How to Win NaNoWriMo

There are only two short weeks until November 1st, the start of National Novel Writing Month. Never heard of it? Here’s the gist…

On November 1, participants begin working towards the goal of writing a 50,000-word novel by 11:59 PM on November 30. Valuing enthusiasm, determination, and a deadline, NaNoWriMo is for anyone who has ever thought about writing a novel.

Cool, right? I’ve NaNo-ed twice, in 2012 and in 2014, and I “won” both times. I never touched the 2012 project again, but my 2014 project went on to become The Impossibility of Us, which will be published in 2018 by Swoon Reads/Macmillan — yay! Point is, I’ve figured out how to NaNo pretty successfully, and I’d love to share a few of my favorite practices so that you, too, can write 50K words in thirty days.

Research ahead of time — like, now.
Is your NaNo project set on Mars? Awesome. Spend the next two weeks reading books about the Red Planet. Are you writing about a person who’s obsessed with riding horses? Great. Reach out to a real-life equestrian today. Are you planning a story about teen counselors at a sleep-away camp? Start cataloguing images of actual camps right away. Trust me — you don’t want to waste your November lost in a black hole of research.

Know your characters, especially the leads.
If character worksheets are your thing, I suggest filling them out before November 1st. Or, do some free-writing. Or, type up a mock interview for your protagonist. Or, print off some photos of what s/he might look like. At the very least, make sure you’ve nailed down strong external and internal goals, motivations, and conflicts for your main character(s) and your antagonist.

Prepare your family and friends.
Talk to your partner/children/parents/friends about National Novel Writing Month. Let them know exactly what you hope to accomplish, and why it’s important to you. If you’ve got a set do-not-disturb writing block in mind, tell them when it will be. That way you’re not fielding visitors and phone calls when you should be banking words. And don’t be afraid to enlist help. If you need your spouse to put the kiddos to bed every night in November so you can write uninterrupted, cement that plan ahead of time.

Incentivize — whatever it takes.
The first time I participated in NaNo, I wanted the Scrivener discount offered to winners. It was enough to drag me through 50K words of an awful (yet unfinished) manuscript. The second time, I wanted a book ready for submission by the following spring, which meant I needed a complete first draft quick. These were the “prizes” that pushed me to win in both instances, but you do you. Dangle a pair of boots, or banana split, or vacation in front of your writerly self. That way when you lose motivation mid-November, you’ve got something other than 50K words to work for.

Front load your word count.
The first week or so of NaNo, you’re going to be excited and fresh and full of energy. This is when you should be writing your ass off. Forget about the daily 1,667 words needed to total 50K at the end of the month; you should be writing at least 2K words in those early days of November. That way, when Thanksgiving rolls around you can take time off without guilt or worry.  

Related: Don’t let yourself fall behind.
Guys, it’s going to be such a struggle to catch up if you slack. That nifty graph they show you on the NaNoWriMo website each time you log your words? You don’t want it to flatline for more than one or two days. Because ugh. Those are days with zero words — zero progress — and there’s no greater hit to your writer psyche than stagnation. It’s hard to climb out of a hole, so do yourself a favor and don’t fall in.

Don’t be derailed by Thanksgiving (or anything else).
The first November I NaNo-ed, I also threw a friend a baby shower, which required hours and hours of preparation. The second November I NaNo-ed, I welcomed my husband home from a trip to Afghanistan, which required (for me, at least) lots of extra cooking and cleaning and poster-making and balloon buying. And then there’s Thanksgiving, which is so totally inconvenient to a writer’s routine. But! When I’m NaNo-ing, I refuse to let additional commitments impact my word count. I plan head, get up early, stay up late, put my writing first. If you’re going to NaNo successfully, you’ll have to do the same.

Hold yourself accountable.
Log your daily words on the NaNoWriMo site religiously. Watch the line on your graph climb. Tweet about your successes. Instagram your increasing word count. Blog about your experiences — the good and the bad. Celebrate (and commiserate) with other NaNo-ers. Whatever you can do to share your progress publicly, the better. When lots of people are rooting you on, it’s harder to be lackadaisical about your goals. You don’t want to disappoint them!

Stay active in the NaNo community.
This one goes hand-in-hand with holding yourself accountable; the NaNo community is exactly the tool you need to stay on track. Seeing others pumped about their manuscripts, hearing success stories about NaNo projects gone on to become published books, participating in this amazing month of writing with thousands of like-minded people… It’s so inspiring.

Skip around.
Generally, I write linearly, but not during NaNoWriMo. I give myself permission to skip ahead, to jump around, to write the fun stuff first. During NaNo 2014, I wrote my characters’ first kiss within the first few days of November, even though I knew it wasn’t going to actually happen until about halfway through the story. If you’re hung up on a scene or dreading a relatively boring transition, move on. You’ll come back to fill-in later, or you’ll discover the scene that was giving you headaches was unnecessary after all.

It’s okay to write crap.
What matters during NaNo is words. They don’t have to be pretty. They don’t have to make sense. They don’t even have to be relevant, really, because sometimes a brain dump, a page of drivel, is exactly what you need to spark your imagination, thus helping you move the story forward. Sometimes when I’m stuck, I’ll just write a super detailed description of the setting or a character’s outfit, knowing I’ll cut most (or even all) of it later. Doesn’t matter, though, because that warm-up often propels me toward the good stuff. The point is forward progress. Do whatever it takes. You’ll revise later.

Tell me: Have you NaNo-ed?
What are your best tips for success?

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2 responses to “How to Win NaNoWriMo

  1. Katy, you’re tempting me so badly with this post! I’ve been toying with doing NaNo, even though I swore I’d never do it, because I tend to write slowly. November is shaping up to be busy, and I’m not sure if I can get my notes/outline and everything else in order by then, but I’m considering–especially after reading these helpful tips. I can’t decide whether NaNo accountability is the kick in the pants I need to get drafting again, or if it’ll be too stressful and stall me before I start. We’ll see, I guess. Either way, this post has some great advice and you’ve got me thinking about it more. Also, it’s very cool that THE IMPOSSIBILITY OF US was a NaNo project. Good thing you took the plunge that year! 🙂

  2. I’ll be attempting NaNo for the first time this year and I’m both scared and excited! I’m usually a short story writer and I have never attempted anything close to 50k words before, but your advice is sure to help!