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Nail NaNoWriMo – start now! 3 old hands share their tips

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 and creating a big Do Not Disturb sign, what can you do to prepare?
And is it even possible?

This is a repost of a piece I ran a couple of years ago, but with NaNo rising as a buzzword again in the writerly ether, I thought it might be helpful. Tomorrow I’ll post some tips for getting your story into good shape before you start.

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 old hand, says: ‘The single best non-official resource I used 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. And tomorrow I’ll be going through a workup routine to get your story sorted before you lock the doors.

40 thoughts on “Nail NaNoWriMo – start now! 3 old hands share their tips

  1. i’ve so far managed not to get into NaNoWriMo mostly because other things get in the way; this year is no exception but I’m going to do my best to edit as many of my short stories as possible for inclusion in my ebook. So for me it will be NaShoStWriMo 😉

  2. I am preparing for my first novel for months over months now. Research, outlining, character development … I just didn’t start writing the first draft but was thinking about it all the time. So this year I will use NaNoWriMo to actually start writing and to go through (I hope to have the first draft finished by the end of the year, taking December to get from 50.000 words to the 80.000 to 90.000 words that will be needed). I have the characters and the plot in my head, I have a ton of documents with metainformation, background, summary of the plot – and now I am playing the cards game with scenes (around 50 scenes so far). I hope to be well prepared for November. 😀
    So far I wrote a lot of short stories, but this will be my first novel.

    1. Hi Kerstin,
      Congratulations on going for your first novel. Your biggest challenge might actually be HOW prepared you are: it might be difficult to turn off your inner editor when this is The Novel You’ve Been Preparing For All This Time. Don’t be surprised if the frenzy of writing causes you to deviate from your extensive planning, and if it happens, let it happen.
      Enjoy the madness!

  3. I’ve been doing NaNo for several years, have won three times so far, and have self-published one of my Nano novels. The only criticism I have of some of the suggestions is that they’re put forward as absolutes rather than suggestions. Like the idea that you *must* stick to the word count you set for yourself, you *must* write every day. What works or is even necessary for one person, won’t work, or isn’t necessary for another. It *is* permissable to edit as you go along, if you know how to pace yourself and don’t let the editing interfere with forward progress. As a loner, I have to say that some of us don’t need outside support. In fact, that’s the very last thing we want. Just leave us alone to get the writing done.

    Okay, I’m through being the grouchy maverick. Back to the developmental work on my novel>

  4. I did NaNo for the first time last year, knowing I’d have visitors staying at the house in the midst of it. I planned for that delay, did not plan for other delays, and still finished by day 24. I tend to be quite literal, so when the stated objective of the competition was to write a novel in 30 days, I took it to mean opening the laptop on Day One without one bit of preparation or any idea of what I was going to write. That’s what I did. It was fantastic! About day 5 I had to stop because it was getting oddly emotional. It took several days of thinking it over before I realized I was writing a theme that was deeply troubling to me at the time. Once the theme had popped up and identified itself, I was able to stick with it and keep writing. It was a surprise how easily the words came (horrible words without craft, but there nonetheless), and how well the pacing and beats were when I re-read it months later. I did not get a novel, but I got a lot of characters, scenes, and voice to work with at a later time.. A lot of natural weaknesses were also exposed, but I’m not going to talk about those, just continue tackling them.

    From my experience, I’d say the very first bit of preparation is asking yourself why you’re doing this. If the answer is to crank out the first draft of something already floating in your thinking, or perhaps putting the polish an already completed first draft, then prepare accordingly. Read how others with your same objective have approached the event and cherry pick their best bits of advice. If your “why” is discovering hidden themes below your awareness and finding your natural strengths and weaknesses, then go in with nothing. Test yourself and see what you’ve got.

    The wonderful thing about NaNo is the option to make it whatever you want. And, OK, the winners certificate is pretty cool, and parading around in the t-shirt is nifty, but that’s the stuff of ego and fades fast. Aim for whatever achievement is higher than what you can currently meet. That’s soul food.

    1. Cyd, what an honest snapshot of the genesis of a novel. Your approach is one that isn’t so commonly discussed – a month of concentrated brainstorming, dedicated to exploring what you may have shimmering in half-formed ideas.

      and .. there’s a T-shirt?

      1. Yep, a t-shirt, but you have to buy it. Of course I don’t wear mine in public. Much. Just Tuesdays and Thursdays. A couple Saturdays, holidays, that sort of thing.

  5. I liked what Gareth said about sticking to your 1600 wpd commitment. It’s more practical to me to sort of average that, though I take Gareth’s point. I’ve also been using an Excel spreadsheet to track progress since my first NaNo outing in 2004.

