how to write a novel in 90 days




I like to think of writing fiction as a difficult and intricate kind of magic.

Magic = skills + art.

You need to learn a rather stunning array of skills, whether it’s the rules of decent grammar or the principles of storytelling, and then you need to transform them into something your own. The dancer becomes the dance. You don’t see the plot points, you only experience story.

So I love to read books and articles about how to write fiction. I think of it as writer’s porn. Recently I read three very good books on the subject.

Each book will inspire its own post.

Today I want to say that Alan Watt’s THE 90 DAY NOVEL effectively changed my approach to first-drafting through stressing the spirit of inquiry.

Instead of trying to control the narrative, you shape it through…asking questions. Asking and answering questions about the characters helps you create the conflict which helps you create the major plot points.

(Watt guides you through this process in a series of letters that speak to the heart of who we are and what we do.)

Then you write your way from plot point to plot point, with no revision or backtracking allowed – the important thing is to get the damn thing done.

(Besides, you can’t do the heavy lifting until you see how the ending illuminates the beginning and all that falls between.)

Questions are powerful tools. By choosing what to ask and how to ask it, you frame – or reframe – what you’re looking at. Questions open up new avenues in the material. They focus — and expand — your attention. They get your mind moving (since the brain has a compulsive itch to answer any question you put to it).

Questions rebel.

Questions disrupt.

We get trapped in habitual ways of thinking and doing, including how we perceive our material. It could be the project we are working on or the raw stuff of life that we’re working with. The brain seeks out patterns, and then runs along those patterns. (Often when we think we’re thinking, we’re not really thinking. We’re moving in the grooves.) It evolved this way to survive, to make sense of the world, to organize the constant bombardment of incoming stimuli as efficiently as possible. The more it can put on automatic pilot, the more space it frees up to focus on other things (or maybe just loaf around).

But it means that we have to make a conscious effort to step outside of those patterns. To shake things up. To see the things we’re not seeing, or connect them in new ways.

Questions don’t allow us to take things for granted.

This spirit of inquiry also allows for the mystery of the creative process while still creating enough of a structure to give it shape and purpose.

Stephen King once compared novel-writing to an archaeological dig. Bit by bit, you travel down through the layers and unearth the thing. It’s as if the novel already exists and your job is to reach into that murky space and bring it up into the light.

This takes some of the pressure off. You’re not expected to know all the answers, but simply to discover them, one by one by one. You state your intentions, ask your questions, and see what happens next.

That’s your end of the bargain.

You don’t need to be great.

You only need to be curious.

“Advice? I don’t have advice. Stop aspiring and start writing. If you’re writing, you’re a writer. Write like you’re a goddamn death row inmate and the governor is out of the country and there’s no chance for a pardon. Write like you’re clinging to the edge of a cliff, white knuckles, on your last breath, and you’ve got just one last thing to say, like you’re a bird flying over us and you can see everything, and please, for God’s sake, tell us something that will save us from ourselves. Take a deep breath and tell us your deepest, darkest secret, so we can wipe our brow and know that we’re not alone. Write like you have a message from the king.”

– Alan Watts

Hey you. Check out the 90 Day Novel Online. But before you do that, please sign up for my list! Because it makes the world a better place. Swear.

Apr 29, 2011

17 comments · Add Yours

Writer’s Porn….I like that.

I’m going to use this to write the final 25% of my WiP in….20 days. This time I mean it!


Great writeup of a great book. I’m at day 43 in my novel writing. At first, I didn’t like the first section that focused on questions instead of just starting my novel. Boy, did I learn how useful the 90 day process can be. I’m getting a much richer and more nuanced story this way. I’m a total fan.


Hmm, I’ll have to check out that book. It’s an intriguing proposition.


“Instead of trying to control the narrative, you shape it through asking questions.” … …I AM VINDICATED!

This is all I ever do. Characters go plunk in the middle of a strange place, and the first thing I (they) do is trigger something random to see what happens. Time after time I’ve been told “No, Will, you need to have a coherent plot mapped out and all before you start.” But I’ve never done that–I take a starting point and an ending point and let my characters run amok in the middle until they get there.

“Why?” they ask. “Why does this world work this way? What happens if I do this? Will they get mad? Let’s find out.” And it’s quite fun. Sure, they have a goal in mind, but more often than not there’s room for exploration in the meantime.


Stephen — you & me both!

Michael — great to hear from someone in the workshop. I’m curious to try it myself.

