5 lessons from, and plans for, writing a novel in a month


allwork-croppedLast year I quit my job, went freelance, and moved to Bali for two months to write a book. At least, that’s the glamorous way to put it.

Another way would be to say I gave up my well-paid job and comfortable life to sit in a small, humid, cockroach-infested room at a table raised up on plastic bottles filled with dirt and stare at the wall for six hours a night while I ground out 61,000 words of story about some dumb criminals and their slightly useless would-be victim.

Either way, the experience was simultaneously most of the things I hoped (or feared) it would be, and lots of others I couldn’t have imagined, eg, actually fun. Overall, even though the first draft I wrote hasn’t advanced much, I count it as a success – and a lot of that I attribute to taking part in National Novel Writing Month, aka NaNoWriMo.

The idea behind NaNoWriMo is simple – write every day in the month of November, with the aim of producing at least 50,000 words of a first draft by 23:59 on 30 Nov. For someone like me who’s driven by deadlines, the daily ritual of updating a word-count and trying to beat the graph helped me stay motivated and bang out the pages.

As it was such a success last year, I’m planning to do it again this November, and hopefully beat my 61,000-strong word-count. And this time, I hope to have at least one writing buddy, albeit on a different continent (last year my writing pal dropped out, for reason of being heavily pregnant – any excuse, eh?).

So with just about one month to go, here are things I learned from last year, and things I’m planning to do this year – as much for me as anyone else. Here goes…


1 – Characters First, Plot Second

Last year I had a very clear idea of my plot, but my characters were a bit hazy when I started writing. Frankly, this showed.

This time around, I’m trying to get down much more detailed plans of my main characters – backstories, relationships, motivations and fears. The idea of doing this last time was very dull and I was happy to skip it – but knowing how difficult it made things when I was actually writing makes it seem like a worthwhile task now.

Having said that, I know I will only get to know my characters fully when I write them, so I’m not going to get too detailed and obsessive. My aim is to make sure they have a clear voice right from the start, instead of beginning life as blank-faced pod people.


2 – First Third, Last Fifth

Along with my improved character sheets, I’m also working on a detailed outline – but this time around I’m focusing mostly on the first third of the plot, along with the ending, as opposed to trying to outline every single chapter.

I was very happy with my outline last time, but I discovered that after the first few chapters I was relying on it less and less. I also knew I had a big hole in the middle, where I hadn’t had time to flesh out the details – but this turned out not to matter, as by the time I got there, I was well into the swing of things.

So this time my aim is to have enough initial detail to get momentum going, and after that just wing it as I aim towards a well-defined ending. The rest won’t be completely forgotten – I’m planning on nailing down the major plot beats at least – but I’m not going to stress if I don’t have it down in advance.

This is an experiment – I could find out that this leaves me floundering in the middle, or struggling to work my way back to the ending. But let’s see.


3 – Edit As I Go

This one is definitely not in the spirit of NaNoWriMo – the general advice is to just get everything down, and then go back and edit later. That’s what I did last year – and while it was fine at the time, I ran into problems later on.

See in the intro, where I said my first draft hadn’t moved much? Yeah – the problem is, like many writers, I hate going through my own stuff. And honestly, I got a bit freaked out by the thought of editing the whole damn thing and adding in another 20k words minimum (especially when I realised I needed to make a very early plot change which would mean changing EVERY SINGLE SCENE after that point. Eeek).

In all of my other writing, my practice is to edit on the go – if I think of a change to something up the page, I’ll stop what I’m doing and do it there and then. So that’s going to be my approach this time.

Again, this will be an experiment, and it might not work. But I would encourage anyone else doing this to find a workflow that works for YOU – not for anyone else.

Having said that, if it’s your first time, I would recommend the get-it-down approach – it has the major advantage of forcing you to keep going, rather than getting bogged down by chapter three.


4 – Time Management

Last year I was lucky enough to be able to take two full months off and do almost nothing other than outline (October) and write (November) in a remote location. This year, I’m not so lucky – I’ll have my regular bill-paying freelance work to do as well, and will be doing it from the much less remote location of Birmingham.

So I need to work out how to juggle NaNoWriMo and my paying work, as well as working out a good routine for the novel writing. Man, I hate time management stuff.

A year ago I settled into a routine of having an early dinner, then sitting down to write at 8pm, bolstering myself with a cafetiere of coffee around 11pm, calling it a night around 2am or 3am, then sleeping until around 11am. Hey – it worked for me.

This time I have a feeling that’s going to be a bit too antisocial for the people around me, so we’ll have to see what’s workable. And I have a feeling I’ll need to factor in a few “off” or “light” days to allow for freelance work…


5 – Sharing Is Caring

Something I’m considering this year is sharing bits of my first draft as I go, both within the NaNoWriMo community and with the wider world. But this is still a big maybe.

My hope in sharing would be to get some immediate feedback, possibly pick up any significant problems early on – and also to stay enthused through people’s comments and support.

Of course, there’s also the risk that whatever I share goes down like a cup of cold sick, thus quashing any enthusiasm I had up to that point and derailing the whole thing. Which would be bad.

On the whole, I think I’ll wait to see how it goes in the first week or so – if I feel consistently happy about my first few chapters, I might well stick them out there.


Even with all the new challenges and uncertainty, I’m pretty excited for this year’s NaNoWriMo – I have a story I’m excited in, characters I want to dive into, and a word count I would quite like to beat. So roll on November…

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