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Writing a Novel in Three Months: 5 Simple Steps to a First Draft

Categories: Breaking In (Writer's Digest), Chuck Sambuchino's Guide to Literary Agents Blog, Guest Columns, What's New.

1) Routine. Back when my dad was trying to get me to be a more productive member of society (when I was 10 years old), he stressed the importance of doing a new action for 21 successive days. I’m sure he got this idea from some well-meaning book about how to become successful and happy and live to be 125. But there’s truth to it. Repetition breeds habit, and habit breeds routine.

  • Make daily writing time your routine.
  • Period.
  • It’s as easy as that.
  • And if 21 days is good, why not push it to 90?

Make a deal with yourself and your long-dead writing heroes: I’ll write 90 days in a row, no matter what, even with seven presentations at work and kids crying and a resentful spouse alone in bed. Give yourself the three-month gift of an hour or two of daily writing. Be alone. Sit down and lock the door. Disable your internet connection. Write one word after another. Every day. For 90 days straight.

GIVEAWAY: Peter is excited to give away a free copy of his novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: WagnerLisa34 won.)

 

 

 stenson-fiend-novel     peter-stenson-author-writer

Column by Peter Stenson, author of the novel FIEND (July 2013, Crown).
He has stories and essays published or forthcoming in The Sun, The
Greensboro Review, Confrontation, Harpur Palate, Post Road, Fugue,
Passages North, The Pinch, Blue Mesa Review, and Fourteen Hills,
among others. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He received
his MFA in fiction at Colorado State University. Peter is married to a
beautiful woman and is the proud parent to a fat dog and even fatter cat.

 

2) Expectations for a Rough Draft. Sure, I’d like to be that one-in-a-million jerk who sits down and spews magic from his fingertips in the form of perfect drafts. But I’m not. And chances are, neither are you. But that’s okay. That’s reality. And realizing this is all sorts of liberating. A rough draft is meant to be exactly that, rough. It is where you figure out what the heck you are even writing about, what your characters yearn for, what voice, tense, POV, and narrative distance best captures the story you’re telling. Allow yourself to be unsure. Allow yourself to make mistakes. Allow yourself to be human, to be afraid with the uncertainty of embarking upon the heroic (in my opinion) artistic endeavor of creating a fictional world.

(How many agents should you contact at one time?)

3) Word count. Most adult fiction novels are just south of 70,000 words (different genres have different word count conventions, but let’s just shoot for 70k as a goal). If you’re working on a 90-day budget of time, you’re going to have to hit roughly 780 words a day. At first glance, that’s a lot of words. But this very sentence puts this article at 390 words, which is exactly half way to our daily goal. My point is that words add up quickly. A setting paragraph may consist of a hundred words. A verbal exchange between two characters may be two hundred. Your character’s flashback to a second grade ice cream social at church where Mrs. Miller’s lone chin hair kept dabbing in her vanilla cone may take up a thousand. The words add up if you put in the time and remember that a first draft is a FIRST draft.

4) Keeping a Notebook. The idea of keeping a pocket-sized notebook is by no means groundbreaking advice, but I will mention it here to stress its importance. There’s a reason the majority of writers carry one around (and why you should too): it helps. You never know when a certain image will strike you as somehow significant. When a certain line of eavesdropped dialogue between two teenagers on the bus about how they hate their big toes will unlock your character. When a car driving by with a plastic crow glued to its hood will suddenly clear up a muddled plot point. Write these things down. It doesn’t matter if they make sense or not. So much of writing fiction is about focusing on the correct authenticating detail, and the world is chalk-full of such details. Pay attention. Jot them down. If nothing else, this practice will pay the twofold dividends of sharpening your powers of perception, while also keeping your writing project at the forefront of your mind.

(What does that one word mean? Read definitions of unique & unusual literary words.)

5) Give Yourself Over to the Story. This is where my advice takes a somewhat heady turn. But stay with me, because I believe this idea is at the very epicenter of being able to complete a draft in 90 days.