Adam — it’s a great book, I recommend it — and Watt reveals some deep wisdom not just about writing, but about living and being human (and how that applies to our writing). It’s a smart, intelligent and elegant book.

Will — “Sure, they have a goal in mind” —

I think that’s what’s key. I’ve been wrestling with my own process — extensive outlining doesn’t work for me because my best ideas surface as I’m actually writing the story — but I need to know what my key story points are. They become my goals, and I write from goal to goal to goal, which accumulate into one big goal. Maybe that’s why I liked Watt’s book so much — it does emphasize preparation and planning (for the first part of 90 days you don’t write the novel at all, you just ask questions and explore character and story ideas) but it also allows for the magic of discovery and exploration as you go, the process of the unconscious. While still ending up with a very readable first draft.


Just bought the book on Kindle. I haven’t written much fiction, but I’ve always been fascinated with the craft. Thanks for the recommendation Justine!


Framing the process in terms of questions is genius. I’m not very good at telling stories, but I have a loong history of asking questions…

I have the premise for a series of stories, a Clarkian tech/magic principle which is very simple, and not yet examined in modern F&SF. But I have never gotten a grip on how to get started. Seriously. I have one paragraph in a private Blogspot blog post.


Yes, yes! Ask questions, like: WHY? WHY would my character do that? Why would I do that? How does my character FEEL about that? How would I feel about that, given the same situation? So WHY does my character feel that way? Because of something that happened in his or her past? WHAT happened in the past? Something perhaps, that happened in MY past? Humm… In how many ways am I similar to my character(s)? In how ways would my READER be similar to my character(s)? How do I make my character’s motivations universal? What are those core human motivations?

For me, this is how one creates a character driven story, as a opposed to a plot driven driven scenario where a writer thinks up neat series of situations and then conforms human behavior to make those events tie together. Action stories written like that generally feel artificial to me. When they don’t ring true, I end up WATCHING what is happening to a character instead of EMPATHIZING with a character. So I lose interest.

Empathy, I believe, is a key ingredient for making a story compelling, along with posing unanswered dramatic questions along the journey. A writer finds empathy by asking questions.

Again, thanks for your synthesis of so many writing tools! Your posts always make me THINK! And ask more questions!



Thank you for brightening my glance today. I believe the novel ‘magic’ must also include an element of the supernatural. Call it ‘the spirit of inquiry’ or ‘mystery of the creative process’ you mention. I like your reference to the dancer/dance metaphor because Yeats did pose it as a question, a rhetorical one, inspired by the inquiring minds of school children.

When I’m trying to kick-start my day’s novel effort, I like to think of King’s conception of the writer’s muse. Not some gauzy, ethereal hamadryad, but a grungy old elf who smokes cigars, lives in the basement and eventually shows up if you write long enough. David.


I am a firm believer of writing and never looking back until it’s done. It’s the only way I was able to finish a novel! It keeps your mind free from distraction from the “what ifs” or the “oh wait a second, what happened” … that’s all for editing and rewriting. The first draft is never going to be perfect, so why bother trying to make it as close to it?


Hi Justine,

Thanks for the write-up. Yeah, this whole process is intended to free us. When we trust that our story lives fully and completely within us, we can relax and inquire into the nature of our characters. Too often we can focus on plot and hope that’ll get us to the end. I think the desire to write is connected to the desire to evolve. We’re seeking to making meaning, and our characters are a function of this search. When we focus on our character’s primal desires, on the dilemma at the heart of our story, the world comes alive – a structure begins to take shape – and the story surprises us – which is what we want. Structure ain’t a formula. Character suggests plot. Anyway, now I’m sounding like a blowhard. (My wife says I get loud when I talk about this stuff.) STay out of the result, and your work will be alive.
Take care, Al


How in hell did I miss this post?! It’s wonderful, and it pretty much describes my process. I’ve always written ‘what if?” letters to myself about my fiction, brainstorming ideas as they pop up, using some and discarding others. It’s worked wonderfully for me (now, finishing the actual novel? Not so much, at least for now). Not long ago I read David Morrell’s book on novel writing, and he does the exact same thing. Thanks for reminding me that sometimes I’m onto something and don’t even realize it.


That books sounds interesting. I’ll check it out.


I have written a innocent girl,s (Puspa) a senstive story
I have written a novel (pyre)


Ooh, I love that last quote. Thanks for the refer on this book. I’ll be picking it up.


Good insight. I’ll try it.


It’s a good book but is he a good writer?
That’s the question. Surely it’s best to be taught by 1. an award-winning writer 2. a writer who can write a novel in 90 days?




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