroine out of their “daily life” and pushes them into reacting. Eg “Luke Skywalker’s family is killed”.
  3. The Reactive Phase: The protagonist “reacts” to events, rather than directing them. Think about the movie Se7en – this is the phase where the detectives are “running around like a chicken with its head cut off”.
  4. GCM 2: A second event that pushes the protagonist into a more active role. Think “the killer leaves a vital clue” or “the lovers share their first kiss”. The stakes are raised.
  5. The Proactive Phase: the hero or heroine now takes control (as opposed to in the reactive phase) and gets closer to their goal.
  6. GCM 3: The final game changing moment. Here the hero or heroine finds what they need to finally meet their goal and overcome the main conflict of the story.
  7. Conclusion Phase: all the loose ends are tied up, the ending is established. You might even decide to sneak in a cliff-hanger…

This progression of “story elements” is what binds your story together. With the right structure, you avoid “the muddy middle”, and you can anticipate which scenes need to go where, and which ones might not even fit in your story (eg – you can cut them out).

So, using the Story Engines structure listed above, next I’ll organize my selected scenes in chronological order (either physical cue cards or using software – like Scrivener). I will add new cards to help flush out the flow of the story as necessary, working to balance my four major phases and three game-changing moment (again, per the Story Engines process.)

In the end, I will have a card for each scene in the proper order of their appearance in the story. I will be able to see if my story is balanced and containing the right elements by comparing my cards with the 7 key elements of the Story Engines system. And, more importantly, I will know exactly what to write when during my thirty day deadline because my novel will be completely mapped out from start to finish.

And if you’re more of a “pantser” (eg – you write “by the seat of your pants”) that’s okay too. You might just choose to include a little less detail for each scene or use “roadsigns” instead of a full-blown map and GPS system.

 

Step Six: Writing the First Draft

With all of my planning out of the way, I’m ready to start writing my first draft. I know what the story is about. I’ve got a good sense of my characters and what they want. I know why they will end up in conflict with each other and how that conflict will resolve. I even know what happens in each scene. In short, I have everything I need to get underway.

Writing for me is a question of focusing, so I use another system called sprinting to get my words done each day. I set a timer for 25 minutes and write during that time. No distractions with research or checking details or playing on social media – I just write. Just raw production without worrying about how good it sounds or if I could have said something better. Editing is for later; this part of my process is just for getting words down on paper.

When the 25 minutes are up and my timer dings, I get up and do something else for five or ten minutes. Give my brain a break. Then it back at it for another sprint of twenty-five minutes and so on. I try to four to six sprints a day if I can manage it. I average anywhere from 500 to 1500 words per sprint – depends on how my day is going, how focused I can remain throughout, etc. You’ll have your own rate, perhaps better, perhaps worse than mine. It isn’t a race, so no need to compare yourself to my pace. Just set your own and stick to it.

 

Step Seven: Editing, Rewriting, and Polishing

Once the draft is done, I print it out, stick it in a three ring binder, and settle in to start the editing process (printing it out helps me see mistakes I wouldn’t see on the computer screen.

Your ear is a far better gauge of how well you’ve written than your eyes are (because your eyes see what you think you wrote, rather than what you actually wrote), so I settle in with a pen for note taking and start reading my manuscript aloud to myself. I listen for clunky phrasing, poor descriptions, place where things just don’t make sense, etc. I’ll make notes right on the manuscript, reminding myself what needs to be done where to bring the work up to the standard that I have set for myself.

The Story Engines process is all about planning your story out ahead of time and so I rarely have to do any major rewrites because I already know that the story works as I’ve planned it out. That doesn’t mean I’m not cleaning up the manuscript; my first drafts are as crappy as anyone else’s. But it does mean that I’m not throwing away 30% of my draft because I didn’t understand the essential conflict in the novel or I wandered down a bunny trail that had nothing to do with the main plot.

With my editing notes right there in the binder next to me, I sit down and begin the final step of my process – polishing the manuscript. I’ll correct the errors, clean up the clunky phrasing, add details where needed, all the little things that take a rough draft and turn it into a clean, readable manuscript.

So, that’s seven steps, each with a specific goal and each moving your novel project further in the direction of completion. By the time you are done, not only will you have a completed draft, but you’ll know holds together like a finely-tuned machine and will take your readers on an emotional journey that will keep them coming back for more.

Remember:

99% of story problems are down to structure. Use the seven-stage Story Engines structure above to keep your story pacing along, with the right action beats, in the right order.

When preparing your book, come up with a few “ideas”. Use the formula I shared with you to turn these ideas into premises – and those that hold up to scrutiny are good to go.

Next, brainstorm some scenes – just a headline and a few brief bullets – and arrange them in the correct order (using the Story Engines structure). When each of your phases has enough scenes, you can move on to writing.

When you write the book, try “sprinting” to improve your speed and focus. Save research for later. Don’t edit as you write. Carve out parts of the day just for writing.

Finally, go back and re-write those parts that need a little tweak, edit up the grammar and spelling, and you are good to go with a manuscript that’s ready to be sent off for final edits and proofing, and – shortly afterwards – publication.

Back to Nick…

If you’d like to learn more about the Story Engines process – including the structure of a blockbuster novel and the seven-step process to write your novel in 30 days – check out our free video training series. We’ve got 90 minutes of awesomeness all lined up for you – and by the time you’ve completed the free material, you’ll have a solid blueprint ready to rock (and help you get your first – or next – book written in record time).

Click the button below to get started:

 

Now, I need to hear from you… What’s your #1 struggle when it comes to writing your books? Do you get stuck in “the muddy middle”? Do you give up half-way through when you realise something “just doesn’t work”? Do you struggle to find the time?

Let me know your #1 struggle with writing your books in the comments below – I read every single one.

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