  • Give yourself over to the story.
  • Great, Peter, but what the heck are you talking about and how would I do this even if it made any sense?
  • First, know that by doing the first four steps in this article, you’re already giving yourself over to the story. It’s the natural result of dedication and routine and realistic expectations and constant perception. Through these actions, you have thrust your fictional world to the front of your mind. Now I’m urging you to take it one step further.
  • Allow it to take over your mind.
  • Allow yourself to space out at work. Allow yourself to toss and turn in the middle of the night. Allow yourself to become selfish with your mental obsessions. Forty-minute showers as you walk through imaginary towns in the year 2050? Yes. Forgetting to respond when somebody asks you a question because you’re unsure if your lead character’s mother actually dies when she falls off her horse? Bingo. Allow yourself to think like your characters. To talk like them. To imagine them riding shotgun in your Civic while they pick the dirt from underneath their nails. Just don’t fight the natural result of intense immersion into your writing world.

Writing a novel in 90 days is one of the more difficult tasks you’ll ever set out to accomplish. It demands time, patience, energy, dedication, and a lot of coffee. But most of all, it requires a complete surrender to your process, to your art, and to your story. Because if these characters don’t haunt you, they sure as heck won’t haunt us.

GIVEAWAY: Peter is excited to give away a free copy of his novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: WagnerLisa34 won.)

 

Agent Donald Maass, who is also an author
himself, is one of the top instructors nationwide
on crafting quality fiction. His recent guide,
The Fire in Fiction, shows how to compose
a novel that will get agents/editors to keep reading.

 

Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:

 

Want to build your visibility and sell more books?
Create Your Writer Platform shows you how to
promote yourself and your books through social
media, public speaking, article writing, branding,
and more.
Order the book from WD at a discount.

 

 

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52 Responses to Writing a Novel in Three Months: 5 Simple Steps to a First Draft

  1. mallisonwhat says:

    I followed this advice almost to the letter, and I’m almost finished my first draft, which is huge for me. Working full time I did not write every night, but I was able to write every other night. That is the most consistent I’ve ever been on a writing project. Instead of 90 days I’m about to finish within a 4 month period. I think making it a routine is vital as the article states. Also step 2 to accept it being rough was important for me. I wrote it out by hand, and each night simply continued. Typing it out might be a nightmare, but if I tried to revise each chapter, I never would have gotten this far. Lastly step 5 helped too, to allow myself to obsess over my own story line. I’d like to Peter Stenson for motivating me to finish a draft. I should finish it in about two weeks, and it’s not a question if I will finish because I know I’ll finish it. Soon, I’ll have to search writers digest for suggestions on how to revise! Cheers.

  2. drcloudy says:

    So glad spending forty minutes in the shower day-dreaming isn’t a bad thing! You’re the first writer I’ve heard that from. I am feeling much better about myself now.

    I have been writing pretty consistently on an almost daily basis. Of course, it helps that I’m writing a story that’s easy to write (it’s what happens when you take your favorite characters from all your other stories and make them mesh together in one giant drama fest). I have no idea if it’s going to work, but I’m enjoying myself. Hopefully I will be able to apply the other 4 steps as well! The notebook is the last one that will get done, probably. I just can’t convince myself of its importance because I always write down stupid things that make no sense later.

  3. aobrien says:

    I recently committed myself to 715 words a day. I’m not too far off!

  4. TheLadyWrites says:

    This was a very helpful article, but what I find more inspirational are the follow-up comments. It makes me feel like I’m not alone in this!

    Thanks to everyone for his/her honesty and candor.

  5. Heart2Heart says:

    I need a little magic dust sprinkled over me to come up with a brilliant idea for a book and keep writing each day…….always have been a procrastinator and I get snarky when I don’t get to writing. Somehow I feel ashamed of myself that I don’t have the discipline! Thanks for the motivation!

  6. jeqal says:

    I’m printing these out, and hopefully will begin the next great american novel after unclogging my kitchen drain! thanks for the push.

    • lsteadly says:

      Nothing could be more true than setting up a routine to make sure you write consistently. I had been in the habit of doing so but then life took over and my writing kept getting pushed farther and farther down my to-do list until I just gave up putting it on there at all. Thanks for reminding me about the importance of staying on track.

