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A Re-Post of Great Importance: How To Write a Novel In 30 Days
writer's block
catvalente
I wrote this for a guest-stint on Jeff Vandermeer's blog last year. I'm posting it here so those of you who didn't make it over can see it, but also so that I can read it again and remind myself of the Total Truth of what I said. For every sad Cat in snow, I also have a Kitty Says Fuck Yeah--only none of you can call me Kitty, only justbeast gets to. And even he usually says koshechka. Grr. Am fierce, and not soft or cuddly at all.

Rar
.

I post it late, because it is something I wrote ages ago, but you all will see it in the morning, and it'll still be nice and warm for you.

This, of course, has nothing to do with my current deadline. I have no idea what you're talking about.

How to Write a Novel in 30 Days

Jeff did a piece called How to Write a Novel in Two Months a little while back, and when I read it, I smiled, because I’ve run that race, too. I wanted to post my thoughts on speed-writing, as I have many—and now, through the power of bloggery, I can put my essay right next to his! It’s like some kind of crazy magic. And because Jeff nailed a lot of the nitty-gritty, things, I can just blather. Best of both worlds!

So here’s the thing–I am a fast writer. I think this is a skill I developed in college, a combination of stress and a vital part of my personality: I am incredibly lazy.

Because I am incredibly lazy, it is very easy to convince me not to work, since I don’t want to work anyway. Which led to an abnormal number of papers completed the night before they were due…and then the early morning hours before they were due, then the not so early morning hours*…And if even once I had failed to turn in a paper, failed to churn out twenty pages on gender anxiety in Gawain and the Green Knight, if I had even once failed to get an A, I think I would have rethought my methods and come to some sort of conclusion about work ethics.

Didn’t happen.

So what my brain learned was not what it should have learned, namely that this sort of thing is about as risky and dumb as huffing whipped cream canisters. My brain learned that there was no deadline it couldn’t meet.

This is a dangerous thing for a brain to know, and I recommend failure to meet deadlines to everyone. Human behavior means doing something until it doesn’t work. This sort of thing still works for me. I do not expect it to work forever, and frankly, it giveth and it taketh. You get the work done fast, but your body is shredded and you end up with the interpersonal grace of Gollum on a meth binge.

But you’re not going to listen to these warnings.

The 30 days is an arbitrary number–it is kind of an absolute minimum for me**. I haven’t pushed myself to see just how fast I can turn out a novel, but I don’t trust myself with less than 30 days. I’m not crazy. Obviously, Nanowrimo influences that number (50k in a month, at something like 1400 words a day, is not actually very hard if you’re a fast hand at the keyboard and don’t have a day job) and now it can be told that I did Nanowrimo in 2002…sort of. See, those were heady days. I was 23. I was all balls-out and brazen and come-here-world-I’m-gonna-take-a-bite-out-of-you.

You know, totally different than now.

So I just did it on my own in early October (at the same Rhode Island Starbucks where Tobias Buckell started his first novel, as we discovered this summer) and I clocked in at a lot less than 30 days. The result? The beginning of my career, and how I met Jeff.

The key, really, is to never learn you can fail.

I really enjoy timed writing–with deadline from without (editor) or within (online project, personal goal, etc). I think it’s because I enjoy obstructions. Things created within boundaries, where the boundaries become part of the object, creativity fueled by restriction. It lights me up inside–your mileage may, of course, vary. This is not how I write every novel–it took me six years to write The Orphan’s Tales. As I said, I don’t recommend this: first of all, no one will think you can have possibly produced anything good in that time, because time spent = quality, obviously, and no other factors come into play. Second of all, you absolutely have to play by this first rule. No exceptions, no hall passes.

Rule #1: Be a Genius

Guys, I cannot stress this enough. See Kerouac’s Belief and Technique for Modern Writing. Rule #29? You Are a Genius All the Time. (Yes, I have that list nailed above my desk.)

I don’t care what kind of writer you are. I don’t care how many rejections you’ve had, I don’t care how long you’ve been doing this. For 30 days, you are a genius. Everything that flows from your fingers is pure light. You do not have the luxury of not being a genius–not being a genius is laziness and sloth and you just can’t tolerate that shit right now.

