November: Can a novel be written in a month?

28 Nov

No. That’s the short answer, in my opinion, not if it’s going to be properly thought through and crafted. I’ve recently been talking to a fellow writer who wrote a novel in five weeks (though, to be fair, it was much longer in the planning), and it got me thinking.

As I mentioned in my previous post, the manuscript that I’ve just finished took me six years to write and a decade before, I abandoned another novel  after seven years’ work.  And yet, like elsewhere in art, it seems, the idea is with us that something of worth can be created with a minimum of effort.  It’s no longer necessary to learn your craft as a painter.  Present an unmade bed or a dead sheep as an installation, eighty years after Marcel Duchamp displayed his urinal (check out his Nude Descending a Staircase to appreciate his technical skill).  No need any longer to work the pubs and clubs for years to learn your craft as a musician.  Appear on The Z-List Factor singing a cover version-by-numbers and become an instant celebrity.  There’s no need to have achieved anything much at all, in fact.  Be famous simply for being famous.  Instant gratification.

The author’s writing desk

And so the USA now holds ‘National Novel Writing Month’ every November. When I last looked at its website, it proudly proclaimed that 2,830,358,650 words had been written collectively.  To what end, we might ask?  ‘Words, words, words…’  There are plenty of them out there already.  Ah, but it gets people writing, we’re told.  But surely, if you have something to say then you’ll write it anyway?  People are at liberty to do whatever they like, so long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else, in my view.  And so this is by no means intended as an attack on those who wish to write a novel in a month.  Nonetheless, the idea that writing that counts (rather than a word count) might be created in a matter of weeks is, it seems to me, misplaced at best.  If it’s just for your own or your family and friends’ entertainment, then that’s all fine and dandy.  If it’s to be put out for public consumption, it’s another matter.  Surely, any prose worthy of the reader’s precious time ought to have been thought through very carefully indeed by the writer.  Writers work at different speeds.  It took James Joyce a couple of decades to write Finnegans Wake (see Extract 2 from The Brief Literary Career of Lewis Burgess) while Jack Kerouac apparently wrote On the Road in a matter of weeks.  Talking of which, Anthony Burgess famously produced four novels in a year, including the seminal A Clockwork Orange, when he thought that he was about to die from a brain haemorrhage.  Burgess was a great talent, of course, but even he spread himself too thinly at times.  In general, the result of writing several thousand words a day will be hackwork.  I should know – I’ve done just that for magazines.

Words, words, words… lots of them

Over the last year or two, I’ve been reading Tove Jansson’s Moomin books to my children at bedtime.  You’d think at 26 and 28, they’d have grown out of them.  Okay, so they’re actually six and eight, but I still enjoying reading them at my age.  We’re working through the series in order, now two away from the last, Moominvalley in November.  They’re books for children, perhaps twenty or thirty thousand words long.  And yet, in a quarter of a century, Jansson published just nine of them.  They’re timeless, containing captivating stories and characters, beautiful descriptions and amusing dialogue (not to mention the enchanting illustrations). All right, so Jansson was a genius and I’ve already put on record my admiration for her adult fiction (see 21 Great Novellas and Travelling the world through books: Finland). But there might just be a connection between the time spent crafting them and the quality of the finished article…

If we were to have a national novel writing month over here in the UK, we’d probably use some dreadful pun to promote it.  It’d be Novelber, perhaps. No, a novel can’t be written in a month. The clue is in the name – November.  Instead we have Movember ( We spend the month growing hair above our top lips to raise awareness of men’s health issues. And we look splendidly silly with them too.  Moustaches are inherently absurd. They’re sported by dictators, after all.  In my view, though, it’s probably a better use of our time.

All text and images © PSR


8 Responses to “November: Can a novel be written in a month?”

  1. James Wymore November 28, 2012 at 1:58 pm #

    It’s only half a novel, anyway. 50,000 words is only a short middle grade book.

  2. Paul Sutton Reeves November 28, 2012 at 2:25 pm #

    Thanks for responding, James. Are you pleased with what you’ve written? Is it really possible to write well at that speed? I’m genuinely intrigued!

  3. hiyacynthia November 28, 2012 at 5:04 pm #

    Well, Paul Sutton Reeves, I have checked out an example of your writing here and as it turns out, you write very well! Funny you mention the November ‘stache. My husband just gave up and shaved his off last night. Hmmm, I might have to blog about it. I think he felt bad that I cringed every time he kissed me. I find them absurd as well! Write on, Paul ;0)

    • Paul Sutton Reeves December 7, 2012 at 10:44 pm #

      Thank you very much for dropping by and sampling my wares, Cynthia. I’ve only just replied because WordPress very rudely put your comment in the spam folder! I apologise on WP’s behalf. Thanks for the praise – I try my best, you know… Moustaches… not good!

  4. Mari Biella December 5, 2012 at 9:35 am #

    I’ve mixed feelings about NaNoWriMo. I’ve never taken part in it, largely because real life just keeps on intervening, but I can’t help but think it would be interesting to try. I doubt that you’d have anything even remotely publishable by the end of the month, but if you took that raw material and spent a long time refining and crafting it you might end up with something good.

    The discipline required to write c. 50,000 words in a month appeals to me, as I’ll be the first to admit that I can be lazy. It would be unfortunate, however, if anyone out there were to automatically assume that the book they’d written in a month was ready for public consumption. So I can see the good side and the bad side. It’s an interesting question!

  5. Paul Sutton Reeves December 5, 2012 at 10:15 am #

    Thanks for taking the time to drop by and comment, Mari. I’d agree with pretty much all of that. Writing is good for the soul and if Novelmber gets people writing, then that’s constructive. I suppose that I’m making a connection between the effort I feel ought to be put into a work worthy of others’ attention and the vast amount of writing that’s made available to the public. I do think that there’s a misconception among some people that something of publishable quality can be produced without research, planning, drafting, redrafting, editing down, redrafting and general effort of the mind and will. No gain without pain! For all that, if it’s a beginning that leads to a crafted finished article then that has to be positive. Do you think that you’ll try it next year?

    • Mari Biella December 5, 2012 at 2:44 pm #

      I’d like to have a go, just to see how it pans out really. Sadly, however, I have a day job that tends to get particularly hectic and demanding around this time of the year, so I doubt I’d be very successful! One day, maybe…

  6. Paul Sutton Reeves December 5, 2012 at 10:09 pm #

    Ah, yes, I know exactly what you mean. My day job means that I have one/two days a week to write, at best, holidays aside. Oh for a private income…

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