Write a 50,000-Word Pulp Novel Before Breakfast
My easy no-outline way of writing short novels in four weeks
To kick start my self-publishing business, I wrote a novel a month for three years. That doesn’t make me special. Lots of people do the same thing. Writing a novel a month is a very common business model for full-time author/publishers.
As you gear up as a new indie novelist, you’re going to hear people say you need an outline if you want to write fast. But maybe you think outlines are boring. Or you already know from previous sad experience that your creative brain doesn’t play well with outlines.
Never fear. I don’t write pulp novels in four weeks by faffing around with outlines. Tons of prolific writers never spend a day faffing around with outlines. Stephen King, a leading pantser, seems to have done pretty well for himself without them.
If tons of people can do something, you can do it too.
To prove it, I'll run some numbers. The average month has 22 weekdays, so we'll pick a month and see how the math works.
If you pull out a calendar, you'll see that November 2021 had exactly 22 weekends. However, two of them are Thanksgiving and Black Friday.
That leaves 20 working days. Plenty of time, friends. Write 2,500 words a day five days a week, boom. On November 30, you’ve got 50,000 words.
Different months have different holidays, but it works out roughly the same for any month you choose. If you've got 20 working days in that month, writing a 50,000-word draft of a pulp novel is going to be completely doable.
You Must Pick Your Subgenre Wisely
Please notice: This article is tightly focused on how I write 50,000-words pulp (category) novels. The romance genre doesn’t seem to embrace the term “pulp” the way thriller, mystery, or sci-fi writers do. They call them category novels. But it’s the same idea. We're focusing on how to write fast, fun novels many readers finish in a day.
You can’t write every kind of novel this way. For example, your 100,000-word police procedural will take more than two months to write because that genre’s readers demand verisimilitude. If you’re not a police officer in the jurisdiction where you’re setting the story, you’ll need to do extensive research, possibly even take a ride-along or two, to get those details right.
Everything takes longer if you choose the wrong (non-pulpy) genre. If your goal is to write your novel in a month, you have to take some care with this step. Most people assume the best choice will be the genre they read most often for pleasure. Alas, this isn’t always the case.
For example, I read a ton of science fiction — usually the sprawling, speculative stuff that roams over galaxies. Your Iain M. Banks and your Peter Hamiltons. Well, I can’t write The Algebraist in 30 days. Nobody can.
You know what a lot of people can write in 30 days? Shoot-em-ups (Westerns) in space, the Napoleonic Wars in space. Or those Star Trek knock-offs about the motley crew of somehow endearing people who go around having adventures on different planets.
Take your strengths into account. If you want to write about space wars, it helps to have military experience. A lot of indies writing about the post-apocalypse are preppers. They know five different ways to kill the zombie horde before the rest of us get our boots on.
Mystery offers lots of cool subgenres that can really bog you down. Lawyers can spin out legal thrillers all day long, but it takes longer for the rest of us. A lot longer, if we go down the wrong path because that TV show we watched told too many convincing fibs about how the legal system works.
You know what kind of mystery you can write in a month? A light cozy that breezes along for fun. Amateur sleuth stories write fast because the amateur doesn’t have to know beans about proper police procedure. She’s breaking the law all over the place to solve the crime, but all is forgiven because she’s so cute when she brings the killer to justice.
Romance is the biggest genre. It’s a huge market that’s open to indie writers because so many romance readers read a new book every day — often a short 40,000 to 60,000-word category novel. But there’s a ton of niches you can write in, so make it easy on yourself by starting with a world you already know well.
Work in a coffeehouse? Write coffeehouse romance. Your boyband crush taught you everything there is to know about the beautiful angst of loving a musician who doesn’t know you exist? Write rock star romance.
‘Write What You Know’ Saves Time
You’re starting to catch on by now. If you want to write a novel in a month, you have to write, not research. Don’t get me wrong. Research is a lot of fun. But you don’t have time for that now. Even fake Google “research” is a trap that leads you down endless rabbit holes. To get that puppy finished in a month, build on places you’re already seen, people you’ve already met, and crazy adventures you’ve already had.
A lot of novels are set in made-up small towns. Did you think the author dreams up a map from scratch every time they start a new series? Ha. Make it easy on yourself. Use a scenic place you already know well enough to stroll around in your mind.
Pro tip: Give everything — including the town itself — a different name in case you remember something a little bit wrong. If you don’t, it’s guaranteed somebody from that town will email you about why you’ve got such-and-such cafe on the wrong street.
The Very Least You Need to Start Writing
You need a character in conflict to have a story. If you want to write a novel, you already know this, so we don’t need to belabor the point. Most of the time, you’ve got an idea for a character that excites you, even if the average pulp character tends to be pretty tropey. The brilliant detective. The brave starship captain. The hot alpha billionaire. Pick your poison.
Indie romance novels usually have two main characters — it has become standard to alternate between the points of view of the lovers. Even so, I only need one character to get started. Then, using my amazing insights into human nature, I can easily figure out what kind of love interest has to show up to drive a sparky plot. For instance, that hot alpha billionaire probably needs a manic pixie girl to shake him up.