  7. loriowen12@gmail.com says:

    Thank you very much for this article. I started doing a 14 week course in January that required 3 pages of writing every day. I have continued doing that most days. It really bothers me when I don’t. I know the discipline in there. Now if I could just get in the habit off writing a book daily instead of a general, that would be great. I see that writing a draft in 90 days is possible. That would mean a rough draft by October 19, right? I am looking forward to it.

    I would love a copy of your book.

  8. DRZ says:

    If I had a dime for every time I hear how important a daily writing routine is…
    If only I could discipline myself to do that! I think the most successful strategy would be to write every day at least 20 minutes, no excuses. After that much time, I’m on a roll anyway and write for much longer.

    Thanks for the reminder and the advice.

  9. DocHoliday says:

    I’m just plain constipated, in a creative sense. And no laxatives either. But, this article has given me something to think about and I’ve actually gotten about a page written now. Now if only I could lubricate the gears of my mind somehow…

  10. Morgynstar says:

    Give yourself over to the book. This describes the process perfectly. “Real” life has to step it up to get my attention, LOL!

  11. lockking88 says:

    Do you know how you would convert this for other medias? Like a play? Like a comic book?

  12. 777JJG says:

    Thank you for the simple yet weighty advice. I will use this challenge to dust off my already year and a half old novel and begin making it a priority once again. Life is busy man, a wife, three kids, working for the man, etc. This novel is not going to write itself and it’s time I unlock the passion that’s been on low flame, real low. I’ve been telling myself recently to get a move on, pick it back up, you can’t let this die, this is your passion, this is your art, this is what will make your spirit feel alive again, because it’s who I am. Walking the path I was created for. When we deny our talents, we live as if we’re dead. Real life walking dead man. You and I know, that’s no way to live.

  13. alidab says:

    Terrific article. I am sufficiently inspired to resume work on a abandoned draft. Best of all,
    I am relieved to learn that giving oneself over to the story is actually a good thing. There I was convinced I was nuts. Thanks!

  14. repus says:

    Thank you very much for this priceless advice. I have never set an actual timeline for a single story before, as I tend to write short stories while trying to figure out how to get them to all tie in together. I go for weeks at a time without writing, so I know this will be as challenging as beneficial to every aspect of my craft. I have my mini notebook as well as multiple pens, not to mention my camera to take it a step further. Tonight is the first night of my 90 day novel, so thank you again very much for your wonderful insights!

  15. stephanierp02 says:

    This article has really inspired me to dedicate myself more to my writing, I have been stuck in a scene for over two months and I misplaced my notes in a move from one state to another and it has really put me behind to remember what I had written so far. This has really been a very big help to me! Thank You!!!
    Starting from scratch!!!

  16. Jennifer says:

    Writing has always been a passion of mine but I never actually thought I’d do anything with it except write for my personal enjoyment. Now that I’m in the second phase of life (kids grown and moving on) I’ve decided to pursue my passion and write for someone else’s enjoyment too. I’ve been working on the courage to actually say this out loud for over a year now and this article put it over the top for me. I proudly declared to my husband tonight “I’m going to write a book…or at least a short story…something to share with everyone!” He looked at me with the biggest smile and that was the last bit of encouragement I needed. I’ve printed off your article and attached it to the front of my journal, which I now plan to use more seriously and daily. Thank you for having such perfect timing.

  17. jen.carter says:

    Great article. And it couldn’t have come at a better time, for me. I have been allowing life to distract me for too long now, and with each passing day, it seems harder to dive back in. But, I have been focusing more on my writing as of late, and it’s hard for me not to feel somewhat derelict in my duties as a wife and mother when I slip into my own little world. And your article was a bit like being given permission to be a little bit selfish when it comes to my craft, and that is exactly what I need to be.

  18. Barbara Rae Robinson says:

    What I’d really like to do is learn to revise faster. I can write the 90 day novel, or even in less time. But it takes forever to revise.

  19. Nicole says:

    Great article, I’m going to give these a try!

  20. ldevaz says:

    I wish I could enter the competition, but I guess living in the Southern Hemisphere needs to have some constraints!

    This articles brilliance has helped to cease writing an ‘imaginary’ novel in my mind, to feeling like I can actually take practical steps to extract it from my brain and into long form. Next step, buying your book.

