On Writing

How to prepare for and succeed in NaNoWriMo

nanowrimo-2013-winnerIt’s October 1 and that means just one thing … 31 days until National Novel Writing Month!  This year will be my fifth attempt to write a 50,000-word novel over the course of the month of November, and I have only won (wrote 50,000 words) once.  But, the lessons I’ve learned about writing during NaNoWriMo are worth sharing, especially for those readers who are tackling the contest for the first time.  So, I offer these tidbits of wisdom for you to ponder and hopefully incorporate into your planning in October and ultimately next month when the fun really starts.


I’m sure you’ve done the math. You’ve got to write 1,667 words each day in November in order to complete a 50,000-word novel.  That doesn’t leave a lot of time for planning, outlining, world-building, character development, etc. while you’re writing.  Not to worry, that’s why God invented October.

  1. Decide what you’re going to write about. – Sounds simple, I know.  But if you’re like me you’ve been working hard on other stories and novels all year, so you may not even know what novel you want to write for the contest yet.  Well, October’s the time to figure that out.  During the year I usually come up with snippets of ideas for novels and write them down in a notebook, maybe you do the same.  Pull your notebook out and look over those ideas.  Maybe there is a blurb or kernel that you can build into your novel.  If you’re lucky, you already have a novel in mind.  If you’ve participated in the contest before, maybe it’s time to write a sequel for that novel?
  2. Decide how much preparation you really want to do. – As a writer of serial fiction, I have a greater appreciation for those writers, “pantsers,” who prefer to write “by the seat of their pants.”  Very little prep, no outlines, paper-thin character sketches, themes or scenes developed before you sit down to write.  I really can’t do that, especially for NaNoWriMo.  But if you are a pantser, own it.  Look over the next few steps and do some or none of them as you see fit.  Decide exactly how much prep you need and stick to it.  I would only suggest that you have a fair amount of your novel in your head before you sit down to write.  It will give you good ideas where to start writing each day, give you sufficient enthusiasm for your work to start writing on November 1 and to keep writing throughout the month.  If you’re more like me and prefer outlines, scene charts, fully-fleshed characters and worlds, etc., come with me to #3.
  3. Start your novel’s outline. – I like a lean, simple outline for my novels.  James Patterson’s novel outlines are 75-100 pages long.  You decide what’s write for you (ha, ha, couldn’t resist).  Start to flesh out what will happen, who your point-of-view character will be for each scene, maybe even a general “First this happens, then this happens and eventually this happens.”  I don’t think you need a completed outline before November 1, but if you have the first 1/3 or 1/2 of your novel planned out, or even a dozen or so scenes, you’ll have more than enough planned to hit the ground writing and start off strong (more to come on that).
  4. Introduce yourself to your characters. – In all writing, the characters are who take you along for the ride.  Get to know them in October.  Maybe write some blurbs about their backstory or interview them with some important character-building questions.  The better you know your characters before November starts, the more natural writing about them will be.  It helps save time when you’re in a crunch and can’t decide what will happen next.  A well-developed character might just have that answer for you.  I absolutely recommend you have a clear protagonist and antagonist fleshed out and ready by Halloween.
  5. World-building. – Every writer needs to build the world their story takes place in.  If you’re a science-fiction/fantasy writer like me, world-building is a time-intensive process that often takes weeks if not months to flesh out.  Start in October.  Have your settings planned out.  Know your magic system or your tech level.  Start to get a sense of the tone of the story that the setting will help set.  I really recommend developing as much as possible up front.  You’ll be floored by how little time you will have in November to adjust your setting.
  6. Whet your palette – Momentum is huge in order to succeed at NaNoWriMo, so the more excitement and anticipation you can build up in October for your novel, the more output you’ll be able to drop in the first 7 days and get a good jump on your novel.  As you’re working on your outline and developing your characters, start to identify those really awesome moments in your novel that you wish you could write right now.  Resist the urge and savor the anticipation.  Again, it’s about having lots of material queued and ready to write once the clock starts ticking, as well as giving you additional motivation to write in November.
  7. Meet the locals. – Whether you’ll participate in write-ins or other local group activities, always register with a local group on the website and check in on their forums.  It’s not a competition, but it never hurts to remember there are others in the same boat and zip code.  Have some good chats, meet some new friends, tell them about this blog post, etc.


November 1st is here, and you’re itching to get started.  You have characters you know well and can’t wait to put them in peril.  You’ve got a world to put them in and a conflict waiting to ignite.  So, you may ask, where do you start?

