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How to Write a Novel in 30 Days


Get your pencils sharpened for November.

By Leo Babauta

I’ve decided to take the plunge and join NaNoWriMo in November (for the 2nd time), attempting to write 50,000 words of a novel in 30 days.

Join me!

I successfully completed NaNoWriMo in 2006, and it was an incredible time. It was a lot of fun, and joining with the efforts of tens of thousands of fellow writers is an experience like no other.

Just a few reasons to do NaNoWriMo:

1. It gives you the motivation to finally write that novel.
2. It teaches you some good habits — getting writing done every day.
3. You learn a lot about yourself when you’re put to the test like this.
4. Like I said, it’s tremendous fun to join up with so many enthusiastic writers.

So I’ll be doing it, and today I’d like to share my secrets to being successful at NaNoWriMo. I’ll also share some tips about midway through the challenge, and some lessons learned after it’s over.

  1. Not all the words have to be good. You just have to write 50K words, but it doesn’t matter what they are — as long as they’re prose (in other words, no typing random nonsensical words, as fun as that might be). Just type a shitty first draft, and don’t worry about getting every word right. Type fast and furiously.
  2. You can repeat some words. When they say 50K words, they don’t mean they all have to be unique. For example, feel free to repeat “the” and “and” and “fornicate” as many times as you like throughout your brilliant manuscript. Copying and pasting several paragraphs at once … not encouraged.
  3. Use simple tools. When you’re writing, you don’t need software with a lot of bells and whistles — in fact, the more of those it has, the worse a tool it is. Do you really need outlining and corkboarding and different paragraph styles and templates? No! All you need is the ability to type text, and word count. I recomend a plain text editor (on the Mac, try TextWrangler with the toolbars hidden) for writing. Once you’ve written your count for the day, you can use a full-featured writing tool … Scrivener is the best out there for Macs. Copy and paste your text into the outliner (or whatever) and keep your notes and research organized. Separate the research/planning/outlining from the actual writing.
  4. Plan beforehand. Some people go into NaNoWriMo competely blank, with no plan, but I think that’s a mistake. While you can definitely overplan, it’s best to have a decent idea what your novel will be about (be able to say it in one sentence) and a general idea of the characters and plot. Don’t overdo it — half a page to a page will do. I recommend the Snowflake method. Do this before Nov. 1 — maybe in the week leading up to the month (not the night before).
  5. Shut off the Interwebs. Seriously. Use a utility such as Freedom to shut it off. Turn off the phones and Blackberry. Clear your desk. Have no distractions. But especially the Internet. If you don’t heed this tip, you’re very likely to fail.
  6. Get up every 15-30 minutes and walk around. Sitting and focusing is great, but our creativity can stall if we concentrate too hard sometimes. It’s good to disengage, to get away from the work, to walk around to get our brains working in different ways, and often this will get the ideas to flow.
  7. Write in the morning. This will vary in effectiveness from writer to writer, as many of you are more productive in the afternoon or evening. But I’ve found that it’s best to write first thing in the morning (after getting coffee of course), because if you wait until after work or after the kids are in bed or whatever, many times you will fail to write. Things come up that push the writing back, and you’ll justify putting it off (“I can always write 3,000 words tomorrow to make up for it!”). But if you do it first thing, before you get busy or unexpected things come up, you’ll always get it done. And you’ll feel good the rest of the day. If later you write in the evening, hey, bonus.
  8. Write every single day. Don’t skip days because you’re a little ahead or things are a little busier today. If you want to skip Sundays, fine, but don’t skip days on a whim because you’re tired or busy or feeling lazy.
  9. Hit a word count. Set a word count to hit each day. If you write every day for 30 days, you need 1,667 words per day to hit 50K. If you only write on weekdays, you need to write 2,500 words per day to hit 50K. Whatever your schedule, calculate your minimum word count and hit it every day. If you go over, hey, bonus.
  10. Get social – after you write. Go on the NaNoWriMo boards or use other social media to talk to other writers going through this challenge. Encourage each other, help each other with problems, post if you have questions, ask for help if you need it. It’s really a great part of the experience. However, avoid using socializing with writers as a way to procrastinate. Unless you go on the boards to take part in a dash (see how many words you can write in 15 minutes) or some such challenge, write first and then socialize.
  11. Plan for finishing the novel. It turns out that 50K words isn’t actually a complete novel. And even if you’re done with your first draft after 30 days, you’re not really done. You need to revise and rewrite. Many NaNoWriMo novels get left undone after the month’s over — but not yours. Be smart and plan time to finish the novel. Consider joining NaNoFiMo (30 days to finish the novel you started). If you’d like a break after November, maybe plan to finish in January.
  12. Have a blast. The most important tip of all, and no NaNoWriMo guide would be complete without it. *Have fun.* That’s the whole point of this thang. Sure, you’ll agonize, you’ll get stuck, you’ll face unbelievable angst … but if you don’t have fun doing it, you’re doing it wrong.

