I mentioned previously that I would be reviewing two similar books here on a topic we don't talk about much - writing a novel. In the case of these two books, both promise to teach you how to write a first draft of your novel in just 30 days.
Why Talk About Novel Writing on a Freelance Writing Blog?
- There's nothing to say that freelance writers have to focus on non-fiction.
- These books aim to help us target larger writing projects (and offer a lot of tips that I think could prove beneficial when writing non-fiction books, e-books, etc. in addition to novels).
- Book in a Month: The Fool-Proof System for Writing a Novel in 30 Days by Victoria Lynn Schmidt
- First Draft In 30 Days: A Novel Writer's System for Building a Complete and Cohesive Manuscript by Karen S. Wiesner
There are a few high points that each of these books share, including:
- There's a finite timeline involved, which forces you to focus.
- They both address issues of time management and writer's block (First Draft in 30 Days does an especially good job with a thorough list of ideas to help you push through blocks).
- They each contain quite a few worksheets to help you organize your thoughts and map out your story (I love worksheets and similar tools - maybe you'll prefer your own note-taking methods).
The two books also share a few similar problems:
- Neither seems to really guide you in finishing what I would call a true "draft" (even a rough one) within a 30-day period. Instead, you'll essentially have a very detailed outline. Maybe you're comfortable calling that a draft - I'm not, and find the titles to be a bit deceptive in that sense. In the case of Book in a Month, it involves leaving out significant chunks of your story to get done in the time period allowed (one of the tips is to leave out subplots - how is that writing a real draft?). In the defense of First Draft in 30 days, the book does then offer advice on turning that formatted outline into an actual draft of a novel - I just find the title misleading in that it's implied that's a part of the 30-day program.
- I almost feel like the sheer amount of worksheets involved is a bit overwhelming, and found some of them to be rather vague. In fictional projects in the past, I've spent pages fully outlining the main character, villain, etc., trying to get into the head of the character and understand their motivations. I felt like some of the worksheets revolving around that in particular could leave your characters a little flat.
Now let's talk a bit more about each of the books individually:
Book in a Month
One of the biggest problems I have with this book is the binding. It's stiff, with a hard cover enclosing a ring-bound book. It's difficult to quickly page through, can seem a bit clunky, and takes up a lot of space to lay out in front of you (you really can't fold it back on itself). Another issue is the fold-out pages / cards at the beginning of each chapter. I think the chapter outline, and other information there is great, but the display feels awkward.
Speaking of those fold-outs, they do feature some highlights of the book. For example, during each week of the 30-day process, you'll find a weekly mantra and writing meditation to help you stay focused and motivated. Your goals for the week are also laid out, and you're reminded to celebrate each step of your progress. I just think the info could have been condensed onto a single carded page rather than the fold-out (perhaps others won't have a problem with it though).
Despite my issues with other elements of the book's format and layout, I love the vivid colors... black and white alone does nothing for me creatively, and when you're working on a creative project like a novel (and potentially battling writer's block), it can be refreshing.
I also love the fact that this book asks a lot of questions throughout its chapters, helping you get inside your own head, and again working to keep you motivated. I don't really think they add much value to the book, but it also includes two sheets of stickers that you can use to motivate yourself, reward yourself, or even just check off things that you've completed.
The book itself urges you to buy a new copy for each project you work on. I think that's ludicrous. Unless you're crazy about those little stickers, there's no need whatsoever to buy a new copy. You can photocopy anything that you need extra copies of for your own projects - and frankly, I think that's smarter (if you make a mistake, just print off another page and work it out again). Nice try on the marketing gimmick, but I hope most writers don't fall for it.
Overall, despite my complaints, I think the book was a worthwhile investment, and one I'll enjoy using.
First Draft in 30 Days
I've already mentioned my biggest issues with this book, as they were shared with the second. In comparison, I would say the worksheets in this book are a bit more lacking, and unless I missed it there wasn't a nice calendar layout here mapping out what you'll do each day (although there are vaguer lists including date ranges). I would have liked to have seen that.
One thing I loved about this book is its section on outlining not only your novel, but outlining your career. This is a great addition for those authors with several fictional projects in the works, those who will be pitching one book while writing another, etc. If you want to be a career novelist, the advice and examples here are worth picking up a copy of the book for alone.
I also liked that this book has an adjusted 30-day plan for projects that were already in the works (I may use it to re-work a novel outline I did a few years back, because I'll want to make some character and plot changes before moving forward with it).
Which Program Should You Use?
It's a tough call on the better book here. From evaluating nothing but the methods and books themselves, I'd personally go with First Draft in 30 Days (because of the career planning chapter, nice list of writer's block solutions, and the ability to tailor the project for new or existing projects easily).
However, if you're a more visual person, or you like the extra nudges of probing questions to help you think and re-focus, Book in a Month will probably serve your needs better. I bought both, and don't regret either purchase. There's no reason I would suggest that you not consider one or the other, if this kind of project interests you.
Putting the Programs to the Test
I also mentioned in my previous post that I wasn't going to stop at simply reviewing these books - I'm going to test each method!
I have two related story concepts ready to work with (similar to more accurately compare the methods, while having them be potentially co-marketable if I ever finish the books and decide to try to pitch them to publishers).
As of now, the plan is to use one method in June, and the second in July. However, 30 consecutive days may not be realistic for me, given that that's a busy time of the year for my PR work, so all I'm going to guarantee is that I'll be spending 30 working days following the plans laid out in each book (still hoping for 30 calendar days though). I'll report on the progress of each down the road.