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.


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

  2. 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.

  3. 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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  15. 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.

  16. 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?

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

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  19. 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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