Writing this fast is an act of unadulterated, stupid, blind faith. Faith in yourself, in your voice, in your story, in your sheer ability. If your faith falters, you lose time. In my experience, if you’re working on a 30 day cycle, you can afford to lose maybe three days (non-consecutive, if you lose three straight days you’ll never recover) to self-doubt, internal criticism, and not being a genius. More than that and you’re running up against words-per-minute, and when you get down to it, typing speed is actually a big factor. Us Millenials who grew up in chat rooms have generally fabulous-fleet skillz, but seriously, this is no time for long-hand.

2. Tell Everyone

Make sure everyone knows what you’re doing. This will provide the heady ingredient of shame to the proceedings, and I find that shame is an enormous motivator. If you fail alone, in private, no one will ever know, and you can claim that writing a novel in 30 days is impossible, for hacks, etc, with impunity. If you post to your blog and tell all your friends, you have to admit to it if you fail. This is assuming you are not subject to the major reason for speed-writing: you have a deadline and you watched Alias reruns instead of working until the last possible second.

It’s also important that your partner and social group knows not to expect you to be anything like human for the next month. Fortunately, you’re a genius, and geniuses are never expected to conform to primate behavior standards***. Just, you know, apologize later. If you are very lucky, you might have a partner or friend who is willing to provide any combination of the following salves for your chafed genius muscles: food, quiet space/leaving you the hell alone, a clean house, inspirational backrubs, crazy-ass genius sex.

But probably not.

3. Be Crazy

Jeff said that one ought not to try for much more than a transparent style when writing at breakneck speed. I, rather predictably, disagree. If anything, I’d suspect this doesn’t work so well for complex plot than complex language, but that’s likely because I find language easier than plot. Pick what you’re best at, and make that the focus of this marathon. I rather think that no technique is better suited to beatnik-pomo-style crazy writing than this–let go of your internal editor, of the ways writing is “supposed” to be (hint: it’s not supposed to be done in 30 days), any ideas your English professors might have given you about literature, and just open your brain onto the computer. Direct flesh-to-motherboard communication. Remember, this is blind faith we’re talking about. You are St. Teresa, and you are here to be transfigured. This is radical, revolutionary trust that what you are creating is worth the world.

You may not actually end up with a novel at the end of the month. But you’ll have something. Kerouac said not to be afraid to be a crazy dumbsaint of the mind. Quite so.

4. Sacrifice Your Body

Come on, you weren’t using it anyway.

The fact is, this sort of thing is a horrific strain on your human suit. You stay up late, you eat whatever is easy, you have to ice down your wrists at the end of the day. You burn your brain out, no joke. Make time for recovery afterward. Get out of the house occasionally, to Toby and my Starbucks, or the front lawn, or a laundromat. Look up at the sky. Accept the fact that you will fall down on your household chores–which is why this sort of thing is usually a childless writer’s gig–and that several times, you will literally want to die rather than write another word. Keep going. Talk to marathon runners. Rejoice, and conquer. Die, if you have to. Then get up and get back to work.

5. Don’t Fail

You don’t have time to fail. You don’t have time for writer’s block. You don’t have time to wibble.

And if you don’t fail this time, you’ll never learn that you can fail, and every time you don’t fail, your faith in your ability to not fail will grow until one day you’ll wake up and you won’t be a failure at all. It’s kind of awesome, if you can manage it. But the key is not failing, and the key to not failing is stupid dumbfuck faith that you won’t fail. Life is circular like that.

 The reason I don’t credit Nanowrimo is not because I don’t think quality can be produced in 30 days. That would be a silly opinion, considering. It’s because they don’t think quality can be produced in 30 days. Their whole site is about producing crap and having it be okay to produce crap. It is okay. But I don’t have time to produce crap. Life is too short to produce crap. And the only way I know how to do this is to be absolutely convinced that what I’m writing is gobstoppingly amazing.

And I can only maintain that sort of conviction for short bursts. Say, 30 days.

