If you’re attempting NaNoWriMo and are on track to finish the Great American Novel, congratulations. Carry on.
If you’re doing NaNoWriMo and there’s no way you’ll give birth to a full novel by Dec. 1 without quitting your job, getting divorced and downing pots of coffee along with stimulants sold by a sketchy long-haul truck driver—then congratulations, this post is for you.
Hear me now and believe me later in the week: given the choice of holding in my hands (1) an absolutely finished hot mess of 100,000 words or (2) a single page blueprint of a brilliant story, I’d pick B.
And you should, too.
Blueprints and structure are also the way you FIX a hot mess of a novel.
Hundreds of thousands of people around the world are driving themselves nuts (a) trying to write beautiful sentence after beautiful sentence that (b) build upon each other to (c) craft a novel during NaNoWriMo (National Write a Novel Month).
The word that matters in that first paragraph is “build.”
You don’t build with beauty.
Because pretty words aren’t what truly matters. Not for anything of length.
Writing is like building a house, except most writers get taught that it’s the surface stuff that matters–the drywall and the paint, the cabinetry and tile work. Then we’re surprised when our pile of 75,000 pretty words crumbles because there’s no foundation.
Sure, pretty words can hide a bad structure when you’re talking about something small, like a beautiful wooden beach hut sitting on the sand. You can hang out in there for an afternoon or a weekend. Sooner or later, though, it’ll get blown down or swept away by the waves, because the hut isn’t built to last.
Every year in November, writers around the world attempt something noble and worthwhile: to not just write a novel–the Toughest Writerly Thing A Writer Can Do–but finish the thing in an insane amount of time, as in the 30 short, rainy days of November.
This is a huge, organized thing, nicknamed NaNoWriMo, the kind of acronym only writers could come up with after a marathon viewing of BLADE RUNNER and THE MATRIX trilogy. (Spoiler alert: first one with Neo is perfect while the second and third will ruin your childhood).
HOWEVER: writing an entire novel in 30 days is would be more accurately described by the non-acronym of Crazytown.
With logic and numbers, I’ll show you: (a) why this is nuts, even if you really, really want to do it, and (b) how an alternative is easier while (c) giving you better results.
When logic and math fail, I’ll resort to dirty rhetorical tricks. You won’t even see them coming.
Sidenote: Yes, many people have successfully completed NaNoWriMo, and you may be one of them. That’s awesome. Get down with your bad self.
The Math, It Is Crazy
Let’s say the finish line for a novel is 75,000 words.
There are 30 days in November, which means you need to hit 2,500 words a day, every day.
Oh, no problem, you say: I’m getting up at 4 a.m. to drink two pots of fine Columbian coffee as I bang on the keyboard for hours. And I type fast. Watch me.
Sure, that math looks easy. Say your average person types 50 words per minute, which equals:
3,000 words per hour
24,000 words per eight-hour day
120,000 words per week
No sweat. We’ll crank this thing out in a week.
Except nobody who writes for a living produces 24,000 words a day. Nobody.
And they’re doing this full-time, with all kinds of experience and support, like professional editors and fancy VR helmets that turn thoughts into words. Kidding about that. They get implants and have to insert a sharp cable thing into their skull. I hear it hurts and itches all the time.
Here come the word counts:
200 words = letter to the editor
500 words = five-minute speech
600 words = newspaper story
800 words = oped
1,000 to 8,000 words = short story
3,000 words = 30-minute keynote speech
15,000 words = screenplay
20,000 to 50,000 words = novella
60,000 to 200,000 words = novel
Believe me, not even the fastest reporter writes 5 stories an hour, which translates into 40 stories a day and 200 stories a week. Most reporters do two or three stories a day. I’m insanely fast, and I don’t know a single professional speechwriter who’s ever cranked out a keynote speech in an hour, much less a keynote an hour, every hour, for a week. Such a person does not exist. Most keynotes take an entire week of research and writing.
As for novels, not even Stephen King, back when he was fueled by illicit substances, produced a novel a week.
This isn’t a function of brains, talent, or being stuck in meetings 3 hours a day when you’re rather be banging on the keyboard.
Writing is more than typing. It’s a sexy vampire (non-sparkly) which sucks out your life force until you’re a dry little husk who needs to recharge. There are only so many words inside you every day until you smash into the wall.
This, for example, does not count as writing.
