10 NaNoWriMo Tips

National Novel Writing Month rolls around every November. And I usually don’t participate, although I may this year. (I threatened to last year, but those plans fell through.) My beef is that a writer should be writing all year round, not just during the month of November. In general, I see little to be gained by cramming a lot of word-generation into 30 days, when it takes so much more to create a viable novel.

On the other hand, NaNoWriMo is a fun event for many people. And it spurs some to become writers, rather than just talking about maybe writing someday. And it does increase the efficiency, and even the efficacy, of some writers. Because NaNoWriMo imposes a deadline, as well as social pressure to meet the deadline. Both of these can be very effective.

The thing you have to remember is that NaNoWriMo is a sprint, as opposed to a marathon. It’s a lot of energy, a lot of speed, dumping a lot of words, fast, for a short period of time. And it doesn’t encompass the whole novel-writing process, either. There’s a significant amount of planning you should do, which you ideally should be almost finished with by now. And afterward, there’s at least one editing pass, maybe two (story revision and line editing).

So in the spirit of NaNoWriMo, here are a number of tips for completing NaNoWriMo, taken from my own experience as a writer and culled from other writers around the Internet:

  1. Design your characters, plot your story, detail your outline, all ahead of time. In other words, know in as much detail as possible what you’re going to write before November 1 hits. You should know who your main and secondary characters are, what their human needs are, how they respond to those needs, how they fit into the story, how the story changes them. You should know what each character’s journey looks like and how they interact with each other. You should know how you’re going to tell those stories, chapter by chapter, scene by scene. Maybe even in more detail than that. I’m actually creating something I call a “zero-draft,” which is a brief telling of the story, piece by piece, but from a distance. There are few details, but all the components of the story are included, in the abstract, so that I can see how it looks ahead of time. If I’ve planned 20 chapters, I know each chapter will be about 2,500 words (50,000 words ÷ 20 chapters). I should have enough activity planned for each scene, and enough scenes in each chapter, in order to meet that target.

  2. Allocate the time to write, and know when that’s going to be. Determine now how you’re going to split up the 50,000+ words through the month of November. For example, November contains 4 full weeks, and I usually get little (or nothing) written on weekends. So that’s 50,000 words ÷ 4 weeks ÷ 5 working days per week = 2,500 words/day. So if you follow this same schedule, you need to write at least 2,500 words each day, and 12,500 words each week. And if my novel has 20 chapters, that’s 1 chapter per day, 5 per week. I generally write in the morning and afternoon and at night. (If you have another job, you’ll need to work your own schedule to leave you time to write.) But if my novel is a priority, I’ll probably work on it first thing in the morning. This schedule also leaves one day of slack (November 30), in case something goes wrong, and something always does. So if you get sick, or you don’t get as many words written as you thought you would one day, or one of the kids decides to take a detour to the emergency room, or whatever, you’ll be able to recover without killing yourself.

  3. Write without distractions. This should go without saying, but maybe I should mention it anyhow. You won’t be able to write with the TV on, or with the kids badgering you and interrupting you, or with any of the other constant distractions that we somehow accept in our busy-busy lifestyles. When you write, you should be in a comfortable position, using tools that you’re comfortable with. If you want, you can put on soft, nonintrusive music, without lyrics: classical, jazz, new-age, or the like. But this may either enhance your focus or distract from it; you’ll have to discover for yourself what works. The idea is that while you’re writing, your attention is absolutely focused on the task at hand.

  4. No editing, at all. When you sit down to write, get the words out as fast as possible. Don’t even read what you’re writing. You’ll have plenty of time to read it and edit it later. It doesn’t matter if you’ve phrased it poorly. If you can’t think of the right word to use, just describe the concept as best you can, and move on. You have no time to dwell on minutiae at this point. Minutiae come later, during editing. If you can’t think of what goes in a particular spot, include a rough note to that effect [in square brackets], and move on. If you decide halfway through that your main character actually needs to be a 6-foot-tall lesbian (instead of a computer geek with thick, black glasses), just make a note [in square brackets] that you’re making that change, and write the rest of the text with the new character. You’ll clean it up in editing, but you don’t have time for it now.

  5. Write in chunks, and keep at it until each chunk is done. When you sit down to write, you know what piece of the story you need to work on. Once you start writing that chunk (without distractions), keep at it until it’s done. Some NaNoWriMo participants advocate timed writings. For example, you set your timer to 10 minutes, you start writing, and you don’t stop until the timer goes off, and when the timer does go off, you stop immediately. I personally have found this exercise to be invaluable, because it trains the mind to get into the flow of writing quickly. Therefore, when it’s time to write, you will have trained your mind to be ready to oblige. However, I’m not sure how useful it is in completing a goal. You could try using timed writings, with short breaks in between, as a means of setting a more sustainable pace, while keeping your mind ready to work. Or you may find that just barreling ahead as best you can until each chunk is done helps you get the most accomplished.