______

*This is where being a classicist REALLY pays off. Ain’t no English class (see what I did thar?) can lick you–you know most of those tunes before you set foot in the room, and your base of knowledge is broad enough that you can sound damn smart in a number of varied fields. I in no way mean to imply that in graduate school I did the research and the composition the day the paper was due. That would be crazy.

**I’ve done the 3 Day Novel competition–they expect you to produce something like 30k words, and that’s a novella at best.

***DO NOT DRINK ALCOHOL. You are not that kind of genius.


I really needed this right now (and I needed to re-visit Kerouac's list; I used to have a copy nearby years ago). I've been slogging through a non-fiction project for the past few weeks and can't. seem. to. finish. I think I just need to barf it all up; making sense of the mess can come later.

Brilliant. Right. Going to try it with a film.

Thankyou.

私、明日から、新しいプロジェクト、つまりブランド陶器の買取マーケットリサーチのお仕事をすることになった。
アルバイトみたいな報酬だけど。。。。
月曜日の朝、ミーティングをして、あとは出社の義務はないみたい。
で、そういうビジネスをスタートさせるらしい。

genius communal crazy crafty failproof! thanks, i missed the first time.

ever read(or consumed somehow other than reading(the work's nature)) The Novel of the Future by Nin?

http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Ana%C3%AFs_Nin#The_Novel_of_the_Future_.281969.29

Totally heart this post!

Thank you.

I think I will tape this on my wall.

Oh look, my new favorite post.

This, I think, was probably the "why" of my ridiculous geniushood in philosophy, and why it fell apart as soon as it stopped being about writing amazing papers on insane deadlines.

Still, I have yet to use it well for fiction.

YET.

Thank you!

Lovely essay, thank you.

As a veteran of several years of Nano (mainly because my internal deadline feature is broken, since I've always thought their "write crap" line was at best unhelpful) I'd also add that if your brain works in plot, putting it all together in a short space of time helps you keep track of all the threads that might otherwise have a chance to fall out of your head before you need to use them. You're more likely to remember just how that scene went if you wrote it last week, rather than last month, and it cuts down on the going back to re-read things time.

this was exactly what i needed to hear today.

thank you :)

Does this system work for writing a dissertation in 30 days?

...By God, I am going to find out.

I SO want to read your dissertation.

How terrifying! But, when I finally have a dissertation worth showing to people, it might actually be of interest to you.

The key, really, is to never learn you can fail.

I know that disagreeing with you is akin to calling lightning down on my head, but I'm going to do so anyway. Giving this advice to beginning writers strikes me as a tad dangerous. Not dangerous to you, but to those novelists who are not you and not Kerouac.

And really, most of us aren't. Most of us have day jobs, responsibilities and need to pause for thought while writing a novel. A great number of us try really hard to incorporate lessons learned in the last novel into the next project. I, personally, strive to improve with each book I write.

Newer writers who take this to heart and can't produce a coherent novel in 30 days? They will feel like failures for sure. I also don't know a single pro-writer with a 30 day deadline. My friends average six months to a year before a draft is due at the publisher.

Everyone fails at some aspect of their writing, at sometime. In my not so humble opinion, the real key is to not let failure stop you and to learn from those failures. Fall down seven times, get up eight, as a mutual friend of ours is fond of saying.

I am not a genius, of any kind, and I'm not you or Kerouac. Nor, honestly, do I want to be. What I am is a damn good writer and my agent has a great deal of faith in me.

I fail sometimes, because I'm human and fallible. And that's okay.

This is what I need to think to get a novel done that fast. And a 30 day deadline is what I often have, because I procrastinate, and that sucks but I do it to myself. This time I have it because the publisher rejected my proposed deadline and I had to take time off between this novel and the last one or this one would never have gotten written at all. It was a calculated risk, knowing and learning as I did last time that one thing I can't do is write two novels back to back.

I can fail in all sorts of ways. But I've never learned to fail at finishing a project, and it's been pretty good for me in the long run. However, I also acknowledge in the post that I have neither kids nor a day job and that this is really bad advice.

