Literature

NaNoWriMo: Classic Novels Written in a Month

Which classic novels were all written within a month? And which writer would take all his clothes off as a way of coping with writer’s block? We’re here to inspire you in your writing quest whether you’re taking part in NaNoWriMo or merely trying to complete (nay, perhaps start) a writing project.

This month, many people are taking part in NaNoWriMo, or ‘National Novel Writing Month’, which takes place every November. The idea is to write a novel – to start one if not to complete it – by writing 50,000 words across the month of November. Here at Interesting Literature we thought we’d offer some support for those undertaking NaNoWriMo by showing how even famous and established novelists have had to cope with writer’s block, deadlines, and writing quickly.

Douglas Adams memorably remarked, ‘I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.’ The author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was well known for taking a rather relaxed attitude to writing deadlines. Emile Zola, meanwhile, observed, ‘One forges one’s style on the terrible anvil of daily deadlines.’ NaNoWriMo participants can probably relate to both of these quotations. Fantasy author David Gemmell attributed his ability to meet deadlines to two things: his training as a journalist and a visit he made to a psychiatrist, who, after testing the young Gemmell, informed him that he was a ‘borderline psychopath’. The good side to this, Gemmell reflected, was that it meant he could focus completely on the task at hand, and get the job done, no matter what. He could always meet deadlines: he was even found dead at his desk, where he had been at work on his latest novel.

douglas adams inspired Writer’s block afflicts many writers at one stage or another, and many writers have had somewhat – er, eccentric – ways of dealing with it. G. K. Chesterton would pick up his bow and shoot arrows out of his window at a tree in his garden; perhaps this distracted him from the immediate and onerous task of writing, or perhaps it concentrated his mind more sharply, fixing his thoughts to a very literal ‘target’. Victor Hugo liked to write naked to help cope with writer’s block. He would have servants take his clothes from him, with strict instructions not to return them to him until he had met his deadline.

If all this talk of writer’s block and meeting deadlines is getting you down, then take heart from these novels, all of which were written very quickly. They are proof that it can be done, and often very successfully.

The very first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet, was written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in just three weeks. He wrote it while he was running a struggling medical surgery in Portsmouth. Arguably the most famous fictional character of all time, therefore, was a product of three weeks’ writing work. Jack Kerouac wrote up (if not wrote from scratch) his classic Beat Generation novel On the Road in just three weeks, typing it on a continuous roll of paper some 120 feet long. Dostoevsky’s The Gambler was completed in just 26 days (though admittedly he was supposed to be writing Crime and Punishment at the time). Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was also the product of under a month’s work.

Other writers have worked even faster. John Boyne claimed he wrote his recent bestseller The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas in just two-and-a-half days, although there had been two months of intensive planning beforehand. Robert Louis Stevenson dashed off the first draft of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in just three days, although he later burnt the manuscript and started again from scratch because, so the story goes, his wife didn’t like it. Michael Moorcock is perhaps the king of rapid fiction-writing: many of his fantasy novels, such as the Dorian Hawkmoon quartet written in the mid-1960s, were written in just three days flat (though again, a certain amount of planning was involved prior to this). Legend has it that Moorcock was typing the pages faster than his friend could rearrange them on the floor of the room.

What techniques do you have for coping with writer’s block, or meeting difficult deadlines? And are there any good literary lines or stories that we’ve missed out? Let us know. And check out our list of unusual writers’ words for #NaNoWriMo

Image: Douglas Adams, © 2008 Michael Hughes, free licence.

111 Comments

  1. Great post as always. In her Autobiography, Agatha Christie states how she wrote her book “Absent in the Spring” one of her lesser known novels she wrote as Mary Westmacott, in just 2 weeks and then collapsed from exhaustion afterwards.

    As a novelist myself, I think the best cure for writer’s block is simply to force yourself to committing to writing a certain number of words every day – it doesn’t have to be a lot. I aim for 500. Persistence works far better than waiting for inspiration. In his Autobiography, Anthony Trollope describes how he had his own word count goals and as a result he was never late meeting a deadline and practice does make perfect, or at least productiveness.

    And while writing a book in a month is a great goal, the importance of editing and simply letting time pass before publishing can’t be overlooked. Alexander Pope reminded us to keep our pieces seven years before showing them to the public.

    • Thanks! I had no idea about the Christie story, though I’d heard she wrote under a pseudonym. Have made a note of that!

