HOWTO Write a decent novel in two months

My pal Jeff VanderMeer was tapped to write the new Predator novel and what with one thing and another, he found himself with only two months to produce a final draft. He's written up a detailed set of notes from the process explaining how he did it.

I wrote the first draft of Little Brother, the young adult novel I've got coming out in May, in eight weeks exactly, from the day I got the idea to the day I wrote the last word. I was pulling a minimum of 2,000 words a day and had a couple of 10,000 word days (the book is a little over 100,000 words long). It was weird -- the book just wanted to get out -- sometimes, it felt like I was passing a bowling ball. It was exhilarating, but I wouldn't want to write them all that way. I finished the book at 5AM in Rome, while on holiday for my anniversary, having snuck out of bed at 4AM to write. Again: wouldn't wanna write them all that way.

Note that some of this advice adds up to "Write some other novels first so you can do your two-month novel in a measured and confident manner."

(1) Make sure your initial synopsis is detailed enough that you can divide it into chapters when you start the actual writing, and, if possible, make sure at that point that you have a one- or two-line description of the action for a particular chapter or scene. Know going into the writing for a week exactly what each scene is supposed to do and why. If you know that, you will find it is still possible to be highly creative and surprise yourself in the individual scenes. If you don't know that, you will spend most of your creative energy just trying to figure out what should be happening. (UPDATE: Jay Lake notes that if he he knew "exactly what what each scene is supposed to do and why" it wouldn't work for him, so your mileage may vary. Perhaps I should clarify in that I just needed to know the action that would occur, more than anything else.)

(2) Make sure you know what kind of novel you're writing. I know this sounds basic, but be able to say to yourself something along the lines of "I'm writing a relatively fast-paced action-adventure story with a subplot involving espionage and a tragic love relationship." More or less a mission statement. You may vary from it, but being able to on the macro level tell yourself what it is you're trying to do is very useful. You'll note my example did not read "I'm writing a multi-generational saga about a powerful crime family." There are some kinds of novels you cannot write in two months.

(3) Make sure you are using a relatively transparent style. I don't believe it's possible to write a good novel in this limited amount of time if you're using a more baroque, layered style (and by that, I mean styles like the ones I used in the stories in City of Saints). This doesn't mean that you can't have complexity of character and complexity of style, but it has to be a more invisible complexity. The layering process, otherwise, will take too much time. In this case, writing a Predator novel, this would've been my approach anyway.

Link (Thanks, Jeff!)


  1. @Cory:
    I’ve had two kids and written and drawn three graphic novels, a drawing instruction book, and drawn the art for a fourth graphic novel.

    I can tell you with authority that with the pace of Little Brother’s writing, you have a fair approximation of what it’s like to push out a kid. No stitches needed with the book pushing, though.

    Not usually.

  2. This is a great how to.

    But really it also hinges on the kind of person thats writing it. I’ve found that the most i can ever get out of pre-visualizing the chapters is the beginning, and the end. Then i start with the beginning and work toward what usually ends up being a completely different ending than I had initially planed. Little ideas that come out in the writing process make me think “Ohhh, it would be cool if i…” and enough of those and the body becomes incompatible with your originally planned ending.

  3. @Cory:

    I did the same thing with the first draft of my first novel (I’ve never had the stomach to actually sit down and edit it however) and started in late October of 2005 and finished it by the beginning of January. Basically two months, averaging about 2-3,000 words a day. I don’t think I could ever do it again.

  4. C.D., interesting insight into your process. Thanks for sharing. If you want to continue: “‘It was weird — the book just wanted to get out –”

    Do you find that you are driven in an obsessive way? I’ve found this to be true of many writers (the ones that will admit it). I like the Muse theory myself, Daemons, multiple sub-personalites that become more complex via character development. There is a theory out there that writers just have much more complex inner lives that require expressing, else they go mad!

    Lea, do you want to share some info on your graphic novels? A link in your profile maybe? I’d like to see more of what’s out there.

  5. This reminds me of The Snowflake Method, which I got to try out for my (wretched but enlightening) NaNoWriMo novel. I just used the first few steps, but the point was to go into the thing with a detailed plan. It lets you examine the begining, middle, and end simultaneously, rather than the novel form being like a tube you can’t see the end of.

    I love all the process tidbits you give us, Cory.

  6. Xiguli, is your “wretched” novel published, or otherwise available? Just wondering how other writers are doing it.

  7. Oh, gosh, I don’t plan to even open the file again for at least another two months. I admire those courageous enough to make their first drafts freely available, but I’ve gotta admit that they don’t tend to make me want to read more from that person.

    First drafts are only interesting (to me) when you have a completed and awesome work to compare them to. Btw, Jeff, lots and lots of writers, pretentious and very much otherwise, enjoy talking endlessly about how they “do it” on LibraryThing (in the Writer-Readers forum, for example).

  8. Hmm.This article looks pretty cool. I’ll have to bookmark this and read it when I have more time. I’ve been trying to actually finish a novel. (I failed a Nanowrimo attempt last year).

  9. I’m sure glad BB turned me on to Vandermeer (thanks, Cory!). I picked up City of Saints and Madmen and found the first story (“Dradin, In Love”) to have some great bits but to be slow and so nearly despaired (because I could just tell it’s something I should like, despite my short attention span). But now I’m on the second long piece (“The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris”) and find myself completely immersed in its bizarre convolutions.

    It almost makes me consider reading a Predator novel, just to see what Vandermeer’s writing is like when it’s not “layered.” Almost.

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