So what’s the floor and ceiling for daily word counts?
The bare minimum? 500 words
Literary gods like Hemingway were famous for counting words and walking away from the typewriter after hitting 500. Then they went off to drink wine, watch bull fights and whatever else Hemingway and other literary gods did with their free time.
Totally fine, if those are 500 world-class words. That’s 15,000 words a month, which is about two novels a year. Wonderful.
So our floor is 500 words a day, as long as those are good words. Yet this won’t get us there: 15,000 words in 30 days doesn’t get us close to a 75,000-word novel.
What’s the ceiling?
If 500 words is our minimum, we want the max, right? Give it to us. DO IT NOW.
Not gonna lie to you: 1,000 words a day is good, 2,000 words is great and 2,500 would be amazing.
You simply can’t count on being amazing every day for 30 straight days.
It’s a lot like running. Sure, plenty of people can run 5 miles in a day (or write 500 words). And yeah, some people could run 5 miles a day for an entire month. Your knees would rebel, but a lot of people could slog through it.
What’s not so possible is running a half marathon every day for a month (13 miles or about 1,300 words). And what’s insane is thinking that millions of amateur runners should try to run a complete marathon every day (26 miles or roughly 2,600 words) for a month. Don’t know about you, but I would be in the hospital after Day Six.
No matter how noble the goal is of NaNoWriMo, it’s setting up a lot of people for failure.
Sure, there are people who train hard and do even crazier things, like the folks who compete in 100-mile ultramarathons because plain old marathons aren’t tough enough. I’m not saying it’s completely impossible for everyone on the planet. People manage to do all sorts of things.
What I am saying is NaNoWriMo is like trying to get average people interested in the sport of mountain climbing by lining them up and attempting to set a speed record for climbing Everest in borrowed snow pants and Moon Boots.
Chances are, a lucky few will make it, as they always do each year, which only makes people who got stuck halfway to the finish line feel like failures.
Even if you quit your job and focus on doing this full time, you’re not guaranteed to finish the sucker, and that may make you give up on the dream of writing, which would be all kinds of wrong. Our world depends on good words, great ideas and compelling stories. We need more writers, and they need to be healthy and happy, not sleep-deprived wrecks who vaguely remember having a spouse and kids.
An easier, smarter path
Let’s think of a way to get a better product with far less stress and labor.
Hear me now and believe me later in the week: it is pritnear impossible to fix a pile of 75,000 words with structural problems. (Yes, pritnear is a word, I kid you not.)
Been there. Tried it many times.
Want to hear a horrible truth? The fastest, most reliable method of fixing a bad draft is this: hold it over the trash can, drop it and wait for the clang to stop echoing. Then start over on page 1.
So even if you succeed in cranking out the required number of words, the end product is probably DOA, which is tragic.
The toughest part of writing is actually drawing up blueprints that work. If you have a solid foundation and good bones, adding the details and finishing the job is a piece of cake, whatever your favorite cake may be: cheesecake, German chocolate (not actually German) or what have you. But not blueberry pie, since that’s pie. Illegal. Not gonna do it.
Instead of quitting your job and holing up in Motel 6 to write 2,500 words a day, no matter what, let’s shoot for 500 words a day. Except those 500 words are foundational and structural.
We’re skipping all the non-essential filler, the description and dialogue, and going to the essence of the actual story: motivations and conflicts, setups and payoffs, reversals and revelations.
You can boil down any movie or novel into what Hollywood calls a treatment. It’s a quick and dirty way of writing the foundation of a movie or novel, plus you don’t need to learn any of the wacky formatting (sorry, sis) screenwriters use in Tinseltown.
Treatments are rough and raw, which doesn’t disguise the fact that the story they tell is pure and beautiful.
So, here’s the easier path to NaNoWriMo in eight steps:
Figure out if your ending is up or down, and make your beginning the polar opposite. There are good reasons for this. Ask me later.
Grab the late, great Blake Snyder’s book SAVE THE CAT and figure out what type of story, you’re telling, which is a different animal than genre or setting. JAWS, FATAL ATTRACTION and ALIEN are not a horror movie, domestic drama and sci-fi flick–they’re all the same primal story, Monster in the House: you’re in an enclosed place with a monster, and it’s going to eat you unless you kill it.
Make a copy of Snyder’s beat sheet and start playing around with the typical twists, reversals and revelations of your type of story.