      I agree about the words thing. I work along similar lines when I need to get something written to a deadline. I always remember Philip Larkin’s vision of his alternative self as ‘the shit in the shuttered chateau / Who does his five hundred words / Then parts out the rest of the day / Between bathing and booze and birds…’

    • I agree! I think the 500-word goal is a perfect middle ground: it forces you to meet a deadline but allows you to revel in little victories, and spurs you on to write even more. I do 500 words a day!

  2. I believe that one of my favorite novels, An Invitation to a Beheading by Nabokov was written in two weeks. And it’s wonderful.

  3. Love this post! I don’t tend to get writer’s block, which now makes me wonder whether I am a borderline psychopath…. ;) Though actually it’s because Iearned how to write professionally when my son was small and it was imperative to sit and type every moment I had available. I’m pretty sure a small child can make any author long for five minutes of peace alone with the keyboard!

    • Thank you! And don’t worry, I think there are all sorts of reasons why people don’t get writer’s block – I forget which writer it was who said he couldn’t afford the luxury of it, but I think money is quite a big factor for a lot of semi-professional writers. And learning/training to write no matter what is very important: journalism and advertising are good training grounds, but also valuable is learning to capitalise on any free time you have (as you evidently did when you had your young son to look after). It’s fascinating to know what causes writer’s block though, and whether it is just being picky a lot of the time…

  4. One of your best so far Oliver!

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  6. Fantastic piece! I suffer from tinitus – or so I thought. Now I know that it’s the whoosing of deadlines (real and imaginary) whizzing past my ears. But seriously, thanks for the bit of inspiration to get me back to work on the novel that is resisting being written. I hesitate to call it writer’s block. It’s more likely the call of so many delicious distractions that are inhibiting progress. So I think I’d better burn my clothes (alas, I have no servants to lock them away) and cloister myself in my study without internet and “Interesting Literature” to beckon me away from the project at hand.

  7. I think Fahrenheit 451 was also a quick one! 9 days or so, if I’m remebering right. Great post, as always!

  8. Wow! As someone who takes the best part of three hours to get my thoughts together enough to write a blog entry, I find this seriously impressive! xx

    • I know! Moorcock especially is a bit of a phenomenon. I’ve read many of his rapidly written books, and there’s an energy to them which carries you along on the ride. Must be a product of how they were written…

  9. Really fascinating post. Hugo’s method is certainly a great incentive to complete deadlines!

    • Thanks, Marty! I know – wonder if anyone’s emulated him? I hope he had a warm fire as the thought of writing au naturel at this time of year would probably be enough to put a lot of writers off…

  10. Reblogged this on Cool lady blog and commented:
    This is interesting

  11. Post Office by Charles Bukowski was written in three weeks, right after he quitted his job at the post office where he spent 13 years. Great post!

  12. Oh, this was very impressive information! This is exceptionally fascinating!

  13. Reblogged this on LOQUACITÉ and commented:
    Gives you the hope that maybe you can do it too :)

  14. Reblogged this on Sleepy Book Dragon and commented:
    Some interesting techniques for getting past Writer’s Block and meeting those deadlines!

  15. To each his own. I can write in one sitting a poem or a short story which is about 500 words. Somehow I have found stories come words one after other as I put a sentence behind. Only I have to change shapes in midstream when I feel it is following paths I have taken before. I trust a nap or sleep allows my mind to sort itself so never have I felt unequal to tasks I take. In fact my biggest head heache is the jumble of words that I have to rigorously cut out. After posting in my blog whenever I get an opportunity I edit and polish stories and essays. Novels which I have left aside I have taken up years later with out any difficulty. It is as though it has been filed away since I have found no difficulty to get the story told. I am editing three novels are at the moment with some 85,000 words and I cannot sway when it will see light of day, but it makes my days intense and fulfilling. So reward is in the writing. If I have no pleasure in my stories there is no point in writing to go against the grain, to please others

    • Well said, Benny – I couldn’t agree more that the reward is in the writing itself. I can kind of understand when writers say they don’t like writing itself but like ‘having written’, but for me the process itself – frustrating as it can often be – is also marvellous, exhilarating, and, as you say, thoroughly rewarding.

  16. great post……. enlightening….. :) thank you !!

  17. A fascinating post. I am currently reading On the Road and was surprised to hear that Kerouac wrote it so quickly, though his spontaneous prose style does lend itself to fast writing.

    • Thanks for the comment, Guy! Glad you enjoyed the post as much as I enjoyed putting it together. And I think there’s something in that: often you can tell a book that was written rapidly because of the high energy that comes with it.

