National Writing Project

How to Start a Novel? Write the Whole Thing in a Month

By: Grant Faulkner
Date: August 2008

Summary: Lynn Jacobs, a teacher–consultant with the Northern California Writing Project, leapt into National Novel Writing Month in 2007 to fulfill her lifelong dream of writing a novel. The experience informed not only her writing process, but her teaching as well.


Lynn Jacobs had always wanted to write a novel. Yet even though she was an accomplished writer and teacher of writing, she didn't know quite how to start the daunting task.

"I didn't know if you had to have the story all planned out first—if you should have a beginning, middle, and end already figured out," said Jacobs. "It seemed like you ought to, but writing fiction with an outline seems stilted to me. The discovery that unfolds as the writing happens is just so important."

Jacobs, who has been a teacher–consultant with the Northern California Writing Project since 1996 and is currently a member of NWP's English Language Learners Network leadership team, knows the writing process well. She has participated in several NWP writing retreats and has had her articles on teaching published in journals such as English Journal, California English, and the Oklahoma English Journal.

She's also been an avid journal writer nearly all of her life—writing on scraps of paper when she doesn't have her journal with her—and is the kind of person who's always looking for different ways to write. For example, she recently discovered Journler, software that acts as a daily notebook but connects the written word with other media, and has also experimented with a writing process through 100 Words—writing 100 words each day, no more, no less.

So Jacobs obviously has the passion, focus, and follow–through a novelist needs. Still, where to start—especially since she was tackling a new, heady genre?

Do you fill up a notebook with the back story of all of your characters? Buy a novel–writing software program? Thumb through the library stacks to research your story? Set up a spool of paper and type madly for days as Jack Kerouac did when he wrote On the Road?

Quantity, Not Quality

Fortunately, one day when Jacobs was surfing the Web, she discovered a website for something called National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo for short). Participants begin writing November 1, with the goal of writing a 175–page (50,000–word) novel by midnight, November 30—in a "fun, seat–of–your pants" way, as the NaNoWriMo website puts it. More than 100,000 soon–to–be novelists participated in 2007.

I absolutely believe that everyone has a book in them.

"I just got all excited about it and decided I'm going to do it, I'm just going to do it and see what happens," Jacobs said. "What did I have to lose?"

"I absolutely believe that everyone has a book in them," said NaNoWriMo founder Chris Baty, stressing the word everyone. "The process of writing that book is one of life's great adventures. Everyone is a writer, a storyteller."

Baty believes that many would–be novelists suffer from "expectations that are ridiculously high because they use their favorite novels as their models."

"When you make it a matter of quantity rather than quality, you take that pressure off yourself," said Baty. "It's a psychological sleight of hand. By giving yourself permission to write crap, you turn off the inner editor that makes writing so miserable, and the writing process becomes fun. It needs to be fun to get through the first draft of a novel."

Truman Capote dismissed Kerouac's work with his flip remark, "That's not writing, that's typing"—but Baty would say that's the point.

"The curious thing about writing for quantity over quality is that you end up getting a lot of both. You get a lot of writing momentum, which feels great, and by forcing yourself to write so intensely, you can tap into these late–night, slap–happy worlds of intuition and improvisation that are off limits to you when you sit down to write the great American novel. We need more typists."

As much as Baty believes in fervent and furious "typing," he's also a proponent of revision—multiple revisions—emphasizing that the month is truly about churning out a first draft, not a finished product.

A Dreamy Process

Jacobs' novel is one she conjured about a dream seller, loosely inspired by Leonard Cohen's song "Suzanne."

"She has a clothesline down by the river, and hangs wispy cloths on it," Jacobs explained. "People come and they put a donation in a pot and take down a cloth, and that's their dream. The cloth always goes back up on the clothesline the next morning, but no one can figure out where they went or how they got there."

The curious thing about writing for quantity over quality is that you end up getting a lot of both.

Although Jacobs didn't plan what she'd write each day, a novel that could have remained in an abstract fetal stage for perpetuity suddenly came to life. The setting appeared. Characters emerged and started to take shape.

"It was all in there," she said. "I didn't know what I was going to write, but I'd sit down and then read it as it came out on the screen. I began to trust the process more and more each day."

If Jacobs needed motivation or guidance, email pep talks from prominent authors such as Neil Gaiman or Sara Gruen (who actually started her best–selling novel Water for Elephants during one National Novel Writing Month) helped get her fingers back on the keyboard.

Also, she appreciated the tips from Baty's book No Plot? No Problem!, which provides week–by–week overviews and writing exercises. "He takes you through the process," she said. "It's good to have your hand held a little bit."

By the end of the month, Jacobs had not only figured out how to start a novel, but was getting deeper and deeper into the storyline. And now she also has an idea of things she needs to research, such as life on the Sacramento Delta, to take the story forward and add more depth and detail.

Taking It to the Classroom

Jacobs has always had her ELL students do a lot of writing. Before each school year, she loads up on spiral notebooks and pens so that her students can write at the beginning of each class.

National Novel Writing Month didn't teach her the writing process, but it has reinforced her ideas of its value, especially in the classroom. "You are not going to get it right the first time. The important thing is to write but not to get too attached to your words. One way for students to see that is to have them do a whole lot of writing."

Jacobs is also interested in NaNoWriMo's Young Writers Program, a variant of the big event in November, during which teachers and students work together to set a "reasonable, but challenging" word count instead of the 50,000–word gold standard. In 2007, 18,000 young writers participated.

"Beyond writing, kids are learning project–completion skills," said Baty. "They learn that as long as you're disciplined, you can pull off this seemingly impossible thing."

Baty noted that the event can spark a lively competition among students as they try to top each others' word counts. "It's interesting when writing becomes more like kickball, and the person who writes the most wins. Kids really seem to respond to this healthy competition. Writing stops being a chore, and becomes something exciting."

The Young Writers Program provides plenty of supporting materials for free—such things as a word count chart for the classroom, achievement stickers, and certificates of completion.

"You don't have to know where you are going, you just have to go there, you have to start driving," Jacobs said. "That's really what National Novel Writing Month reinforced for me."

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