Start your treatment from the villain’s POV, because they get up early and go to work long before the hero stops hitting the snooze button and finally takes a shower. The villain matters more than the hero. Poor villain = poor story, no matter how interesting your hero is.
Let the villain win, all the time, and in interesting ways.
Make the hero lose, all the time, despite their best and most clever efforts. A hero who wins at every turn is boring–that’s a romp, not a story.
When you’ve cranked out your 500 words for that day, pour a glass of whatever you enjoy and watch classic examples of that story, or read great novels in that genre for inspiration. Take a few notes. Notice how they create setups that don’t pay off until later, all the while managing to (a) keep you curious by raising narrative questions they don’t answer right off and (b) find new ways to surprise you in scene after scene.
When you’re done with the treatment–shoot for 15,000 words–go through and eliminate or combine every character you can. Show no mercy. If somebody only shows up in one scene, kill them off and give that role a core character. Whatever role is played by evil minions, sidekicks and love interests, try to give those jobs to your villain and protag. Make them do their own dirty work.
That’s it. If you do this, at 500 words or less a day, you’ll have the core of a much stronger novel than if you banged on the keyboard like a rabid chipmunk for 20 hours a day.
This is the short version. Look around this silly blog for all kinds of related posts:
Don’t bother with sending your novel around for beta readers to chew on, editors to edit and proofers to proof. You’ve got 50,000 golden words, right? THEY MUST BE SEEN AND PUBLISHED, TOMORROW, and you’ve already told the dealership to order a black BMW because the advance will be huge.
Forget sending queries to literary agents. Call them on the telephones, right now, or get their cell number and try dinner time, because they’ll be home.
If your novel is truly great, bypass those gatekeepers and fly to the Isle of Manhattan to hail a cab for the offices of Random House with the only copy of your manuscript in your locked briefcase. Make sure there are copyright notices all over the thing and a confidentiality agreement drafted by your attorney before anybody gets a peek, lest they steal it.
Do you have your plane ticket yet? Go get one, right now.
Okay, those folks should be busy on Travelocity while literary agents and editors are hiring a team of former Special Forces soldiers to greet them in the bowels of JFK’s parking garage.
You may have 50,000 words and a spiffy badge, 34,000 words and a feeling of failure, 13,000 words and a newfound hatred of literature or 3,923 words and a pile of index cards that say things like, “The scene where Emily discovers that she hates her husband and wants to become a nun. Then he makes her ham and eggs. The eggs are soggy but the ham is delicious.”
Yeah, I know it’s probably a Word doc. Stick that thing in a virtual drawer. Don’t touch it, not even to fix that scene where Emily is at work and the serial killer is in the copier room, expertly printing his manifesto on both sides and making the machine staple that sucker in the upper left corner before he kills the CFO with an industrial three-hole punch.
2) Take the first page of those five great books in your genre and study them. Just the first page.
Now take your manuscript (mss if you’re a hipster) and print the first page. Only the first page.
Compare them all. Different authors have different styles, sure, but you shouldn’t be writing in second person, or first person plural, if all five of the bestsellers in your chosen genre of memoirs are say, first person. Just a guess. For giggles: Top 9 reasons to write in first-person plural
If you want a quick look at taking a red pen to the first pages of famous novels to rip them up, in a good way, check out these:
Tempted to join a traditional critique group instead? Don’t. Not the kind where you meet once a month, or once a week, and everybody reads a chapter. I’m serious: Why critique groups MUST DIE
5) Read up. A lot.
Read about the business of books, whether it’s traditional publishing, indie or zipping your manuscript to servers at Amazon to start selling it tomorrow.
Read great fiction in all sorts of genres while your manuscript simmers in the oven of that drawer. Learn about writing a query and synopsis, a little marketing and public relations and social media.
6) After a month, go back and crack open that NaNaWriMo manuscript again.
Listen to your editors. Use what you’ve learned about storytelling and from reading great books in your genre. Fix the ending. Fix the beginning. Kill off every character you can and combine their roles.
Keep on working on it while you dream up the next novel, which should not be a sequel. Different characters, different setting.
Does the new idea feel like work, or would you happily burn a day off to crank out chapters? Toss ideas that feel like drudgery and hold fast to concepts that make you excited. Because this should not feel like punching a clock in a Ford factory or going to meetings in a cubicle farm about your TPS reports.
