Commentary: Write your novel in 30 days – a 10 step guide (Part 1)

Today I came across a blog post by Garda Parker called Write your novel in 30 days – a 10 step guide. While I agree with some advice here, a lot of it is not useful. In this article, I’ll be looking at the concept and the first five points. In the one that follows I’ll look at points 6 to 10.

For those who don’t want to click that link and read the post, the ten steps are summarised as follows:

1. Know the kind of book you want to write (know your genre)

2. Know your lead character(s)

3. Keep a project notebook

4. Plunge in! (open with a strong scene)

5. Write a set number of pages daily

6. Write a quick-and-dirty draft

7. Keep your novel to yourself to maintain your excitement and momentum

8. Identify your best time to write

9. Don’t stop to research

10. Understand—and use—manuscript format, even at the draft stage

To begin with, the concept of writing a novel in 30 days is a difficult one. Sure, a couple of hundred thousand people make the attempt each year as part of NaNoWriMo, and there are certainly some authors – the ones you hear about putting out 7 books each year but which don’t use ghostwriters – who certainly are capable of writing a novel in 30 days. From a purely mathematical point of view, it’s far from impossible – assuming a 100,000 word novel and a rate of 1,000 words an hour, you’d only need to write about three hours and twenty minutes a day to get that done. So what’s the big deal?

The problem is that writing a novel isn’t just adding some numbers up. It’s not writing 3,333 words a day for 30 days. It’s a more complicated process than just sitting down to write for 3 hours and 20 minutes a day, even if you don’t have a job that swallows up most of your time. And writing a novel is more than just putting words on paper or into a Word document. Parker’s post should more accurately be titled “How to write a first draft in 30 days – a 10 step guide” because writing a novel is about so much more than creating a first draft. There’s also planning, research, rewriting and editing all caught up in that which are not addressed in the article.

But enough of the concept. It’s time to look at each of the step Parker suggests are necessary.

1. Know the kind of book you want to write (know your genre)

This is redundant advice. Parker even admits it in the text below this step: “You probably do already.” If you’re a writer, you know what you like to write, surely? If you’re new to writing, if you just decide to try it out now for the first time, writing a novel in 30 days is not your main concern, just writing something is. If you need to be told this advice, you haven’t been writing long enough to need the rest of the article.

2. Know your lead character(s)

Okay, yes, this is important. You can’t write a good novel if you don’t know your lead characters. Parker goes on, though:

“Your opening scene should contain your lead character(s), so your readers know who is central to the story.”

First of all, this is a bit of a segue. Knowing your lead characters is about working out characterisation. Starting with them is about plot. The two aren’t inextricably linked. And leading with the main characters, while generally good advice, isn’t necessarily essential. Occasionally – and certainly not every time – a prologue can be used effectively to introduce a concept or challenge before the main character enters the fray. This is more often done badly than well so for the main part I’d agree with Parker that main characters should be right there on the first page, but it’s not a hard and fast rule.

But back to the core piece of advice here: know your lead characters. Absolutely, yes. If you don’t know your main character and other important characters then where does the story come from? The cool things they fight? The explosions they escape in the nick of time? Dull! A story at its core – a story not directed by Michael Bay at least – should be about characters overcoming challenges, about characters learning about themselves and about characters interacting with one another, because that is what makes a story compelling, what provokes in a reader an emotional reaction and keeps them coming back for me.

3. Keep a project notebook

Perfectly good advice in general, not just for writing a novel in a set amount of time. It’s always a good idea to keep a notebook handy to jot down any ideas, connections, names, worldbuilding elements or “what if?” questions you might think of while not at your computer. I have two – one in my handbag, one by my bed. When I am in front of my computer again, they all go into my “catalogue of ideas” document, where I can keep track of all my ideas and where I’ve used them in the past (there’s nothing to stop me using one idea in two different stories, after all – especially if one never gets published.)

