Report on a 30 day challenge: Write a Novel

Last month during National Novel Writing Month I decided to write a 50,000 word novel. My novel started like this:

My name is Russ. I’m a journalism student, and I didn’t expect to be in jail. They took me to a squat police station and parked my ass in an interrogation room. They took my cell phone, so I don’t know exactly how long I’ve been sitting here. On the wall in front of me is a mirror, and I keep trying to catch a glimpse of movement behind it.

Maybe I should back up. I can’t believe all of this started with a USB thumb drive.

I intended the novel to be a technothriller, but the the joy in writing a book is seeing where it takes you. It took me to a hacker’s den in Washington, D.C. for part of the story. But it also led me through a discussion of file formats for government documents. Go figure.

My best friend from high school also participated and finished. My wife wrote 50,000 words too. So I was lucky to discover one huge secret of writing: find a writing buddy. It was both humbling and motivating to write with my friend. Humbling, because he let me read what he wrote, and he’s a better writer than I am. Motivating, because I knew he’d be waiting to read what I wrote too. It was enormously fun to compare notes and follow the progress of my friend while we endured the challenge together.

I wrote my entire novel in a single document in Google Docs, and it worked great. In fact, it worked better than great. I added hyperlinks in quite a few spots so a reader could dive more deeply into a topic. When I wanted to insert a picture, it was easy. When I wanted to throw in text that appeared on a computer screen, I could change to a monospaced terminal font. I felt much safer knowing that the novel was backed up in the cloud instead of sitting on a local hard drive that could easily fail.

My best friend used Google Docs too, and a couple times we both had a document open at once. I could see his cursor moving around and watch him writing text in real-time. We also used the “comment” feature to leave jokes or encouragement in each other’s doc. I was really pleased with Google Docs for writing my novel: A+++++ would do business again. 🙂

I also learned the value of a plot outline, mainly because I didn’t have one. I started with a vague idea of my plot, and I knew the ending I wanted. I wrote until I got to my ending, and *crap* I was only 1/4th of the way to 50,000 words. So I kept going beyond my original ending and it turned out fine. But the next time I write a novel, maybe I’ll think a bit more about the plot before I start.

According to the official site, 37,479 people “won” National Novel Writing Month by writing at least 50,000 words. Congratulations to the successful novelists, and all of the 200,530 people who took part in this challenge! This 30 day challenge was definitely one of the hardest I’ve tried. To write a 50,000 word novel in a month, you have to write 1,667 words a day. Each day, I wouldn’t go to sleep until I’d written my word count for that day. For me, that took at least an hour and forty minutes every day, and normally more than two hours each day. I stayed up until 1 or 2 a.m. a lot of nights in November. But on November 29th I finished, and I’m really glad I did. This month I’m doing an easy 30 day challenge (“learn a new word a day“) to recuperate.

I arranged things so that my novel wrapped up just after the 50,000 word mark, but my friend is still pushing forward. My final word count according to the NaNoWriMo web site was 50,035 words (50,675 words according to Google Docs). I’m glad that I did this challenge because now, I’m a novelist. 🙂

I’m torn about whether to open the doc up for everyone to read. It’s got all the normal warts and blemishes of any first novel, plus a few extra. Part of me wants to push all the way through and make it a real, physical book on Lulu or maybe make it an ebook, just to learn how that process works. We’ll see. Maybe that will be another 30 day challenge. 🙂

60 Responses to Report on a 30 day challenge: Write a Novel (Leave a comment)

  1. Congrats!

    I worked at Lulu for awhile and also used the service to put out my own book. There is definitely a thrill when you get the book back in a non-electronic process. It was when I had it in my hand that I felt the “Wow, I actually wrote a book” emotion.

    You can just print one for yourself using the service.

  2. A technothriller written by one of the most influential webcentric minds… yes. I’d like a copy.

  3. Good one Matt. I have decided to write something too for 2011 but I think mine is gonna take more than 30 days and I am a bit undecided on what the topic is going to be.

  4. Matt,

    Congrats, that sounds like a really overwhelming goal — to accomplish it must feel very gratifying. Although, you can’t write all about this challenge without at least a chapter excerpt for us!

    Any more advice about your writing process? I’ve always thought it would be fun to write something like that, but the logistics of actually doing it always scare me.