Writing it should make your heart beat faster while you smile. You may even cackle the evil cackle of glee. All those are Good Things, and should be encouraged.
Also: The thing about writers and editors is this: they’re friendly, and as long as you’re not a jerk, they’ll chat with you on Twitter and help you out a little. Great people. I LOVES THEM.
Also-also: If you want to know anything, check out The Writer’s Knowledge Base for a massive collection of articles and posts on every topic a writer could want. It’s like a mega-powered and secret google for writers and editors. Plus it’s free. This thing is a public service. Use it, and tell the folks who run it thanks. Send them tips when you spot great posts or stories and some good karma.
Because there’s a lot of good karma among the folks who love books. This isn’t a zero-sum game where somebody has to lose for somebody else to win. People who love books and writing also love fellow writers and editors. We’re brothers and sisters in arms, battling word counts and deadlines and plot bunnies. It shouldn’t be stressful. Because this is fun stuff, the making up of stories to entertain each other.
Say it’s your first time writing a novel, and you’re a smidge behind. On the 15th of November, you should’ve hit 25,000 words.
Do not despair.
Also: For those who’ve burned vacation time, dumped their significant others and sent the kids to boarding school, because you’re going to hit 50k if it kills you, I say this: dance not the dance of victory, because 50k isn’t actually a novel. It’s a novella. You want to hit 80k or 90k to be safe.
Writer peeps tell me they’re doing NaNoWriMo, which is Esperanto for “I’m trying to write a novel in a single month, and I’m 10k behind already, so I’ve quit my job and divorced my husband. I vaguely remember that we had some kids. Ready for a sprint?”
God bless all who sign up for this. I believe a novel is the toughest thing a writer can tackle, and the most rewarding.
If a friend of mine said they were doing NaNoWriMo, I’d want them to have a good experience and not pull their hair out because they missed two days of writing at that wedding and now they need to write 3,000 words a day and IT’S NOT HAPPENING.
It’s great that there’s a national month encouraging folks to write a novel. I just don’t want new writers to bang their head against the wall and feel like a failure if it doesn’t happen. You’re not a failure. The math is stacked against you for NaNoWriMo.
So here is what I would say to that friend wrestling with word counts and freaking out, or to anyone considering doing NaNoWriMo next year.
1) Spend all of October training for this literary marathon
For writers, a novel is like running a marathon. You don’t pop up off the couch on Nov. 1 and bust out 26.1 miles. You’ve got to train and build up to it.
Ignore the veteran pantsers and their crazy “I never outline” ways. Anybody writing a novel for the first time on Nov. 1 should spend October doing this:
Read SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder and STORY by Robert McKee
Figure out what primal story, per Blake the Snyder, you’re going to write—that’s your genre
Watch movies (hey, this homework stuff is tough) or read your favorite books in that genre, and see how those movies and books do setups and payoffs, reversals and revelations
Map out a three-act story, using Blake’s spiffy Beat Sheet, and if you want to get technical, he breaks Act 2 in half, so you’re really looking at four Acts
Figure out your story on that one-page Beat Sheet, and do whatever research you need for the Writing of Many Words
2) The goal is actually more than 50,000 words
You might say, “Hey, mister, fifty thousand words is a lot to write in a month. Don’t make this any harder.”
Sure, 50k is a lot. We’re talking about 1,667 words per day, every day. Except 50k is a novella, not a novel.
It’s more like half a novel.
Google it. Go on, I’ll wait.
Okay, not really. I’m over there, watching funny cat videos.
So: Literary agents, publishers and book peoples have all these standards for word counts when it comes to novels of different genres, and if you’re going to run a literary marathon, let’s make sure you hit 26.1 miles, not 14 miles and call it a marathon.
Chuck Sambuchino is an editor, author and expert on what agents and publishers want in different genres. Here’s a TL;DR version of his post about word counts for novels: “Between 80,000 and 89,999 words is a good range you should be aiming for. This is a 100% safe range for literary, mainstream, women’s, romance, mystery, suspense, thriller and horror. Anything in this word count won’t scare off any agent anywhere.”
Therefore: you’re really shooting for 80 to 90k. Which leads us to Number 3.
3) Make it NaNoDecemberO to stay sane and married
Trying to hit 50k in 30 days is hard. The math, it doesn’t add up.
