Writing a book is grueling. And writing a book in a month, the basic premise of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), is like running a marathon.
A year ago, I wrote the first draft of my novel “Gumshoe Rules” during NaNoWriMo, clocking in at 55,000 words. This was the first time I’d written a novel after years of contemplation. Having made it to the end with a manuscript and a few days to spare, I thought I’d share my tips for how to get successfully to the finish line.
Writing is not easy. And writing a novel in 30 days is especially hard. Lots of people think that one day they’ll go do it. The trick is to make today that day and then do it again for 29 more days. I guarantee if you follow these tips, you will increase your probability of success. It’s like running a marathon. Anyone who wants to run a marathon can do it; but you’ve got to lace up your running shoes and train for it. (I’ve done both; running a marathon is much easier.)
So here are my essential tips for NaNoWriMo.
Do The Upfront Planning
Since November is NaNoWriMo, right now, the balance of October, should be your time to figure out what it is you’re going to write. While some people can “pants” their way through a first draft, you are far better off having a plan for your work. This should include a clear understanding of the genre you’re writing (mystery, science fiction, romance, etc.), the main characters, their backgrounds and what essential conflict the main character will face. If you can develop a rough outline that breaks the story into a three-act structure and identifies key scenes, setbacks and challenges, so much the better. You don’t have to be locked into the outline, but when you’re trying to write every day, it helps to have a clear idea of what comes next.
While you are visualizing your story and how it will play out, it’s also important to visualize your story as author. To keep motivated and focused in training for a Marathon, there are times when it is beneficial to mentally rehearse the race. By focusing on how you will feel when it’s done, you can get through the ups and downs along the way. You see yourself at the finish line, smiling, being cheered, having a massage or a celebratory dinner afterward. You visualize how the months of training will pay off and you savor the success, even if it is all in your head. You can do the same thing with NaNoWriMo. Think of your pending success, the feel and weight of a 150-page manuscript in your hand, the satisfaction of finishing the task, the celebratory dinner. This will help you through the daily writing grind and keep you motivated.
Clear Your Calendar
Completing 50,000 words in November means you’ve got to write about 1,700 words (just over 3 pages) every day for 30 days. The best way to accomplish this is to go into anti-social mode. Cut whatever distractions and commitments you can. Just say no to TV, Netflix, movies, dinner with friends, family visits, doctor’s appointments, whatever. If you can send your family out of town, so much the better. For most writers it takes 2–3 hours per day to get their word count done. And sometimes it’s more than that.
I know writers who start their writing at 6am every day. I know others who steal away every evening. Evenings worked for me.
Many successful writers say this daily discipline is what makes the difference between a published writer and a dreamer. So carve out your daily time commitment and stick to it every single day.
Writing may seem self-indulgent at times, but it is important to broaden your view. After all, you are writing to create a story for your readers. They may not know it yet, but you are writing for them. You have a duty to supply this material to your readers. Even if at times it feels like it’s just for you, your brother and the family dog.
Assuming you’ve got a day job and some commitments you can’t get out of, create blocks of time where you can. Brown bag your lunch to work, plug in your headphones and get writing. Need an extra hour? Go to work early and start writing. Got a flight out of town? That’s several hours of uninterrupted work.
The one thing I would not cut back is exercise. If you’ve got a regular exercise regimen, keep to it. You’ll need it.
Write Fast and Loose
When you’re writing, it’s best to dive right in and not worry too much about perfection. NaNoWriMo is all about getting things down on paper and fixing them later. If you don’t get ideas on paper there’s nothing to work with. Even a bad scene is still a scene that can be improved. The trick is to stop yourself from self-censoring or critiquing as you go.
New writers often struggle with “where do I start.” If you’ve got an outline, just start with the first scene. (You did write an outline, right?) Who’s there? What’s the conflict? Who or what is holding them back? What is your hero’s first action to move things forward? Create dramatic tension to keep things moving. Having that tension build across multiple scenes is a good way to keep the pace fast. Your reader will be more engaged, and so will you.
