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.

About the author

Leo Babauta

Leo Babauta is the blogger behind the superblog, Zen Habits, which is about finding simplicity in the daily chaos of life.