I know full-time authors who write one book per year. Maybe two. If they wrote 50,000 words a month, they’d be cranking out six to ten books per year.
Which doesn’t happen.
Not even Stephen King puts out six books a year, and he (a) writes faster than anybody, (b) has decades of experience writing fiction and (c) has the money to spend all day doing nothing else, if he wants.
People doing NaNoWriMo typically are not independently wealthy, retired or able to call on decades of fiction writing experience. I bet most folks have full-time jobs and kids and life. So asking them to write at least 1,667 words a day is asking a lot.
Especially when the real finish line is really 80,000 or 90,000 words.
80k words in 30 days is 2,667 words per day
90k in 30 is 3k a day
People expect three bullets, except I don’t have another set of numbers on this point, so here’s the start of an infinite set, just for you: 1 2 4 8 16 32 64 128 256 512 1024 2048
That’s crazy talk. Old school authors like Hemingway would count their words, words printed on these things called typewriters, doing it by hand with a pencil. And they’d call it a day when they hit 500 words, going off to drink bourbon and watch bullfights, because 500 words a day is roughly three books a year.
Let’s make it NaNoDecemberO and give you two months to write a full novel instead of a novella.
80k words in 60 days is 1,334 words per day
If you go long at 90k, that’s still only 1,500 words a day, less of a workload than NaNoWriMo’s 1,667
That’s right: write fewer words per day and actually have a full novel instead of a novella
Therefore: go ahead and turn it into NaNoDecemberO.
It’s okay. The NaNoWriMo police won’t come to your door and take away your keyboard. You’ll get more sleep and your friends and family will thank you for doing something incredibly hard in 60 days instead of 30.
4) No matter what, don’t set a goal of more than 2k a day
You might think, “Hey, I’ve got a free Sunday coming up, and I’ll spend six hours writing, 2k an hour, so that’s 10 to 16k, easy.” Might happen. Probably not.
It doesn’t matter what kind of writing you do or whether you write an hour a day in the morning or all day as your job. Reporters, screenwriters and authors all seem to hit the wall at 2k a day.
Though you can edit all day. Hmm. Interesting. Write 2k, then edit like a madman. There may be something to that.
HOWEVER: Let’s say you can go all out and hit 3k a day, every day. You’re going to miss days. Weddings, anniversaries, holidays, soccer practice, late nights at work. It’ll happen. If you need 3k a day, and miss a day, now you have to make up for it with 6k tomorrow. Ugh. Even spreading that out over a week would be tough.
Don’t be a literary tough guy and set yourself up for painful falls. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. 2k a day or less is smart.
5) Don’t do it alone
Writers are friendly and helpful. Ask. There’s no such thing as a dumb question.
And find some people to trade chapters with and such. You don’t want vague happy nonsense like “it was great” or vague critical nonsense about how they hated chapter 2 and don’t know why.
Find a few fellow writers who need critique partners. Everybody needs beta readers.
Or omega readers. 🙂
Yes, that’s an inside joke. And a good one. I’d throw down a double-sized happy face, if I knew how.
6) Let’s turn January into NaNoEditMo
The secret to all writing is editing—and the longer a piece of writing is, the more editing love it needs.
Don’t bother with critique groups where people read chapters aloud. Are you really going to read 80,000 words to the group? Might take six days. Not gonna do it. Wouldn’t be prudent.
There are all sorts of books, blogs, web sites and secret societies when it comes to editing fiction. Dive into it. Learn all about editing, and practice on things you steal from the Interwebs or pull down from your shelf.
Because you can’t edit yourself. Not at first. It takes experience bleeding on the pages of others before you can turn your own pages red.
The way to learn is from horrifically beautiful writing and amazingly bad prose. Mediocre stuff doesn’t teach you how to edit.
One thing will pop out fast: story and structure matter more, over the long term, than the quality of the writing. You’ll probably enjoy entertaining trash in the genre you’re writing far more than literary novels where every sentence is a poem, and this is true if the genre novels are insane stuff about a zombie pirate in love with a robot ninja from the future.
Also: Yes, somebody has probably written that exact book. Bonus points if anybody can point me to the cover of that novel. I’ll do a blog about this zombie-pirate/robot-ninja shebang.
Also-also: NaNoScriptMo would actually be fun and practical. A screenplay is about 15,000 words and that’s 500 words a day. Hemingway would approve. Then he’d drink a whiskey and watch a bullfight.