  1. It doesn’t matter where you start, but start strong. – One of the most important lessons I can provide for surviving NaNoWriMo is this:  YOU DON’T EVER, EVER HAVE TO WRITE YOUR NOVEL FROM THE BEGINNING STRAIGHT THROUGH TO THE END. During October you likely came up with a few blurbs or scenes or key points in your novel that you’ve been itching to write.  Write them first.  Write until the well goes dry.  Don’t worry if you’re jumping around to different points in your outline/novel.  Just write the really good stuff.  Pay attention to the stuff that builds from it too.  Very likely the next group of good scenes will bleed out of what you write.  The most important thing though is to get off to a strong start.  I suggest clearing 10-15,000 words in the first week.  That gets you deep into your novel and the contest as well as momentum to help you through the middle of the month (more to come on that).
  2. Set a time each day to write and keep it. – I work an 8-5, Monday through Friday job with an hour lunch break if I’m lucky.  I also have a family and kid, so when I go home there isn’t much time that isn’t taken up by the family or resting/recovery for the next day.  I found that writing over my lunch hour was the only time I could write.  So, that’s all I did for lunch during the work week all month.  It worked.  Finding a set time to write and sticking to it will give you all the time and opportunity you need to succeed.  If you have a longer period of time available, use it.
  3. Be careful if you tell yourself, “I’ll just catch up tomorrow.” – If you go through a day and can’t write, watch out for the easy, “I’ll just do it tomorrow” line you’ll tell yourself.  It sounds good at the time and eases the pressure of the deadline, but now you have to have enough material, time and motivation to write 3,000+ words then next time you sit down to write.  That is a lot harder than it sounds.  I’m not saying don’t take a day off.  You’re going to have to, life just works that way for all of us.  But be sure you’re ready to rock it out the next day or you’ll be playing catchup for the rest of the month.
  4. If you’re on a roll, don’t stop.  – Like I said, if you can get 10-15,000 words into your novel by the end of the first week, you’re off to a great start.  It takes the pressure off and makes it more fun.  Plus, it feels great to see you’re in 5-digit word count!  So, if you’re sitting down and writing and you go over 1,667 words for the day, for the love of God don’t stop!  Keep going.  The faster you can get ahead, the happier you’ll be in Weeks 2-4.  Hemingway always said he’d write each day until his well went dry.  He was pretty good at writing.  Might be worth listening to him.
  5. Avoid planning/re-planning. – It’s inevitable that you’ll start changing/tweaking your ideas and outline as you write.  That’s all well and good.  Just be careful you don’t change too much or spend your time planning instead of writing.  Definitely be sure you don’t end up throwing everything out and starting over.  During the other 11 months of the year it’s okay to stop your writing in order to flesh out a character/scene/aspect of your world.  During NaNoWriMo, you don’t have that much time, so be careful when you take time to plan.


At some point in weeks 2-3, you will either be going strong and powering forward towards the finish line, or you’ll be like most of us and run into the writing wall (to use a running metaphor).  The excitement and momentum you built up in October have been expended.  Your word count isn’t where you thought it would be.  You’ve exhausted all the good scenes and have only boring narrative to fill in.  At worst, maybe the novel isn’t coming along the way you want.  If you’re like most of us, you need to remember a few things to get over this:

  1. First drafts are always shit. – As Anne Lamott rightfully taught us, the first draft of your novel is going to suck.  It’s going to be shit.  Don’t worry, no one is expecting otherwise.  If you’re getting bogged down because your writing one day was shit and unworthy of print, just remind yourself that’s what first drafts are for.  It’s more important to get a shitty idea out on the page and polish later, rather than get bogged down or stopped outright because you have some unreasonable need to write gold in your first draft.  Let’s say you’re writing a scene, and it starts to go bad.  Just write, “This is the worst scene you’ve ever written, you jackass.  I don’t know why you bothered doing this thing in the first place.  I’d tell you to quit, but you’ve come too far.  Just stop writing this crap and move on to the next thing.”  45 more words, none of them have anything to do with your story, but writing it will help you to refocus, get over yourself and move forward.  As Stephen King said, your first draft is written with the door closed.  No one is ever going to read your first draft, only you.  It’s okay if it sucks ass.  It’s supposed to.  Welcome to the party.
  2. Avoid the urge to edit at all costs. – Even though you have accepted your novel is shit, you may still want to go back over something you’ve written and tweak it.  DON’T.  For the love of God, DON’T.  Editing might increase your total word-count, but more likely it will slow you down, bog you down in any unanswered problems you still have with your story, and ultimately do more harm than good.  You have the other 11 months to edit.  Do not edit in the month of November.
  3. Take a deep breath.  You’re okay.  You’re not alone. – Take another look at your local group forum.  There will be several folks who will be just like you: stuck in a sailboat in the middle of a beautiful ocean without any wind, and the dark storm cloud of December is approaching from the West.  It’s okay.  There’s plenty of time.  You are all in this together.  Help each other out.
  4. Take a fresh look at an unwritten part of your outline. – While you’re enduring constant anxiety attacks to finish your novel, remember you still have your outline, characters and basic structure of your novel.  Pick one part of your outline that you haven’t touched yet and focus on it.  Take a deep breath and see what comes to you.  Turn it on its head and see what happens.  Throw in something new (ex. change the weather, add a new character in, change the point-of-view, etc.).
  5. It’s okay for you to write, “Come back to this later.” – So many times I would be writing a scene and I just couldn’t figure out what had to happen next.  Rather than stop and fixate on it, usually sinking deeper and deeper into the quicksand of anxiety, just write down in your text “come back to this later.”  It’s 5 more words than you had before your worries started.  Just move on and you’ll come back to it later in the month or during your second draft.  Remember, it’s always okay to take a break and jump to a different part of your novel at any time in November.