  21. shawnlj says:

    I’d love to have the time to just give myself over to my story. One day soon. Thanks for the inspiring article. My dd, who is 16, has been writing her first novel for 7 months now. She has made it a routine to write every night and it almost kills her if she doesn’t get any writing in for the day. I usually fall asleep before I get very far, but I’m going to work at it harder.

  22. Marie Rogers says:

    I wish I could remember what writer this story was about and I hope I got it straight. Roughly, the writer was lost in thought. His child tried to talk to him but the father failed to respond, which upset the child. The mother came to the rescue. She said the father was not ignoring the child, that he was “writing”. Thanks for giving us permission to give ourselves over to the story without guilt.

  23. Bhaswati says:

    This article is just what the doctor ordered for me. I have recently started working full time and find my writing time really limited. Thanks for all the great and practical tips!

  24. nmunchers says:

    hah, not sure if I’d be able to part with the internet … though once I start writing, the internet doesn’t matter and neither does my phone! but I do need to get down to at least try writing everyday … I know it’s do-able. I lie in bed most days thinking what my characters would be doing at the current moment and such, which usually means I’m up way longer than I should be hehe. and I need to get used to keeping a notebook. most times, if I don’t have a pen or paper on hand, I’ll use my phone to write quick notes. thanks for the tips, they’re great for anyone looking for a little motivation and especially beginners like me! :)

  25. athropos says:

    I realize now that I have been short sighting myself without the regimental schedule that I as a procrastinator realy need.

  26. wagnerlisa34@gmail.com says:

    Thanks for the inspirational advice. I have written over 800 words today and will aim for that tomorrow as well. Thanks!

  27. smithdeb says:

    This is great! I love to write but after the first three or four pages I get a block then I try to go back and rewrite at that point. It feels wrong to continue knowing that what I have already done needs correcting. This article gives me license and permission to keep going and not look back. Does that mean I am a perfectionist? Probably. That needs to change, this will help me do that. Thanks again. Now I can work on the finishing the many unfinished stories I’ve written that are rolling around in my head looking for closure.

  28. Very inspiring editorial on writing a first draft Today I ordered your book Fiend from Amazon. Wow! What an original premise. Looking forward to keep writing my first draft and reading your book.

  29. dbrasket says:

    Not sure if you are still taking comments, but your article is just what I need as I’ve recommitted myself to finish my novel by the end of this fall–that would be mid October–perfect. Wasn’t sure whether to comment or just send good vibes your way, but then I checked out your book offer “Fiend” and found I was hooked. Gotta read it. So hoping the universe is sending good vibes my way if you haven’t already given the book away. (I do part with cash for a good book too from time to time–often, in fact–so one way or the other, I plan to read it.) Anyway, your advice on finishing my book much appreciated.

  30. Beelissa says:

    I’m still struggling with making time for writing. It’s a good point, though. And I have notebooks. The problem is, I have one story spread out over several, notes in various places and no organization whatsoever. These are very good tips, though. Thanks!

  31. tkhela says:

    These tips were all great reminders for me to continue to make writing a daily habit, especially if I want to meet my own deadlines. Thank you!

  32. Joy In the Morning says:

    Letting it take over your mind is kind of like learning a foreign language; the more you think in German, the easier the language is to understand! This concept works for me in other areas, why not in writing!

  33. Chris32 says:

    I’m smiling. Thank you so much for validating my little idiosyncrasies that cause my husband pause and an upturned eyebrow as he observes my scurrying out of a shower looking for pad and paper, my 4:30 am scribblings in bed without my glasses, my silent hand gestures as I’m working out a dialog exchange in my head — thank you! Now, if only I could get that “write everyday” discipline down. I will definitely work on this!

  34. maureenlb says:

    I loved this article. Why? I created my characters from somewhere deep inside my unconscious and would love to be any one of them. As for committing to a daily count of 500 words, you gave me an idea. If I can live as my character then my character will take on my life, making 500 words easy. Thank-you Peter, your 5 tips just motivated the hell out of me!

