NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. It was started in 1999 by Chris Baty and is an annual challenge to write a book in 30 days. A book, for NaNoWriMo purposes is 50,000 words. Which is really, in my experience, about half a book. (I write fantasy so my books are between 90,000 and 130,000 words).
Some examples of novels that are around 50,000 words are:
- The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald (47,523)
- Fight Club – Chuck Palahniuk (49,962)
- The Outsiders – S.E. Hinton (48,523)
- The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams (46,333)
- Things Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe (50,000)
- The Road – Cormac McCarthy (59,000)
I have completed the full 50,000 six times and one of those times was the very first draft of Keyflame, which I am publishing early next year! Discussion about NaNo prep usually revolves around how much story planning to do, but surviving NaNo is about much more than the story. It’s about discipline and defeating your own doubts. And winning NaNoWriMo is about more than getting a story down. It’s about showing yourself what you’re really capable of and just what’s possible if you grit your teeth and refuse to give up.
Here are my top tips and tricks for writing a novel in a month.
1. Remember that a NaNo project is a first draft
Before you go in, before you even start planning, repeat this over and over to yourself a few times. My very first NaNo my municipal liaison (the local person who runs real life meetups) made us write our biggest writing challenges on a piece of paper and close them in a book to be locked away until the end of NaNoWriMo. This always stuck with me. For example: my biggest challenge is repeated words. When I’m writing, I can spend ages re-reading paragraphs and trying to find synonyms.
NaNo is about getting the story down. It’s not about getting a book ready for publication. This is something that I wish the vocal critics of NaNoWrimo could grasp. When people complain that NaNo is bad because it encourages rushed writing, they’re missing that critical detail. NaNo isn’t about creating the next award-winning piece of literature in a month. It’s about chasing the muse and catching it before it gets away so that you have a finished sketch that you can build that award-winning piece of literature on. So don’t waste time crafting sentences that you’ll probably replace one day anyway. Get your ideas down, explore your plot options and get the novel finished. Prettify it later.
2. Add more conflict
Whether you’re a plotter or prefer to write by the seat of your pants (pantser), this is one bit of planning you’re going to want to do. The main conflict in a story is not enough to take you through to the end. John Truby has this great analogy in Anatomy of Story of a boxing ring. You have your protagonist in one corner, your antagonist in another, but you also have two other corners. Who is your main character surrounded by? Surely they don’t get on with everyone else in their life? Next time you watch a movie make a note of the other conflicts that the main character faces aside from the one with the villain – there are always at least a couple more.
With NaNo, these other conflicts give you the momentum to keep going in between the big scenes you initially envisioned when you had your idea. They give you somewhere to take your character when you’re not sure what else to do with them.
3. Plan for the infamous Week Two
The first week of NaNo is easy. You’re excited, your story is fresh and interesting, you feel a great sense of achievement every time you fill in your word count on the site. But then it starts to get old. You start to get tired. The ideas don’t come as quickly. You miss a day and now have double the words to catch up. You also hit That Part of the plot, right after the beginning, where you’re faced with, “What now?” and the answer that comes to you immediately might lead to a dead end. Or, worse, no answers come to you at all and you can’t make up your mind what to put down on paper.
Week Two will always be the hardest part of NaNoWriMo. But you can mitigate that by planning just that part of the story in detail. Plan what happens after the beginning. Plan the scenes that happen after the excitement has passed. You’ll find that if you can get through that patch, and make it interesting, it will generate ideas for the way forward. E.g:
- After she realises she’s been brought to a magic realm, what will she do? Maybe she runs down to the stables to try ride away. Does she get away? If yes, then what? If no, then what?
- After she accidentally summons magic and gets taken before the general, what happens next? Maybe she has to be presented to the king as a weapon and that means that they have to travel… which is probably dangerous and interesting.
- After she sees the ghost of her future love, how do we get them in the same room? Where can they meet? How can we make this as awkward and full of conflict as possible?
- After he finds out he’s a wizard, then what? How do we introduce the magic world without being overwhelming?
(50 points to your house of choice if you can guess the books :))
Part of why NaNo works is because there are so many people who take part. Don’t be shy about engaging with the site and adding buddies. No one has to see your writing, no one has to even know what you’re writing. The important thing is that there are other people (on the NaNo site, or in your own life) who know you’re doing this challenge. It’s much harder to give up if others are rooting for you.
In the Facebook writing group I admin, we have a group word count sheet. Everyone can set their own goal and there’s no real competition or prizes for reaching the goal. However, knowing that others are coming to the sheet and seeing whether you make progress makes you feel like it’s worth putting in the effort to moving forward every single day. Even if you don’t use the official NaNoWriMo site, arrange something similar for yourself so you feel like your word count, well, counts.
