When I told a writer friend I have a new book out, she nodded. “Yup. That was good. Enjoyed it.”
I could tell she was being nice about my tendency to repeat stuff I’ve already mentioned. But in this case, I wasn’t talking about Colors. It was talking about something totally different.
“No, no. Not that one,” I told her. “It’s a new one.”
“Seriously? But you just finished the other one.”
“Yeah, I know. But this had to get written.”
“Seriously? Wow. So what’s it about? And how did you write it in just a month or so?”
Here’s how I wrote a short novel—a novella of 142 pages by Amazon’s count (33k words)—and published it in 30 days. You can do it too. Note: a lot depends on how much time you have available. More on that at the end.
Before you start.
1. Decide on the length.
Back in January, I read a short story around 10,000 words by Jennifer Weiner. I thought, “What if I set a 10,000-word limit for a short story for my next project? That would be fun.” Your goal could be 1,500, 5,000, or 15,000 words; it doesn’t matter. But make it short. Obviously, I went over my goal. More on that later.
2. Choose a topic.
With all the political news here in the US, I’ve been thinking a lot about worst-case outcomes, and I wondered how I could turn it into a story. And that translated to a near-future dystopia, a nation overtaken by a totalitarian, fascist regime. I thought what if … and a bleak urban landscape with a young woman in a long, pink coat came to me. Weird, I know, and probably fed by images from George Orwell’s 1984 and other dystopian novels. Maybe even Hugh Howey’s Wool or T.S. Eliot’s poem The Wasteland. Where the pink coat came from is beyond me.
So my general topic became “something dystopian with a female character in a pink coat concerning the long-range outcome of the current political situation.”
3. Let your ideas stew and brew.
A few days went by. I did my usual work stuff, read the news, listened to music, went grocery shopping, saw a friend. The usual. And the idea kept bugging me.
What might happen to the woman in the pink coat on those cold, dreary streets? What already happened? Why does she wear a pink coat? Why is it so threadbare? (That’s what I saw in my imagination.) What’s going on? Why is she so depressed? Where does she live?
I let my imagination fly. What if… I took notes. Scribbled drawings. Let images linger in my mind. Played loud, depressing music. Sat around on my patio and did nothing but stare into space. Yes, my neighbors think I’m on crack. Oh, well.
4. Stay alert for inspiration.
On January 21, the Women’s March on Washington was held. I caught snippets online and read about it. I watched Madonna talk about her thoughts of blowing up the White House, and I read about the backlash and her response.
I totally understood what she meant. Who hasn’t had violent thoughts—or at least fantasies of telling someone off—when they’re upset? But (hopefully) they’re just thoughts.
And my thoughts turned to my protagonist, my main character, the sad woman in the pink coat. Underneath sadness is pain. Hurt. Disappointment. Anger. Where did it come from?
For some reason, the idea that she’d been abused or raped started to form. Keep in mind that rape doesn’t always mean sexual assault, and the word itself can be used in many ways. Ravage, destroy, pillage, plunder, desecrate, defile are just a few synonyms in my thesaurus. “The forest was raped by loggers” is the example in my dictionary.
And rape or defilement goes right along with my idea of a desecrated nation, a country defiled by fascism. A woman defiled by rape in the sense of assault. A symbol …
At that point I started writing just to see if I could write a rape scene and what that would look like. And ideas started to flow.
5. Start thinking about necessary story elements whether you’re writing a short story or a short novel.
A short novel or short story isn’t that different from a novel. No matter how original or different your story is, it must contain certain elements common to all interesting stories. Here are some of the most important.
What is the conflict or the challenge? For me, my character watched her country fall into ruin and was helpless to do anything about it. Subsequently, she’s been filled with a lot of repressed anger for the last 15 years. Rage, even. And she needed to do something about it.
Who or what is the antagonist (the enemy or bad guy)? In my story, the government is the “bad guy” along with the rapists (one in particular).
What is the protagonist’s goal, wish, or dream? My main character wants the problem—the living conditions—to be resolved. And she needs to do something to make that happen.
What are the stakes? What does the protagonist stand to lose? The somewhat comfortable life she’s living could get worse if she doesn’t try, and she and her daughter—the whole country—may never have the life they once had though it wasn’t perfect. She can also get killed.
By what means can the protagonist achieve the goal?
What special talent, skill, or advantage does your protagonist have? What about your protagonist is unique? What gives him or her the ability to reach the goal? It could be perseverance, unusual physical strength, psychic or otherworldly powers, good looks, intelligence, sheer luck or any number of things.
In my case, my character has telekinetic abilities, a power that can kill. There’s no other way to solve the problem of this fictional fascist government unless she takes part in a traditional army, perhaps a people’s army. Or communicated with other national leaders. But that’s not anything I’m interested in.
At this point, I had the basics for my story.
