10 Tips and Tricks for Surviving NaNoWriMo
Every November 1st, writers around the world come together for NaNoWriMo. For many writers, this is a day of terror and excitement. But by the end of the month, we’re all hoping to have the completed first draft of a novel… or, at least, a little more progress on one.
What is NaNoWriMo?
In case you don’t know about it, here’s a quick summary.
NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. Every November, writers across the world attempt to write 50,000 words in a month—by whatever means necessary. Even if it means cutting contractions from your dialogue or writing page-long descriptions of the setting.
Of course, no one expects you to have a perfect, polished, ready-to-be-published novel by December 1st. That would be ridiculous. Rather, NaNoWriMo is about getting your ideas out on paper. So many writers are frozen by fear of imperfection or procrastination or a thousand other things, so this is a chance to build some excitement and write something.
NaNoWriMo is completely free to sign up and join, so make an account by visiting the main NaNoWriMo website. From there, you can update your word count and track your progress throughout the month. There are even forums to connect with other writers, bounce ideas, and share NaNoWriMo tips and advice.
Some writers even meet in person for NaNoWriMo write-a-thons at libraries and coffee shops. You can connect with your local NaNoWriMo community through the website for when the next event will be!
Anyway, I love NaNoWriMo. The first time I participated in 2012, I ended up reaching 50,000 and finishing my novel first draft halfway through December. I strongly recommend that you give it a shot!! Even if you don’t hit 50,000, that’s fine. Getting something during the month is the goal, even if it’s only a little!
By now, I’m a NaNoWriMo pro—I participate every year in November, and I’ve done a fair share of Camp NaNoWriMo sessions, too (which is the off-season version of the official November NaNoWriMo, taking place in April and July!).
Wanna give it a go? YES! Go for it! Here are some tips to help you make it through the month.
1. Plan for NaNoWriMo, even if only a little.
You don’t need to outline, but you should at least think about your project and have a few ideas. A lot of people make outlines or do some sort of planning just because writing 50,000 words in a month can be really difficult if you need to take time to plan, too. That’s about 1,667 words a day!
If you’re a planner, you should probably spend some time preparing the month before NaNoWriMo. Even if you’re not a planner, you probably want to think about the general direction of your story so you don’t get stuck a few days in.
Even a little bit of prep can help. If you know you’re the type who gets hung up on names, try using a random name generator to pick out some that you like. Make a list to use later!
It’s never too late to plan, either! Think of it like an investment. Put together some ideas now so it’ll be easier to write later.
2. Keep your chin up when your progress slows down.
If you get behind in your first few days because you’re struggling to meet that 1667 a day suggestion, you might start to feel discouraged. If you’re not used to meeting a daily word count, it can be hard to just start writing that much every day during NaNoWriMo.
As the month goes on and you get into a writing groove and pick up the pace. Part way through, you might hit a block, but don’t stress about it. Figure it out (or skip it) and start writing another scene. You can come back to it.
Other writers start the month strong, but hit a slump halfway through the month. What works for me is building a habit. Humans are creatures of habit, after all. If you can force yourself to write a bit every day, it WILL get easier.
If your slump is due to plot-related writer’s block rather than motivation, see tip #4!
3. Build up to a daily word count.
If you’re not used to writing 1667 words every day, build up to it. Maybe the first day or two you can write 500 words a day, then try to hit 700 the next day, then 1000, then 1500, then 2000, and so on.
A year or so ago, it was a week before the end of the month and I still had so far to go. But by slowly, slowly adding a hundred or so words to my daily goal, it became a very real possibility to reach 50,000. By the last few days I could write 4,000 or 5,000 a day, which was enough to make up for the lost time.
4. It’s okay to cheat.
The “official” NaNoWriMo rules say that you should start a brand new project during NaNoWriMo—something you haven’t started yet or written before. It’s a loose rule though, and you shouldn’t let it keep you from working on what YOU want to work on.
Of course, you should still try to push yourself to actually completing projects and getting things done, but at the end of the month, the main goal is to have something written.
Write “extras” for your project.
If you get stuck on your project but you’re still dedicated to it and want to finish, then try taking a break from the main plot to write something related.
This can be a character backstory, an origin story, myths or legends for a fantasy world, a character interaction we never get to see in the main plot, or even “fanfiction” where you put your characters at a beach or in a high school au or whatever it ends up being.
You’re still working with your characters and learning more about your story. I especially love writing backstories and origin stories for my characters. Every time, I learn more about them and it ends up deepening my main plot when I return to it.
Work on another project.
One of my writing rules is “follow your muse.” If you get inspiration for a different project, nothing is preventing you from sticking to the same story.
Some writers will “double-dip” in November and work on two or more projects at once. This is fine! Do whatever it takes to get some work done.
5. Track your NaNoWriMo word count.
Some people update once every few days, so you can see their word count stay the same for a few days, then jump up 7000 words. They’re writing during that time, just not marking it down.