If you’re not sure how a scene should unfold ask yourself: What would be the crappiest way to move this along? It might be some cliché from Scooby Do or some old trope you’ve seen in a dozen movies. That sets the low bar; in a first draft it’s perfectly acceptable. Hell, it might even work in the final draft if it’s well written. Often when you figure out the worst way to move a scene forward, you will come up with two or three ideas that clear that low bar, even just a smidge. Once you’ve got an acceptable idea, or even a lousy one, write it and move on.
You want to write with a fast and loose style so that whatever ideas come to you, you put them on paper. Don’t think about it too much and don’t worry that it’s not perfect. Just roll with it. Write the scene and move on to see how the characters respond to whatever predicament you’ve put them in.
Steady Wins the Race
Do your best to hit your 1,700 word count every day. You can post your word count at the NaNoWriMo web site at the end of the day. It can be hugely motivating to see the word count climb, especially if you have a couple of days that break 2,000 words and you end up ahead of the game. If you can make it through the first week and cross the 10,000 word mark you are much more likely to finish the project successfully. Everyone has a few off days, but writing a novel is all about maintaining discipline. Get your butt in the chair, turn on your computer and write.
One of the best things about NaNoWriMo is you can treat it as a non-stop improv theater where you put words on paper without worrying about how good they are. (Trust me, any words you write are great. Or at least they’re a great start!)
It’s important to resist the urge to edit as you go. That will only slow you down. The more you listen to your inner critic the less progress you will make. Many would-be novelists never get past the first few chapters, because they keep going back and editing. That might make for a great first chapter, but it can easily prevent you from getting to the end.
If you’ve ever seen the start to a marathon, you know that the bigger the crowd, the less likely anyone has a fast first mile. But in my years of marathon running, I’ve never seen anyone go back and redo the first mile to get a better pace.
NaNoWriMo is all about maintaining forward momentum. You’ll have plenty of time to edit when the first draft is completed. But not in November.
Make Writing a Ritual
Not to get too pretentious about it, but if you can formalize a ritual around writing, it will help you stay focused. For me, it was mostly writing in the evenings, by myself, without distraction. No music, no internet, no nothing. I wrote at the dining room table every day. Weekends, I would write during the afternoons and take walk breaks when necessary. Usually coffee was involved. Often chocolate. Sometimes beer.
The point is to make it a habit and surround it by things that signal “now is the time to write.” You can write with headphones in a coffee shop if that’s your thing. Or at the library. Or on the train. But figure out what works for you and repeat it. The more ritual there is, the easier it is to tell yourself (and others) that you are going to be busy for the next few hours slaying dragons, solving murders, fighting aliens or what have you.
Take a Walk
When you get stuck, it’s not a bad idea to take a short break. Staring at your computer for three hours when you’re out of ideas isn’t much fun and it isn’t productive. While I was writing, I would make sure I had written at least 500 words before taking a break. But when I was stuck, I found it helpful to go outside for five minutes. Or get a coffee. Or go for a 30 minute run.
Sometimes you need to let your subconscious take over for a while. Getting outside works great for this. (Don’t distract yourself with TV, email or Internet; there’s no coming back from that.) Often I would have a new idea when running and couldn’t wait to get back to my writing. Boom. Another 500 words done.
Once you develop these habits to help you get unstuck, it’s no longer the soul-crushing feeling it used to be. It’s like having an idea pen that runs out of ink. No problem, I’ll just walk to my subconscious cupboard outside and I know I can replenish it.
When in Doubt, Add More Action
Raymond Chandler famously wrote: “When in doubt have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.” That might sound like a cliché, but if you’re writing a mystery or thriller, it is pretty good advice. I used it at least twice when I was stuck last November and it worked great to amplify the tension by surprising my main character, Jack Waters an insurance investigator.
If you’re writing in a different a genre, a gun might not be the right thing. The point is to insert a dramatic moment that demands the characters’ reaction. Maybe it’s the sudden reappearance of a long lost wizard now transformed into a deity. Or a surprise attack of Romulans using a new cloaking device. Or an explosion and the loss of electricity and phone lines. Or a late night phone call with bad news, the kind we all dread.
