NaNoWriMo starts right here, right now

November is National Novel-Writing Month, when writers everywhere will handcuff themselves
to their keyboards and aim to get a 50,000-word draft finished in 30 days. Apart from clearing
the diary for November and creating a big Do Not Disturb sign, what can you do to prepare?
And is it even possible?

First of all, do established writers do this or is it just a game?

Certainly NaNoWriMo is not just an exercise. Many established writers use it to get their first drafts done.  Novelist Sara Gruen wrote her New York Times #1 bestseller Water For Elephants one NaNoWriMo. What you start in NaNo can go on to great things – here’s a list of all the NaNo novels that have made it into print.

How do you do it?

I’ve never done NaNoWriMo because other projects have got in the way, but I have written a lot of novels to tight deadlines – 50,000 words in two months. And not just first draft, but revised and ready for a publisher to see. It was effectively two NaNoWriMos back to back, which I did several times.

I have several friends who are NaNoWriMo winners. Here are their tips. And the key to success is not just what you do in November, but what you do NOW.

Prepare your story

Zelah Meyer is a NaNoWriMo powerhouse, having consistently delivered 50,000 words for the last five years. Some years, she even lost a week because real life inconveniently got in the way, but even so, she sailed past the finish line. This year she’s hoping to finish the first draft of her trilogy.

Zelah (left) says: ‘Do a rough brainstorm beforehand of where you want to take at least the first 5,000 words or so. I call it plot scaffolding and I’ll often talk to myself on paper about what could happen and where the story could go. I find it helps to know that so that I can avoid writing myself into a corner – but everybody works differently!

‘I ask myself a lot of questions such as “Why does nobody know that he isn’t really the lost prince/company CEO/etc?” I use the ideas I have to flesh out character back story and sometimes that will give me ideas for the plot.

‘If I decide that I need to go back and add in a scene, I’ll do that – but I never rewrite one. Instead I have a second document that I keep open called Corrections. There I make notes of changes I want to make in the re-writes and then continue as if I’d already done them.

‘I also find it helps to have a third document for any names I need to keep track of. This saves me from wasting ages scanning back through thousands of words trying to find out which town the characters were heading for or what you called the hero’s aunt.’

In real life, Zelah is an improvisational performer, and her experiences on stage have strengthened her approach to storytelling. ‘I ask myself: “If I were in the audience, where would I want the action to go now?” and “Which character do I want to hear from now?” Also, everything that is said changes you – both the person saying and the person listening. Everything evokes some kind of emotional response and that colours how things happen from then on.’
Prepare your targets

Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan (left), another NaNoWriMo veteran, says: ‘My one tip is stick to your daily wordcount no matter what – 1,600 words a day even if you’ve been run over by a steamroller. Nothing’s more disheartening than an impossible deadline,’
Zelah’s keen on statistics too. ‘I create a spreadsheet for the 30 days of November with how many words I aim to write on each day. I give myself a contingency of around 5,000 words.’

Prepare your research

If you go and look something up on Google, do you stop there? No; an hour later you can still be happily cyber-faffing. So do all your Googling, Wiki-ing and forum fact-finding before November. Don’t burn through your writing time by looking stuff up. If necessary, put a keyword in the text like [factcheck] and start a file for queries you will Google in December.

Find support

You don’t slog through NaNoWriMo on your own. That’s one of the beauties of it. The NaNoWriMo website is, of course, essential, and you’ll find hashtag communities on Twitter, and bloggers who will be wearing NaNo badges and blogging if they have any fingers to spare.

Ann Marie Gamble, another winner, says: ‘The single best non-official resource I used last year was Doyce Testerman’s day-by-day blog posts. He described exactly what he was going through so I could think, ah, everyone feels like they are choking on Day 11 – it’s not just me being pathetic. Plus he has a wife and kid, so his coping strategies are more accessible to me than those of the college students in the local NaNoWriMo groups.’

Remember it’s a first draft

NaNoWriMo is about turning off your inner editor. If your draft sucks that doesn’t matter. All first drafts suck.

It is also about a definite goal. Ann Marie says: ‘Keep your eyes on your prize. NaNoWriMo is a chance to build writing habits and experience in finishing a piece. Don’t get sidetracked by questions of quality, plausibility, readability etc. Let your pen fly during this intense month and analyse later.’

Zelah says: ‘When I’m actually working, I remind myself that I’m not striving for perfection at this stage. I have a strip of paper saying “Quantity not Quality” taped to my monitor.

The message is, prepare, prepare, prepare.

  • your story
  • your research
  • your targets
  • your support groups

And that, my friends, is why NaNoWriMo starts now.

With all that sorted, just one thing remains. Simon C Larter (left) of the blog Constant Revisions says: ‘How do I convince my wife it’s okay for me to spend so much time writing?’