Other good guides to “winning” NaNoWriMo:

* Macworld’s articles
* How to win in 5 easy steps
* 10 tips to triumph
* 5 tips for NaNoWriMo
* Tips from veterans

Read more from Leo at Zen Habits, mnmlist, and Zen Family Habits. Also see his new ebook, The Simple Guide to a Minimalist Life.

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50 thoughts on “How to Write a Novel in 30 Days”

  • Playwrights Unite says:

    Awesome Leo ! I hope lots of people write novels.
    Also wanted to let you know that for these who want to write plays (instead or as well – yes it’s been done), we do Naplwrimo every November:
    http://naplwrimo.org

  • I’ve had a novel in my head for a while now, and did write the first couple of chapters about a month back, but I struggle to get my thoughts onto the page. I think I’ll participate in this though.

    Previously I tried editing as I went, which is silly because the story doesn’t progress that way and a novel without a story isn’t much good. This should help me get the storyline on paper and then worry about polishing at a later time. :)

  • I joined NanoWriMo a few years ago, but after about 10 days I was pumping out useless drivel. :) I guess the point is to just finish, but I like the NaNoFiMo idea to go back and make it more coherent.

  • I’ve finished three NaNoWriMo novels (finished as in finishing a marathon, not a fine woodworking project). Twice I didn’t finish, but I was a dandy research librarian on the NaNoWriMo boards those years – which was a tempting distraction and only a temporary delight. I second the suggestion for advanced planning – whatever amount of planning it will take to make sure your pace never lags. And don’t edit during National Novel Writing Month – wait until any other month, unless you have more free time than most of us. The Snowflake Method, by the way, is documented by its creator at http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/art/snowflake.php

  • Great idea. Do you happen to know if there’s anything similar for non-fiction (I could use a little friendly prodding and added accountability)?

  • Vanessa Vaile says:

    I broke most of your rules but still have 3 nano completions/wins… freedom to break rules is part of the fun.

  • pamela says:

    I just wrote about NaNoWriMo too but obviously not as detailed and organized as you. its mainly me just talking to myself about not finishing and touch. im bookmarking this page and using it as reference! Thanks! And this is my first time and so im excited/nervous/anxious!

  • manuj dhariwal says:

    hey Leo, I had made up my mind that Nanowrimo is a waste of time for people serious about writing a novel ; I have never taken part before and have recently left my job to give writing a shot; But now when “YOU” say that Nanowrimo is worth taking part in it has got me seriously thinking, I have been reading you from over 3-4 years@zenhabits and I give great importance to your word ………… so what are your thoughts over “it’s a waste of time” thing??

  • Colin says:

    I used the Write Or Die tool successfully last year – http://lab.drwicked.com/writeordie.html . I believe the guy is working on a desktop version.

  • Albert says:

    The whole idea looks wonderful and I’ll surely give it a try. Just one quick software related question: what’s the reason behind TextWrangler? Any advantages over TextEdit or Writeroom?

  • Sean says:

    Writing a novel was one of the best things I’ve done. Good luck to Leo and everyone who’s taking the plunge in Nanowrimo. I don’t think I could happily write that fast, but the most difficult part of writing is starting and Nanowrimo helps a lot of people to do that.

  • Ian says:

    This should be good for me, as it focuses on words down and not on how well the fall. I think that Ulysses is the best writing tool for the mac.

  • Leo Babauta says:

    @Manuj: If you’re already a professional writer or perhaps a novelist who has no problems writing, you don’t need NaNoWriMo. It’s simply a way to motivate people to write, so they can learn the habits of daily writing, finally get started on that novel, and have a lot of fun with other writers doing it.

    Even if you don’t need NaNoWriMo, though, it’s still fun.

    @Albert: No, TextEdit or Writeroom both are great, with no bells and whistles. I’ve been using TextWrangler recently and really like the way it feels. It has more power, but I don’t really need that. I also like its editing drawer for when I have several text files open at once. Really, it’s just a matter of feel. I’ve been writing in both TextEdit and Writeroom for a couple of years and both are great — if you like them, stick with them.

