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National Novel Writing Month began by a nonprofit organization (NaNoWriMo) in 1999 with an ambitious challenge: write a 50,000 word novel in the month of November. For many people, the idea of writing a novel is enormous. Where to begin? Well, it’s like eating an elephant. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. How do you write a novel? One word at a time.

When writing a novel with a specific word count and a tight deadline, success is more likely if certain strategies are kept in mind from the start. Different writers use different progress goals to get the job done. Some will write for a certain time. Perhaps this is penciled into a schedule like an appointment. Perhaps it’s a total number of minutes or hours written over the course of the day. This strategy is great if you’re shooting for developing a habit or routine. This is the “showing up” approach, every day like clockwork, and whatever happens, happens. I think this strategy can work, but with a deadline and final word count goal, this may not be the most effective way to reach this specific goal.

What I would recommend for anyone who is seriously striving for a 50,000 word first draft by the end of the month is breaking down the word count and using that as daily goals towards a final product. However, most novels that are written without any serious planning could turn into a stream of conscious dribble with undeveloped characters, plot holes, and other literary and technical issues. To write a good 50,000 word novel in a month, planning should be done in advanced. To state the obvious, planning takes time. So how does that fit in with reaching this ambitious goal?

I would start first with figuring out your main characters. Who are they? What do they want? What’s keeping them from getting it? That’s conflict, (a.k.a. the problem) and conflict drives plot. Plot is simply what happens in a story. Figuring this part out first can save avoidable rewrites and scrapped drafts. At this stage, I wouldn’t have any words written. These would be ideas mulling over in my mind. Personally, my favorite time and place to mull over ideas is driving in the car, but it could also be while exercising, cooking, cleaning, or rocking my children when they’re not ready for bed.

A strategy I particularly like and believe is conducive to the 50,000 word novel in a month challenge is called the snowflake technique. It’s a simple idea built on a metaphor of a snowflake fractal. Like starting with an equilateral triangle and building from there by adding sides and angles, the snowflake method starts with a simple premise and you build more complexity.

Once you’ve figured out the basics in your mind, start with a single sentence that encapsulates the entire premise of your novel. This will be useful for book proposals as the hook. It should also be generalized so it shouldn’t include names or other specific details. This step may not show in your final product, but it’s the anchor. All subsequent decisions build from this sentence. For example sentences, scroll through shows and movies on Netflix or other streaming services and read the blurbs about the programs.

The next step is to expand the single sentence into a more detailed paragraph. When I say paragraph, imagine the paragraph on a book’s dust jacket. The difference is this paragraph should summarize the entire novel, and dusk jacket paragraphs are usually only about the first part of the book to avoid spoilers. There should be specific details like the characters’ names, conflict, major themes, but most importantly, it should convey why someone should want to read it. To consider it in another way, ask yourself this question when you’re done: do you want to write this book? This paragraph should make you feel excited! If it doesn’t, then is this the book you actually want to write? Do you need to make tweaks or should you go back to the drawing board? Considering this paragraph is like coming up to an exit ramp on the highway. Do you get off and redirect or do you keep on driving? I will say that if you’re not excited about the potential story you can write building from this paragraph, it is unlikely you will find readers who will be.

Your third step is to expand this paragraph into a single page. This is called a one-pager and nearly every literary agent I’ve read about asks for a single one-pager that summarizes the whole novel. This one pager should include everything for the story, as in the beginning, middle, and end, major themes, setting, and detailed descriptions of the characters, especially as it relates to how they change over the course of the novel. Stories, even plot-driven stories, are still about people and an important story of any genre will include growth and change for major characters.

Next, create a character synopsis for the major characters. Some stories focus on a protagonist/antagonist dynamic. Other stories include a full cast of point of view characters (like George R. R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice series). Some novels focus on one major character and everyone else in the story is a minor supporting role. Whoever is important, as in integral to the story, write a one to two page synopsis summarizing the story from that character’s perspective. The point is to get into their imaginary heads. If you don’t, as in you don’t understand your character, can you write convincingly about why they’re motivated to do whatever they do in the story?

After steps 1 to 4, you could have spent anywhere from a day to a week without having written a word for your novel. That’s okay. Figure out how many days you have left for the month. Divide 50,000 words for the number of days. That’s your daily word count. The goal, of course, is to write more than that number to account for days when life happens, you get stuck or fall short, or you need to devote more time revising or developing your characters or plot, this will help with your window.

For example purposes, let’s say you spent about a week developing a solid plan using the snowflake technique or any other strategy you prefer. Since November has 30 days, this would leave 23 days left for drafting. Your daily word count goal would be 2,174 words. Ambitious, yes. Using less time for planning days would, of course, reduce daily word counts, but I would argue that the time devoted to planning in the beginning will make writing those pages infinitely easier than writing off the cuff.

Anyways, to all of the ambitious writers taking on this challenge, I applaud your gumption, tilt my mug of coffee, and say, “Get to it.” Happy Writing.


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