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The Perks and Perils of Writing a 50,000 Word Novel in a Month

Ready, set, type!
[Maksim Kabakou/Shutterstock]

A post by Sally O’Reilly

We live in a culture obsessed with speed: fast-food, Twitter, overnight celebrity, instant make-overs and cutting edge techno-gadgets. We drive too fast, desperate to get ahead literally as well as metaphorically. And when we get home we surf TV, scroll through Facebook, eat, drink and talk on the phone. Apparently, the only thing we want to slow down in the modern world is the ageing process – and it’s no surprise that our solution to that problem is a quick injection of Botox or a lunch-time facelift.

Far from being an oasis of tranquillity, the world of books is not immune to the demands of 24/7 society. Publishers – keen to get a new writer’s name on the radar – are at the very least likely to commission a book a year from each author. Some want writers to work even more quickly. Six months is seen by some as a reasonable gestation period for a genre book; three months is not unknown. (Literary writers get more leeway, but the pressures are still there. Prizes must be won; the public must be satisfied.) After all, the aim is to get the book out there, in front of readers, on Amazon.

As for the wannabe writer, with that brilliant, world-changing novel as yet unwritten, the answer is surely to write one as soon as possible. Until the thing exists in tangible form, then the dream of being a writer will never become a reality. One solution is to sign up with NaNoWriMo, a global writing project which takes place every November. Writers log in, pledge to produce 50,000 words by the end of the month – and off they go. Some fall by the wayside, but the organisers report that last year more than 300,000 reached the target: “They started the month as auto mechanics, out-of-work actors, and middle-school English teachers. They walked away novelists.”

Up to a point. Those NaNoWriMo completers have certainly written enough words to fill a novel – although a fairly short one in contemporary terms – but this is inevitably a process that privileges speed over quality. As Ernest Hemingway observed: “the first draft of everything is shit”. Equally, even if it’s accepted that these 50,000 words form a work in progress, the value of writing that much that quickly is unclear.

My own experience is that writing a first draft without reflection can in itself be a strange form of evasion – you keep writing in the vain hope that by producing lots of words the problems in your narrative will resolve themselves. But sometimes it is essential to stop and think – and question. Before I completed my first novel, I began two other novels that hit the wall at 30,000 words. I fell short of NaNoWriMo’s 50,000 goal, but wrote in that spirit, churning out words against the clock, smoking furiously. (I was young then, and thought this was part of the deal.)

There are pros and cons of writing under pressure. Every writer is different, and this applies to speed of production as much as it does to style. In the “speed” corner we have George Simenon, who would have been a NaNoWriMo natural, with an average novel production time of four weeks; and John Grisham, who wrote his bestseller The Pelican Brief in 100 days. One of the most notorious writers both at and on speed was Jack Kerouac who penned On the Road in three weeks, aided by Benzedrine. The result, produced on a 120-foot scroll manuscript, prompted Truman Capote’s killer put-down: “That’s not writing, it’s typing”.

In the slow corner is Donna Tartt, whose career does not appear to have been damaged by producing a novel every decade. Then there’s Tom Wolfe, who took 11 years to write A Man in Full and J.R.R Tolkien, who began writing what was to be The Lord of the Rings in 1936 and finished in 1952. But the daddy of slow writing must be William H Gass, who took 30 years to write his masterwork, The Tunnel.

I’m not suggesting that one group is superior to the other, but it’s important to remember that along with their unique voice each writer found their natural speed. My last novel took four years to write and that seems to be my optimum pace. Some writers need to take their time. Writing a novel isn’t like going on The X Factor – itself a concept which is looking stale – and though impatience and dissatisfaction can fuel determination, they can also be a snare.

After all, the writing is the only phase of a novel’s life that is ours alone. If we do find an agent, a publisher, an audience, our book belongs to other people. Just as an artist is usually more at home in a studio than a gallery, we are in our element when we are sitting at our laptop, inventing worlds. There are no quick fixes if you want to write the best book that you can. And writing isn’t about endings; it is a way of life.