  6. Don’t stop while you’re writing, but do take breaks. It’s very important to keep actively writing while you’re writing. So whether you’re going chunk by chunk, or whether you’re writing in timed segments, during each session, you’re actively writing, pen to paper or hands on keyboard, scrawling or typing out words. If someone walked up and saw you, they should immediately be able to tell from your ongoing actions that you’re writing, rather than playing a video game or surfing the web. But it’s also important to take frequent breaks, in between writing segments. During these breaks, you should try letting your mind rest. Maybe listen to soothing music, or just close your eyes. Do not watch TV, because that will only stimulate your mind and wear you out. However, reading is probably okay, because it relaxes and stimulates your imagination.

  7. There’s no such thing as writer’s block! Really. There isn’t. Well, that’s not completely true. There are physiological, psychological, and other reasons why you might not be able to focus on your writing, such as if you’re physically ill, or if you’re suffering from clinical depression, or if the kids interrupt you every 2 minutes with something that (in their minds) just can’t wait. (And kids do indeed do that. At least mine do.) In those cases, you have to deal with the underlying problem. But usually what people mean by “writer’s block” is just that they can’t think of what to write. You’ve planned your novel well, however. (Remember #1 above?) So you should always know what you need to write. It’s just a matter of actually writing it. Literally, sit down, and just write. And if you can’t think of what to write, or can’t think of what words to use, just start writing anyhow, whatever stupid, awkward words happen to come out. And within minutes, you’ll be streaming words onto the page effortlessly.

  8. Measure your progress. There are two aspects to measuring progress. One is that you should be churning out the requisite number of words each day, on average. The other is that the novel as a whole should be on-track to encompass the requisite number of words. So using the example plan and schedule from above (20 chapters at 2,500 words each, written over 20 weekdays), you’d complete 1 chapter per day, on average. If you have a short chapter, and if after finishing it you still have time and energy left for that day, you should probably start on the next chapter, rather than putting it off till the next day. At the end of each day, track the number of words you’ve written (using your word processor, or using the word-count tool at NaNoWriMo.org). You should be completing about 2,500 words each day, and about 1 chapter each day. If you end up writing less than 2,500 words each day on average, you won’t make the 50,000-word goal. On the other hand, if the average chapter ends up being shorter than 2,500 words, you’ll run out of stuff to write before you reach 50,000 words. The sooner you can discover either of these, the more likely you’ll be able to do something to remedy the situation, before time runs out.

  9. Share your progress, but shun criticism. Share your progress with others. If you have a blog, or if you’ve connected with people on NaNoWriMo.org, or if you’re on Twitter or Facebook, or whatever, share you’re progress day by day. You can even publish the text you’ve written or snippets of it, if that works into your plans for the project. However, the only feedback you should accept is, “Good job completing over 10,000 words so far!” (Or similar sentiments.) That will help to motivate you and keep you on track, especially during the days when you just don’t feel like writing. But you should not accept critiques or criticism, not at this stage. Criticism (whether constructive or destructive) can only slow you down, and there will be plenty of time later for critiques and edits.

  10. Know what you’re going to do afterwards. NaNoWriMo will not leave you with a finished novel. Rather, it’s just one step in the process. Some authors, after they finish a first draft, leave it for a few months before editing. I’ll probably collect specific comments on the story for a month or two after the first draft is complete. And I’ll probably ask alpha-readers to keep that in mind during November. Then I’ll edit. Whether you edit in December or later, you should try a one-pass revision process. In any case, whatever you’re doing in December and beyond, don’t allow it to distract you during your writing, but do allow it to become a goal, a vision to strive for, a light at the end of the tunnel.

Best of luck in your NaNoWriMo project!


P.S. Feel free to visit my NaNoWriMo page and add me as a NaNoWriMo buddy.

P.P.S. What other NaNoWriMo tips do you have?




3 responses to “10 NaNoWriMo Tips”

  1. Nikki Avatar

    Oh, my goodness. This helps me so much! Thank you!

  2. Hermitknut Avatar

    This article is brilliant 😀 However, I have to point out something. You state that you have to hit 2,500 words per day to reach 50k, which isn’t true at all. It’s 1,667 words per day (okay, 1,667 and 1,666 on alternating days). I did that in my first year of NaNo and hit 50k (just!). 2,500 was too much for me to get done with my schedule at the time, although commendable. 🙂 Just thought I’d mention it.
    Otherwise, excellent article!


  3. J. Timothy King Avatar

    Thanks, HK. BTW, it’s only 1.7K per day if you actually plan on writing every single damn day of the month. 🙂 Including weekends and Thanksgiving. (Maybe you can get a few hundred words in between the turkey and the pumpkin pie?)

    So I was assuming a proper holiday with the family, weekends with the kids, and a day or two of extra slack in case something went terribly wrong (like mononucleosis or pneumonia—and there is something going around this year that’s knocked out at least three people I know, each for several days).

    As it turned out, ironically, I never made 50K words the year I wrote that post. However, I did complete the novel (at a little less than 50K words), which I published.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.