Week 4 of NaNoWriMo is tough.  You’re starting to hear about people who’ve finished their novels.  You’ve cracked 30,000 words but you might not be sure you will ever get to 50,000.  Watching a football game has become more enticing than writing.  Thanksgiving and Christmas are looming ahead on your calendar, threatening to eat away at your precious writing time.  The ticking clock is ticking louder.  Here are a few ideas to help you push through to the end:

  1. Re-read … but not too much. – If you’re stuck or need a little pick-me-up, go ahead and read some of the novel you wrote at the beginning of November.  Let me emphasize the word read there, not edit.
  2. Find your motivation again. – Remember how excited you felt in October?  What things about your novel made you feel that way?  Explore those feelings and see if it helps inspire you to continue to write or what to write next.
  3. Go back over your outline one more time, find what hasn’t been finished and finish it. – The dregs of your outline may be all that’s left.  Time to slum it and get it done.  Make it your worst, eigth-grader quality work, but get the words on the page for those sections.  If you have to, write yourself notes of what you want here and then promise to get back to them in the next day or two.
  4. Talk to someone about your novel. – Sometimes talking through what’s working and what isn’t will help out.  Maybe you need someone to bounce new ideas off of.  Maybe you need someone to yell at for convincing you to do this in the first place.  Sometimes opening the door (to continue the King advice) just a little can be helpful.  Up to you.  Your local group having any end-of-the-month writing sessions?
  5. Focus on your ending. – Even if you don’t write in a true linear fashion, most likely by the end of the month you’ve reached the end of the big conflict of your novel, and your protagonist and antagonist are just about ready to duke it out in their Last Great Battle.  Make it huge.  Describe everything.  Go watch some of your favorite endings on a TV show or movie and let them inspire/energize you.  Make it your goal for the last 15-20,000 words to finish and finish big, the type of finish people will talk about when they leave the theater.


It’s December 1, your 50,000-word novel is resting in your desk drawer, and you’ve buried your hands in an ice bath for 24 hours straight.  Congrats for finishing and winning!  Even if you only got 35,000 words down, congrats to you too.  You’ve given a strong effort and next year you’ll rock it out.  But let’s take a moment and look at all the things you’ve learned on this journey:

  • Solid prep work makes writing easier.
  • Like or hate outlines, they can save your ass if you get stuck and don’t know what to write next.
  • First drafts are shit and should be.  Only you get to read them.  Keep the door closed.
  • Has your voice changed over the past month?  How much do you find you write differently?  If you really dove into NaNoWriMo, it’s a good bet you are a stronger writer than you were on Halloween.
  • Did you learn something new about how you write?  Time of day?  Place?  Music?  Background?  What helped create your best days of writing?  Knowing that will help your writing in the next 10 months until you’re back in the process again.
  • Did you enjoy writing yourself little notes in your draft and having them count for your word count?  Yeah, it’s a little cheat, but I know professional writers do it too.
  • Look at what you did!  You wrote a novel (or a part of one).  YOU ARE A WRITER.  You may not be a published writer yet, but you are a WRITER and no one can ever take that away from you.

Good luck to you in your NaNoWriMo journey this year!  If you’ve read to the end of this blog, then you have a ton of things to get working on.  You can do it!  I believe in you.

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