    On NaNo the other day I came across the term “pantser,” as in, writing by the seat of your pants with no clear idea of where the story is going. I don’t think this is totally possible, but I come close…too close, sometimes! But the thing is that if I plan too much I find it difficult to write at all. In 2004 I started out with an idea of writing a pirate-adventure/romance yarn. I spent about five days, wrote about 2000 words — clearly not with Gareth’s program! — and discovered that a minor character had taken over the plot and I had no clue where to go with it. I avoided panic and changed to a science-fiction story I had been mulling over for awhile. It was very much a first draft (and remains so to this day) but I wrote 50,000 words in 25 days.

    Two years ago I had something similar happen. I had planned out a novel idea I knew fairly well, another science fiction story with the working title The Once and Future Grail. I had 5000 words done in two days — a fair indication of things flowing well! — and on Day 3, bupkis. Ditto Day 4, 5 and 6. At which point mild panic did indeed begin to set in. I ended up asking myself, OK, so pretty obviously you don’t want to write THAT story; is there a story you DO want to write?

    That story, about fighter pilots in the SW Pacific in early WW2, had evidently been lurking in my subconscious long enough and wanted OUT. I ended up with 51,000 words more or less by November 28. The only unfortunate thing about that is the story ended up as the third story, chronologically, in a trilogy. So last year, for NaNo 2011, I wrote the first draft of Everything We Had, the first volume in the trilogy, and this year I’m writing A Snowball’s Chance, the second volume. The third volume, Boxcar Red Leader, is in third draft.

    As the members of my writer’s group pointed out, I’m not George Lucas, and I shouldn’t release the last volume in the trilogy first.

    So in a few weeks I’m going to the exotic island of Java, then part of the Netherlands East Indies, in February of 1942. That is, unless that pesky Grail story ambushes me and I’m abducted into the 33rd Century.

    But that’s what I like about NaNo. It’s a hell of a ride, and if you persevere at the end you’ve got a first draft in hand. Even if you never do anything else with it, sometimes it’s great to pull it down, go through it, and figure out if it’s worth it to spend the time to take it all the way.

    Because you could, you know, even with the crummiest first draft in the world.

  6. This year will be my 11th NaNoWriNo. I vowed, some years back, that I would not miss one as long as I could think and type (or dictate). So far, so good. I didn’t make the goal the first time, and that brings us to MY best “rule” for the game. Get ahead and stay ahead.

    Staying with 1667 words a day gives you no cushion. All of the fiction writers I know are passionate about their work, and that means their emotions are “at risk” when they try something like this. Getting a few days ahead, especially in the first week, can make all the difference in the world for one who plans on finishing the race. It is so easy to get discouraged if you miss a day or two, and then to get more discouraged because you’re discouraged. )) Get some 5k days in there early on. If this is fun, and it should be, you can do that fairly easily, especially before you begin to feel the gravity of word count and the calender tugging at your heels.

    Now, then. Like my friend Catana (above) I would recommend throttling back on heavy rules. Yes, there is a lot of work involved. Yes you can put your heart and soul into it… but it isn’t like you’re writing for your life. This can (and should) be fun!

    Do you really need to plan out your novel ahead of time? It can’t hurt, but why not experiment with just sitting down at a blank screen and seeing what happens? You may not win Pulitzer Prize with your first draft (I can actually guarantee it), but it can be a wild ride. Allowing yourself free rein as you write may not be your first choice, but consider it. You may be amazed at what you can create without a plan.

    Lastly, forget editing. Forget anything that distracts you from writing. You’ll be surprised just how far you get in 30 days. Keep in mind that 50k words in the minimum goal, not the place to stop. One year I reached 120k in 30 days. Last year it was 72k in 21 days. The point is that if you let yourself have fun, if you just cut loose and damn the torpedoes, there is no telling what you can accomplish!

    1. I’d agree with the getting ahead tip. I confess that I’ve had more than a couple of years where I have to pull two or three 5k days out of the hat towards the end of the month – but, wherever possible, I try to build up at least a day’s contingency in case life gets in the way.

      I do my best to write whenever I have the opportunity to – unless I’m too tired to even read (I find that that is a good benchmark for exhaustion – if you are too knackered to take in a book that you’re reading, then you’re not equipped to write one! It was never an issue until I had a toddler with night terrors – but now I do have to factor in the likelihood of days when I literally won’t be mentally capable of writing.)

      There are days where it feels like the last thing in the world that I want to do, or when I feel that I can’t do it – but unless I am truly exhausted – I find that I can once I start to write. Every day that you write is a day that you don’t have to play catch-up for later. Plus, even if you only get 500 words written that day, that’s 500 words that you don’t need to tag on to the catch-up total later in the month!

      I’m only aiming for a 20k novella this time, because I’ve got a lot of days already booked up in November. I managed the 50k for Camp NaNo in August, so I don’t feel too bad about not going for the whole total this time. 🙂

      Good luck to everyone who does it!

