Image: Matthew Loffhagen
In 2014, musician David Bazan made an announcement. He was going to write and release two original songs every month. One of the factors that led to this self-imposed challenge was that he’d been touring for the last three years to pay the bills and hadn’t written anything new. It was time to jump-start his creative work again, and setting an ambitious goal in a public way seemed to do the trick. Fans and reviewers alike have since said these songs are some of the most exciting of his career.
This got me thinking about writers. We all get stuck in a rut or go through a dry spell at one time or another, and sometimes a creative challenge is just what we need to push us to the next level. If that’s you, I have a challenge for you inspired by Bazan’s experiment: Write a new story every month. If that sounds daunting, don’t worry—I’ll walk you through it week by week.Here's a 4 week guide on how to write a novel in a monthClick To Tweet
Week 1: Decide on a story concept
You have to start with an idea for a story. For some writers that’s the hardest part, though. We don’t all walk around with a mental journal full of ideas. If that’s true for you, go searching for inspiration. Use a photo, a song, a podcast—anything that jumpstarts your writer brain—to get you thinking. The key here is to find an idea quickly that you feel has the right scope for the size of your project.
Size is an important consideration. How much can you realistically write in a month? Can you write a whole novel? Maybe. Many people do just that every November for NaNoWriMo. But it doesn’t have to be a novel. Why not try a novella, a short story, or a flash fiction piece? Don’t be nervous if you’ve never done that before. It might seem scary at first, but remember—the point of this exercise is to flex your creative muscles.
Once you know the subject and scope of your project, you can map it out. If you feel you need to, jot down a quick outline of your story so you have a guide. Now it’s time to get to work!
Week 2: Write the opening and the rising action
This week, focus on writing a strong opening to your story. As with a novel, your opening is about two main things: a compelling hook and introducing your protagonist in their everyday life just before the inciting incident. Here’s where this exercise of writing shorter fiction is really going to stretch you—in a novel, you have the luxury of time and space to develop backstory and character arcs and world-building. In short fiction, every word counts. More than that, short fiction isn’t just a shorter version of a novel; the focus is much narrower, so be sure to home in on a single idea. Don’t try to do too much. For more on this, see Robert Wood’s fabulous article, How to Write a Killer Short Story.
Once you’ve written a hook and introduced your protagonist, it’s time for the rising action. The key to really embracing this exercise, whatever length you’re working with, is focus. Putting a time constraint on your writing has a tendency to separate the essential from the fluff. This might feel frustrating, but it is good for your writer brain—embrace it! Hone your focus, decide what conflicts and events are essential to your story’s plot arc, and get them on paper.Putting a time constraint on your writing helps to separate the essential from the fluff.Click To Tweet
Week 3: Write the climax
This week you’ll be writing the climax. As in a novel, the climax of your story will be the high point, the moment of greatest tension, the peak of your central conflict. But there are two things that set apart the climax in short fiction.
First, it’s the impending sense of tension. One of the thrilling things about reading short fiction is that you can feel tension growing with every line. Great novels have tension on every page, but by nature, short fiction requires that every sentence carry its weight. Have you managed to capture this in your story—this sense of constantly building tension? Good, carry it through into the climax.
Second, with short fiction the climax most often is the end of the story, there’s very little room for resolution. The effect is that you leave readers with an aha moment, a surprise revelation, or a complete reversal of expectations.
Can you feel it? The tension is mounting, you’re coming to the end, now write a climax that will leave your reader breathless.
Week 4: Revise and edit
As with anything else you write, the last step is to revise and edit. Go back through your story. Here are some questions to guide your revision:
- Is the story cohesive?
- Does it have a compelling hook and an opening that introduces the protagonist?
- Is the rising action focused on the essential conflicts and events of the narrative?
- Does each sentence carry its weight to slowly build tension?
- Have I packed a punch in the climax, leaving the reader with a satisfying ending?
Now do another pass to edit for grammar, punctuation, syntax, and word choice. I’ll say it again: powerful short fiction must make the most of every line and every word. If something isn’t carrying its weight, work with it until you get it right.Powerful short fiction must make the most of every line and every word.Click To Tweet
So you’ve written a novel in a month – now what?
Well, how did you do? I hope you feel this exercise has stretched your creative muscles and added something new to your writer toolkit. Writing within time constraints and trying your hand at short fiction are two great ways to grow your craft. But this exercise has another advantage. That brings me back to David Bazan.
Bazan’s experiment not only helped him get back to writing songs, it gave him his next album. Those ten songs were compiled into Bazan Monthly: Volume 1. And the project was so popular with fans that Bazan repeated it in 2015 with Volume 2. What might you be able to do with a collection of your monthly stories? You could compile them into a short story collection, enter a few of your best in competitions, or use them as promotional stories for your fans between novels. Whatever you decide to do with these stories, I hope the exercise will help you grow your craft and stretch your vision of what’s possible in this ever-changing industry.
What writing challenges have you undertaken? How have they helped you grow as a writer, and what publishing opportunities have they opened for you along the way?