  5. have been waiting for it been anxious as to what are you writing novel by matt cutts that is something unusual special, i too registered in september but couldn’t keep up

    waiting for it

  6. Congrats on completing/winning the challenge. The opening is pretty intriguing. And yep, I’d love to read it too – I think loads of people would 🙂

    Also a little (well, a lot!) off-topic Matt, but do you know when the new webmaster Youtube videos will start being uploaded? Am just curious to find out if any of my questions were answered lol.

  7. Congrats on your accomplishment. Now you need to change your wording slightly. Say to yourself: You haven’t written a book… You’ve written your *first* book.

    I second Dan London’s suggestion too. Much love for!

    Finally – I’d suggest putting it on a (virtual) shelf and leaving it for a few months – then check it again. If you can edit/fix it, then think about releasing it. Seriously – you’ve got 82,000 twitter followers. That is a built in fan-base!

  8. Nice throwback eBay feedback reference. A++++ 🙂 I’ve been telling myself I’ll do nanowrimo one year…maybe next year will be my year.

    Throw it out there on Lulu and see what happens.

  9. I guess you’re not gonna quit your day job :.) Bummer for spammers…

  10. Open it up, I’m anxious to read what you wrote and in my experience, endings are always the hardest.

  11. Matt, go ahead, share. I can’t wait to read it.
    Maybe next year I’ll take the challenge….1,667 words per day doesn’t sound as daunting. Thanks for the encouraging math!

  12. Good job! I got only to about 11,000 this year, but that was good enough for me. I just wanted to get some writing practice and meet some new people in our local group.

  13. Congratulations Matt.

    Check out “Writing for Story” by Jon Franklin. It’s the solution, and he’s a great example of a writer who gets the job done well. See The book that got me started on Franklin was his Shock Trauma, all the way back in 1980 see

  14. Hi, I wondering how do you choose your challenge?
    It’s looks fun, I’d like to start something like this, but don’t know where to start 🙂

  15. Wow. You’ve got some serious determination to write almost 1700 words a day religiously…especially in your “off-time”. The idea of committing to something like this is daunting…and could potentially leave me vulnerable to those men in the white coats.
    Maybe next year.
    A novel is very personal…like your baby. But you’ve gotta introduce the world to it sooner or later.
    Let’s hope it’s sooner.

  16. A novel must have meaning and spirit, first of all. Count of words doesn’t important, certainly. For example or are wonderful books lots of meaning and thought in. Another example is : have so much words but no meaning 🙂 Nobody can’t finish or can’t understand. Looks like brick, chop head!
    Think about quality&quantity. Words counts are not important, important is meaning. If you can chisel a long sentence can be even more valuable. Also must be so diffucult for you an engineers doesn’t write easily they have numberical brain, writing is emotional business. I hope you can.

  17. It’s a motivating story. At first, 50,000 words seemed unattainable to me but then when broken into day by day updates of 1000+ words, it seemed more doable. Congrats and thanks for the inspiration.

  18. As part of “winning” you get a free copy of your book through Create Space. By the way, there is another challenge called NaNoEdMo (National Novel Editing Month – Come join us!

  19. Wow, Matt! Congrats. What an accomplishment?! I think writing a novel is on almost everyone’s bucket list, and they just don’t make the time. Good for you. I would love to have the chance to read it some day. I’d buy it.

  20. LOL. May be you should stick with your Google Job.

  21. They say that everyone has a book in them! I guess the hardest part is starting.

  22. “I’m glad that I did this challenge because now, I’m a novelist. :)”

    Hmmm. Is that all it takes to be labeled a Novelist; just to write a private 50k “novel” in Google Docs?

    I see your smiley face there, and I’ve got one going too.

    I bet the section on the file formats is a real cliff hanger scene. LOL!

    Anyway, all chop bustin’ aside, nice effort and a LOT of work for sure. I don’t think many “novelists” work on a 30-day deadline!

  23. Well Done. You can’t just give us the first couple of sentences and then not give us the rest. I think you might be surprised by the feedback you get. It won’t be as bad as you think. Plus, no matter what the outcome, at least you can say to the critics that you did something. Go on, publish the link and see what happens.

