The 2-Minute Thought: What I Learned from Writing a Novel in a Month

Forgive me for taking a slightly longer break from “The 2-Minute Thought” than expected.  The reason was that I wrote a novel in the month of November – and then I needed to recuperate for a week.

Yup, I wrote a novel in 30 days.  It isn’t bestseller material, and it ain’t publishable or even sharable.  But it has a beginning, a middle, and an end, which means it’s a completed first draft.

The amazing thing is not that I wrote a novel in a month, but that I was far from alone.  Hundreds of thousands of people around the world write a novel in the month of November as part of something called National Novel Writing Month, or for those who know and love it, “nanowrimo” for short.  To succeed at nanowrimo, the only requirement is that you get 50,000 words written down in the month of November.  That’s not War and Peace.  It’s more like somewhere between Of Mice and Men and The Catcher in the Rye.

Let’s be clear.  Nanowrimo is not about quality.  It’s about quantity.  You have to write, on average, 1,667 words a day to make it to 50,000 words by the end of the month.  That means you do not have time to go back and rewrite – or even read what you wrote last week or the day before.  It also means that some, or perhaps most, of what you produce will be garbage. 

But that’s the whole point.  In order to write the full arc of a novel in 30 days, you need to be able to live with the fact that some of your writing will be garbage.  Otherwise, you would just end up rewriting Chapter 1 over and over again – or maybe just part 1 of Chapter 1.  That’s where many well-intended novels-to-be end – the perfect part 1 of Chapter 1.  The beauty of nanowrimo is that it frees you to move on and make it to the final chapter. 

And why do ordinary mortals with regular day jobs choose to write a novel in a month?  The motivations are many.  Some aim for publication (and there are bestsellers out there that started life as nanowrimo drafts).  Some have carried a novel inside them for years, but never found the time to get it out.  Some want the creative adventure.  And others?  It’s just a crazy thing to do.  You can throw out your draft on December 1, so why not?

Me, I just wanted to try it – and I did learn a lot.  One thing I learned was that with focus and a deadline, it’s amazing what you can do.  Writing even a bad novel can seem hard, but it gets easier if you force yourself to sit at your desk every day for a certain amount of time – and perhaps even set a timer. 

Another thing I learned is that bad writing beats no writing.  Beautiful prose is nice, but if it gets you to the big picture faster, bad prose is okay – and infinitely better than no prose at all.  In other words, don’t sweat the small stuff before it’s time to.

And finally, I learned that if you don’t have a lot of time, you need to cut a lot of garbage out of your life.  You know what I’m talking about -- all those things that take a lot of time but that you don’t really care about.   

Paul Graham, the venture capitalist of start-up incubator Y Combinator, once wrote in an essay called “Life Is Short” that if we don’t actively fight off meaningless time fillers, we never get to what we really want to do.  

“You think you can always write that book, or climb that mountain, or whatever, and then you realize the window has closed.”  Instead, Graham advises, “Relentlessly prune b. s. [my abbrev], don’t wait to do things that matter and savor the time you have.  That’s what you do when life is short.”  Yup.