How to write a novel in 30 days

November is National Novel Writing Month, which means a host of authors–both published and aspiring–will be gearing up to write a novel in 30 days.

The fact is… that’s impossible. Or, at least, writing a ready-to-publish novel is impossible. What you can do is write a draft in 30 days. With preparation and a lot of luck, it’s even possible to write a good draft in that time. However, if you’re expecting perfection, you’ve got the wrong challenge.

Disappointed? Don’t be.

The whole point of NaNoWriMo is to push yourself to write, even when you don’t want to. It is to rise to a challenge of being creative.

The value of NaNoWriMo is even greater than that. For both new writers and old hats, it teaches the value of regular writing habits and meeting deadlines, which are both vital for a career as an author.

This article runs through the Do’s and Don’ts of NaNoWriMo, using the month-long challenge as a blueprint for all writing projects.

So, whether you’re taking part in NaNoWriMo for the fun of it, or looking for a long-term approach for your creative projects, read on…


How to write a novel in 30 days


I’ve won the NaNoWriMo challenge 5 times out of 7. Some years it was a breeze; some years, every word was a struggle. The years I ‘lost’, I just… couldn’t do it.

Every year I take part in the challenge teaches me something different about myself and my writing habits. Winning and losing has given me excellent insight into the value of project management, which is something I apply to both my editing services and my own creative projects.

So, in the spirit of ‘writers helping writers’, here’s what I’ve learned so far…


How to write a novel in 30 days

Before you start…

Know your genre and demographic

Before you start your novel, it’s always helpful to know (broadly) what your genre is and who you are writing for–even if that someone is just yourself! Genre and demographic go hand-in-hand with plot expectation and novel length, which can help you sketch out what happens in your book.

A middle-grade fantasy, for example, will be around 60k words and tends to end happily. There are also expectations about the hero and the villain, which I’ve written about previously.

Alternatively, a YA fantasy will be much longer (100k words) and a satisfactory ending doesn’t necessarily mean everyone skipping off into the sunset. If you’re writing for an older audience (YA to Adult), you probably won’t finish your draft during NaNoWriMo–and that’s OK!


Know your MC’s motivation

Whether you’re a Planner or a Pantser; whether you lead with plot or character, it is immensely helpful to know your main character’s motivations.

If you know nothing else about your MC, know their motivation. This means you know the core of their being–what drives them. This can help you get to grips with them very quickly. Everything else can fall into place as you write.

Additionally, knowing your MC’s motivation is the key to conflict and plot. When you know what your character wants, ask yourself this: “How can I stop them getting it?

Of course, part of the fun of NaNoWriMo is fleshing out characters as you write (and, I have to say, it helps with that daunting word count goal). If exploring characters is more your style this November, check out the 3 Pillars of Character Creation.


Know your MC’s basic story arc

So, you have your genre, your demographic, your MC’s motivation and the main conflict. You have everything you need to get started, except a basic story arc.

There are three main story arcs:

  • Positive: Protagonist ends up in a better place than when they started the story, having learned something about themselves and changed in a positive way. They may have faced fears or overcome a difficulty / flaw.
  • Flat: Your protagonist has stayed mostly the same but they have changed the world or the society around them (usually for the better).
  • Negative: Your protagonist ends up in a worse place than when they started the book. Perhaps they have made bad choices and this has led to their downfall; alternatively, they may unveil a corrupted reality and embrace it.

If you know which arc you want your character to follow, you know the basic events that will need to be present in your novel.


Schedule ahead

Right! It’s almost time to write!

From experience, the most challenging aspect of NaNoWriMo is finding the time to write. This is where project management comes in. I highly recommend planning your time realistically throughout the month of November (or whenever you happen to be writing).

For most people, it won’t be feasible to write 1,666 words each day. That’s the average amount you’d need to pen in order to meet the 50,000 word goal. However, as life doesn’t just stop in order to let you write, you need to be flexible with your aims.

Use your calendar–digital or paper–to see when your busiest parts of the month are. For example, I have two family birthdays in November and a friend’s engagement party. I know I probably won’t be able to meet my average writing target on these days, so I set a smaller target to meet instead, whilst increasing my target for the other days.

Of course, this method only accounts for expected time. I know many writers who have been felled by unexpected tragedies, illness or simply a complete lack of inspiration. There’s not much you can do about the lack of inspiration (except to read more and try to write anyway, even if it’s rubbish). However, you can mitigate for illness and unexpected events.

My usual advice is to write constantly. If you can’t do that, then always aim higher than your word goal whenever you can write. This gives you a ‘buffer’ zone to work with so, if you can’t write on one day due to unforeseen circumstances, it won’t put you too far behind.

For those of you who like fancy apps, I highly recommend a website called WriteTrack.

It’s free to use and can track your time during periods of your own choosing. You can set your own daily goals and, if you happen to not meet that goal for one day, it will automatically readjust them so you have a new, manageable target to work with.

It basically takes the all the maths out of project management, so it gets my vote!


How to write a novel in 30 days

Writing time!

These are some quick tips to getting the most out of NaNoWriMo.

Never look back

If you’ve taken a wrong turn with your plot, mark it in the margins. Then continue drafting as though you’d already fixed it. That way, you don’t ruin your flow.


Don’t be too fussy

If you can’t think of a word you need, write an unusual word in its place, like ‘elephant’ or ‘winklepicker’. That way, you can keep writing and easily find the sentences that need revision later on.


Don’t expect perfection

First drafts aren’t terrible. They’re babies, learning to talk. Just get the words down and make your story understood. As author Jodi Picoult says, you can’t edit a blank page. Write first. Refined language comes later, during the editing stages.


Write during “Dead Time”

Queuing for coffee, waiting for people to come back from the toilet… these are excellent opportunities to add 50-100 words to your WIP. Always take a pen and paper with you (or your phone) and scribble whenever you can.

If you’re looking for an on-the-go app, I recommend Evernote. It has both a phone and a desktop app, which means that you can write anywhere and it will sync to your computer automatically–meaning you don’t have to retype anything! It’s also free, up to a certain amount of data usage.


Don’t panic and don’t get disheartened

Whether or not you ‘win’ NaNoWriMo (i.e. writing 50,000 words by the 30th November), be proud of yourself. No one really loses this challenge… they just write more words than they would during any other month.


Are you taking part in NaNoWriMo this year? What advice would you give on how to write a novel in 30 days? Perhaps you’re embarking on a creative project that will take far longer than one month. What are your tricks of the trade? Comment below!