Can You Write a Novel in a Month? Sure! Just Follow These Tips From Boston Writers

Not long ago, writers used typewriters like these to create novels. Now these images are just a handy way to signify “the literary process.’’
Not long ago, writers used typewriters like these to create novels. Now these images are just a handy way to signify “the literary process.’’ –iStock

November 1 marks the beginning of National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo for short. Those who accept its challenge have a daunting task ahead of them: They have to write a novel—50,000 words of prose—in the space of 30 days, Turkey Day tryptophan naps and Black Friday traffic jams be damned.

An estimated 100 published novels have ties to NaNoWriMo, including “Water for Elephants,’’ Sara Gruen’s best-seller published in 2006, and “The Night Circus,’’ Marshfield-raised Erin Morgenstern’s 2011 debut. But there are a lot of opportunities to stumble on the way to NaNoWriMo’s 50,000-word finish line, and many aspiring novelists (including this one) fall out of competition over the course of November.

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Boston.com asked a few area novelists how they would approach NaNoWriMo in a way that results in aspiring novelists writing two key words: “The End.’’

Lisa Borders is the author of two novels and a writing instructor at the Boston creative writing center Grub Street. In her workshop The Novel Generator, she guides students through the first-draft process over nine months—a much longer period of time than NaNoWriMo’s. But she sees the event as helpful motivation to take a headfirst plunge into a lengthy work—a daunting task for even the most experienced writer.

“I’ve never done NaNoWriMo because I can’t imagine completing a draft of a novel in a month; but I think it’s useful as a motivational tool,’’ Borders said, adding that each of her books took several years to complete. “Many of my former students have used it in this way—as a means for making substantial progress.’’

Even for the most prolific scribbler, pumping out 50,000 words can be a towering hurdle. Pacing oneself, and figuring out how to fit writing into a typical day, is important. “My day feels incomplete when I don’t write,’’ said Gilmore Tamny, author of the serialized novel “My Days With Millicent.’’I do it by sort of taking the romance out of writing by making it a very ordinary part of the day.’’

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Some NaNoWriMo participants try to write 1,667 words a day—the result of dividing the 50,000-word goal by November’s 30 days. Others engage in complex calculations about how many words they can type per minute and how fast the clocks around them are ticking. And still others schedule off-days, so they can step away from their laptops and find inspiration in things like the outdoors and other human beings.

But what about writer’s block, the dreaded brain freeze that paralyzes writers and motivates stories of doom like “Barton Fink’’?

I’ve found it helpful to spend time with my writing project like it is a person rather than a thing to accomplish,’’ said Tamny. “I set a timer and we just—hang. This might mean rereading different spots, spell checking, making a list of small details I’d like to double-check with minor research. It’s kind of like you’re having a coffee klatsch with your work. Anything to dial back the fraught factor. Also, [it’s important to recognize] being blocked is absolutely part of any artistic process.’’

Others just write through, shutting out the possibility of being blocked.

“I have never suffered from writer’s block,’’ said Deborah Nam-Krane, a Boston author whose fourth novel “Let’s Move On’’ came out this fall. “I got advice early in my teens that it was better to write something imperfect that you could improve on later than to stare at a piece of paper (or a screen) waiting for ‘the muse’ to inspire you with perfection.

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“I tried NaNoWriMo last year, but it wasn’t the right time for me,’’ she added. “I think it’s a great way for a lot of novelists to kickstart their novel, but the ones who have been very successful with it have said that they did a lot of planning (outlining, character sketches, inspiration boards, etc.) so they could complete their novel in one month. When it works, it’s great; when it doesn’t, you’re just putting words down to say you did.’’

Borders concurs that planning is important, especially given the way that plots can peter out if they’re not tended to properly.

“Sometimes a writer has an idea for a novel that plays itself out in 50 or so pages and evaporates from there,’’ said Borders. “In teaching novel writing, I’ve found that this issue is often related to the main character’s desire—that is, to the writer not having a clear sense of what her main character wants. That desire is what will pull the reader through 300 or so pages, to see if the character gets—or doesn’t get—what he or she wants.’’

V.V. Ganeshananthan, a novelist and Radcliffe fellow, has friends who have “used [NaNoWriMo] to galvanize themselves into intense periods of work,’’ and she thinks its put-it-all-out-there-fast structure can be part of a larger process.

“I didn’t write every day when finishing my first book—I wrote for long stretches and then took long stretches away,’’ she said. “That tactic seems like it would lend itself to NaNoWriMo—this would be the long stretch on, and you might aim to finish an early and solid draft, and then take a month off to work on something else, and then take a look at it to revise. My guess is that that’s what a ‘final bow’ would mean for many people trying [NaNoWriMo] out—that early but complete draft. A deadline and some peer pressure can get you going.’’

Borders agrees that those 50,000 words are only one part of a much bigger picture. (In a 2011 interview, Morgenstern talked about the process that led to her book being published.)

“In terms of knowing when your book is ready to submit to agents, it’s all about revising, getting feedback from other writers or consultants/editors, revising some more, and repeating this process until you feel all the elements of craft are working and the book is solid,’’ said Borders. “Then it’s about polishing, eliminating clichés, getting the language as right as you can. A novel should have been through many drafts—mine usually go through at least seven full drafts—before it’s shown to an agent.’’

Editors and agents might seem like they exist on a completely different plane from the blank page that greets new writing endeavors. But even the most beloved novels started with the most basic building blocks of writing: A place to write, an implement, and an idea—and the discipline to see that idea through.

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June 18, 2019 | 8:55 AM