        1. Stop reading my mind…! I’ve already done my spreadsheet for November to work out which parts of which days I’ll hopefully be able to write and it just might be possible….

          I’ve also purchased Scrivener with the 50% off code I got for ‘winning’ August Camp NaNoWriMo and may experiment with using that for NaNoWriMo if I can figure it out before then. It looks pretty cool so far, so I’ll be interested to experiment with it. 🙂

  7. I signed up today! This will be just my 2nd nano – the first was in 2004 – but I’m really looking forward to it. I’m going to have a bit of help this time around though. I’ve been using StoryBox for over a year now and it makes writing of all sorts so much easier. Character sketches all count for the daily word count but with Storybox I can keep them in what amounts to database so no need to swap backwards and forwards between Word docs. I can also restructure on the fly which is a huge help to me because I /can’t/ go on until I’ve fixed whatever is wrong. Anyway, I can feel the excitement building so… see you all in November!

    1. Storybox sounds rather good. For years I’ve been wanting to develop a sensible way to use the computer to keep track of notes etc. Even better would be something that allowed me to search my ideas books. I have many handsome notebooks covered in scrawls, but no way of looking through them with purpose. Sigh… the perils of paper

      1. I’ve never been a notebook person – mainly because my writing has become so atrocious over the years, plus I type faster than I can write longhand! I do, however, have a filing cabinet chock full of research and I really wish I could scan it in somehow so I could catalogue what’s there and actually /find/ stuff.

        Now that I’ve found StoryBox I really couldn’t go back to using Word again. I had to do the editing of my book in Word because it has the ability to track changes and all editors use it, but I did find it cumbersome after StoryBox.

  8. Loved this post! We found out about NaNoWriMo, and have been plugging it on twitter and facebook. We love the idea of bringing out artists who wouldn’t normally take the time to follow their dreams, such as our friend (Sam) who works at a bank by day and who is now going to give her best at writing which was a childhood dream. Go Sam!! We also love that it gives new writers a chance at goals and flexing their writing skills. I particularly loved the information I found on your site, such as the authors who are published and the books they wrote attributed to this contest. “Water For Elephants” which we did not know. Unbelievable…right?! I also totally agree with you regarding the preparing aspect, which I think helps those out there who arent’ familiar with the steps and who weren’t sure what to do. Excellent Post, keep up the good work, and good luck to everyone out there!

    1. Thanks, Inion! That IS a lovely idea – of people having a go who never tried before. What a great idea to try and get a posse of first-timers. Keep marshalling and nurturing. And this won’t be my last Nano post, so stay tuned…

  9. This will be my first NaNoWriMo. I am both excited and terrified. I bought K. M. Weiland’s Outlining Your Novel book, which I love, and am working on an outline for my idea. The tips in this post sound great – and other tips for getting my inner editor to shut up so I can just write. I’m putting together a list of resources (this post being one) to share with my writing group in hopes that some of them will join me. And I’m planning to take a week off from my day job (sadly, I don’t think I have enough annual leave for more, but there are also holidays in almost every week of November, so yay!). Good luck everyone!

    1. Hi Leslie! Katie’s tips are great, she’s a practical, inspirational sort of lady. Shutting out distractions and turning off your critical sense are crucial, and some people find that what they learn in NaNo helps them develop writing methods for later on.
      BTW, if you’re a fan of KM Weiland, you might like her post in my series The Undercover Soundtrack

      1. “some people find that what they learn in NaNo helps them develop writing methods for later on” – I certainly hope that’s the case for me! I’ll definitely check out that Undercover Soundtrack post.

  10. Thank you for the post (and the reminder that I really need to do my preparations… dammit :)).
    This year, NaNo is going to be very very tricky for me, and the novel I’m going to write is going to be tricky as well: each time I’ve tried to plot it, I’ve ended up thinking “I don’t really want to write this”, and nevertheless the characters, the setting, the *etwas* about the novel is very much alive. So even though I planned to plan, I think I’m not gonna do much of that. Instead, I will
    – get a better grasp of my characters and see how they enter the novel (without knowing what sort of chaos will they create)
    – brainstorm *around* the idea, not filling the actual idea in (I have a stack of keywords, like “mechanical butterfly” that I have no idea how it’ll fit but I think/hope/trust that it will)

    – get most of the work that I can get out of the way, out of the way
    – plan for having my life turned upside down (which is pretty much inevitable) somewhere in the middle of November
    – ..and this is new: plan for taking weekends off. I have been a freelancer for almost a month and a half now, and I’ve discovered that taking weekends off really helps my productivity. I still work, a bit, but not much, and I feel better when I am free to spend time with my family and do some easygoing planning for the next week.
    Yes, that brings my total daily wordcount up to 2500 words per “good” day, 3000 if I can, but I know very well that I can do 2500 per day. What I won’t be able to do is to have 1666 words every day. But that’s fine by me.

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