How To Win A Nobel Prize In 4 Weeks

Lessons From The 4-Week Crash That Produced One of the Greatest Novels of the 20th Century

Kazuo Ishiguro Accepting the Nobel Prize For Literature in 2017. Photo credit: TT News Agency / Fredrik Sandberg / Via Reuters
Listen to an audio recording of this essay, read by the author.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro is one of the most celebrated novels of the 20th century.

It won the Booker prize in 1989, and when Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize for fiction last year, the committee described how his novels “uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world,” in a clear reference to the quiet trials of the butler who serves as the central character in Remains of the Day.

First edition of The Remains of the Day, published in 1989 by Faber and Faber.

The Remains of the Day is a book that frequently shows up on lists of Greatest 20th Century Novels, Greatest British Novels, and All-Time Greatest novels. The 1993 movie adaptation of the book was nominated for 8 Academy Awards. In a 2006 survey of critics attempting to rank the greatest contemporary British literature, The Remains of the Day placed in the Top Ten.

Which makes it all the more amazing when you learn that Ishiguro wrote this novel in 4 weeks.

In a piece Ishiguro did for The Guardian in 2014, he describes how, following his first brush with literary success, he was unable to get any momentum with his writing because he spent so much time doing interviews and highbrow parties and book tours and the like. After a year had passed with barely anything to show for the next book, Ishiguro and his wife conspired to give him one month of outrageous work. Writing from 9 in the morning until 10:30 at night, 6 days a week.

He called this method “The Crash.”

“During the Crash, I would do nothing but write from 9am to 10:30pm, Monday through Saturday…In this way, so we hoped, I’d not only complete more work quantitively, but reach a mental state in which my fictional world was more real to me than the actual one.”

That last sentence is the one that’s most fascinating to me, and one that really rings true when you read Remains of the Day.

Kazuo Ishiguro in 2005. Photo credit: Paris Review.

There is a party scene in the center of the novel that is just dazzling writing. Theme and character and scores of loose plot threads all come together with spectacular effect, the interconnected brilliance of that scene is awe-inspiring and displays a depth of thought that stands out, even when comparing this novel to the greatest books ever written.

Ishiguro really did put himself in a mental space where the fictional world he was imagining was more real to him than his own. There’s no other way to explain how penetrating, honest, and real that crucial middle section of the novel is.

Ishiguro’s success with this method of going all-in, day and night, every day for four weeks, on a single creative project with zero distractions begs the question: Could it work for the rest of us?

What can those of us who do creative projects for a living learn from Ishiguro’s 4-week “Crash”?

In the world of fiction writing, Ishiguro’s method gets tested out en masse every November in a mini cultural phenomenon called National Novel Writing Month, and the results, both in literary successes that started as one-month crashes, and anecdotally from those of us who have done it, are real. Those of us who have tried to write an entire novel in a month can tell you that there really is a special kind of creative magic that kicks in when you engage in a full-on Crash of maximum effort with minimal distraction.

National Novel Writing Month (“NaNoWriMo” as it’s called by those who do it) is an event that started in San Francisco in 1999.

A group of 20-somethings thought it would be fun if they all tried to write a novel in a month.

They had a goal of 2,000 words a day towards a novel with the rule (for themselves) that the words didn’t have to be good words, the novel didn’t have to be a good novel, they just had to keep going until they had 60,000 words of a novel written.

They found, when they were done, that this is an excellent technique for cranking out a first draft. It turns out Ishiguro was really onto something.

Devoting massive energy to a single writing project in a short period of time is such a good technique, in fact, that, over the years, the number of people who try it has grown into the tens of thousands. The month of November has become a kind of ritualistic holiday for writers and anyone who has ever thought it might be fun to try and write a novel.

I write 60,000 words of a novel every November. Sometimes more. I’m one of thousands of writers who do. I’ve been doing it for years.

Those 60,000 words are always (for me) just early drafts that get turned, over time, into published novels. Sometimes it takes me a few months to turn a first draft into a finished novel. Sometimes it takes a few years. But in my own work there is simply no denying that there is some kind of raw magic in Ishiguro’s method of an intense, highly focused Crash on a single creative project.

When you do NaNoWriMo you quickly learn that the best way to write a novel is to just do it. Don’t talk about it, don’t plan for it, don’t outline (much), just sit down and start writing. It’s a hard thing to do. Brutal, in fact. When you sit down and just start typing, particularly if you’re writing fiction, which requires the writer to manage setting, character, language, and plot all at once, it’s exhausting and that first draft you crank out is usually pretty terrible.

But, the funny thing is, once that terrible first draft is on paper, the second draft becomes much easier to write. And the third. Those terrible sentences of your first draft become functional sentences in your second, and decent sentences in your third.

When you throw yourself all-in, doing maximum effort with minimum distraction on a single project with relentless focus for weeks, the whole creative process brings itself into sharp relief. You realize that the sentences have to be terrible in the first draft because the distance between blank paper and coherent page is enormous. In your first draft, your mind is trying to handle an entire story at once. You’re making your brain deal with character, plot, setting, and language simultaneously. It’s taxing as hell and the garbled mess of ideas you get on the page matches the murky mess of the creative mind in motion.