  24. wow 50000 words that’s a lot 🙂 i really can’t picture myself writing that much 🙂 but definititely would like to read it so please open it to public 🙂

  25. I’d love to have a copy of the novel! It sounds like it has a good story behind it, even after only reading a few lines. It sounds like you have taken a real life situation too which is always cool =) I hope you do decide to release it and I hope comments like mine will persuade you to =)

  26. We all now how hard it is to even try this challenge. I wanted to do it also but failed because of lack of ideas.
    So you should really not hesitate to open the document for everybody. It really sound gripping and I would really like to read it.

  27. Rob McCance, I’m a novelist now–just not a published novelist. 😉

  28. Congratulations, Matt! I love NaNo for being a great motivator and for developing that most cardinal of writerly virtues: write every day.

    Now you just have to edit it and find an agent. (And by just I mean each of those should have their own NaNo month.)

  29. You should definitely open the document up for people to read! Not for any critical insight, but to give other aspiring writers something to look at. Often when you start out writing you have the choice to either emulate someone already published or scrabble around on the net for inspiration!

  30. Congratulations, Matt! I remember someone asking you if you’d written your 1,700 when you spoke at PubCon in November! I’d love to read your book! Keep up updated.

  31. Yeah, just gotta say, totally hooked as well. Let us know ASAP when your work is published / shared… I must read this story!!

  32. Congrats on winning… I lost. While I started out great I soon had to quit as I had to move. This process took way too long as I was going from a 5 bedroom home to a 2 bedroom condo. Originally my goal was to write 2k words a day and was on track until discovering I had to move. To make up for this fail I will attempt the screen play in 30 days challenge.


    Exterior: 8:38 PM – Early Spring SCENE 1

    Lucky Lester
    How do I get myself into these things?

    Casual Viewer Walking By
    Because you are a schmuck!

    Lucky Lester
    Huh… I thought it might be something that simple!

  33. The story looks fascinating! I’m looking forward to read your book 🙂

  34. Matt – Definitely go the Lulu and eBook routes. You’ll definitely learn a ton and then… Google Books man! 🙂

  35. Congrats, Matt.

    I knew that you could do it (I won also). And, I would love to read what you have written,
    so, please open up your draft to the world…


    P.S. Thanks for letting me know about this…

  36. Morris Rosenthal


    Don’t you hate it when somebdoy says “I told you so.” I like being hated:-) My comment on your blog from a couple months ago when you announced your intention to write a novel:

    New 30 day challenges: Get my finances in order. Write a novel.

    Morris Rosenthal October 24, 2010 at 8:26 am

    Make sure you sketch out that campy plot before you start. After writing short stories for a couple years (around 20 years ago) I decided to give a novel a shot but kept running out of steam. Finally a friend asked me to explain the plot.


    So I sketched out a 20 chapter plot, really 20 sentences, on the classic coffee shop napkin, and two months later I had a finshed novel. No great shakes, but finished.

    My memory is that I put about four hours a day into writing. I’ve no doubt you’re a much faster typer, but 30 days is still a push. And I’m not sure that typing was the bottle neck, more of a bandwidth issue.

    Maybe if you posted the work to your blog each day it would help move things along. At least it would help move your blog along:-)


  37. Congratulations on a great experiment! It sounds like it was a worthy challenge.

    I think that you should publish your novel as an e-book or via Lulu. Not only will it give you the chance to learn about the process but you may even get some worthwhile guidance for your next effort.


  38. Way to go! I am giving you a virtual high five. Sounds like it would be a great read. Let us know if you open it up to the public. bTW I am a big fan of google docs too!

  39. I failed hard. I sat down, plotted everything out worked out characters etc and churned out a couple of chapters. Then I took a day off.
    The next thing I know its the end of the month and I haven’t got any further at all.

  40. RE: parked my ass in an interrogation room.

    Why would they bring a donkey in a interrogation room?

    Merry Xmas 🙂

  41. Congrats! I too wrote my entire 50,000+ word NaNoWriMo creation in a single Google doc. I loved that I could pick up writing from any computer with a web connection.

    I have not yet been brave enough to share it with anyone, but I have fine plans to do so after I make at few editing passes back through it. Right now I am starting the final week of a self imposed quarantine from my writing. No reading what I wrote until New Year’s Day.

  42. Infinite respect, Matt. Your 30-day challenges are awesome and this, by far, is my favorite. Probably because I’m envious of the outcome. In fact, it’s part of my motivation to begin working on my own personal blog: so I can push myself with my own 30-day challenges.

