In this article New York Times bestseller and NaNoWriMo veteran, Elizabeth Haynes gives you her top tips for a successful NaNoWriMo.
Ah, autumn. Crisp mornings. Brisk winds. Back to school weather, new pencil cases, pumpkin-flavoured everything, and writers all over the world preparing to take part in NaNoWriMo. They’re all a bit bonkers – right? Surely there is no sensible reason to write 50,000 words in 30 days?
I beg to disagree. It’s a perfectly reasonable thing to do, and if you’re reading this then I am hoping that it’s something that you’re considering, and if you are, then let me share five good reasons why you should go for it.
November is a great month to write. The weather’s dire, we might all be in lockdown anyway, so why not put every moment of spare time to use and write? And if not now – when?
You have nothing to lose. It’s only thirty days, and at the end of it you will potentially have 50,000 words that you didn’t have before. The key to it is letting go of the expectation of writing something GOOD. Nobody can write a perfect novel in a month. Whatever you end up with will need serious editing, if you feel like it. You’re not writing a masterpiece in a month, you’re just going to WRITE. And that is tremendously liberating.
It’s great fun! Writing is by nature a solitary business, but this is an annual opportunity to be cheered along whilst you do it, to engage in competitive sprinting (writing for a given amount of time without stopping) if that’s your thing, or at least to be encouraged by a host of pep talks and discussions with fellow writers locally and around the world. And a side note: if you’re having fun while you’re writing, it will probably be better than anything you’ve written that’s felt like a chore.
It’s a magic cure for Writer’s Block. No, really – it is. There is nothing like the pressure of a deadline to get you writing. If you get stuck, you can skip to the next scene, or change your story completely, or even throw in the Travelling Shovel of Death (a traditional NaNoWriMo technique). There are many suggestions on the NaNoWriMo forums to help you if you get stuck, and because there is no pressure for your writing to be good, then there is nothing stopping you bouncing off that metaphorical wall and back into the story.
You never know where this might lead. There are many published novels that started life in November, Have a look here if you don’t believe me. Seven out of my eight published novels were NaNoWriMo novels. Admittedly each one took a year or more to edit, but we’re not talking about editing now, we’re talking about writing. What I’m saying is: I’m a normal person, whatever that is, and if I can do it, you can do it.
There’s plenty you can be doing now to prepare to write your novel. If you’ve already got a story idea, there are some brilliant, encouraging and comprehensive guides to planning your novel right here on the Jericho Writers website – see How To Plan A Novel and this guide on how to flesh out your ideas quickly with The Snowflake Method.
Planning is just part of it, however. You’re writing a novel, you’ll need to take yourself seriously. If you tell all your friends and family that you’re going to do NaNoWrimo, then you are making yourself accountable, because you can bet they’ll all be asking you how the novel’s going during November and beyond – and as a bonus, it’s a great excuse to get you out of things you don’t want to do. Social events can wait till December – you’re writing a novel. The laundry can wait for a bit – you’ve got writing to do. Shopping? Let someone else take their turn.
(On a practical level, if you celebrate Christmas, it’s a good idea to do some festive shopping and Christmas card writing now – December is going to come around mighty quickly if you’ve spent the whole of November writing.)
It’s also worth pointing out (in case you’re reading this on 31st October) that you don’t need to plan at all. You can dive straight in on day one, or even several days in, if you missed the start. You can write an entire novel without planning – it’s called Pantsing, or writing by the seat of your pants. It will mean that you’ll probably have more editing to do later, but it’s no less valid a technique. In fact – hands up – I am a Pantser and proud. I never plan. I get bored if I know what’s going to happen.
To reach your goal by the end of the month, you’ll need to write 1,667 words a day. That sounds like a lot – and it IS a challenge, let’s be honest: if it was easy, everyone would be doing it, wouldn’t they?
But if you manage to turn off your inner editor, put aside the urge to fix problems as you go along, and just WRITE – you’ll be surprised how quickly your total goes up. Remember, NaNoWriMo is all about quantity, not quality – and while that might sound counter-productive, actually in the process of writing freely you’ll find that some of what you’ve written is really pretty good.