Are you doing NaNoWriMo? How are you preparing? Is it your first time? If you’ve done it before, do you have any tips? And if NaNo requires you to ramp up your writing routine, how, like Simon, will you convince your nearest and dearest to indulge you?  Share in the comments

You can find tips for researching, outlining and what makes a robust story in my book, Nail Your Novel – Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. Available on Kindle and in print

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  1. #1 by Jan on October 3, 2010 - 5:31 pm

    “I’ve never done NaNoWriMo because other projects have got in the way, but I have written a lot of novels to tight deadlines – 50,000 words in two months. And not just first draft, but revised and ready for a publisher to see. It was effectively two NaNoWriMos back to back, which I did several times.”

    No, that’s not Nanowrimo. That’s writing a novel in two months. Not the same thing at all.

    • #2 by rozmorris on October 3, 2010 - 6:41 pm

      To clarify, Jan, I did the first draft in a month. The revision the second month. But it wasn’t November, so maybe it doesn’t qualify :)

  2. #3 by Simon L. on October 3, 2010 - 6:51 pm

    Heh. Thanks for the mention, good lady.

    I’m thinking my strategy for NaNo will involve something along the lines of EPIC SLEEP LOSS and HYPERCAFFEINATION. At least, that’s what I’ve come up with so far. Any other suggestions would be welcome. :)

    • #4 by rozmorris on October 3, 2010 - 7:13 pm

      And what about the lady wife?

  3. #5 by Dave Morris on October 3, 2010 - 7:04 pm

    Wrt those NaNoWriMo manuscripts that sold to publishers, how long did the authors spend polishing the output of that one intense month?

    This is not a critcism of the idea of doing a first draft in a month, which I think is great. It’s always worth remembering the old adage, “Don’t get it right, get it written” and having a 30-day goal like that is a way to stop yourself worrying about perfection every paragraph. But I’m just curious how rough that diamond you end up with is.

    • #6 by rozmorris on October 3, 2010 - 7:14 pm

      That is an excellent point. I find the polishing takes longer than the first-drafting. Perhaps NaNoWriMo could be more accurately called ‘brainstorm month’ – the raw material you then polish and hone.

      Certainly it’s not for people who revise as they go.

  4. #7 by last_lines on October 3, 2010 - 9:18 pm

    Great Article Roz! This year will be my first official NaNo although I did a mini-NaNo in June this year. Thank you also to all the expert NaNo writers who have given you their best tips for this post. I do like the idea of keeping a “corrections” folder and I also like the tip about inserting “[fact check]” into novel for later research in December. For myself, I have prepared a plotting calendar for October. Then in November I can just tuck in and get writing. I am very lucky to be on annual leave for the first 2 weeks of November so I can really focus on my writing without the distraction or time-sapping of my day job.

    • #8 by rozmorris on October 3, 2010 - 10:20 pm

      Dragonfly, I like the idea of a plotting schedule. Very organised. And I bet you’re looking forward to kick-starting with 2 weeks off.

      One thing I forgot to mention about these champion NaNo-ers is that they were all writing their manuscripts around day jobs too. Hats off to them.

      • #9 by last_lines on October 4, 2010 - 9:36 am

        Definitely looking forward to kick-starting with 2 weeks off…
        Awesome achievement then to do NaNo and day jobs..
        The biggest thing for me will be turning off the inner editor…battled that monster in my mini-NaNo in June…I am determined to give the inner editor a 4 week holiday in November…I can send her to a remote island with no phone / internet connection…

        • #10 by rozmorris on October 5, 2010 - 8:34 am

          The inner editor is always the problem with first drafts. But knowing that is half the battle.

  5. #11 by Zelah on October 3, 2010 - 10:04 pm

    Dave, I’m not a published NaNo’er as I haven’t got anything past first-draft status yet but, in general, when I look at what I’ve written for NaNoWriMo, there are good bits and bad bits.

    There are sections, often several thousand words worth, that I absolutely love. Others where I am frustrated that I haven’t made the most of the ideas I had, or where I feel it’s padding for word count rather than a scene that will make the final cut.

    Overall it’s going to need pulling up a fair bit to get it to match my vision for the trilogy. It’s not just going to be a case of polishing up dialogue and description. In decorating terms we’re talking moving partition walls rather than just re-painting!

    At the end of the day though, I’ll have a few hundred thousand words to work with that I wouldn’t have had without NaNoWriMo and I still cherish hopes that one day it will wind up on people’s bookshelves! Everyone needs to start somewhere & NaNoWriMo is an excellent kick start to have a go at that plot you’ve always thought about writing. :)

    • #12 by rozmorris on October 3, 2010 - 10:24 pm

      Zelah, thanks for adding that – and for all your brilliant tips when I spoke to you earlier. People often underestimate the amount of work that has to be done after a first draft is finished, but the excellent thing about NaNoWriMo is that it gets you to a stage where you have a big chunk of words to work with. The initial draft is often the hardest, and having the support of everyone is a real spur to keep going.

