It’s the most wonderful time of the year!
Welcome to the wild winter word marathon known as National Novel Writing Month. Over the next thirty days, thousands of ambitious writers will churn out 50,000 words apiece to earn nothing but bragging rights, a hearty case of sleep deprivation, and hopefully part of a messy first draft.
I will be among them. I love NaNoWriMo. I’ve zero-drafted most of my books during the month of November, and the community aspect of the challenge was what first pushed me to try my hand at novel-length original fiction.
I’ve attempted the challenge nine times and met the 50k goal six times. The event has a special energy that inspires me. There’s something about knowing that so many writers are pushing for this goal alongside me, sharing the experience of highs and lows, prioritizing their creative process.
Note that I also thrive under the urgency of a short timeline—not everyone’s best case scenario. Your mileage may vary. If NaNoWriMo isn’t for you, that is completely valid and doesn’t make you less of a serious writer. In fact it probably makes you more sane and healthy than some (i.e. me).
But! Since tomorrow is Nov. 1 and those who enjoy a good arbitrary deadline will be off to the races (also me), it seems like a good time to talk about how to “win” at NaNoWriMo without losing your mind or your motivation.
Make time for your writing.
Tell your spouse, tell your kids, tell your cats (as if they’ll listen): your priorities will be different this month. Set aside blocks of time where you can. Clear your schedule as much as possible.
NaNoWriMo is a great time to establish or experiment with a writing routine. Ask yourself when you get the most out of your writing time. When do you feel the strongest sense of creative flow?
Do the words flow more easily the morning, before everyone wakes up? Or do they come easier in the evening, when the concerns of the day have been put to bed? If you’re short on time, can you fit in small sessions to “sprint” throughout the day? Stay curious about your experience throughout and be open to trying new methods when the tried and true falls short.
I have had some good results switching from evening to morning writing sessions. I think of myself as a night owl, but there’s a lot to be said for writing when my mind is still fresh, as long as I’m not in a migraine flare. Different routines may work better on different days, and that’s okay.
Make every word count.
Can’t figure out how to start a scene? Brainstorm in your document. Ask yourself on the page what should happen next.
Start with “I am having trouble writing this scene because…” and just free write for a while. List possibilities, lines that pop into your head, ideas for future scenes you want to lay groundwork for. Do a brain dump of your doubts and hopes for the story.
If you find an interesting hook, start following it. Before long, you’ll probably have a nice chunk of words on the page, even if some of it is angst or lists or seven different ways to start a scene. Don’t delete anything—they all count as words you wrote in November.
Accept the mess.
You can edit out the brain dumps and angst later. You’re going to revise this manuscript anyway. There is no perfect first draft. There is definitely no perfect 50k words written in 30 days.
Also, unless you are writing a novella or a middle grade book, 50k is not a full length book. It’s embryonic, a skeleton, a homunculus, a mock-up. It’s incomplete and that’s the way it should be. It’s what it needs to be at this stage.
I think of this draft as the roughed-out shape of wood or stone on a sculptor’s table before the artist does the real detail work with chisel and knife that exposes the grace of her vision. It’s the first layer of a painting with blocky shapes, a few colors, sketched lines. It’s laying a foundation that you will build on later.
It might help to call it a zero draft or an in depth outline—whatever gets you out of perfectionist mode. The perfect is the enemy of the done. It has no place in NaNoWriMo.
Keep it interesting.
If you’re not enjoying what you’re working on during a given session, if you’re not excited about some aspect of it, use this feeling as a cue. Ask yourself what would have to happen to make it interesting to you. Now write that instead.
A more specific variant of this technique: ask “what’s the worst thing that could happen to my character right now?” Whatever you come up with is also probably the most interesting thing that could happen to them. Character torture is legal, even encouraged, in NaNoWriMo.
NaNoWriMo is a good time to take risks with your writing. Don’t be afraid to go off outline, to try out new voices, tenses, or techniques, or to introduce brand new characters that derail the plot in exciting ways. Sometimes you have to blow up your plot to get through it.
If you have to skip some stuff, skip it. You can literally write that “somehow, they got from point A to B.” Do whatever it takes. You don’t have to write the boring parts. You don’t want your eventual readers to have to read the boring parts, either.
You don’t have to write every day.
I’m not a fan of any writing advice that preaches the gospel of daily writing, because that’s not possible for everyone and is frankly ableist. If you don’t get your words in or you don’t hit “par” for the day, don’t stress. In fact, a break may be just what you need to get your creative mojo back.
Don’t give up because you miss a couple of days or a week or even more. Although the number of words you need for the month may seem overwhelming, a few good days can go a long way. Focus on meeting incremental goals rather than the amount you’re ahead or behind on a daily basis.
You can always stage a late game comeback. Hell, I’ve made it a NaNo tradition. (I am REALLY motivated by urgency. *waves in ADHD*) However…
A few words are better than zero.