  18. I had no idea. And here I was thinking about burning my NaNo upon completion

    • Nooooo! Don’t burn it – keep it, hone it, ignore it for a few years, or lock it in a drawer and rewrite it from scratch! You never know when you might want to return to it, and it’s an achievement just to see it through to the end. That is a feat in itself!

  19. Reblogged this on 1WriteWay and commented:
    I so needed to read this [interesting] post!

  20. I think Douglas Adams was an awesome author I like your post and your blog. I’m going to follow you.

    Thank you. o_O*

  21. Reblogged this on Stuff With Los and commented:
    The fact that people have written entire books in less than a month is pretty ridiculous.

    • No, it is not. It may have never happened to you, but it does happen to some people, that they just feel an overpowering urge to get something done, writing a book, painting a masterpiece or completing a difficult experiment, whatever, and they can think of nothing else, nor do anything else, until that one task is completed. So no, it is not ridiculous.

  22. Great post! I really enjoyed it! Here is another example of a book written in record time: Hans Fallada’s “Alone in Berlin”, his gripping novel portraying the doomed, innocent but nevertheless heroic acts of resistance against the nazi regime put up by Otto and Elise Hampel. At the end of the war, Fallada, who had only just barely survived it himself (he spent time in a nazi mental asylum, which was tantamount to a death sentence in most cases), was given their Gestapo file by a poet friend of his, J. R. Becher, who occupied a ministerial position in the Russian occupied zone. Becher was trying to help his friend, who had a severe drinking problem, to get back into writing, and in this he succeeded. Fallada wrote it, according to Geoff Wilkes, translator of the English edition published by Penguin, in just 24 days. He recreated the facts to some extent, but nevertheless succeeded wonderfully in recreating the atmosphere of fear that must have impregnated Germany in those days, and wrote what is probably his best novel. Alas, he would not live long enough to see it published.

    • Thanks for the comment, and I’m glad you enjoyed the post! And thanks so much for this info about Fallada’s book, which I confess I didn’t know about. I’ve made a note of it. What a heartening story that his friend could convince him to write it, given his alcoholism and the dark subject matter. Very sad that he didn’t live to see it in print, but I’ll be seeking it out as it sounds like an important novel.The Wilkes Penguin edition you mention is available very cheap online, so I’ll have to purchase that one. Thanks again!

  23. Reblogged this on The Last Baby Boomer Blog and commented:
    Reading about other people’s weirdness in how they approach the task of writing is strangely inspirational!

  24. Utterly inspired.

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  26. I really enjoyed reading this- I’m glad I’ve discovered your blog! I wrote my two books fairly quickly. First one in about 3 months (but after a year’s planning and contemplation) and the second in just over two. The next one is already plotted and most of the research is done but I am determined to take longer over it- I don’t think the book suffers in the slightest for being written in a short space of time, but the mental health of the writer is quite a different matter!

    • Thanks, Kath! I’m always interested in hearing from writers who work at high speed – good luck with the third book! Would be interested to hear how long this one takes you (especially as you intend to take longer on it)…

  27. I was expecting to find “A Clockwork Orange” on this list; Burgess wrote it in only three weeks. Despite the short time, a lot of thought and consideration went into it, and it’s still one of my favorite novels to this day.

  28. Reblogged this on Thinking in Public and commented:
    Important Note To Future Self

  29. Reblogged this on Crossing Cultures and commented:
    Great post. It inspired me.

  30. Thank you so much for this great post. I was very depressed that I have a deadline next month and I can’t finish this paper. I felt like I’d need ages to finish it. Now, if a good novel could be done in a few days, then why not a small paper? I reblogged this :)

  31. A very interesting post. I would never have thought well-known novelists could have written so quickly eg. Muriel Sparks – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

  32. Interesting comments and these made a nice reading. Writing a novel in a month is result of life time experience. Some writers have good digestion and some not so lucky and yet they can bring out in the hi-octane inspiration all that waiting to be said. A writer’s craft allows a writer to balance what he knows well and what he feels holds some grain of truth. A writer like Dean Swift first read his work to his household,- servants and if they could understand he would consider it as worth publishing. Clarity in writing is an art perfected.

  33. Great post. I love Douglas Adams! And it’s inspiring to see all those novels that actually were written in a month…although out also makes me feel like a slacker

    • I know, I’m afraid the post carries that bittersweetness – part inspirational (look at what others have achieved in a few weeks), part depressing (look what we’re struggling to achieve in a few weeks!).