Weeks one and two
6. Let your imagination run wild and write an outline.
I don’t mean a perfect outline with Roman numerals unless that’s what you’re into. It can be any kind of outline, and in this case, I simply wrote an 800-word summary with four basic parts, as if I were telling a friend about it.
Even if you’re not into outlining—if you prefer “pantsing”—try it anyway. And if you are an outliner, don’t get too detailed; you want your characters to emerge and tell you who they are and what’s going to happen. Just write the outline like you’re telling a friend. This happened, that happened, and then the other thing. And start writing. Do keep basic plot structure in mind, however.
7. Write your rough draft and fill in the details.
Once your outline is done, you should be writing if you haven’t already started.
Although I think outlines are super helpful, I’m not a stickler for them. I like to get the main ideas out so I have something clear in my mind as I start writing. Then I start to see the details. And a lot of them are layered in during editing, after the rough draft is complete.
Most of my basic story came to me while writing, and a lot of the stuff in the outline, especially toward the end, didn’t get used (but it was a great start). And the pink coat ended up in only one small scene, and it’s not even pink. Go figure.
Don’t forget research!
Since my story takes place in Washington, D.C., I just about lived there for a month compliments of a Google map. I also did a lot of reading about government buildings in Washington, political systems, restaurants, public transportation, the US government, and even the Independence Day parade. Since a parade takes place in my story, I had to make sure where it would be held.
Weeks three and four
After your rough draft is pretty solid, anything else you do can be called editing, even if you’re writing or rewriting a few scenes. At first, it’s Big Picture Editing, also called substantive or developmental editing. After that, it’s line editing, copy editing, and proofreading.
In a beginner’s ideal world, a skilled editor would review the manuscript at each stage, especially the final copyediting and proofreading. But even at the rough draft stage, feedback can make a big difference.
Find another writer or editor you trust to give an opinion or an actual developmental edit. In my case, a trusted editor reviewed my rough draft and pointed out timeline problems, inconsistencies, redundancies, missing information, and vague references. She also went a bit deeper into line editing and fact-checking.
One problem she found involved a childbirth scene. I’ve never given birth, although I’m certainly not clueless and I did some research. And as it turned out, I had a small detail wrong. She saw it right away since she’s a mother. It was small, but errors like that can turn off readers in the know.
And while I believe it’s possible to do a great job with final copyediting and proofreading yourself—if you have the necessary skills and the time—you’re better off with a second set of eyes.
It pays to hire a professional copyeditor if you plan on publishing. Second best is a fellow writer with excellent grammar and punctuation skills. And if you’ve set a time limit, be sure to hire someone or get someone to commit early on.
When it’s polished and as good as it can be, you’re ready to publish.
You probably won’t find a literary agent or publisher interested in a short novel (novella) or a short story. A novel usually contains at least 60,000 words, so I’m talking about self-publishing here. (You could submit to a journal or magazine, however.)
You’ll need to format your manuscript. You can always hire someone, but you can also do it yourself. And as long as you know how to use MS Word, you’re in great shape.
The best guide to formatting I’ve seen is the Smashwords Style Guide. This detailed guide provides everything you need to know about formatting for any online retailer that accepts MS Word docs. If you follow the directions carefully, the chances of having a problem are minimal. This article discusses the same steps.
And you need a cover.
Creating a cover is simple, but creating an attractive cover that will sell your book is easier said than done, for most of us (including me). But with some of the online apps available like Canva, you can do a pretty decent job. Amazon’s Cover Creator can also work. Ask a friend for help. Or hire someone (best bet).
I create covers with Pixelmator on Mac, or I use Gimp, a free, open-source software similar to Adobe Photoshop. And I’ve had lots of help from this guy, Derek Murphy. Check out his YouTube channel and this article: 8 cover design secrets publishers use to manipulate readers into buying books.
And BAM! There you go.
Keep in mind that I’m not talking about a novel here. I’m talking about a short story of anywhere from 1,500 words up to around 20,000 words at most or a short novel.
As I mentioned, I went way over my original goal of 10,000 words. I ended up with about 33,000—a novella rather than a short story—but that’s fine. I could probably expand and make a full novel out of it, but I like it as it is.
And you’re probably wondering: how long did it actually take as far as hours go? I can only guess, but I worked full-time on it for almost four weeks. That includes a lot of time spent on the cover and a gazillion edits and proofreads. Plus I made changes after publishing (duh), even to the cover, which takes a lot of extra time with uploading and checking. Actual writing time—probably around 80-100 hours including lots of research, massive editing, and painstaking copyediting and proofreading.
How long it takes for you depends on your writing style and whether you involve others in the editing, cover design, and formatting process. The time from start to finish (actual days or weeks) will also vary depending on how much time you have available.
Pick up a copy of 2036 – The Final Resistance and check it out.
Questions? Comments? Fire away!