If you’re feeling unmotivated and you’re not sure if you should try to push yourself on a given day or not, make a deal with yourself to write 50 words. Just 50. When you get those 50 words, if you still don’t want to write any more that day, you can stop and do whatever you want instead.
Odds are that by the time you get those 50 words in you will have found your flow again. If not, you still have more words than you started. And that is a win.
Be kind to yourself in this and keep your promise if it’s a real chore to get out 50 words, if you can’t stand to stare at the page for a moment more. Let yourself be done. Creativity takes energy, and sometimes that energy just isn’t there. Honor that and take time to fill your creative well, rest, and recalibrate.
Find your easy mode.
Writing is already hard. Engaging your creativity is a workout for your brain meat. In that light, look for ways to make the act of writing easier and more comfortable. You don’t have to write on hard mode!
Focus apps or browser extensions can eliminate distractions like social media. The StayFocusd Chrome extension, which is free to install for desktop, will let you “go nuclear” and block the whole internet. It annoys me how well this works!
Having trouble getting to the computer? Try writing in your notes app on your phone or sitting on the couch with a laptop or tablet. I recently dug out my old Surface notebook so I could write on the couch and it’s so much comfier than my desk.
Curate your physical environment as well. Noise canceling headphones are a blessing if you’re easily distracted. Experiment with what kind of noise keeps your energy up without interrupting your flow. White noise or instrumentals are usually my go-to, but lately dance music has been giving me an energy and mood boost while writing.
Dictation to text apps can help if you have physical pain that is stopping you from writing. I haven’t tried this myself but I sometimes use my voice memos for notes if I can’t get to a keyboard. I might test out dictation more this year, though, because my eyestrain issues have been killing me.
Sprint to the finish line!
Finally, there is the classic NaNoWriMo tradition of word sprints. A sprint is a short burst of writing time in which you try to get as many words out as possible, perhaps in friendly competition with fellow writers. Most Discord writing servers I’m in have automated sprint bots now, so that’s how I usually do this, but you can also use a regular timer.
I don’t always use sprints because they can stress me out. They are effective, though, so I will use them during NaNoWriMo if I need to do some catch up. Once I’m warmed up, I can write around 300 words in a 15 minute sprint, so four sprints or an hour of writing can net me more than 1k words—and I’m a relatively slow sprinter.
Do it because you want to.
If short deadlines and fast drafting don’t work for you, if you hate every minute of NaNoWriMo, if reading this stresses you out, don’t do it. It doesn’t make you a better writer to write 50k words in a month. It’s an arbitrary goal and for many writers, it’s a hard stretch goal.
Not everyone wants to run a marathon. I don’t! Plenty of runners don’t do marathons, either. It’s not worth doing unless you get something out of it, and it is very taxing.
You will need recovery time. You will feel exhausted. You will wonder why you decided to do this.
Know why you are doing it. Don’t pressure yourself if it doesn’t sound like something you want. Also, if you want to quit midway, you can quit without penalty. You will still have more words than you started with, and that is a win in itself.
Make the challenge work for you.
The NaNo events have loosened up over time. You can work on more than one project at a time during November if you like. You can work on revisions, continue a draft you already started (this is what I’m doing) or write something that is not a novel at all.
So be a NaNo rebel if that’s what works for you! They’ll even give you a badge for it. Again, if you’re writing words in November, you’re winning.
If you want the community writing experience but don’t want the pressure of committing to 50k, you can set your own goal. You won’t get the badges and rewards if you don’t go for 50k, but you’re not missing out on anything major. The real magic of NaNoWriMo is making a commitment to writing with community support.
There are no NaNo police. Even the 50k is verified on an honor system. I am sure people lie about it but literally no one cares. (There are some discount codes available if you win, but that’s really just icing, and there are offers for participants as well.)
Celebrate the power of “no.”
Last year, some friends and I decided to celebrate NoNoNoMo – the month of saying NO. Saying no is powerful—and it doesn’t have to be negative. It’s all about setting and honoring our boundaries.
Say no to guilt and obligations that get in the way of writing. Say no to self-doubt and self-rejection. Say no to Twitter, fuck that place. Say no to distractions that steal your time and don’t replenish your energy in return.
Say no to the rules of writing—use all the adverbs and filler words you want. Say no to whatever sucks the joy out. Say no to other people’s ways of doing things.
Hell, say no to every piece of advice in this post! Say no to NaNoWriMo, if you want. It’s really there to get you hyped up for writing—if you find it does the opposite, definitely say no to that.
But you say no to everything else here, please don’t forget to sleep, hydrate, and eat—your brain will use more fuel than you think while writing. Say no to running on empty. It is just electric, amazing, creative meat in there, after all.
Experiment with what works for you, get curious about your process, and don’t forget to connect with your fellow writers who are running this marathon with you. Community commiseration will carry you through a lot of rough spots. Writing can feel solitary and isolating, but NaNoWriMo provides an opportunity to remember that you’re not alone in your struggles or your triumphs.
However you decide to spend it, NaNo or no NaNo (or just NoNoNoMo), have a great November and happy writing!