When I first read Denise Jaden’s book Fast Fiction: A Guide to Outlining and Writing a First-Draft Novel in Thirty Days (her ideas can be used for writing memoir and creative non-fiction too!) and then interviewed her for an IAJW telechat (you can find this recording in the Audio Library, Member Only Area), I was fascinated by her confidence that someone with no prior experience could write a first draft of a novel in two months. I hadn’t ever seriously thought that I would or could write a novel. I had written journal entries for more than 40 years, and I’ve written scores of articles for newsletters and posts for blogs during the last fifteen years, but I’ve never written fiction. I’ve never taken a creative writing class. Ever.

The idea of taking the Fast Fiction class with Denise this summer was so intriguing that I signed up. I had no trips planned in the second four-week period, so I figured it was the right time to try my hand at writing the fast-draft of a novel.

The first day of the class, there’s a group phone call and upbeat group energy begins. This class is about the process–not as much as about the content of your story–although some general sharing of content occurs. I had no–absolutely NO–idea about the story line before I began the class. Watching it develop was part of the magic.

Denise asks that you spend 20 minutes to one hour a day on the first month. Every day she gives you a bite-sized piece of background information followed by an assignment. You’ll learn, for example, how to: +brainstorm story ideas +identify how we each best come up with creative ideas +create characters +develop setting and themes +build a three-act structure.

She offers information about logistics (like experimenting with and finding the most productive time of day and environment for you to brainstorm or to write) as well as feedback and problem solving when you are stuck.

By the end of the first month you have a firm starting point to write. You don’t necessarily have the whole story planned out, but you have a good running start and permission and encouragement to let the writing process proceed creatively and organically so that if surprise twists and changes in the plot appear as you write, you simply go with them. Denise and your fellow group members are a sounding board, listening and reacting to triumphs, frustrations, and questions of process. The group environment is actively encouraging–buoying you past barriers that might otherwise stop you dead.

The second month, fingers meet the keyboard every day. For the next 30 days the assignment is to write 2000 words daily. Denise is firm. Don’t miss a day. Keep the momentum going. The reminder is that this is a first draft. It’s quick writing based upon the solid planning that you had done the previous four weeks. Denise claimed that it would take between 1 and 1½ hours daily, but it took almost two hours each day for me to write 2000 words. Some days I only got to 1500 words and I couldn’t spend any more time on the project.

Denise herself has written more than half-a-dozen books using her method. (And two are published by Simon and Schuster.) She anticipates the patterns during the 30 writing days where the energy and momentum is high and where the process may be bumpy and slow-going. She’s a cheerleader throughout as well as a player on the field; she wrote the first draft of a novel along with us during the last four weeks.

I did have two days in the second month where I missed writing entirely. During those days I did, however, think about the next steps of the story so that I stayed in the flow, and caught up in the next few days, so that I did have more than 50,000 words written by the end of the month–a little short of the 60,000 word goal, but within the range of a full-sized novel.

Denise tells us that the next step will be revision–which is not part of this class. And she emphasizes the need to let the first draft sit for at least a couple of weeks, if not longer if you’d like, before revising. The point is that now you have a solid start, a rough draft that was written quickly and so has freshness and momentum. It is like the rough carving out of a block of wood or a piece of stone for creating sculpture. You’ve created the large cuts that shape the piece. The next steps are the finer chiseling, refining and sanding down to make it into a polished piece.

The writing process was surprisingly empowering for me on a couple of levels:

1. The process felt similar to writing in my journal. Although most of what occurred in the story didn’t happen to me in my real life, I often thought back to a conversation I easily could have had with my sister, or my parents or my own children or a friend when I was in high school. I imagined myself there at the scene I was writing and the story flowed easily and unfolded in front of me with less effort than I ever imagined.

2. The story I wrote had parallels to my own personal struggles. In writing this particular story the protagonist overcame some of the issues that I’ve worked hard in real life to overcome, and continue to work on. The writing bolstered me emotionally. I knew first-hand the protagonist’s pain and then felt her triumph in making the changes, solving the problems, and having the family support and guidance that I in reality didn’t have.

If you have even a sliver of interest in writing a novel (and November is the National Novel Writing Month –NaNoWriMo–during which hundreds of thousands of people participate) this is an opportunity that you should jump on now. Denise is the ultimate Sherpa to guide you on climbing to the top of this mountain.

Written by Ruth Folit, Founder & Past Director, IAJW