Yes, it’s possible. The first draft, anyway.
If National Novel Writing Month didn’t work out for you or was too rushed, try an easier goal of churning out a rough draft in 3 months. The idea is the same—you try to write a certain number of words per day—but the time frame is stretched out and there is a phase dedicated to planning.
I focus on fantasy, so this is geared towards fiction writers, but similar principles apply to any genre. Keep in mind that this is a very structured way to go about writing, and your draft might veer off outline at some point in the process.
Before you start: Research and set goals.
According to my cheesy college health textbook, goals should be S.M.A.R.T—Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely. Don’t get set on having a perfectly polished, ready-to-publish story in three months (unless you’re Wonder Woman, in which case, teach me your secrets) but you can aim for a word count of, say, 70K, and reach that by writing a certain number of words per day.
Start some background research based on your genre of choice. Know some basics of what works, what doesn’t, what makes a classic, and what makes a good read. Most importantly, what can you accomplish in 12 weeks?
Week 1: Write the logline, setting, and basic character bios.
A logline is a summary of your entire story in one or two sentences. Establishing the general point early will help you keep on track and stay on the main idea of the plot (you can, of course, change the log-line later as the plot demands). Here are a few logline examples—see if you can guess the book or movie they describe:
- A young F.B.I. cadet must confide in an incarcerated and manipulative killer to receive his help on catching another serial killer who skins his victims.
- A wheelchair bound photographer spies on his neighbors from his apartment window and becomes convinced one of them has committed murder.
- The aging patriarch of an organized crime dynasty transfers control of his clandestine empire to his reluctant son.
[Answers: The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris; Rear Window, an Alfred Hitchcock film; and The Godfather by Mario Puzo.] A good logline will give you a basic story plot and an easy place to start writing a hook.
Now where does this story take place? Is it fantasy, sci fi, a mystery noir, or contemporary fiction? Does it happen in a city or the country or a distant planet? What year is it? Figure out your setting, and keep in mind that some genres will require more time on the setting than others. If you’re making up your own country, be prepared to dive into everything covered by anthropology courses: language, clothing, food, family units, cultures, etc. If you’re writing historical fiction, get ready to consistently return to research in the next three months (I’ve heard writing out a timeline tends to work well). Sci-fi and anything science-related will need some scientific backing.
Next, flesh out the four or five most important people in the story: the protagonist, antagonist, deuteragonist, and then a mentor, love interest, or other secondary character as the story will demand. Do not focus on background characters yet, just the people important enough to have their backstories told (or hinted at) at some point in the narrative.
Here’s a tip I wish someone told me early when it comes to writing characters: Write people who contrast each other. If your main character is Type-A, organized, and highly motived, their best friend or love interest could be more laidback and go-with-the-flow. This will bring out their characteristics and personalities through interaction. The exception is with villains—giving the protagonist and antagonist similarities will create interesting inner conflict.
Week 2: Outline and plot.
If you’re organized and nitpicky about writing like I am, this week is the most important. Plot lines can veer off track without a general outline to follow, and subplots are more easily tangled than iPhone earbuds. The easiest way to outline plot is to follow the six-part mountain method:
Make note of subplots, but be sure your basic plot is ready to go. Along with outer conflict, establish inner conflict and the protagonist’s emotional journey as well. What parts of the story most affect them? How does that drive their decisions, which in turn drive the plot?
Weeks 3 – 11: Write, write, write!
Eight weeks probably doesn’t seem like enough time to crank out a full-blown novel, but for reference, NaNoWriMo is 30 days, just over four weeks. If you’re aiming for a 70K word count over 12 weeks, you have to hit a quota of 1,250 words per day versus the 1,667 you would need for NaNoWriMo. That’s about 3.5 pages per day, double-spaced with 12-point font. Set milestones for yourself if just going day by day isn’t enough—how much should you have done by the first week? Should the climax be written by the eighth week or tenth?
In my experience, the first chapters are the hardest. For one story, I rewrote the first chapter eleven times. In the interest of time, you may have to skip a difficult section and come back to it—I’ve found that I can write first chapters after writing the last chapters, since it was easier to figure out where a story would start when I knew where it would end.
Now, as you’re writing, you might find that your plot is going in a different direction than your original outline. First drafts tend to grow like mushrooms. At the same time, you might not like where a draft is headed. My general rule-of-thumb is that if I’m more than 2/3 – 3/4 of the way done, I will finish the draft. If you’re only on the fifth chapter out of twenty, it’s alright to start over.
Avoid these time-sucks:
- Try not to edit too often. I am so, so guilty of always going back and editing/rewriting/reworking a section I have finished, which takes time away from actually writing. You can edit later. Stick to your time table.
- Remember, the point of a first draft is to get the story down, not to get the story perfect. Perfection (or something close) comes after editing and revisions.
- Don’t stress over what comes next.
- Only read through your most recent three pages, and only to pick up where you left off. Going back a week to change things will slow you down.
Week 12: Read Through and Note Macro-Edits
The hardest part of the draft is done! The final week of this three-month exercise should be dedicated towards reading through what you wrote to see how things turned out. Make note of macro-mistakes, like character inconsistencies and bad plotting, but don’t worry about micro-mistakes like minor grammar issues. Highlight the parts that you know will take the most work, and prepare for the revision phase of your latest manuscript.
Another tip: If you’re not quite ready to have someone else read this first draft but you still need a fresh pair of eyes to start revising, set aside the draft for 4-6 weeks and come back to it. Lock it in a drawer. File it away on your desktop. Whatever it takes—just make sure the story is no longer fresh in your mind when you come back to it.