But once a draft is on paper, the breadth of the mental load required to deal with those ideas is narrowed. You no longer have to deal with character and plot and everything else all at once. You only have to deal with the sentence you’ve already written.

More importantly (and this is what Ishiguro aimed for and achieved with spectacular success), if you do this process with intensity, with an ambitious deadline demanding your full attention, you find your mind working overtime to live in the world you’re trying to create. This marvelous byproduct of the NaNoWriMo technique is game-changing for a novelist, because the more deeply you live in the imaginary world you’re trying to write, the more easily visions of stories within that imaginary world will come to you.

Better still, when you get deeply immersed in your project you find that connections between ideas start to happen automatically. For a writer, this means threads of a story start to find each other in exciting and novel ways, as clearly happened to Ishiguro when he wrote his masterpiece.

But What About Those of Us Who Have No Interest In Writing A Novel?

Christopher Reeve as Lewis in the 1993 movie adaptation of The Remains of the Day

Is this technique transferrable? Does the deep work Ishiguro practiced in his Crash work for creative projects other than novel writing?

Evidence from behavioral research, as well as anecdotal evidence from high performers, says yes.

  • Peter Thiel famously tells founders to “Take your 10-year life plan and ask, ‘Why can’t I do this in six months?’”
  • Elon Musk is known for announcing “comically short” timelines to do wildly ambitious things.
  • Dan Ariely, behavioral economics professor at Duke, has done research that shows that deadlines do indeed objectively improve performance, and externally imposed deadlines improve performance more than self-imposed deadlines.
  • The evidence that highly focused work is far more efficient than multitasking is profound. Multitasking results in lower reading comprehension, lower GPA’s for college students, and may even lower your long-term abilities at cognitive control.

That’s Great, But Most of Us Don’t Get to Work on Only One Project For 4 Weeks

Anthony Hopkins in The Remains of the Day

Kazuo Ishiguro was already a successful novelist when he wrote The Remains of the Day. Most of us can’t emulate what he was able to do in The Crash. Jobs and kids and family obligations make the idea of 4 straight weeks of day-to-night monk-like effort at one creative project impossible.

There are still lessons we can take from Ishiguro’s success.

There are four salient features of The Crash that we can apply to our own lives and projects.

  1. Maximum focus; minimum distraction.

You might not be able to work on one project from morning to night, but can you work on it for a few hours straight? Can you carve out a block of time every day when the phone is off and the door is closed and you are 100% focused on the work?

2. A deadline that’s not just tight, it’s absurd.

Writing a novel in four weeks is hard (this I know from experience). Writing a finished draft of a great novel in 4 weeks, like Ishiguro did, is outrageous, but he did it. His example sits out there challenging us, reminding us that crazy ambitious plans can be achieved. Peter Thiel’s challenge to squeeze a 10-year- vision into 6 months works because it forces you to cut the extraneous and focus your efforts on only those things that directly move your project forward.

3. Skip the talking and planning and get straight to the doing.

NaNoWriMo participants who must meet a 2,000 word daily goal quickly find out that every minute spent daydreaming about the story or even outlining it is a minute not spent writing, and when the work to be done is immense and urgent, every minute doing the work counts. Working under an ambitious deadline quickly teaches you that most of the prep work you tell yourself you need to do before the actual doing of the project is unnecessary and, in many cases, just another form of procrastination.

4. Immerse yourself as deeply in the work as possible.

There’s a reason the best way to learn a foreign language is total immersion. When you are immersed in a project your brain treats the small details of that project as more meaningful. The problems you’re trying to solve sit in the forward part of your mind. The full power of your creative capacity is aimed at the work. Ishiguro said the key to his “Crash” was that he completely lost himself in his fictional world. And the results speak for themselves in the form of a Booker Prize, a Nobel Prize, and a permanent place in the literary cannon of the 20th Century.

James Fox as Lord Darlington in Remains of the Day

While I greatly admire Ishiguro for his achievement, I admire him even more for the audacious verve he demonstrated when he wrote it.

It’s ridiculous to think you can write one of the great novels of the century in 4 weeks. It’s ridiculous to think you can accomplish a 10-year plan in 6 months.

It’s ridiculous for mothers and fathers with full-time jobs who have never written a novel to think that they can crank out a 60,000-word draft in one month, but this November thousands will try.

What kind of crazy, audacious, impossible goal might you try to achieve before November is done? If you want to try and write a novel in a month the NaNoWriMo web site has resources for you.

But maybe your audacious verve is better aimed at something else? Maybe it’s a work-related project you’ve had on your mind for a long time now. Maybe it’s a dream you’ve never chased because you thought you didn’t have the time.

Maybe you could give it the time for one month.

Maybe you want to make a world class painting, or write an opera, or build a house, or invent a better mousetrap.

What’s stopping you from trying your own one-month crash?

To make his crash happen, Ishiguro planned for it, made arrangements to step away from all his non-urgent obligations for just four weeks, and (this is the important part that you must not forget) he asked the people in his life for their support and their help while he went all-in for four weeks.

Then he did it. Four weeks.

The result was one of the great novels of the 20th Century, an enduring place in literary history, and the Nobel Prize.

Spencer Baum is the author of seven novels. His books have sold more than 100,000 copies. He writes daily mini essays about literature on Deep Thinking About Great Books.