10 Tips for Writing a Novel Fast(er)
Writing a novel is a long game, no doubt about it. But I’ve helped many writers get to THE END, and I know there are ways to shorten the curve. I’ve listed my favorite get-your-novel-written approaches below. From first concept to first draft, these tips will help writers get their novels onto the page.
1) Think “draft,” not “polished manuscript.” We read other authors’ published novels and see that they proceed from cleanly edited start to well-honed end. So it’s natural to imagine our book-writing process should follow suit. We decide to create a polished novel—complete with sharp prose, fully developed characters, and beautiful images—as we go.
But it’s actually much more effective—and ultimately less time-consuming—to write our novels as a series of two or three drafts. On the first pass of your story, I suggest you start rough and continue that way to the end. From this, you’ll learn a lot about what needs to be added or deleted in your second draft. Next, revise to fulfill what’s missing from your vision of the book. And save the polishing for your final version.
2) Save editing for later—after your draft is done. This tip will help you accomplish the initial rough-and-ready first draft process, mentioned above. Rather than stopping to tweak grammar or manage a particular sentence or wrangle a bit of dialogue, keep the words flowing! It’s important to get your story DOWN, and broad strokes will help you do that. You don’t want to risk losing your story-telling traction for an errant period or awkward bit of description. You can always come back and fine-tune later.
3) Make margin notes while you’re writing your novel. Rather than editing as you go, add margin notes to your document. When you revise, these will act as a sort of breadcrumb trail to remind you what you thought might improve a scene, character, or plot thread. And it’s far quicker—and less of an interruption to your creative mojo—to make a general note to consider later than it is to halt your momentum to wrangle a specific passage.
4) 1000 words a day will get you there—fast! Does 1000 words seem like a lot? Too much?! (Especially when tip #8 says limit writing time to an hour a day?!!) What if I remind you that 1000 words is actually only four lit-industry standard pages? Does that make it seem more doable?
If you’re willing to take the challenge, 1000 words a day (even with weekends off), will net you a complete draft fast! Depending on the length of your manuscript (between, say, 70K-120K words), you could be ready to revise in two to three months. Yay, for you!
5) Create a road map for your novel (aka, an outline). Know where you’re taking your characters before you pack their bags and hit the draft-writing road. Even just clarifying the major plot points you want to hit will help. However, the deeper and more detailed your outline, the more quickly and effectively you’ll be able to complete your initial draft.
Some writers fear that mapping out any sort of outline will make their story feel contrived. My work with novelists has shown otherwise. Honestly, the outlining process can be just as creative and deep as any other aspect of writing your novel.
5a) “I’m a pantser,” you say? Okay! Go ahead and pants your way through your first draft. Before you revise, though, analyze the main points of your characters’ journey. If your story feels either too flat and uneventful or too busy and chaotic, outline what you have. That outline should help you see how to reorganize your next draft for better flow, or more suspense, or stronger character arcs.
My book, PLOTTING YOUR NOVEL WITH THE PLOT CLOCK, is a quick read and explains a basic approach to outlining your novel.
6) Hop around! As you write your draft(s), you don’t have to proceed from start to finish. Instead, take the advice “Pick Only Ripe Apples,” from the book LIFE, PAINT, and PASSION, by Michele Cassou and Stewart Cubley:
To keep your process flowing, to feel the enjoyment of creation, you first need to go where it is easy. Easy means ripe. Go where you are attracted, be it toward a detail or large shape. While you work on the part that is easy, other parts will mature in you, and they will be ready and waiting. You move step by step, from the easiest to the easiest. It is never tedious or tiring because there is no need to force anything. Depth resides more in surrendering to spontaneity than in hardworking struggle.
Apply this advice to writing your novel. When you sit down to your computer, consider which scene might be the most interesting to write. Follow your instincts. No need to pick up where you left off, if that’s not what’s most appealing at the moment. And if you’ve created an outline, you’ll never get lost in the dark woods of your story!
7) Limit yourself to a single point of view. Sure, there are times when one point of view (POV) won’t get the job done. But a single POV story can be quite compelling—and surprisingly complex. Many of literary mystery-writing phenom Tana French’s best-selling novels are written from a single point of view—IN THE WOODS, for example, and BROKEN HARBOUR. These are psychologically rich books which have won critical and popular acclaim.
And, notably, for the purposes of this article, a story told through a single point of view has less work to do. In contrast, it simply takes more time to both organize multiple POV characters and make sure to create an for each one. Want to fast-track your novel? Try focusing on a single POV character.
8) Keep your writing sessions to one hour. I know, I know! It can be a huge accomplishment to carve out the time to write and put your butt in the chair to get it done. And I’m suggesting you stop after just sixty measly minutes?
Yup. I am. During a painting workshop, the instructor, well-regarded artist Nicholas Wilton, suggested we limit our painting sessions to an hour. In his experience, he said, that’s when we’re most creatively effective. And after experimenting, I found this to be true. As I enter the second hour of painting or writing, I tend to get circular in my thinking and tight in my expression—neither of which is conducive to making fresh and exciting work.
While your mileage may vary, give Nick’s idea a try. At the very least, a ten-minute break every hour may revitalize you and your writing.
9) Take a walk every day. Many writers and creativity coaches swear by their daily walks. Julia Cameron, author of THE ARTIST’S WAY, makes a thirty-minute daily walk a staple for folks wanting to maximize their creativity.
Why? Walking gives us an oxygen boost. Also, if we take our walk off the treadmill and out into a park or neighborhood, we’ll see interesting sights—simply a small change of scenery can enliven our brains. Finally, oddly-but-reliably, taking a walk can help us solve a story problem. Often, I’ve set out for a stroll feeling stymied by a stuck place in my writing, only to return with the solution in hand. I have no idea how it happens. I just know that when I have a problem—literary or otherwise—walking smooths it out in almost miraculous ways.
10) Commit to writing a novel in November. Why, November? Because, NaNoWriMo! “NaNoWriMo,” short for National Novel Writing Month, is a month-long, nationwide novel-writing fest that takes place every November! Participation is free—and the buzz you’ll get from knowing you are part of a coast-to-coast cadre of novel writers can fuel your writing with more juice than anything from the menu at Starbucks. (Though, coffee. Yes.)
For more ideas, check out these two articles: “How to Write a Novel” and “Plotting Your Novel: 5 Fabulous Tips.”
Would you like to discuss your book with a top writing coach?
I’m available to be your professional writing coach. Schedule your free consultation and check out “Should I Hire a Writing Coach” in THE WRITER magazine.