In just 30 days, you too can write a masterpiece

Or maybe not. As writers prepare for National Novel Writing Month, Andrew Johnson looks at classics that were knocked out in a few weeks

Hundreds of thousands of aspiring novelists around the world will put pen to paper – or fingers to keyboard – tomorrow with the intention of turning out a 50,000-word book in only 30 days.

They will be taking part in National Novel Writing Month, the first of which was held 11 years ago when 21 friends in America decided they had to take drastic action if they were ever to achieve their literary ambitions. Now up to 200,000 books are expected to be uploaded on the writing month website (NaNoWriMo) by the end of November.

And although there are plenty of tales of great novelists spending years crafting their masterpieces – Joseph Heller took eight years to write Catch-22 – many of the literary world's most popular works were knocked out in a few weeks, such as Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol.

Lindsey Grant, who helps run NaNoWriMo, said that 55 novels written under the scheme have gone on to publication. These include Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants, which spent 12 weeks in The New York Times best-sellers list in 2006. "The idea is to get the rough drafts of the novels down," Ms Grant said. "But so many people then go on to rewrite."

Two years ago, Birdsong author Sebastian Faulks wrote a James Bond thriller, Devil May Care, in only six weeks – following the work pattern of Bond's creator, Ian Fleming.

"I enjoyed the rush," he said. "There was a way in which my own race to the finish line mirrored the chase of the plot. Novels that have been written quickly can retain a slightly torn-off, uneven quality – like life. This is certainly one of the miraculous things about Jean Brodie, where the story zooms back and forth through time. There is a careering, out-of-control feeling, which is exhilarating. The main danger is that the writer hasn't worked out his/her theme. They don't really know what the novel's about."

Graham Greene wrote one of his most popular novels, The Confidential Agent, in only six weeks in 1938 while also labouring on the much more difficult The Power and the Glory. He later wrote in his autobiography: "The Spanish Civil War furnished the background. I was struggling then through The Power and the Glory, but there was no money in the book as far as I could foresee. Certainly my wife and two children would not be able to live on one unsaleable book, so I determined to write another 'entertainment' as quickly as possible in the mornings, while I ground on slowly with The Power and the Glory in the afternoons."

A Christmas Carol By Charles Dickens, written in six weeks in 1843

Dickens more or less invented the Christmas spirit, goodwill to all men and general jollity in this classic ghost story, which also gave us Scrooge, Tiny Tim and Bob Cratchit. "I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me."

As I Lay Dying By William Faulkner, written in six weeks in 1930

Faulkner, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949, turned out one of the 20th century's greatest novels while working at a power plant. It tells the story of the death of Addie Bundren in stream-of-consciousness style from 15 points of view. "I set out deliberately to write a tour de force."

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie By Muriel Spark, written in one month in 1960

The inspirational Scottish teacher Jean Brodie, who taught her girls more about life than anything else, catapulted Muriel Spark into the premier league of contemporary writers. "We were given to write about how we spent our summer holidays, but I wrote about how [my teacher] spent her summer holidays instead. It seemed more fascinating."

A Study in Scarlet By Arthur Conan Doyle, written in three weeks in 1886

Noted as the first outing of Sherlock Holmes rather than as a great detective story or literary masterpiece. "It is most certainly to you that I owe Sherlock Holmes ... Round the centre of deduction and inference and observation which I have heard you inculcate I have tried to build up a man," Conan Doyle wrote in a letter to his former teacher, Joseph Bell.

The Tortoise and the Hare By Elizabeth Jenkins, written in three weeks in 1954

Jenkins, who died in September aged 104, wrote her masterpiece in the "white heat of betrayal" following an entanglement with a married man who refused to leave his wife. "I have never looked at it since; it marked an era to which I had no desire to return," she said in 2005.

On the Road By Jack Kerouac, written in three weeks in 1951

Kerouac wrote one of the few books to cause a cultural shift on a single scroll of paper in one sitting. He had, however, kept copious notes during the seven years he spent crossing America. "I write narrative novels and if I want to change my narrative thought I want to keep going."

King Solomon's Mines H Rider Haggard, written in six weeks in 1885

The story of treasure guarded by a lost civilisation in Africa became an instant best-seller and founded the lost-world genre. It began life after a bet that Haggard could write a better tale than Stevenson's Treasure Island. "The thing must have a heart; mere adventures are not enough. I can turn them out by the peck."

The Confidential Agent By Graham Greene, written in six weeks in 1938

Greene was "struggling" through The Power and the Glory when he realised he'd quite like to make some money, so he began writing The Confidential Agent in the mornings. "I fell back for the first and last time in my life on Benzedrine. For six weeks I started each day with a tablet, and renewed the dose at midday."

Devil May Care By Sebastian Faulks, written in six weeks in 2008

James Bond creator Ian Fleming wrote his 007 thrillers in six weeks, and Faulks decided he should follow suit when asked by Fleming's estate to write a new story. "After almost five years researching Victorian psychiatry for Human Traces, there was something attractive about a jeu d'esprit which I could write in six weeks."

The Gambler By Fyodor Dostoyevsky, written in 26 days in 1866

The Russian author was heavily in debt and was addicted to gambling while he was working on the tour de force that was Crime and Punishment. So he had to knock out this novella at the same time, dictating to a young stenographer called Anna Snitkina. Shortly afterwards he married her. "I realised that it was his own life he was telling me about," Snitkina said.

Andrew Johnson

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