Also the be a genius thing is about believing you are, so your internal editor will chill for five seconds. When Kerouac says it that's what he means, to, I think. He didn't say I Am A Genius All The Time. He said You Are.

Heh. I love how this is simultaneously really awesome advice and really terrible advice, but refreshingly insightful either way.

Thank you for posting this here, I hadn't read it in the other location, and I needed to read it.

Not just right now either.

Possibly I need to read it once a month until I believe that it could, in some universe, apply to me and my creative efforts.

Possibly once a week, now that I think on it, since I'm not starting till I'm mid-30's and there's a lot of "I can't" and "that's for talented people" and "I should have started training myself that way ages ago if I wanted to Be Creative" built up that needs chipping away. ;P

I have no idea what that posted as anonymous....that's never happened to me before. :P The previous comment was me...and I am not a crazy anonymous stalker...

...I am a crazy blatantly identified stalker. ;D

Were you the one who sent me the scarf? I couldn't read the name on it but I thought it said Gail...

I'm sad to say that wasn't me. Perhaps another Gail....

And if even once I had failed to turn in a paper, failed to churn out twenty pages ...

It's nice to know we have something in common. ; )

I'm listening to this post very intently.

I have one word for you-- nanowriwe. You managed well under 30 days, my friend-- it was something more like 2 weeks or so, for you and the Labyrinth on the first pass, if I am recalling correctly.

10 days, yeah, but that makes people scrunch their nose when I blab about it.

Kudos for Zero Punctuation icon.

You write with a speed that is always intimidating to me, I want to be Speed Riter Cat when I grow up!

Also, you may want to adopt our house's slogan: No room for failure!

I needed this now as well.

Now I need to see if I can apply this to *finishing* a novel. I have two weeks until Fall semester. I'm @ 75K words and floundering. I loved this novel, I really did. But now I hate it and want to kill it with fire. It's like all of my characters have turned into horribly boring melting wax figures and wandered off into "Passions." (Anyone remember that soap opera? It was gloriously ridiculous.)

So yeah. I need to find my genius. And crank out 20K words in two weeks.

Make that 2 weeks until Spring semester. Ugh.

This is brilliant and glaringly true. Adding it to Memories.

"…And if even once I had failed to turn in a paper, failed to churn out twenty pages on gender anxiety in Gawain and the Green Knight, if I had even once failed to get an A, I think I would have rethought my methods and come to some sort of conclusion about work ethics."

Yeah, that happened or failed to happen or whatever to me to. The day I gave up on not procrastinating the writing was the day I wrote a paper the night before it was due and got told it was better than my prof's masters thesis on the same topic.

I sometimes wish I'd learned that I can fail so I would procrastinate less now, but I still get A's in grad school so... it all evens out?

i've always thought these things should be titled, "how to write a first draft in XXX days."

LOL to the last line.

Great post! For a long time I told myself I could go "at my own pace," but I realize now that that was just my excuse not to push myself. To be faster or better. (I'm not saying everyone who says something like that is lying to themselves, just that I was.) So 2010 is about really becoming a writer, not just in my desires, but in my actions. I'll definitely be keeping your advice in mind.

The How to Write a Novel in a Month and the How to Write a Novel in Two Months post (mine) are nicely complementary for a couple of reasons. One, Cat's is largely inspirational and mine has specific details. Two, my novel was 85k and hers was, I think, 55k. Should be stuff for everyone to pick through and find things that work for them.

Cheers,

JeffV

The first novel I did this was was 55k. I have since done longer books with this method, if you can call it a method.

Sad Cat in Snow: Megatokyo reference?

nekoniku

2010-01-08 05:11 am (UTC)

Or am I just confused as usual?

You have no idea how much of a huge inspiration this, and you, is. Tada!

I stumbled upon your blog while googling "how to write a novel in 30 days". I've never written a novel nor aspired to ... it's not on any bucket list I might never draw up and I have no interest in it what-so-ever. Yet here I am thinking I can pit myself against 1667 words per day, EVERY day for the month of November. Did I mention I tend to deign arrogance? It's just something different & fun to try & would ya look at this cute blog I found!!! Love your design & chatter <3