I personally don’t keep a project notebook, though. I have general notebooks. On one page of one of my notebooks, for example, I have written the following:

Elagabalous was literally flushed down the sewers.

Idea for novel – unpopular ruler deposed and body dragged through sewers / left on dung heap, etc.

Layer upon layer of history

Babysitting 7pm Claire’s house

(near Abs’ house)

So right there I have something I learned about history – a Roman emperor whose body was dragged through the sewers – followed by a note to put it in a novel, a worldbuilding element. Then I just wrote “layer upon layer of history” I believe because I wanted to give my worlds a greater depth, not just sort of one point in the past which influences the story’s present, but different layers which impact the present and each other. Then I made a note while on a phone call, with a reminder to myself in case I forgot where the house in question is.

Keeping organised notes is important, but they don’t have to be organised at the point at which they are made. Putting them in the right place later is fine. Otherwise if you’ve got one active story but three in the planning stages, or looking to be rewritten, then you’ll end up carrying around four notebooks and then where are you going to put your phone, wallet, keys, Kindle and little LED torch?

Keep a notebook. Write ideas in it. But don’t worry about keeping it organised, because then you’ll forget other things you need to remember that you can’t write in your novel notebook because it’s reserved for your novel.

4. Plunge in! (open with a strong scene)

There are many schools of thought with regard to the openings of books. Some suggest a “day in the life of” scene to introduce the character and establish what they’re used to and why the call to adventure is different and new. Some say start with action, which is often interpreted as a fight or serious situation which requires things to be done with urgency. Others suggest you start with a line of dialogue, or a question, or something witty. The truth is that there is no hard and fast rule about beginnings, no secret to making it a good one.

Yes, you do need a strong opening. But what is a strong opening? It’s one that keeps the reader reading. That’s it. There are no other criteria. It may well start with the character, or a question being posed in the mind of the reader, or the core conflict of the story – or any two or all three if you want – but those elements are tools, a means to an end. The strength of an opening is based on the number of readers who keep reading after it. You don’t need to drop your readers into the middle of a big argument between your main character and his mother, or into a fight scene, or have her sneaking around the castle while guards are searching for her. You don’t need to plunge into action or tension. You just need to present the reader with something they find interesting.

And because every novel is unique and every writer is too, there aren’t any rules that if followed will guarantee a strong opening. Sometimes a more sedate scene will work better than one full of things happening. Sometimes character introspection will work. Sometimes what’s normal for your character will work. It depends on you and your story.

5. Write a set number of pages daily

Parker’s advice in this section is perfectly valid, just a bit shallow. She’s right: unless you write something, you won’t have something later to rewrite, edit and submit for publication. But there’s more to it than writing a set number of pages daily. It’s certainly a good idea to have a daily writing goal. But this is about discipline, about sitting down to write and not stopping until that goal is reached, about getting into the habit of writing every day. It goes beyond the 30 days Parker is looking at. It is about a writer’s attitude to writing. If you’re writing for a hobby, just for fun, write whatever and whenever you like and if you don’t want to write for a week, fine. If you want to be a professional writer, you have to treat writing like a profession and that means discipline, setting goals and meeting them, and writing even when you don’t feel like it because you said you would.

I wouldn’t recommend measuring by pages either. Pages can be anything. You can set the font size as big as you like, mess around with line spacing and margins, and end up writing only 100 words a page. Or you could have a scene with lots of description and introspection leading to long paragraphs on one day, and on the next day write half as many words as your characters engage in a conversation which frequently involves one or two word responses, and still fill the same number of pages. Meanwhile, every word processor has a word count. Even WordPress does. The latest versions of MS Word, and I’m sure various other programmes, don’t even require you to click “tools > wordcount” to find it out – they show it to you as you type. So measure by wordcount, not pages, because pages don’t necessarily mean anything.

So what do you think of what I have had to say so far? I’ve got plenty to say about steps 6 to 10 too.

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