Make progress on your novel TODAY with Thirty-Minute Writing Tasks

By Julie Tyler

It’s five o’clock. The work day is done. In the hours before we go to bed, we’ll make the world our oyster. We’ll write pages and pages of new material for our novels, right?

Only if we’re lucky.

Cranking out a page or two could be the best any of us can hope for on the weeknights, when life’s other joys and responsibilities call us to be present.

But even when a weeknight leaves us little time (or energy) to crank out new material, we can still make progress on our novel projects by addressing specific issues in the existing manuscript.

From my writing day to yours, here are three writing tasks that will take you as little as thirty minutes to complete:

Solve one nagging problem in your novel 

For example, does your villain seem flat, one-dimensional, boring, predictable, or all of the above? Jot down ways to make him/her more complex, or even redeemable. Maybe you show the villain in decision-making turmoil. Maybe you reveal a positive trait, such as a strong work ethic, even though the villain ultimately puts it to bad use.

Even if you can’t completely rewrite a character, or solve another nagging problem, before your head hits the pillow, jotting down your ideas will set you up to solve novel problems in the days (and nights, and weekends) ahead of you.

Practice writing dialogue

Writing convincing, engaging dialogue is one of the hardest skills to master in fiction, screenwriting, or any other narrative genre in which characters talk to one another. When we’re just starting out, we tend to write dialogue that sounds robotic, rehearsed, or of little consequence to the plot.

That’s not what we want for our characters. Their diction ought to be precise and colorful, and yet still evoke the tones of real people experiencing real life. What they say in every scene should have some bearing on what happens next. It’s even better if dialogue raises the stakes. That way, readers hang on every word.

Between these examples,

“Calling Rufus now will suspend operations and delay your compensation.” 


“Call that jerk now, and you’re gonna cock this whole thing up. You want a million dollars or you wanna keep eating Ramen noodles?”

… you probably like the second one better, even if it’s not appropriate to your genre. For one thing, it’s more suspenseful; timing is key to the outcome of what the speaker is trying to do. Also, the stakes are high; don’t you want a million dollars? And the diction is livelier; “jerk” clues you in on the attitude of the speaker, while “Ramen” clues you in on the listener’s standard of living.

Dude, don’t call Rufus.

As an exercise, record a conversation with a friend (with permission, of course). Then, play it back to hear the rhythms of the sentences, the tone, the accents, the words you choose, the fillers, the pauses, everything. You can learn similar things about everyday communication by opening your social media chats or text message archives.

Before you turn out the lights, open your notebook or a blank file and practice writing a few lines of dialogue for two of your characters, using the tone, style, and sound of your conversations as inspiration. Vary as necessary from one character to the next, but keep dialogue natural and interesting, and above all, integral to the plot.

Compose a thumbnail of one new scene or chapter

Where is your novel’s plot going next? What challenges will your characters face? What roll will the next scene or chapter play in the final outcome of the novel?

After answering these questions, you’ll need to outline the major events of this scene/chapter in order, including flashbacks. Decide which characters will be involved, where the action will take place, and how the scene/chapter will set up the one that follows. You can write a thumbnail in your superhero jammies (we won’t tell!). Just make this last little bit of progress before you close your eyes.


Phew! You did it. Although completing one or all three of these tasks won’t add much bulk to your manuscript, you will probably discover tomorrow, and the next day and the next day, that the thirty minutes you spent addressing these issues will get you big results.

And we’ll want to hear about it … when you wake up! Share the results of your thirty-minute writing tasks in the comments below!


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