  34. Ann Patchett in her recently released collection of essays, “This is the Story of a Happy Marriage” says writer’s block = procrastination. To prove it, she sets blocked writers the task of writing every day for 60 minutes. She swears that writer’s block will simply melt away under the pressure of a deadline.

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  37. Good post. Many things we can identify with!

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  39. Thanks so much. I also re-blogged it!!! Bit late in the month, and although I would love to attempt Agatha Christie’s two week stint, I have an article and chapter to write in four for my phd, so I am not going to attempt it. But thanks for the inspiration! Perhaps I can make this happen in two!

    • Thanks for reblogging! Much appreciated. Know what you mean: every November I say to myself I’ll have a go at blitzing some writing, but other deadlines/commitments always get in the way. Mind you, blogging keeps me in the writing game, and is great fun, so I can’t complain…

  40. Notoriously the English crime writer Edgar Wallace (1875-1932) could write a novel in a weekend (e.g. as described at: http://gadetection.pbworks.com/w/page/7932427/Wallace,%20Edgar ), But whether his stories are literature is another matter!

  41. Thanks for this! I now have many books to check out… and I have so much more faith that I can write something good in a super short time.

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  43. I note that you mentioned taking off one’s clothes in order to cure writer’s block. I haven’t felt the need to ‘get my kit off’ for quite that reason. Quite the reverse in fact: I take them off in order to publicise the finished product!

  44. I have failed yet again at NaNoWriMo. My problem is not writer’s block or a lack of story; it is instead that the darn thing falls during the holidays. I get part of the way done and real life pushes its way to the top of my priorities. The story I am excerpting on my blog, Nick, was last year’s project. I finished it during the summer and continue to edit hoping to be ready for self-publication soon. This year’s NaNoWriMo will be next year’s summer story. I have to give credit, though; the exercise does propel me to write faster. My first novel took three years and the second took ten. Now at least I’ve cut time down to one year.

  45. This a pretty cool article. I also knew from John Dullaghan’s documentary about Bukowski, “Born Into This”, that “Hank” wrote “Post Office” in three weeks. The reason behind it was “fear”, he explained.

  46. It’s always interesting to get insight into the writing methods of some authors! Some might be a little odd, but no one can argue with 50,000 words in a month, a feat of accomplishment in itself I would say!

  47. The dedication of some writers never ceases to amaze me!

  48. The all-time speed-writing champion is, of course, James Patterson.

    Which is why I stopped reading him in 2002.

    From 1977 thru 2002 I bought (hardback) and read 18 of his 21 published novels and was a big fan.

    Since 2002, starting with Beach House, I have bought none of the 68 novels (and counting) he has had published.

    He has become the personification of Truman Capote’s characterization of Jack Kerouac’s work, “That’s not writing, that’s typing.”

    • I agree so much with this. Every time I see either his or Stephen King’s new novels, I can’t help but think they’re just writing for a paycheck. I haven’t read very much of either, though, so I can’t say much about the quality of their work. Patterson, however, seems to have 5 new books hit the shelves every week. I don’t know whether to be impressed or disgusted by the amount of stories he churns out.

  49. I’ve heard of NaNoWriMo! I’m too much of a procrastinator to write that much in a much. I make it short and sweet! :)

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  61. You were right. Some great books there, and definite inspiration. If Sherlock Holmes can arrive in three weeks and last for a century and more, anything is possible.

  62. A technique I learned for combatting writers’ block was forcing myself to write by hand. Writing on a laptop facilitates writers’ block by allowing one to delete and edit on the fly. I found that I would write a sentence…agonize….delete….write….delete…agonize…repeat. So to combat that rhythm, I put my computer away, got out a notebook, and gave myself an “assignment” or exam question, a la a writing class. That served a few functions. As well as precluding me from editing on the fly, it gave me a sense of impermanence: no matter what, I’d have to transcribe the hand-written words into the word file; so, why agonize over words that I already know are impermanent. The most important thing was that by treating the exercise as exactly that–an exercise–I always knew *why* I was writing, both conceptually (by answering a specific question or solving a particular problem in my writing) and practically: I was writing because I had to write. And nobody gets writers’ block at a final exam, do they?

  63. Reblogged this on Vanessa's Blogueria and commented:
    because it’s that time of year again…

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  65. I’ve only written three novels because I have poor time management skills, not because of writer’s block. When I do get blocked, I make myself put something on the page, anything, even if it is terrible, just to get writing again.

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