Tips for National Novel Writing Month

It’s almost November, which means it’s time for National Novel Writing Month—write a complete draft of a novel, from start to finish, of at least 50,000 words in 30 days. [1]

Here are some tips for first-time NaNos from a ten-time winner:

Donate —First, it’s the right thing to do. NaNo depends on donations. More selfishly, it’ll help you finish. Even a small donation will flip a switch in your subconscious that tells you that this is important. Plus you’ll get a halo for your profile pic that not only looks cool but reminds you every time you log on that you’re in it to win it.

Schedule writing time — Seriously, put it on your calendar. The earlier in the day, the better. If you try to make writing 1,600 words the last thing you do before you go to bed, you’re going to be miserable. Or fail. Or both.

Go to write-ins — 50,000 words can be a long, lonely slog if you go it alone. Get out of the house, meet your fellow Nanos. They’ll make you feel like you’re part of something bigger—they’ll cheer on your progress, and they’ll help keep you accountable.

Write every day — Your quota is actually 1,667 words a day, which will (probably) feel like a lot at first, but gets easier. My first NaNo, it took me over four hours to hit 1,667. By the end of the month I could knock that out in an hour and even managed a couple of 10K days. Write every day, even if you only have time for 500 words. Or 50. You’ll maintain a sense of progress. You’ll better retain the context of your novel for your next writing session. And you’ll be reminding your subconscious that this is important to you; it’ll reward you by ticking away on your novel while you sleep and present you with fresh inspiration at your next session.

Reward yourself — Promise yourself a treat for finishing. Promise yourself a treat for everything. My first NaNo, I invested in Chris Baty’s novel writing kit, which included a color-in thermometer to track your word count, a calendar, and a packet of gold stars. Goofy, I know. But I colored in the thermometer. I gave myself a gold star on the calendar for every day I hit my quota. It worked. I also promised myself a new laptop if I hit 50K, but mostly it was the gold stars, and the write-ins, that pushed me over the finish line.

Don’t revise — The more seriously you take your writing, the more tempted you’ll be to fix mistakes as they crop up. You don’t have time for that, and it’s antithetical to the spirit of NaNo—getting you to silence your inner critic so you can get busy with writing. Make an error? Take a note and move on.

Back up your work — Don’t be that guy (or gal) that stumbles at the finish when their laptop dies, taking their manuscript down it. Fun fact: Dropbox is not a backup solution. If you accidentally delete something from Dropbox, it vanishes from all connected devices. When I first started, I emailed a partial draft to myself every night (now I have an automated backup solution).

Have fun — You only get one “first” NaNo. That anxiety over whether or not you’re going to succeed is what makes it an adventure. Every other NaNo after will feel more like walking back home after a long hike

Special bonus tip for “serious” writers: Let go. If you’ve written a novel before, or even a few short stories, you probably have a process that works for you. It’s probably not going to work for NaNo (unless your process already includes pumping out 1,600 clean words every day, in which case you’re basically Stephen King or Brandon Sanderson already, so just back off, and let us have this, okay?)

1. This is long for a footnote, but I didn’t want to force you to wade through my personal nonsense on your way to those juicy, juicy NaNo tips.

I have a mixed relationship with NaNoWriMo, particularly with regard to finishing things. NaNo did get me writing, after years of merely dreaming, which was great. In 2007 I wrote a first draft of the novel I’d been musing about for decades. It was, in the spirt of NaNo, a very shitty first draft but still a major accomplishment for me. But it wasn’t finished. It still isn’t.

On the other hand, after a few more NaNos, I eventually decided that cranking out shitty first drafts every November, with no coherent strategy on how to shape them into actual manuscripts, was a stalling tactic that allowed me to think of myself as a writer without actually engaging in the hard work of, you know, finishing something.

Which is okay. NaNo isn’t grad school. It’s a not a blueprint for novel-writing success. Occasionally you hear stories about some writer who managed to sell their Nano novel, but those are rare exceptions. Most Nanos write for fun and have no intention of ever publishing. But that’s not what I wanted, so it wasn’t okay for me. I went to an actual grad school (Stonecoast), and got my MFA in creative writing and managed to turn one of those shitty first drafts into an actual novel, but I still have nine more shitty first drafts cluttering my hard drive. It feels kind of pointless to add to the pile before working on the backlog. Especially when I have other writing projects that need my attention.

Last year I bailed on NaNo after the first write-in (midnight on Halloween at the Kalihi McDonalds, yeah). This year I’m going to sit out entirely, but I’m going to miss it. NaNos are great people, and the whole event is a blast.

If this is your first year, I envy you. Have fun, win or lose.

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