Action scenes keep the characters on their toes and keep the pace fast. Most writers benefit from more action and less narrative. That’s what keeps the readers turning the page.
Good Dialog Makes Conflict Personal
One thing that can set your writing apart, is by focusing on solid dialog. There are some authors (Elmore Leonard, Robert B. Parker, John Steinbeck, Ian Rankin) who are renowned for their dialog. It breathes life into the characters in a way that nothing else does. It heightens conflict and grabs the reader’s attention. It can also be a lot of fun to write.
If you’re not sure how to bring out a conflict, put the characters in a scene together. Make it into a confrontation with emotional impact. Show the characters working out a problem. You can convey their emotions, their fears and concerns by what is said and what is left unsaid. Strong dialog leaps off the page.
The only downside is good dialog is somewhat sparse on the page. So you’ll write it fast, and it contributes to page count. The only negative is it won’t drive your word count up as much as a bunch of dense description. But then again, if you write good dialog, no one will ever skip over it.
Get With Other NaNoWriMo Writers
While I wouldn’t say running a marathon is easy, one thing you find is that for many races there are people along the course cheering you on. It is much easier to run a marathon when there’s a crowd than it is to run 26.2 miles by yourself.
The same is true for NaNoWriMo. If you’re in a major city, there are NaNoWriMo gatherings as well as global online events. For a few days last November I went to a local library. It wasn’t a big group, but there were cookies, coffee and that feeling we’re doing it together.
At the end of every evening, no matter how late, I would search for the #nanowrimo tag on Twitter and send words of encouragement randomly to other writers who had posted their progress. I also happened to get a nice shout-out from one of my favorite authors, Anthony Horowitz. You can’t imagine how excited I was next day to go back to the creative coal mines.
You can do the same on Facebook or anywhere. But just be careful that you do this after you’ve hit your daily word count.
Get Inspired By Other Writers
Writing is a lonely experience. But you can find good advice from those who have done this before. There are tons of resources for new writers. If you’ve got a commute, I strongly recommend listening to writing podcasts such as Mark Dawson’s Self-Publishing Formula, Kevin Tumlinson’s Wordslinger or any of the Sterling & Stone podcasts. These shows have a mix of interviews with writers talking about how they got started and practical advice on characters, plot and pacing. But more importantly, they help you feel that you’re in a community where you can learn from others.
I also strongly recommend two books: Stephen King’s “On Writing” and Grant Faulkner’s “Pep Talks for Writers.” Both are available in print and in audio form. Faulkner is the executive director of NaNoWriMo and his book was written specifically to help new authors through the process.
You can easily overdo it by listening to podcasts or buying books instead of writing. So keep in mind: a little motivation goes a long way; too much motivation gets in the way.
When You’re Done, Put It Aside
When you get to the end of November hopefully you will have 50,000 words written and you can proudly say “mission accomplished.” Likely you will feel happy but exhausted. And maybe a bit over-eager to share your finished manuscript with friends or sign up for Kindle Direct Publishing and send your masterpiece out into the world. Or possibly you’re thinking this is the worst piece of garbage that’s ever been written. It’s not uncommon to believe both of these at different times in the writing process.
However the best advice I have is to put your first draft aside for at least three weeks. Take a break. Get back in touch with friends and family you’ve neglected. Go out for a nice meal. Celebrate the accomplishment. But resist the urge to read what you’ve written and don’t share it with others. Wait at least 3 weeks before reading it. If you wait until new year, that’s not a bad idea. It will give you the ability to read your manuscript with some objectivity.
You might be surprised that some things you wrote make you smile or laugh. For sure there will be things that cause you to cringe. But no matter. Now that you’ve written your manuscript it will need editing. You can do some amount of re-editing yourself, marking up the pages that your November self wrote. If you want to pursue publishing the book, I encourage you to look into hiring a professional editor. I used Reedsy to hire experienced editors to help with plot, characters and pacing. (Reedsy also has many free writing tools and articles.)
Very few people produce a first draft that is publishable; most authors go through at least three major revisions. But once you have your first draft, you are well on your way to success. And if I can write a novel, I know you can too. All you have to do is take the first step.