    @Lissa: There probably is something for non-fiction. I know there’s a screenplay challenge (I think in Spring) and a playwriting challenge. I’m sure you can find a non-fiction one as well.

  • Leo,

    What is your novel going to be about?

  • Sheila says:

    I love NaNoWriMo! I’ve done it five times and completed it four times. It’s tremendous fun.

    For those who think it’s a ‘waste of time’ or not ‘real’ writing are missing the point. It’s a way to set aside excuses and somedays and just get something down. You don’t even have to do anything with the result. The novel I’m currently showing to people was revised out of two (!) NaNo drafts, but the other two years I brought things to completion were totally for my own enjoyment and not for anybody but myself.

  • I’m in! I’m amazed that this big event that I had never even heard of a year ago inspires so many, including “real” (successful, published) writers. And I love seeing how much energy people derive just from participating. I plan to use the month to update my self-image. No excuses! Resolved: when I win NaNoWriMo, I will start referring to myself as a writer :)

  • I might try writing 175 pages of non-fiction during November this time, instead of a novel. But there are reasons why that doesn’t usually work.

  • meira says:

    i definitely plan to do nanowrimo this coming month. last year i attempted it, but i was no where prepared. This year i have a pretty good idea of what i want to write. so i’ll start the planning process this week.

  • Great tips here. I did NaNoWriMo last year and LOVED it. It’s so great to be able to say I wrote a novel, even if it’s just a draft. I’m still debating about doing it this year — it was definitely a huge time commitment — but I’d certainly recommend it to anyone thinking about writing a novel!

  • Valerie K says:

    Hi Leo,

    Just discovered your mnmlist and enjoy it very much.
    I’ve participated/won NaNo since 2005.
    One of the things I love about NaNo (to tie it in with one of your themes) is that it is a positive acquisitive addiction. Piling up words is even better than piling up stuff. I always spend less money and engage in less time wasting activities the month I am working on a first draft.
    Thanks for your wonderful post.

    Novahammett in NaNo-land

  • Lovelyn says:

    I always say I’m going to do the whole NaNoWriMo thing, but I never quite pull it off. I’m already working a novel now. Maybe I’ll use this opportunity to really knuckle down and finish this novel in November.

  • corine says:

    I’m like a bull in a cage waiting for November 1st at midnight. For months I’ve been researching, drafting outlines and plot lines, deciding on a viewpoint (this, i’m told, is NOT cheating.) Without Nanowrimo I’d never feel quite prepared and would continue researching till the end of times. I need the deadline, however imaginary.

  • Incredibly good advice to get up and walk around.

    I need to get out of the house right now instead of going through my RSS feed.

  • Georgia says:

    I’m in.

    The Gods say my comment was a bit too short. Ok. I’ll write more. I thought perhaps I would save my words… for Nov 1st.
    I wouldn’t dare to start early. I wonder who would? Would you start early?

    I won’t. I Promise.

    But I’m In. That’s all I really wanted to say anyway.

  • Miguel says:

    Leo,

    WOW, all the best man. If I wasn’t doing thesis research I’d jump right in! Thanks for sharing those links. Will read,

    -Mig

  • oceanlu says:

    what if we succeeded in writing novels finally? shall we sell them?

  • Chris says:

    I have a draft of about 50k words written, so I’m using NaNoWriMo to get to my target keyword count of 80k. Going to finally finish it!

  • Hilary says:

    Hi Leo .. thanks – that’s really well set out and could and should be used for all our writing .. simple, plan and straightforward move through. Adding in the essential walk to clear our thoughts, move our bodies reminds us we need to do more than just write.

    Good luck to everyone who will achieve the challenge this year – perhaps next year for me .. but it’s so interesting to know about and have as a reference.

    Hilary Melton-Butcher
    Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

  • Alex Lim says:

    Thanks for your great words Leo, I enjoy reading each tip you’ve mentioned. They all make sense. I try to be as constant as possible, making articles almost everyday. It doesn’t matter if the article makes sense at all. When I find time to read them, I just laugh at them, thinking how I put all those ideas together. Then, I’ll try to edit them as much as could. When I’m not feeling confident about how I edited them, I’ll deal with it the next day. Doing so will not push me to gain perfection and avoiding any negative feeling with my habit.

  • Kimmo says:

    Hello Friends! Just wanted to let you know that Chris Baty, the guy who started the NaNoWriMo, has also written a book detailing the method. It’s called No Plot? No Problem! I like it a lot. It’s both useful and funny!

  • Abi says:

    A novel in 30 days, what a beautiful fantasy. But a great way to actually start writing. Good Luck Everyone.

