John-Paul Flintoff

A Novel In 24 Hours : EW5

Creativity meets project management

I will never forget the story. When he was young, starting out as a teacher, Keith Johnstone was dumped in a classroom full of “the rubbish” – as the least promising, least well behaved children were called at that school.

Not knowing any better, Keith took a typewriter into the school, in Battersea, south London, and told the children he would type whatever they came up with.

Type faster! Pic by me

At first they mucked about, swore a lot, etc, but when they saw that he was taking them seriously, typing up their swearwords and everything else, they moved beyond mucking about and became excited to create stories – the kind of stories they wanted to read.

Keith was later recognised by the local education authority for transforming these difficult children. Alas, this didn’t endear him to the other teachers.

I mention this story because in November many thousand people, mostly American, will sign up to National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo1, as they call it), and start writing the kind of stories they want to read.

Over four weeks, while in some cases also growing moustaches to raise awareness of men’s health problems for Movember, these would-be authors will sprout works of fiction.

But why a month? Why so long2? Why not do it in 24 hours?


I’m a big fan of the idea of NaNoWriMo. Something like half a million people have attempted to write 50,000 words of a first draft during NaNoWriMo. Roughly 10% claim to have achieved this.

“That’s a lot of words!” I hear you say.

Some went on to self-publish. Others were published “properly”. US magazines and papers have taken a dim view, suggesting that the movement is responsible for lots of crummy books that nobody will want to read – literary agents are overwhelmed with manuscripts in December, apparently.

Well, I don’t know about that.

I’ve never actually taken part, though I did once write the outline for the book I would write if I did take part. It was 1,700 words, and intended as a sequel to the novel I have actually published3.

It was near the end of 2017. I was co-tutoring a residential course in Memoir Writing, at the Arvon Foundation, with Alice Jolly4.

Alice was teaching in the morning, while I had a couple of hours to myself. In that time, I drilled out the basic plot for my NaNoWriMo project. It was fun to re-engage with the character from my previous novel.

But the exercise, and the context – teaching writing on a residential course with a fellow author – gave me a different idea, which I mentioned over coffee to Alice. She thought it was decent (at the time, anyway). Which is my understated British way of saying: she loved it.

And earlier today, after four years of doing nothing with it, I mentioned the idea to another author friend, Wendy Jones, with whom I’ll be teaching at Arvon later this year5.

Wendy seemed to think it was OK, too. “You have great ideas, JP,” she said.

Well, thank you Wendy. But what about the execution of those ideas?

What IS the idea?

It’s this: to write a novel, collaboratively, in 24 hours.

Not on my own, but with a team of authors, editors, designers and project managers working together. To start with nothing, and finish with a printed copy of the book.

As I see it, the exercise should work if individuals agree to take responsibility for specific tasks:

  • narrative structure,
  • description of settings,
  • dialogue,
  • edits,
  • continuity across the book,
  • historical (and other kinds of) accuracy,
  • spelling,
  • typography,
  • illustrations,
  • jacket design,
  • printing.

All that stuff.

As much as anything, the real challenge is project management: how to find all those people, agree to what’s involved, set the date, start on time and keep to schedule.

Tech issue

What kind of technology would be needed to make this work? I’ve tried many project management apps, never entirely satisfactory. I need help identifying a solution. Right now, I’m thinking it might be GitHub…

I know very little about coding but I have run my own website (this one) using Textpattern. I have some knowledge of HTML and Markup. I’m not a coding expert, but coding experts I know have talked to me about GitHub in a way that made it seem that GitHub might be a place to run this experiment.

I signed up to GitHub today. Being new, I felt overwhelmed by the terminology: I created a repository, with a README, and found out a little about commits and pulls. (I may not have got this right.)

I am pretty sure that if most of my writer friends were to find themselves on GitHub they would run away from having anything to do with this project.


So I tried something else: Google Docs.

Over the last year, I worked one-to-one with a first-time author who has a book coming out soon. Every month, and towards the end of our work together every week, she sent me a chapter. I pasted it into a Google Doc and used the “suggesting” function to make edits that she could either accept or decline. Some of these edits were cuts, some were additions or substitutions. Sometimes I moved whole chunks of text around.

I also added comments, sometimes long and discursive, sometimes just one word, “great”, if there was a bit I particularly liked.

Before I shared my edits, we talked generally about the chapter, and the progress she was making, and what she would do next – so that I could add further suggestions if necessary.

Having done this again and again over a whole year, I know that collaboration of this kind can be fruitful. But I’ve heard enough war stories to know it’s not always that way. It helped that the writer I worked with had taken a while to assess whether I was the kind of person she’d like to work with before even contacting me.

And we took care to create a working relationship of mutual trust – to be kind but also straightforward.

It’s hard to imagine how this kind of relationship could be replicated in a project where dozens of individuals are thrown together for 24 hours of pressured creativity; how emotional flare-ups could be doused effectively; and by whom?

Why bother?

I want to do this with people who really know what they’re doing, and to capture the process6 so that it can be replicated, to be repeated at schools.

It would be sensational to show young people that they can collaborate on an ambitious project like this. Not just that they can handle the tech (duh!), and negotiate a path through disagreements but also (most important, to me) that the work of their own imagination is good enough to be part of a book7. Just like those children in Keith Johnstone’s classroom.

If the experiment were to prove successful in a handful of schools, perhaps it could become an annual event at schools everywhere, just like NaNoWriMo.

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1 ↩︎ NaNoWriMo. The movement has a website

2 ↩︎ Why so long? Dostoyevski wrote The Gambler in less than a month. Jack Kerouac wrote On The Road in three weeks (on one very long piece of paper).

3 ↩︎ Have actually published. It’s called What If The Queen Should Die? and it’s a cracker. It actually took me 16 years from start to finish – though I did set it aside for very long periods, while working full-time as a journalist.

4 ↩︎ Alice Jolly. Alice is terrific, as a person and a writer. Find out more.

5 ↩︎ Wendy Jones. We’ll be teaching how to write non-fiction, for a week. The course is online. Wendy has published fiction and non-fiction, and was the first person to be awarded the MA in Life Writing at the University of East Anglia.

6 ↩︎ Capture the process. I’m thinking, at this point, that there should be some kind of documentary following the process, with interviews before, during and after; a veritable plague of flies on the wall; plus some kind of consolidated tech package, made simple.

7 ↩︎ Good enough. You can read Keith’s account of his work with “the rubbish” in his book Impro.


John-Paul Flintoff headshot, with Yours Truly written across it John-Paul Flintoff is author of six books, in 16 languages, including How To Change The World and A Modest Book About How To Make An Adequate Speech. He worked for 15 years as writer and associate editor on the Financial Times, the Sunday Times and other papers and magazines.

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