How to write a novel in 6 months (but probably three)
Updated: Apr 7, 2021
I do not profess to be an "expert" writer. I am not, in truth, even sure what such a thing looks like. Do we get a badge at some point? Does the Writing Fairy arrive with a certificate? No? Oh well.
I do have a BA in creative writing and have been teaching English for seven years. I can tell you neither of these things prepared me for self-publishing a book last summer, and that I've learnt a great deal since then. No. I cannot claim to be an expert. What I can claim to be is fast, efficient, and determined.
My first book took me six years to write. The moral of this story is that NOTHING SHOULD TAKE THAT LONG. Why did it take that long, you ask? I didn't plan properly. I didn't write out of habit. Weeks, months would go by when I wrote nothing, waiting for inspiration to strike, followed by weekends where I splurged out 10k in a single sitting. I let life get in the way. I had a child. It was only after having my free time obliterated by my sproglet that I realised quite how many hours I had to work with.
My 2nd novel took six months, which I did after returning to work full time and becoming a single parent. My 3rd novel took me three. And I've just written 60k in under a month.
Don't wait to have a baby before learning how to manage your time. Or, if you already have kids, maybe this will show you that you can still write and work, without going insane. Here is my almost foolproof guide as to how.
Step one: plan
Plan. This should go without saying. Almost all writers are going to recommend this step. I'm going to be controversial here and say it doesn't matter how you plan – just make sure you have one. For this to work, you need to know "what happens next".
I tend to have a very specific setup/first third and a clear end in my plan. The middle tends to be more a list of "this must happen AT SOME POINT." I'm going to suggest you don't get stressed out about having a perfect plan; the chances are things will change as you write, and you don't want to waste emotional energy or time creating something that will develop naturally. Just know where your characters are going. That way, when you get to the end of a scene, you know what's coming next.
Step two: set goals
This may be the teacher in me, but set yourself a SMART target. SMART stands for specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-orientated. "I'm going to write a book" is a goal, not a target. It doesn't tell you how to get there. SMART targets are key for keeping you on track and helping you reach your goals.
My standard daily target is "write 500 words between 7-8pm". If your novel is going to be about 100k (I would advise not going over this, but that's a discussion for another post) that works out at about 555 words a day if you're aiming for the 6 month mark. 500 words isn't much. It's about a page. It can be done in 30 mins, rather than an hour. But it does need to be habitual. To begin with, I always rewarded myself for reaching that target. A piece of chocolate, a whole damn bar, some gaming time. Whatever I liked, as long as I reached that goal. I don't need the reward any more, because the habit is just ingrained. Now I just have chocolate BECAUSE I DESERVE IT.
There's a lot of people that will be quick to point out that some days, you're not going to have the energy. Life will get in the way. I'm a big believer in pushing through regardless, but I'd also be a hypocrite if I said I managed to keep up with this target every single day. To keep on track, have maybe 3 "free days" a month, or cut yourself some slack if you hit double your word count earlier in the week.
Step three: push forward
The thing about 500 words a day is that it's very easy to reach. Any time I felt like giving up, I told myself "just 50 more words" and that was enough to get over the temporary slump and push forward. Very, very rarely do I ever just do 500. 1k is usually my standard (which, of course, cuts your timing down to just 3 months!). Try and help out your future self; while it is easy to finish your session at the end of a scene or chapter, see if you can eke out just the next sentence or paragraph. Future you will thank you!
Step 4: don't worry
If you're stuck on a sentence, don't be. Can't work out a better word for "leap"? Don't. Write leap. Change it later. Know that you need a bit more action but can't work out how to say it? Write "she punched him and ran to the next room." "They drove for a bit longer in silence." You can embellish these later, but you can't embellish what you don't have. If you're searching for perfection, you won't find it in a first draft, and you won't have a second draft if you don't have a first.
Stuck on a scene? Bullet point what you want to happen in it. Skip to the dialogue. Write it like it's a play and turn it into prose later. Really, really stuck? Skip to the next part you DO know. I generally believe that writing sequentially (maybe with the end first) makes for an easier drafting process, as relationships develop more organically this way, but sometimes you just KNOW how a certain scene is going to play out later.
Step 5: Final thoughts
If you can write 10 words, you can write 20. 500. 1000. 20000. A whole novel. Make writing a habit, but one you feel great doing. For me at the moment, it is both an escape from the stressful realities of daily life, but also the kind of chore you feel great doing. I feel like I've accomplished something hitting my daily word count and it really has become its own reward.
You. Can. Do. It. Just keep moving forward. Resist the urge to look back and keep going until it's done. Be strict but kind on yourself and don't give up. You can and will get there.