  • Jo says:

    I’ve been struggling to write a book for the last year. Stupid things like work keep getting in the way! I think setting a target of so many words per day is a great idea as I haven;t really done this is in the past – maybe I will finally get past the fourth chapter!!!

  • Eiroze says:

    I am attempting this :) With an 11 week old on my hands as well :P

  • Dina says:

    I have already written 23 000 words last month
    I shall finish my novel in the coming month
    I shall reach the 50 000 words required for my story to be called a novel!

  • I’m signing up for the challenge today. The reason I’m doing it is because I have to work on my thesis next spring and I think NANO would be a great kick-start to next semester. Good luck to all those who are joining!

  • Very good advice, especially about turning off the internet. The web is a major distraction for me.

  • Kerrie says:

    These are great tips. Definitely bookmarking these (and shutting of the Interwebs and getting started on my outline).

  • Hi Leo,

    Congratulations on the decision to join NaNoWriMo again. Yes, to those who haven’t done it, it may be hard to believe it’s fun…but it is. After five years straight, I “can’t not” take the first draft in one month route this year again.

    If nothing else, NaNoWriMo gives you great practice in the daily discipline of writing (1667 words a day, every day, will get you there). It also yields greater quality and quantity than one might believe could be so, writing with the wild abandon that the one month limit creates.

    And it’s pretty fascinating to start a story thinking you know which direction it will go, and find that at some point (or more than one), the story knows where it must go, instead.

    Thanks for this post, and the great ideas for making the NaNoWriMo process easier.

    And good luck with your novel soon!

  • Chanel says:

    Great tips! Great inspiration! Thank you.

  • Jonny | thelifething says:

    I am writing two in 3 months. Does that count lol?

  • Dawn in NL says:

    Hi Leo,
    I just wanted to let you know that you convinced me to sign up for NaNoWriMo. I had been thinking about it and even had the beginnings of a plot but your post was just what was needed to tip me over.

    Thanks for the great links. See you on the other side.

  • Qrystal says:

    Just wanted to recommend a no-frills writing tool called Q10: http://www.baara.com/q10/

    It’s a free Windows-based tool that puts you into a nice full-screen, no-distraction mode with only the pleasant sound of typing (optionally enhanced with sound effects from the program itself) to keep you going. It also runs portably from a USB drive, if you so desire.

    I am not associated with the creator of this software; I’ve just used it, and found it very interesting.

    I also use The Journal (from davidrm.com) which is a little less distraction-free, and is not cost-free either, but it’s nice for organizing writing. I think might write in Q10, but then save each day’s draft version in The Journal so I can track my progress. Or something.

    Happy writing, everybody!

  • Bern says:

    I joined NaNo and hit my daily word quota for the first day. The first step is the hardest to make, so they say. Made it through that, more glorious aches to come. Thanks to Mr. Babauta.

  • Chinagrrrl says:

    Yay! I’m on my third year of being a NaNo’grrrl. I love it. I’m http://blog.chinakrysdarrington.com/nanowrimo/ to record my NaNo’ing progress and padawanchina on NaNoWriMo.org.

    Good luck! Add me as a writing buddy if you want. I’m a great cheerleader.

  • Lise says:

    I’m doing NaNo again this year! Sooooo much fun.

    While I generally agree with the “turn off the internet” advice, I have to say that I’ve pumped out most of my current ~8k words hanging out in NaNo IRC and doing word wars, timed writing events. I suppose I shouldn’t be so dependent on them, but the energy is just so high – you could power a factory on the energy generated by excited NaNos!

  • Michelangelo Bucci says:

    Twitter browsing, I stumbled upon this text editor:

    http://vimeo.com/7670108

    Maybe the most uncluttered editor possible…

  • Alexa says:

    I’m eleven (twelve on Jan. fourth) and thought this was exceptional. Could you please post an artical about the plot line, character sketches, ect.

    Please take me seriously. I’m a fair writer and not your everyday teen. At this very moment, I’m listening to Michael Crawford’s Music Of the Night, from The Phantom of the Opera.

  • Nick says:

    Great article. There is also a book called “Writing a dissertation in Fifteen Minutes”.

    For people who need help turning off the internet or working without distractions there is a software called iFocus.
    You can use it to track how you spend your computer time, and set goals for how much you can use certain things (email, chat, games etc.). You can also make it force you to work on a specific application for a fixed period of time. Basically a tool for procrastinators or people who are mindful of how they spend their computer time.

  • Nick says:

    Forgot the link for iFocus: ifocusonwork dot com

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