Book Planning,  Medium,  Writing

4 Steps to Write a Novel Manuscript in 4 Months With No Plan

The key is to actually write

So you’re writing a novel. Or thinking about writing a novel. Either way, you have dreams of becoming a published novelist one day and making the New York Times best-seller list (don’t we all?) But every time you decide to start writing — for real, this time — something happens and you don’t end up sticking with it.

I’ve mentioned before that my boss, who is not a writer, mentioned in one of our weekly meetings that writers write — something he’s told his son who has aspirations of becoming a writer. It might seem like a silly motto, but it’s true! That little saying — writers write — is what finally got me to sit down and turn one of my many ideas into a full-length novel manuscript. It took about four months for me to finish my first draft, and while it wasn’t always easy, it was definitely a lot simpler than I thought the process would be.

If you’re stuck in a perpetual cycle of coming up with a book idea, getting excited to write it, and then leaving it half-written in your metaphorical book graveyard, then this article is for you. I finished writing a novel manuscript in four months after taking years to write almost nothing when it came to my previous unfinished works, and I think you can, too!

How long should it take to write a book

When I started on my novel-writing journey I was never quite sure how long writing a book should take. It feels like you hear about successful writers who are on two ends of a very, very long spectrum. Some writers quip to their audiences at writers conferences that they can write a rough draft in two weeks and you should too; some take years and years to perfect their work before even dreaming of letting a critique group or agent read their words. So what’s some sort of happy medium?

I’ve done my fair share of reading on the topic, and while there definitely is not a one-size-fits-all answer, it seems most authors spend six months to a year on the first draft of their manuscript. Much of the variation here has to do with the different word count guidelines and level of research required in different genres, but if you’re looking to do some further reading of your own on the topic, I’d recommend Jane Friedman’s blog or Reedsy’s blog.

Is writing a novel in four months fast, then? I’m not quite sure, but I know that it’s definitely on the shorter side. If it seems a bit too fast for you then don’t sweat it — but here’s how I did it.

1. Don’t plan too much

I am more of a pantser than a planner — I would categorize myself as a plantser. The most planning I did for this particular book was writing my query letter halfway through finishing the first draft (something that some sources say is a good idea, and others would say is a recipe for disaster.)

Does this mean that I went in each day to write without a single clue as to where my story was going? No, of course not. But it did mean that most of my planning was in my head, not written down on paper. Just reading this might make some people cringe, and if that’s you then you should stick to your more detailed process. That’s totally okay! But if you want to write your first drafts a little quicker, don’t get too hung up on your outlines and synopses — don’t plan a good idea to death.

2. Figure out your word count

This has two meanings — you need to figure out the ballpark range of how long your completed novel should be, and also figure out how many words you can reasonably write per day. When you first start out writing your novel, 2,000 words will probably seem like a lot. Even 1,000 words can seem like an insurmountable mountain to traverse every day, so don’t get in too over your head.

When I started writing my project, my goal was only 500 words a day. That seemed like a reasonable amount for me — I could fit that in around my full-time job and it wouldn’t take too much time out of my day. But as I wrote, and especially once I got closer to the end of my manuscript and my momentum picked up, 500 words seemed like nothing. It didn’t seem like enough words, and I found myself writing 1,000 or 2,000 words a day. I got excited about my novel and where I was going next, which made crushing my word count goal almost too easy. But I never would have gotten to that point if I didn’t start out with 500-word chunks, so give yourself grace.

3. Schedule it out

You might be thinking that this contradicts my first point, but you’d be wrong. I don’t mean schedule out when and where you’ll be writing each scene or chapter of your novel. I don’t mean scheduling when your characters will show up in your story, or when you’ll get to writing the climax of your plotline. What I mean here is taking that word count you’ve arrived at and seeing how long it will take you to finish writing the book. For me, 500 words a day would get me to my word count in about five to six months. That obviously changed as I wrote more and more, but it gave me a ballpark idea of when my draft would be done and ready for some hardcore editing. Depending on both your daily and final word count goals, this could be shorter or longer. But don’t ignore scheduling out (at least mentally) when you’ll be done.

It might seem like a silly and irrelevant step in writing your novel, but it’s something that can give you motivation. It’s sometimes hard to see the big picture of where you’re going when you’re stuck in the weeds looking up synonyms and trying to remember how to format dialogue correctly every day. But when you know when your final goal will come, those synonyms and dialogue tags begin to build and your story begins to take shape. Before you know it, you’ll be reaching month four (or six, or ten) and be only a few thousand words away from the end of your book.

4. Be flexible

Understand that you’ll hit moments of writer’s block. Sometimes inspiration will be lacking for weeks, and sometimes real life gets in the way of visiting your characters every day. But that doesn’t mean that you should stop. The biggest difference between those books that rest in my graveyard and the books that I finally finished is that I didn’t give up. I didn’t get to a part that was hard to write or a time in my life where the writing felt like a chore and let that stop me. So don’t let your own life, thoughts, or actions get in the way of your writing. You can successfully write a finished novel manuscript, too, if you just stick it out.

Previously published in The Writing Cooperative

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