During NaNoWriMo season, I update my word count on the website every day—it makes me feel more accountable for keeping up a daily effort. I absolutely love the stats on the WriMo website so this daily update is great.
My first time doing NaNoWriMo, I wrote my daily word count on my calendar in addition to updating the overall word count on the NaNoWriMo website. It helped me a lot. It makes me more accountable for my daily writing, so I feel guilty if I take a lot of days off. Since I tend to be a very responsible person, making WriMo a daily responsibility is a good motivator for me.
Everyone’s different. But I encourage you to do at least something every day—even if it’s only 50 or 100 words. Even if it’s just one sentence! Any writer can manage a single sentence, right?
6. Write with a friend.
If you and a friend agree to bug each other to write, it helps a lot. A friend can also help if you get stuck in your story—even if they’re just a sounding board.
The Camp NaNoWriMo sessions make this easy! Writers are placed in virtual “cabins” of 12 people, so you have a whole group of writers to talk to if you get stuck or need encouragement! Other than that, the NaNoWriMo website has plenty of writing forums and local events where you can chat with other writers.
7. Try writing sprints.
Finding that you can’t focus? It’s hard to get your butt in the chair and just write.
But can you focus for 5 minutes? 10 minutes?
Believe me, it’s a LOT easier if you tell yourself, “Okay, I’m going to focus for TEN minutes. Then I can slack off.” Other writers have had this idea too, and called them “writing sprints.”
Set a timer for a time period you think you can handle. I like shooting for 15 minutes, but you can try 5 or 10 if you really find it hard to stay focused for long. For those few minutes, you HAVE to write. When the timer dings, check your word count. It’s run to keep track and see if you can improve your numbers with each time you do it.
Personally, I love doing writing sprints with a friend. We keep each other accountable, and it helps me commit to actually doing the writing sprint in the first place.
8. Find what works for you.
Writing involves a lot of self-discovery, since what works for you won’t necessarily work for everyone else. Take some time for self-reflection and/or experimentation to answer these questions:
- Do you write better at night, first thing in the morning, in the middle of the day, or something else?
- Do you work better with coffee, soda, or tea? Water? Gatorade?
- What type of music (if any) do you prefer to work to?
- Do you prefer to have hours of uninterrupted work time, or do you prefer word sprints?
- Do you prefer having an outline, or just creating as you go?
Keep in mind that everyone writes at different speeds. Some people write a really awful, really fast and dirty first draft very quickly, while others spend way more time on a solid first draft. Neither is better or worse than the other. Find out which you are, and don’t get too discouraged when you see your buddies are 10k words ahead of you.
Figure out your writing preferences, and realize that any advice you read about “how to succeed at NaNoWriMo” (even all this advice I’m giving now) will change depending on the person. Everyone has different preferences.
9. Don’t stress yourself out.
Don’t beat yourself up if you’re slacking. Yes, you want to write every day, and like I’ve already said I use guilt as a motivator for myself. But I keep it at a healthy level of guilt. If you start getting really stressed because you’re falling behind and it starts affecting your mental welfare, take a break.
NaNoWriMo is supposed to be encouraging and challenging, but if you start taking it too seriously and getting stressed about meeting your goals, it’ll only make you more stressed and put you further behind. Even if you don’t meet your word goal, you still got something written, and that’s what matters.
10. Take care of yourself.
I’m one of those people who gets in the writing zone and I completely forget about the world around me. When I finally snap out of it, my throat is parched and I’m dizzy with hunger.
You need to take care of your body during NaNoWriMo! Buy healthy snacks to keep by your desk and always have water within easy reach (whether it’s water bottles or a jumbo-sized cup). Take time to stretch—especially your hands and your wrists.
A pacing method like the Pomodoro Technique can be incredibly useful for reminding yourself to take breaks.
Above all else, HAVE FUN!
I’ve loved NaNoWriMo ever since my first time participating. It’s such a rush and it can get really hectic trying to balance meeting your writing goals at the same time as any school or work you have, but at the end you’ll feel really accomplished.
Having easy access to all the necessary writing tools and resources is also a powerful thing! Here are a few character-related advice posts that might find yourself needing:
- The 7 Key Traits of Enduring Characters
- Large Character Casts: How to Put your Character Temporarily Elsewhere
- First Impressions: The Secret to a Great Character Introduction
- 36 Core Values for Building Character
That said, don’t get so lost in the research that you forget to actually write. Writing advice is all well and good, but at some point you need to just get onto the page and WRITE! Find a balance that works for you!
At the end of the month, your novel will NOT be ready for publication. Please, please, don’t self-publish it or immediately send it to agents and publishers. Sadly, a lot of writers end up doing this instead of building up their novel to its full potential. A great novel takes time to edit, revise, and review.
Don’t get carried away by the thrill of a finished novel! There will be a time for your novel to meet the world, but make sure you’ve shaped it into the best possible version of itself, first!