    I run websites for a living, and go figure, I’m now starting a personal website as a hobby. It’s not all your fault, but I’m forcing you to take at least partial blame.

    Keep the great work, Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year!

  43. Congrats ))

  44. This is one of the most inspiring posts I’ve read in a very very long time. Its actually the PERFECT marketing piece for your book as I want to read it now. People should never underestimate the power of storytelling because as well as wanting to read your book, I also want to go and check out Google Docs too.

  45. An old saying goes …

    – Have a child
    – Plant a tree
    – Write a book

    That way you’ll leave a trace of your existence on earth for a very long life. No particular order, though. 🙂

  46. Congrats from one Wrimo to another 🙂 I highly encourage you to get your free proof from CreateSpace even if you don’t intend to actually publish. The free proof code is here (you have to be signed in to see it): It’s incredibly satisfying to have your novel in hand.

    See you next November!

  47. What a clever idea to use Google Docs to collaborate on a writing project! I had started writing a book, but it is a lot easier said than done. Great respect for prolific, good writers.

  48. Matt, I am very impressed and I haven’t even read the book yet! But it is very impressive for you to have taken on this challenge; now I want to get onto the book I have been putting off.
    I am a “Thaidomider” born in 1961 – and boy, do I have some story to write. Thank you for the inspiration! -JG

  49. Sounds like it would be a great read. Let us know if you open it up to the public.

  50. Docs is great for my novel-in-progress. Can’t say I’m adding images, but one pleasant feature i discovered is the “define” tool, which is invaluable as a working dictionary. Who has time to pull out a big tome for a word look-up?

  51. I saw your posts on Nanowrimo the past couple of months (congratulations, by the way), but somehow I’ve completely missed your 30-day experiment series. I actually launched a site in October called 30GO30 dedicated to that idea – testing the limits of what you can accomplish in 30 days (for 30 minutes a day), if you really cut out all the noise and get to work. Meanwhile, you’ve been at it for well over a year.

    Not trying to pitch my site (I know better than to spam the Chief Constable of Quality), but I just wanted to say that I really enjoyed going back and re-reading your 30-day challenges. Some great inspiration for my own experiments, and I look forward to what you’ve got planned for 2011.

  52. I’d love to give it a flick through 🙂

  53. I love NaNoWriMo. Two years ago there was a big group of my friends that participated. We posted our progress on FB, encouraging each other, seeing who could write the most for the day. It was a lot of fun.

    A writing buddy is really important. It’s amazing what a buddy can do for you. Whether it’s working out, writing, diet, a good partner in crime can help a lot.

  54. Publish!

    When can we expect the novel…? The first few lines open like any typical thriller (think Dan Brown or so)….I’m eager to read it already. Plot flaws and such we can tolerate, not getting the novel published at least as an ebook we can’t…

  55. I cant wait to read the whole book I will definitely be getting this one

  56. Matt,

    I think it is great that you pushed through and actually wrote the book. You are 95% of the way there to having it published. I actually have a system that I sell (not going to plug it here), but if you are interested, drop me an email and I will be happy to help you get your book published in no time at all.

    Thanks for sharing.
    Keith Dougherty

  57. Are you kidding me? You have to publish it for the world to read. There are many techie’s that would really appreciate that kind of story. I’d read it, and I am only a borderline “techie”.. May be you can quit your job and become a bestselling techno-thrilling author!

  58. Doing a little bit of research (googling) into 30 day challenges, I find that they’re quite wide-spread. People do them about all kinds of things. I think the time frame is right, not too long and not too short.

    What I can’t find, is anyone who has done a year of 30 day challenges. This year I’ve done a year long challenge, but next year it needs to be different and I’m thinking of 30 day challenges.

    This novel month would have to be set in stone, it’s a true challenge. Have you come across other month long challenges in your 30 day challenging experience? Do you know of a challenge calendar?

  59. Matt, I came across your TED Talk recently and first heard of NaNoWrimo. I am really glad I found out right before November comes up. I know I am going to have to really push myself to write the ~1600 words a day, but I have roped a few friends into doing the challenge and we are planning on having some weekly meetings where we can pep talk each other, share passages, etc.

  60. @北京家庭装修公司 Thanks and yes, I will let everyone know.