The Conversation

Sally O’Reilly is a Lecturer in Creative Writing at The Open University. Follow Sally on Twitter.

This article was originally published on The Conversation and is republished under a Creative Commons Attribution NoDerivatives licence.



  1. 28 October 2016 / 12:08 pm

    To quickly brain dump and keep the habit going for a whole month – great! To expect that you have anything more than that would be a mistake. It’s the day after that the work begins.

  2. R Hoffman
    28 October 2016 / 12:18 pm

    Originally (?) such free-writing was a dada exercise, never meant to produce novels or do other than elicit the absurd.

  3. K. Kris Loomis
    28 October 2016 / 12:43 pm

    Needed to read this now…thanks!

  4. 28 October 2016 / 2:42 pm

    I find the stance taken in this article really unnecessary—of course NaNoWriMo will be right for some and not for others. And of course the 50k words at the end will not constitute a perfect, completed novel. I’ve never completed the suggested word count doing it, I have always made my own goals and once quit before it was over because it wasn’t right for me at the time. NaNoWriMo offers pep talks, writing meet ups and a bunch of other great resources for those who are interested. You can always try and stop if it’s not your thing.

  5. 28 October 2016 / 7:18 pm

    I enjoyed this guest post a lot, but I think there are more perks than perils to committing to a tough-yet-doable goal such as NaNo. It can unlock great material. Of course, everyone has their natural pace, but it’s also true that we can change and go faster if we let our internal editors go take a hike, right? That seems to be the great benefit of doing NaNo for me, giving myself permission to write a LOT and in a short space of time and then seeing what happened when I did that. It’s not like I’ll sling it onto Amazon on December 1st or anything crazy.

    I tried and failed NaNo in 2004, then tried and succeeded in 2012—the difference was the pep talks, resources, sense of community and friendly encouragement. Writers need that. It’s too lonely otherwise.

  6. 29 October 2016 / 2:29 am

    I use nanowrimo as a tool. for two years I have been able to “win” because I like winning, but mainly I know that 50k words is not a novel, and if I break it down into 1700 words a day which takes me about 2.5 hours, I am getting ahead of my own game…in fact, I am often working on the same novel I worked on the last nano, just continuing it, and in the end of six months have a first draft. For me, it is PRACTICE as well, so I also do the camp nanos, and win every time. I understand a 50k first draft is nowhere near publishable and those who think so are kidding themselves. But what I do is not stressful at all…it is a much like a marathon runner practicing the 50 yard dash to stay in shape.

  7. Kwaku Dade
    29 October 2016 / 11:02 pm

    If Nano means at list 1,700 words a day for a month which is first draft, then I think I have been doing even more than I’m conscious of.

    I’m on book three of my novel trilogy project, and I write at least 2,000 words in a day, I have to finish it though, so next year perhaps I will join Nano.

    It is good for discipline, and a cure to procrastination. Every emerging should give it a try at least once for resilience.

  8. 9 November 2016 / 9:16 pm

    What matters most is to avoid relying on a single tool. After all it’s true that if all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail.

    However, quality of output is only in part linked to speed. And some authors take years to write books that are simply pretentious… =)

  9. mhnicholas
    26 November 2016 / 12:57 pm

    I doubt if too many people can actually write a novel in a month, unless they have already completed a lot of planning and writing beforehand. I have used nanowrimo –and by the way I just discovered it on Oct. 31–for a couple of reasons: to generate material and to motivate me or give me permission to write what Anne Lamott calls a “shitty first draft” (sfd). I am from the school of thought that you have to write to discover what you want to write about, and I don’t know if I would have even thought to do that or take the time to do that for a novel without nanowrimo. Will I do something with what I’ve written? I don’t know. Will what I end up doing be something completely different from what I’ve generated for nanowrimo, probably. But I do know that if it ends up as a novel/piece of writing that I send out for publication, I know I couldn’t have done that without getting out all of the junk beforehand.

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