  35. Susie1971 says:

    I’m trying to write 2 pgs. or a scene every day. Hard with a toddler! Thanks for this article — good imagery too — love the big toes, plastic cow, and friend picking dirt from under his nails. :)

  36. wiwriter says:

    I spend a lot of time on the road, or in other situations where it is difficult – if not impossible – to write in a notebook. Instead, I rely on taking audio notes. When I am driving, I use a small digital recorder. When not driving, I use my smart phone. Note that there are a number of good apps that do this.

  37. ketari says:

    AWESOME advice!!!!! I’ve learned that if my characters haven’t consumed my every thought then I haven’t begun to dig deep into the story the way I need to. I will definitely take your advice on writing daily… sometimes if I don’t feel inspired I don’t open my story. I’ll make it a point to do so everyday from now on. Thanks for the great article!!

  38. Margiemay says:

    Great advice! I keep a notebook in all my purses, by my bed, in my car… I have stories written in pieces in ten different notebooks. Definitely going to try this 90 day routine and then some.

  39. italypaige says:

    I loved this. I’ve been ruminating over a major rewrite for two weeks and this has given me a boost to just get going.

  40. kimara2220 says:

    If I am able to write a novel in 90 days that would be great! I have been working on one particular work for quite a while (perfectionist) and wouldn’t mind completing it by now. Looking forward to reading this.

  41. Calbchrd says:

    Excellent advice, Peter. Disabling my internet is going to be an obstacle, but reading this article has gotten me motivated…

  42. E W Puddle says:

    I’mm in. I wrote today, but not on my novel. So, I start tomorrow on my novel and am excited to think I might have it done in 90 days!! Thanks, Peter!

  43. burrowswrite says:

    your tips are very real. they seem to be sincere.

    cant wait to read your book.

  44. Audra Spicer says:

    “If you’re working on a 90-day budget of time, you’re going to have to hit roughly 780 words a day.” A little math with numbers taken from Peter’s sentence here and Chuck’s definitive post here yielded a huge find: I have to write ~666 words/day for 3 months to finish my current draft. 666 might look evil and Beastly to some, but it looks do-able to me!

  45. Michael1950 says:

    Wonderful article. Not only is it easy to read, it had loads of helpful information. I took the ‘make time to write’ advice last year.

    On September 15th I promised myself I’d write at least 500 words per day for the next month. Attaining the goal was my birthday present to myself, and it keeps on keeping on. Although I miss the word count some days, and even fail to write others, it is the first thing I do most mornings. Where I was sitting for over an hour each morning struggling to put down 500 words I now can manage that, many days, in less than half an hour. My journal averages over 10K words per month. I’m actually coming close to finishing my first novel by working on it for a minimum of one hour per day and I try for two.

    Thanks for the suggestions I didn’t think of.

  46. tlareeves says:

    This section is what I needed to read:
    “Make a deal with yourself and your long-dead writing heroes: I’ll write 90 days in a row, no matter what, even with seven presentations at work and kids crying and a resentful spouse alone in bed. Give yourself the three-month gift of an hour or two of daily writing. Be alone. Sit down and lock the door. Disable your internet connection. Write one word after another. Every day. For 90 days straight.”
    Thanks!

  47. Thanks for the guidelines. I need to be reminded of these lately. I’ve been having trouble with #1 mostly. I’ve let life get in the way of my writing and I get stressed and annoyed because of it. I’m going to set reminders in my phone to keep me on track. I also like the line Hoefersgirl quoted, “Allow yourself to be human, to be afraid with the uncertainty of embarking upon the heroic artistic endeavor of creating a fictional world.”

  48. Hoefersgirl says:

    Love this line the best: “Allow yourself to be human, to be afraid with the uncertainty of embarking upon the heroic artistic endeavor of creating a fictional world.”

  49. Shelia says:

    #2…probably the most important thing I’ve read lately that has helped me get over the writing hump.

  50. Rachel29m says:

    Great advice. For me, it is very difficult to keep to set schedule. I am such a procrastinator. I agree about having a notebook. It is a lifesaver when a thought comes to you unexpectedly.

  51. gdinverno says:

    I’m having trouble getting started with an idea that came to me after viewing a picture I had taken while on vacation. The steps are simple and things I already know or should know but this article has motivated me to start carving out time on a daily basis. Thanks!

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