A novel in a month?
You can totally do that.
But here are my caveats: My opinion is not universal. There are many paths to writing and publication. Every writer has a different process, and often, every book has its own process. You don't have to follow these steps to find success.
That being said, I've written quite a few books and novellas, and if I could go back in time and give myself advice, this is what I'd say. I'd bring cake, though, because the truth is somewhat painful. Especially step 10.
1. Publicly commit to it and make yourself accountable.
Goals should be attainable, quantifiable, and public. So let your support system, whether online or in real life, know what your goal is, how you're going to attain it, and how to keep you honest. Keep your word count on your blog or tweet your progress every day. If you're following the NaNoWriMo rules, that means you're going to write 50,000 words between November 1 and November 30, which works out to 1667 words per day, give or take a letter.
2. Give yourself permission to suck.
Everyone's first drafts suck. Let go of perfection and acknowledge that there is no one way to write, no One Perfect Story. Just try to hammer out your story, scene by scene, goal by goal. Fix it later. Imperfection is the thief of progress.
Don't think of it as a masterpiece. Thing of it as a fun story you're telling yourself. Take risks. When faced with two choices, give your character a reason to choose the most interesting one. Safe choices are boring, and if you're emotionally clenched up and terrified of doing it "wrong", you and your character will only make safe choices.
3. Write a brief synopsis or outline to give yourself a road map.
It's hard to figure out where you're going if you don't know where to start and where you want to end up. Especially if this is your first novel, it can help to give yourself a short, not-too-detailed guide. Here are the basic things you need to know: who is the protagonist, what is the world, what is the instigating factor that kicks off the plot, what happens at the climax, and what happens at the end? You can figure out the rest on the way.
If it's your first book, I recommend having a single main character with a single point of view vs. trying for a GRRM-style sweeping saga that requires a map and language guide.
4. Make sure you know your protagonist and that they are not an everyman or a Mary Sue.
If you're going to stick with someone for 50,000 pages and several revisions, they need to be compelling and real, with strengths and flaws and a realistic backstory. Why are they the way they are? What will they learn in your story that will give them a satisfying character arc? What kinds of friends, lovers, and foes will challenge and compliment them in unique ways? What is the motivation that drives them on every page? What, in short, do they want, and what will they do to get it?
5. Know where you're going to start each day.
"Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way." -E.L. Doctorow
And that means that whenever you sit down to write, you should've been thinking about where you stopped the day before and where you want to get today. One of the worst things a writer can do, in my opinion, is sit down with no earthly idea what to write. It's not going to magically pop into your brain just because you want it to. That's why I think the idea of "the Muse" is BS.
You are driving this car. You have to do the homework of knowing what the next scene is about. Maybe not all the details, but "He's going to wake up and find a dead woman on the porch," is better than, "Uh, well, he went to bed last night, and, um..."
My trick? I always stop writing at a place where I know what happens next. Then I think about it, really hard and figure out how to make that scene exciting. Next time I sit down, I know exactly where I am and where I'm going to go, one scene at a time.
6. Start writing. Sit down at your keyboard and do not stop until you've hit your goal.
1667 words is about 5.5 pages, if you're using the standard manuscript format. That means 1" margin all around, double spaced, .5 indent before each paragraph.
While you are sitting at your keyboard, do not browse the internet. Do not tell Twitter about how you're writing and then talk to other people about writing. Do not shop or check email. Just write. Do not get up until you have reached your goal. If you go over your goal, reward yourself.
I'm a big believe in rewarding yourself.
7. If you miss a day, do not berate yourself or feel like crap. Make up for it quickly.
Missing a microgoal just kills, doesn't it? It totally throws off your game and gives you permission to make the same mistake again. But in this case, the missed words will rain down on you like an avalanche if you get too far behind. 1667 words a day is doable. Missing four days and suddenly having a *does math* 6668-word deficit is pretty scary.
So in order to not set yourself up for defeat, put in the work each day. They may not be the best 1667 words you've ever written, and that's okay. Even pro writers have days when we feel like our writing is crap, but we have faith that we'll be able to fix it in the future.
Butt in chair. Fingers on keyboard. Write like a mofo.
8. Do not reread what you've already written. Do not look back. Move bravely forward.
Here is how momentum dies: You stop moving forward.
Revising is a thing that happens later, when you've got a completed book and you know how it all ends. That's when you take another look at your first chapter or that scene you futzed up. If you keep messing around in what you've already done, you're wasting time that could be used to up your game and get more words on the page.
Yes, some famous authors revise as they go. You are not (yet) a famous author. You are not that good. *I* am not that good. We mere mortals will benefit more from finishing one crappy book that we can fix later than from massaging a scene for days, seeking some ultimate perfection we'll never reach.
So keep typing. Don't look back. Pretend you're being chased by werewolves.
9. Final wordcount. Did you hit it?
YES, but I'm not done = GREAT! YOU WON! Keep going. Finish the book!
NO = THAT'S OK. Keep going. Finish the book!
The thing is, most YA and Adult books are around 70k to 100k words long, depending on the genre and how many words you need to tell the story. 50k isn't generally a complete book, but it's a great starting point. You will most likely know where you need to add scenes or bulk up words once you've got a complete story and are in revisions.
The point of NaNoWriMo is to write a novel in a month. This novel is not expected to be complete or perfect. That's what revisions are for. Which brings me to...
10. Remember: December is NANOFIXMO.
And I'm not just saying that because I'm teaching a NANOFIXMO class for LitReactor.
The sad truth is that THE WORST THING YOU CAN DO is finish a NaNoWriMo book and immediately start querying agents. They will not be impressed with a December 1 query letter that starts with, "I have just completed my first novel for NaNoWriMo and am querying you so that we can both make a million dollars." They will shudder and send a form rejection because rewriting is the biggest part of writing. And rewriting is not doing a quick read-through for typos and sitting around smugly, waiting for the full requests to roll in.
Rewriting is looking at theme, story arc, plot, tension, stakes, subplots, realistic characters, tone, voice, representation, grammar, and punctuation and making sure that your book is as tight as a narwhal's butt. Rewriting is putting your book away for a few weeks so you can look at it with new, more unbiased eyes. Rewriting is hunting for adverbs and purple prose and infodumps and darlings and DESTROYING THEM. Rewriting is showing agents, when you do query, that you are capable of the hardest, most humbling, most time-consuming part of the writer's life. Rewriting is a challenge, but it's necessary, and if you've taken the time to win NaNo, you should take the time to finish the job right.
I hope that helps, and if you have any questions, please ask in the comments or on Twitter, @DelilahSDawson.
Above all, remember this: I believe in you! YOU CAN DO EET!
And that's from the girl who wrote her first book at 32 while hallucinating from lack of sleep with a new baby. :)
Need more tips? Scroll through this blog for hints on developing ideas, editing, writing interesting characters, and more. Or hit that Resources for Writers tab at the top for all the links I used to get an agent and a traditional publishing deal within 2 years of writing my first book. I was found in the slush, and so can you!