A review of Fast Fiction: A Guide to Outlining and Writing a First-Draft Novel in Thirty Days by Denise Jaden

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Fast Fiction
A Guide to Outlining and Writing a First Draft Novel in Thirty Days
By Denise Jaden
New World Library
ISBN: 978-1-60868-254-6, 216 pages, paperback

I’m a slow novelist. It takes me several years to write each novel. It’s not something I’m particularly happy about, so the premise of Denise Jaden’s Fast Fiction caught my eye. I have read other books which promise a novel in thirty days and most focus on quantity over quality and suggest that the end result is a finished product. Denise Jaden not only practices what she preaches, she advocates the use of fast writing as a means to a solid first draft, not as an end in itself.  Fast Fiction is built around NaNoWriMo – National Novel-Writing Month – the month-long writing binge in November that keeps writers’ bottoms glued to chairs and manuscripts flowing. Jaden herself has completed the challenge every year since 2007, as well as her own March Madness challenge, and the process really seems to work for her.  After reading Fast Fiction it’s easy to see why.  The book is beautifully structured and full of practical exercises to get anyone, from first timers to experienced authors, writing quickly, and more importantly, effectively.

Although it seems (to me, at my current rate of about 4,000 words a fortnight – sometimes a lot less) like an almost impossible goal to draft a novel in thirty days, Jaden makes it sound reasonably easy, breaking up the process into achievable chunks of 2,000 words a day, built around specific tasks that are designed to not only get your work done, but to ensure that all the elements of good storytelling are addressed.  The book is designed to be used in a kinaesthetic way – through practical exercises that take the writer from the brainstorming of story ideas through to a three-act plot, writing a workable synopsis, creating characters, working up dialogue, themes, setting, building conflict, using symbols, setting scenes, and working up a cohesive story plan (or outline).  All of these are elements of good fiction, and Jaden covers them in a surprising amount of detail and in a way which is not facile at all. She provides a lot of ideas and tips on how to maximise the quality (not just quantity) of these elements and to pull them together in a way which will make the writing binge far easier and more focused.  The exercises that comprise part one are all pre-work, and ideally would happen prior to the 30 day period so that when you actually sit down to do your 30 days of 2,000 words  a day, you’re well set up.

Part two is a very hands-on and detailed guide to get the draft out. Building on the outline you’ve set up, this section provides a series of guided tasks each day, from defining genre to having your character do something self-less.  Each task is an excellent means for systematic progression that also deepens the plot, character, settings, and conflict that were set up in the beginning.  Throughout the book there are examples – some from Jaden’s work and some from classics, templates, blank diagrams, and really innovative techniques like character “speed-drills” and interviews, creating visual “wordles”, storyboarding, and a perfect overview ‘cheat-sheet’ that re-caps the process.  There is also a brief chapter on revising, which is, again, highly practical and for its brevity, surprisingly valuable.

Fast Fiction is so neatly structured and organised, and so warm and accessible, that it’s impossible not to believe that drafting a novel in thirty days isn’t possible.  Jaden’s enthusiasm comes through her own writing and coaching and extracting commitment are all part of the deal.  Nor does Jaden underplay either the importance of, or the work involved in, revising.  The final book may take over a year to revise (and Jaden advises letting it sit for a good period of time before beginning to revise).  Though I’m over mid-way through my third novel, I found this book exceptionally valuable – not just as a start-to-finish primer, though it certainly can be used that way to good effect (I’m now seriously considering signing up for Camp NaNoWriMo to fast track my next novel), but also to spent 30 days tightening up an existing work, looking at it with a critical, structured eye.  Fast Fiction is a surprisingly efficacious and valuable tool for anyone who wants to write a novel – more quickly, and also, more powerfully.

About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball is the author of the novels Black Cow and Sleep Before Evening, the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Sublime Planet, Deeper Into the Pond, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future. She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks and Paul W Newman is her next guest. Find out more about Magdalena at www.magdalenaball.com.