As a 15-year veteran of NaNoWriMo, here are my top tips for getting it done:
Try and get ahead of the game. Inevitably, there will be some days in the month when real life will intervene, and you won’t be able to write. If you’re ahead in terms of word count, it won’t feel quite such a slog to get back to the story. Aim for 2,000 words or more a day in the first week, if you can.
Track your progress and celebrate milestones. The NaNoWriMo website has a helpful graph to show your progress and it’s very motivating to stay on or ahead of that target line. Every 10,000 words is a victory!
Sprints are great. You might not be accustomed to writing at speed, but in fact, the only writer you are competing against is yourself. If you can write 300 words in 20 minutes, set a timer and try to do 320 words next time.
How can I stay motivated?
Writing a novel in a month is something of a rollercoaster. There will be days when your story just flies and it’s hard to write fast enough, and then there are days when every word is painful. There is an acknowledged ‘Wall’ that most participants hit, often around Week Three – so if you’re struggling, you’re definitely not alone.
This is where your writing buddies can help. Others in the Jericho Writers community will also be taking part – find a friend for a bit of mutual accountability, and maybe do some sprints together.
Join your local NaNoWriMo region, too. There are no in-person events taking place this year, but every region will have its own community and online writing events throughout the month to help you with your wordcount.
If you’re not feeling sociable, there are plenty of other resources to keep you going – personally, I can recommend Focusmate and Brain FM to help maintain concentration.
Tell yourself that this is only a month, and the achievement at the end will feel amazing. Give yourself rewards for sticking with it, and try to write every day – or don’t go more than a day without writing at least something, even if it’s a sentence. You’ll probably write more.
If you’re stuck, the NaNoWriMo forums provide solutions to most problems. You can ask others to unravel your plot dilemmas (often the act of describing the issue to someone else will help your brain to find the solution). You’ll also find extensive lists of user-provided ‘adoptables’ – for example, ‘adopt a plot twist’, or ‘adopt a character’ – ideas for you to throw in to your story when you get stuck. They might not work, but they will keep you writing while your brain works out how to pick up your story again. Beware of procrastination, and getting in your own way!
At this point I think it’s important to say it again: YOU CAN DO IT.
How much should I edit my writing?
Not at all. Just – don’t. It’ll interrupt your flow, cause you to doubt yourself, and takes valuable time away from driving that word count forward. November is not the time for editing – your inner editor should be locked in a virtual cupboard for the duration.
I’ve made that sound very absolute, but it’s not quite that brutal. If you make a spelling mistake as you go along, by all means fix it, especially if it makes you twitchy. But what you shouldn’t do is delete anything. If what you’ve just written doesn’t make sense, type ‘FIX THIS’ or some other searchable place marker, and write the paragraph or chapter again. If your plot takes an unexpected detour that you know is horrendously waffly, leave it be. If your characters end up having a long conversation about pandemics, let them carry on and maybe encourage them to discuss Brexit while they’re at it.
You know you’re making a mess. You know you’ll read this all later and wail ‘what was I thinking?’ but that doesn’t matter during November. Quantity, not quality!
Whether you make 50,000 (or more!), or any amount at all, celebrate your achievement, collect your winner’s goodies from the NaNoWriMo website and have a well-deserved rest. It’s a good idea to let that novel sit undisturbed for a while, certainly at least a month.
In the dark days of the new year you can revisit it, read through (and marvel at the bits you can’t even remember writing) and decide whether your story has potential. Mostly, despite the mess, it will have some really rather brilliant bits, and then the work of untangling, restructuring and developing can begin.
Have I convinced you to have a go? I hope so. It’s a complete blast. In the words of Chris Baty, the founder of NaNoWriMo, the world is waiting for your novel. This is your chance!
Elizabeth Haynes is a former police intelligence analyst who lives in Norfolk with her husband and son. Her first novel, Into the Darkest Corner, was Amazon’s Best Book of the Year 2011 and a New York Times bestseller. Now published in 37 countries, it was originally written as part of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), an online challenge to write a 50,000 word novel in the month of November.