10 tips for Becoming a NaNoWriMo Winner.
National Novel Writing Month is an annual creative project on the internet, where crazy people try to write a novel (or 50,000 words of a novel) in a month. Alongside the main even in November, there is Camp NaNoWriMo twice annually (April and July this year), which allows for more flexible targets. It’s a great experience, and a powerful cure for writer’s block. Last April I was a winner, and in this article I share my top 10 tips for writing a novel in a month with NaNoWriMo.
TEN TIPS TO WIN NANOWRIMO
- Make a plan.
Go into this knowing what you want to achieve and how you want to achieve it. It is all well and good saying you want to write 50,000 words, but 50,000 words of what? Are you writing your dream novel or unjamming your writers’ block? Do you have a specific idea in mind or are you looking to see where creativity takes you.
This isn’t a visitation of the old planner/pantser argument – whether it is better to write a novel plan first or make it up as you go along is largely a question of personal choice. But deciding how you are going about NaNoWriMo before you begin will save you a lot of time when you get started. Answer these questions before you begin:
- What do I want to have done by the end of the month?
- What do I imagine to be the perfect outcome?
- What do I think would be the worst outcome (don’t let this one happen)?
- Why do I want to do this?
- What do I need to do to make this happen?
If you’re a planner, get that plan written out before you hit the first day of the month. If you’re a pantser, and you just want to see what happens, do it with gusto and do it with abandon; let your fingers blur on the keyboard and make the randomness part of what you are doing it for. But make your mind up before you start. Don’t be sat writing your plan or picking out a plot on day three. Equally, don’t start out improvising then take a week off in the middle to write a plan. Keep your objective in your mind and get writing – you need to be getting countable words on the page every day from day one.
- Talk to your significant others about this plan.
The support of those who are close to you will be essential. Not least because you are going to be far too busy to be any good to them! Talk to them about what it is you want to do, what is involved, and why it is important to you. They deserve to know, and if you get them onside now they will help you later.
Maybe they will tell you it is a bad idea (and maybe they will be right, and you can postpone it to a better time). More likely, if you talk about it together, it will make them complicit in your success. This can transform an angry partner who wants to know why you haven’t cleaned the kitchen, into an encouraging partner who tells you they are going to take care of the kids tonight so you can go and catch up with your word target.
- Cancel everything else for the month.
This has to be your focus. Sure, you can’t cancel everything. You probably have to go to work. Kids still need to be bathed and fed and stuff. But cancel everything else for this month. You’re going to be too busy writing.
Seriously, if you really want to do this then you need to make it a priority. NaNoWriMo is a real challenge and winning is a real achievement. Bowling night can wait until next month. If you’ve taken the time to explain to your partner why this is important, they will understand that you can’t take a Sunday to redo the tiles in the bathroom (make sure you do it next month though.) For one month, your writing is what matters. Enjoy.
- Draw a big graph and stick it on the wall where your co-conspirators can see it (the internet would also count as a wall for this purpose).
I like graphs and don’t need much of an excuse to draw one. But having talked your partner/family/mates into putting up with you doing this, having something big and clear showing whether you are keeping up or not helps keep both you and them encouraged. Update it every day. Watch your progress grow. Feel growing panic when you see how far there is to go. But keep on updating it every day. It will also serve as a useful visual prop when explaining that you really can’t put up new shelves this afternoon because you have to get back to writing.
Just in case it hasn’t come across: talking to the people that live with you[i] about what you are doing is the single best piece of advice in this article. I would not have finished without my wife’s help. And she helped me because I explained why I wanted to do this and asked her to help. Don’t try to do this on your own. There’s no need to make it even harder than it already is!
- Take care of yourself.
Writing is physically demanding. Drink plenty of water. Eat fruits and vegetables. Moderate how much you drink (yes, I know, Hemmingway is spinning in his grave[ii]). Do some light exercise. Get some sleep. You need it.
Stretching is important. You’re going to be spending a lot of time hunched over a computer, and that is bad for your back. Back pain sucks. Get up every fifteen minutes, stretch your back, and look out of the window. Then get back to writing.
Once you get to the end, try to have planned a couple of days off. You’re going to be tired. I’m not kidding. Take some time off. Better to rest at the end then fall down later for longer.
- If this is Camp NaNoWriMo, think about being flexible with your targets.
The November NaNoWriMo is unforgiving about the 50,000 words. At Camp, you not only get to pick your own target, but until about a week before submissions you can change that target. If you are miles behind, lowering the target to something reasonable will inspire you to get writing again. If you are ahead of your target, setting something more challenging will drive you to write more. Be flexible. Do whatever it takes to keep writing.
- Never look back.
1667 words a day may look reasonable from the outside, but it is basically crazy. Going back and editing stuff you wrote yesterday wastes valuable time you need to write the next 1667 words. Worse yet, you are writing too quickly and you are too close to the text to do a good job of editing. It is much, much better, to leave it be and gratefully keep those words in your word count. If it really is as rubbish as you think it is you can always cut it next month. Don’t look back.
- Don’t skip a day.
Even if you are really far ahead, don’t skip a day. Even if all you can do is write 200 words, don’t skip a day. Even if all you can manage to write is the word “Fish” over and over again, don’t skip a day. 1667 words is hard. 3334 words in a day is a world of pain. Any more than that and you’re basically treading water on your way to missing the target. Equally, that thousand word buffer you have is not as much as you think it is, and will vanish in a flash if you let it.
Skipping days makes you feel bad. Skipping days makes you feel like you aren’t really doing it. Skipping days makes it easy to skip more days. You can’t afford the time. And if you’re having a terrible day, getting a compromise few hundred words down will make you feel better about things, and make tomorrow slightly less horrible. So get writing.
- Talk to your cabin mates.
Camp NaNoWriMo will offer to set you up with a “cabin” of fellow writers; a shared forum with a few other people crazy enough to try what you are trying. Accept the offer and join a cabin. If you’re a Brit like me then you’ll find the thought of exchanging encouragement with the other writers in your cabin thoroughly disagreeable. But it completely works. Bite the bullet, ask others how they’re doing, tell them they can make it, and discover (to your surprise) that when you write “aaargh, I’m never going to make it” and Fred1001 from Mississippi says “Yes you can! Keep going!” that it will totally work and you will get back to writing.
- You are a winner.
Making your target feels awesome. It feels brilliant, fab, and fantastic. Make your target. It is worth it.
But do remember that any words on the page are a victory. Writing is hard. Taking your ideas and getting them on the page is a fabulous things to do, whether you are Salman Rushie or EL James. The worst case scenario is that you write nothing, in which case you have lost nothing. Anything more than that is more writing than you would have done without taking part. Every word is a step on the journey.
So ignore the voices telling you everything you write is rubbish. It doesn’t matter if it is. Ignore the voices telling you that you are going to fall short of the number and that means you should be ashamed of yourself. They’re wrong.
The 30,000 odd words I wrote in my first NaNoWriMo where I “failed” turned out to be really useful. So the only way you really lose is if you don’t write anything at all. And writing is brilliant.
So get out there and win.
[i] I mean “live with you” in the broadest sense possible – the people in your life. If the people in your life are the members of your World of Warcraft guild, that’s completely cool – and, knowing Warcraft players as I do, I bet if you talked to them they’d be helpful. If you really can’t think of anybody, reach out to other NaNoWriMo writers. They’re crazy but they’re nice.
[ii] I always like to imagine myself as one of those writers with a glass of whiskey in one hand and a cigarette in the other, staring bleary eyed in the witching hours. The truth is that I write better after a nice walk in the sunshine, a little yoga, and a glass of water. Reality sucks.