5. Light the lamps
Before electrical lighting, a professional lamplighter would walk down the streets lighting and maintaining the gas street lights. You need to be that person for yourself. There are lots of ways that you can motivate yourself to write. One of my favourites is getting an advent calendar and rewarding myself with a chocolate every day I reach the goal word count.
But that has nothing on the power of writing towards a scene I’m passionate about. There will be one scene that sparked your idea, one thing that made you want to write the novel. Grab hold of that and hold it tight. Make a Pinterest board for it, make a music playlist for it, throw a party for it. And whenever you think of a new scene like it (which you will as you find out more about your story) do the same for those. These are what I call Lamp Scenes. They’re the light at the end of the tunnel. You can only write them if you get all the other scenes out of the way and in the right order.
Some people suggest that you write these scenes first. That would never work for me because I find those scenes are so much more powerful when they’ve got the proper build up and, if I wrote them first, I’d never write anything else because what would there be to look forward to?
6. Make real life as convenient as possible
Writing every single day is hard enough without the intrusion of real life housework and social obligations. Invest in some ready meals, postpone all the social engagements that you can and explain to family how important this event is to you. Try to get their buy in and arrange to swap out or barter your chores to buy yourself extra time. It’s only one month a year. You’re allowed to make writing your top priority.
You can also do small things like plan your meals ahead so you have to do fewer grocery shops, cook in bulk or start adjusting your sleep schedule so you can carve out some extra time before everyone else wakes up or after they go to bed. The more of this sort of prep you can do before the event, the less stress it will be once NaNoWriMo starts.
Oh also, stock up on snacks. Very important!
7. Schedule NaNoWriMo catch-up days
NaNoWriMo requires 1,667 words a day, but you don’t actually have to write every day. The risk is that if you miss a day your required word count can soon start looking insurmountable. Here’s where it helps if you schedule catch-ups when you know you will have the time available to make a dent in that number. Block off time on weekends, or even take a single day off from work just for writing. This will ease some of the pressure.
What you’re really aiming for is to write enough during those catch-up times that you are in word credit and can have a few chilled days after to recover.
However, be careful of relying too heavily on these catch-ups. It helps if you know your limits. I know that the most I can write in a day if I have the whole day to write is about 4,000 words (I’ve managed 6,000 once and that was for a Lamp Scene I already knew really well). I can’t do more than that. My brain turns to jelly at around 3,000. So, knowing that, I know I can afford to catch up two days on a weekend or day off, and no more.
8. Be smart with your time
You know how long it takes to write 500 words?
On a normal night it can take me two hours. Why? Because I’m fiddling with the words, I’m doing research, I’m getting distracted by Facebook.
On a NaNo night, it takes me 10 minutes.
Writing 1,667 words doesn’t have to take your whole night if you’re smart about it. The trick is to maintain focus. You must not: edit, research, wonder about where the scene fits, check social media (even “just quickly”), interrogate how accurate the scene is or how true to the character, worry about repeated words. I struggle with this sort of discipline, but here are four things I’ve found that work:
- Sprints/word wars: These are two names for the same thing. You get together with some writing friends and you have a competition to see who can write the most words in a set amount of time (usually 10 or 15 minutes). Set a timer and go.
- Write or Die: This web app will punish you for stalling. You can set the punishment anywhere from a horrible noise to it actually starting to delete your words.
- The Pomodoro Technique: This is a time management method that divides an hour into productive intervals with breaks in between. Because these focused intervals are short, you’re able to concentrate for the whole time. Like with the sprints, you’ll see how many words you can get before a timer goes off. I love using Marinara Timer for this technique. I can get through a whole NaNo day’s word count in a single Pomodoro session.
- Forest App: Grow trees while you work. The trees die if you stop working. Unlock new trees by concentrating for longer periods until you have a beautiful forest. It’s primarily a phone app but there is also a browser extension for Chrome that lets you block specific sites.
Remember the very first point. A NaNoWriMo writing session is about getting a first draft down. NaNo isn’t about getting the book perfect, it’s about finishing it. Your priorities will likely be different from one of your normal writing sessions.
9. Have fun
This might be the most important tip of all. NaNoWriMo is hard and it can be stressful. The very last thing you want to do is burn out so badly you never write again. Use NaNo as a chance to appreciate why you write, what you love about telling stories. Share this love with others, be kind to yourself and don’t forget to reward yourself for your achievements.