  6. #13 by Dave Morris on October 3, 2010 - 10:56 pm

    Great tips from everybody – but, Zelah, I particularly liked yours about not doing the rewrites as you go. The great strength of the NNWM process, it seems to me, is what you said about getting a big chunk of the unrefined ore of the story that you otherwise could never hope to dig out of your subsconscious in just one month. And having the Corrections folder is a really brilliant way not to let the Super Ego come in with its nagging, critical voice and spoil all that!

  7. #14 by DazyDayWriter on October 4, 2010 - 9:59 pm

    Wasn’t familiar with NaNoWriMo — so I appreciate the information, Roz. What a great challenge for writers. –Daisy @ SunnyRoomStudio

    • #15 by rozmorris on October 5, 2010 - 8:36 am

      Hi Daisy! Yes, it’s a wonderful challenge. And I like the idea that there are lots of others out there, jumping through the same hoops, getting their words down and starting something important.

  8. #17 by Jess on October 5, 2010 - 2:30 pm

    I’m not published yet but it never takes me longer than six weeks to write a first draft. I’ve officially participated in Nano and won in 05, 07, and 09. The off years I wasn’t in the drafting process come November, editing or prewriting. This year I’m currently editing and may take the holidays off as this is the third novel I’ve written since last Nano, averaging 60k each (YA).

    That said – for Simon – depending on how fast you type, Nano doesn’t require a big time commitment. I do two half-hour word sprints in a day and wind up with at least 7p. Done. Sometimes I do a third if I’m in the groove.

    Also, I know author Lynn Viehl participates unofficially every year. One reason she considers it unofficial is that producing 50k in a month is *standard* for her as a published author who has multiple releases a year, just for some perspective. :)

    • #18 by rozmorris on October 5, 2010 - 3:02 pm

      Jess, you’re obviously very focused. Do you do anything to prepare? Even if it’s not notes or outlines on paper, have you done a lot of mental preparation?

      • #19 by Jess on October 6, 2010 - 10:52 am

        For the six weeks I spend drafting I spend about two weeks just thinking and writing things down and coming up with a basic scenelist/shape of the novel, not a detailed outline, but if I don’t know where I’m going I’ll never get there.

        When I get into the drafting, I read over yesterday’s work, make basic changes, and then start writing the new pages. I use a timer for the sprints to help me get started, but that’s only lately as my focus has been wandering. :)

  9. #20 by Verdonk on October 7, 2010 - 9:41 am

    NaNoWriMo is a great idea for a one month exercise. But the idea of a writer having to produce 600,000 words a year just to make a living, as Jess said Lynn Viehl has to – that I find astonishing and a little disheartening.

    • #21 by rozmorris on October 7, 2010 - 9:53 am

      Good point, Verdonk.
      But is it 50,000 publishable words? Most of my time is spent rewriting rather than generating completely new copy. I’ve never counted the number of words I write, delete, move to the ‘maybe’ folder. I do know an awful lot gets written and reshaped. And a lot gets written as background exploration and as I’m thinking with keystrokes. Way more gets written than ends up in the actual book I’m working on.

  10. #22 by Verdonk on October 7, 2010 - 10:38 pm

    I was just reading about Walter Gibson. In ten months he wrote 24 novels featuring The Shadow, each around 60,000 words. That was in 1932. In 1933 he slowed up; it took him twelve months to do the next 24 Shadow novels. Usually he aimed to write each novel in 8-10 days, then take a few days off while he planned the next story and gave his fingertips time to heal.

    Gibson said: “By living, thinking, even dreaming the story in one continuous process, ideas came faster and faster… Many writers who think they’ve approached their limit are kidding themselves… Write till it hurts, then write some more.”

    Robert E Howard, like Gibson, was a writer for the Depression-era pulps who wrote as fast as his typing skills would allow. Howard often spoke the scenes aloud as he wrote them, acting out each character’s part and just improvising it straight onto the page. There was a lot of dreadful stuff produced that way, but also from very good writing.

    For the avoidance of doubt: I’m not suggesting writers should have to work like that. It was the Depression (the 1930s one, not the 2010s!) and magazine publishers were paying less than a cent a word. Like John Henry, you can beat the engine – but is it worth the cost?

  11. #24 by SolsticeSon on November 9, 2012 - 8:11 pm

    Stumbling upon NaNoWriMo as I explored a passion for writing, ambition took over and I wrote my first novel–58,000 words in 25 days last October. I loved every minute of it! If you’re thinking about taking the challenge, stop thinking and start typing (the thoughts flow better that way)

    You can find a post with the first few paragraphs on my blog–check it out!

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