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

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. 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.)
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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.


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?)

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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.

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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:

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