Unblock, Loosen Up, and Write
Once you have a character facing conflict in a setting you know well, it’s time to get started. You’ve got this. All you have to do is write 2,500 words every weekday for a month. It sounds like more than it is.
You can type or dictate that much in an hour or two first thing in the morning once you get in the habit. They say it takes five weeks to establish a habit. So, once you’re written two novels, you’re well on your way to becoming a one-person book factory.
I do make a firm commitment to write the 2,500 words. It’s all right if I get up a head of steam and write longer. It’s not all right if I stop on 2,499 words.
Not everyone agrees with this rule. Some people shoot for an average of 2,500 words. That is, they can do 2,000 words one day and 3,000 words the next, and they call it a job well done. For me, I find if I start doing 2,000 words one day, then I’m going to do 2,000 words the next day, and pretty soon, the whole thing’s coming up short because I don’t have the same momentum.
“Just do it,” is easy advice for a shoe company to give, but it’s less helpful to writers. I’ve had days when I had trouble getting started. We all do.
Here’s how I fight back against the common excuses for not doing the words on any given day.
I can’t start because I don’t have a killer first scene.
Movies aren’t filmed in order. Books don’t have to be written in order either. If I have no first chapter, I start with the scene I see most vividly. The rest of the story will emerge in time.
I don’t know what happens next, so I can’t write today.
Same answer. Skip that scene or chapter. Write the scenes that you can see. Later, you’ll be surprised at how easy it is to go back and fill in.
No, you’re not listening to me. I really can’t think of anything to say.
In Story Trumps Structure: How to Write Unforgettable Fiction by Breaking the Rules, Steven James shares a piece of advice worth its weight in gold:
“If you find yourself at a loss for what to write next, write a scene that fulfills a promise you made earlier in the book or work on a requisite scene that readers expect based on the genre and the story you’ve told so far.”
James is saying you know going in there are certain situations that have to happen in all books in your subgenre. If you’re stuck on what happens next, skip ahead to one of those “has to happens.”
As a broad rule, your novels— all novels — are about characters in conflict. When I’m stuck on what to write, I always fall back on writing dialogue between two characters in conflict. An argument, a threat, flirtation/sexual tension… these words tend to flow because we’ve all been involved in arguments or flirtations, and we all know the familiar pattern of escalation.
For me, this stuff rolls off the keyboard, but some people find it easier to talk out the dialogue into their phone. Have fun either way. I often end up needing to cut stuff later when the back-and-forth runs too long, but that’s a first-world problem. Enjoy seeing how fast you can go from, “I’m blocked,” to realizing you just scribbled 5,000 words.
Steamy romance writers are known for — dare I say it — pounding them out. It’s probably because sex scenes are so much fun to write. Any time you get stuck, you can just skip ahead to work on one of the series of escalating sex scenes you know your readers will expect.
This book is [expletive deleted].
If it’s a first draft, it probably is. So what? You can’t sculpt the clay until you have the clay. Think of your first draft as the process of getting your clay. It looks like muck when you first dig it out of the riverbank, but you’re going to turn it into something beautiful.
Don’t listen to those people who claim they write it right the first time and just hand it over to the proofreader who stands amazed at their clean copy. Even if they’re not lying — and they’re totally lying — their process doesn’t work for most authors. If you think a word has to be perfect before you write it down, how many words are you going to write a day?
In Romancing the Beat: Story Structure for Romance Novels, Gwen Hayes was careful to say, “The glory of the beats is that you can use this system before you write, as you write, or after you write.”
I add the emphasis for a reason. When you work from an outline, you have presumed you can know the whole story before you’ve ever written it down. I’m not that presumptuous. I will discover more of the story as I write. It never fails. There are always going to be twists and turns I had no idea were coming until I got there.
As discovery writers, we don’t really have much “before” we write. We’re either writing, or we’re revising. I can’t shape invisible clay. I need something visible to work with. For me, the beat sheet is something I use after the first draft to double-check I have all the scenes my readers expect.
Crafting Three Helpful Resources
Category Romance: The Art of Fiction Haiku by Amy Lane (Dreamspinner Press, 2020). This book is convenient one-stop shopping to help you consider all your options for popular category romance themes, tropes, and characters.
Romancing the Beat: Story Structure For Romance Novels by Gwen Hayes (2016). RtB has become something of a classic for indie romance writers. Once you have your first draft, it’s easy to use as a checklist to be sure you’ve included all the expected “beats.” Add the scenes you missed, punch up the ones that are kind of lame, and you’ll be done almost before you know it.
Story Trumps Structure: How to Write Unforgettable Fiction by Breaking the Rules by Steven James (Writer’s Digest, 2014) is the best book I’ve read that focuses on discovery/non-outline-based “organic” fiction. Every “pantser” should own a copy.
An earlier version of this story was published by Writer's Blokke, a Medium publication. If you found something useful here, I'd be thrilled if you gently tapped the <3 button. I also appreciate tips.
If you prefer to write nonfiction, you might enjoy this article about how I use Amazon ads to make a steady monthly profit from a short nonfiction book: