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How to Succeed at NaNoWriMo

Updated on September 5, 2014

What is NaNoWriMo?

NaNoWriMo is a challenge for a novelist to write a 50,000 word novel in one month. Each writer competes against herself, as the challenge is to get past the feeling of wanting to write a novel and get into the practice of actually writing a novel. While 50,000 words is a bit short for a commercial novel, it’s still plenty of content to squeeze into 30 days. Each novel is supposed to be an original work of fiction, and content writing starts on November 1st. By November 30, your novel should have a complete beginning, middle, and end. It will be both one of the most difficult things you ever accomplish, and also surprisingly easy, with a little planning.

Let's talk statistics

50,000 words in 30 days means that you must write 1666.66 (1667, let’s be serious here) words a day. That’s not actually a lot of words to write, when you consider how many words you put into typing comments on Facebook, emails to friends, tweets, text messages, and HubPages articles. However, coming up with 1667 words of original fiction that actually form a plot is where it gets tricky, not to mention the religious and Thanksgiving holidays that occur during November. Things get even more tough if you observe religious days in which you can’t work. I’ve found that the best way to keep myself on task is to use an Excel spreadsheet, and log my words as I go, maintaining a daily log and also a long term log showing how close I am to the close of the novel. In this way I can play to write more on days when I have the time, and to make up for days when I don’t get to write at all.

Before November

Step one: go to nanowrimo.org and create an account. This is the place where you will find forums and stat counters, but more on that later. Step two is, obviously, think of a plot. In keeping with the rules, it should be fiction, and it should be one long, continuous plot. Short story collections are not considered novels by the NaNoWriMo team. The good news is that your plot doesn’t have to be good. Chances are it won’t be good. The point of NaNoWriMo is not to sit down and write something you’ll send off to your agent. The point is to get into the habit of writing, even when you can’t think of something to write. You have the rest of the year to revise and edit the crap you write in November. For now, think of a beginning, middle, and end.

This is the point where people begin to differ on their approach to NaNoWriMo. There are writers who write off the cuff, letting their plots develop in their heads throughout the month. Many of these people are quite successful, however I have failed mightily in the years that I’ve tried this method.

Some people participate in the “snowflake method.” This is an extremely organized approach to writing a novel, and the full method can be found here: http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/articles/snowflake-method/. Basically, before you even begin writing the novel, you brief your characters and their motivations, conflicts, and their part in the storyline. You then create a spreadsheet laying out the scenes needed to pull the novel together. It’s like storyboarding, but for a book instead of a TV episode or movie. According to the website, this is a method you can use to sell a book proposal to a publisher. This sounds like a wonderful way to create a novel where the first draft might actually be marketable. I say “sounds like” because I’ve never gotten past the character briefing. NaNoWriMo is intense enough for those of us who are involved with work, school, family, and community obligations. If you’re an extremely organized person with a little more free time, go for it.

For those of us who need a little guidance to stay on track, but who are also not able to invest the time needed to use the snowflake method, there’s the good, old fashioned outline. The outline can be as detailed as you’d like. Without writing actual content, which would be considered cheating, you can lay out what needs to happen in your story scene by scene, much like the spreadsheet storyboard used in the snowflake method. I like to have a scene by scene outline with the characters needed put down in advance, but I also like to leave a lot of the detail out. There is a certain magic in writing a scene and letting the dialogue happen without thinking about it too much before you start. The outline is helpful for keeping me on task, as I tend to let my characters go off onto a tangent. Many nights I stopped after an hour of frenzied writing only to ask myself “what the heck was supposed to happen next?” I would then put down my glass of Franzia (more on that later) and refer to my trusty outline.

Sample outline

In the interest of not reveling any of my NaNoWriMo plots, which I like to kid myself may become a real book one day, here is a sample outline I may have created if I were the writer of the Three Little Pigs.

  1. Three brothers, pigs, one is responsible and two are silly
    1. Establish characters – maybe they play different instruments
    2. They need to build houses and choose materials in increasing levels of strength
    3. Possibly a jingle? (Adds to word count!)
  2. Pigs build houses
    1. Silly pigs build crappy McMansion style houses (Straw? Sticks?)
    2. Smart pig builds awesome, Amish quality style home
    3. Singing that jingle (word count!)
  3. DRAMZ!
    1. The wolf is totally buggin.
    2. Blows down silly pigs houses (another catch phrase perhaps? Word count!!)
    3. Silly pigs – eaten? Run away? Let’s see where this goes.
    4. Wolf can’t blow down smart pig’s house. Has no thumbs, can’t pick lock. Maybe has emphysema. Stupid wolf. Somehow is killed/chased off by smart pig
  4. Moral/Conclusion
    1. Smart pig gloats a lot
    2. Silly brothers – eat smart brother and live in house? Or maybe just agree to build better houses themselves so they’re not crashing on his couch all summer.
    3. More singing (word count!)
    4. Moral – don’t hire pigs to build your home

See what I did here? There’s plenty of room to let creative inspiration strike, but if I get lost I can just look at the next plot point and mosey on over there to move the plot along.

Oh crap, is it November again?

Source

Sneaky ways to reach 50,000 words

Remember, the point of NaNoWriMo is to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. There are going to be days when even with an outline, you’re struggling to reach your word count. Here are some sneaky ways to reach those counts.

  1. Repetition. “No. No! No NO NO NO NO! “ Congratulations, you’ve written seven words!
  2. Songs, catchphrases, and poetry. As in my outline example above, creating a jingle for a character, or a catch phrase that they whisper under their breath can go a long way to increasing your word count. Maybe your character likes to sing karoke, and you need to type those song lyrics into your novel. It happens. Maybe your character loves to quote poetry. It’s not sneak word count uppage, it’s “character development.”
  3. Word races. Remember that NaNoWriMo website I mentioned earlier? The one you use to verify your word count on November 30th? It also has forums that you can use to waste time…er…inspire you to write more. One fun forum game is the word race, where you are given a set number of minutes to write a certain number of words. It’s fun, and really does help you break through that writer’s block.

Tips

  1. Carry some kind of notepad so you can scribble down ideas throughout the day. It’s convenient to put them in your smartphone or tablet, but I’m old school and would often find myself sticking notes to my work computer that said things like “head found in basket like baby Moses” or “attempts to recycle bloody band saw blade at Dumpster Days, hilarity ensues.” I’m sure my boss loved seeing these.
  2. Wine. OK, OBVIOUSLY this only applies if you’re of age and can drink responsibly, but sometimes I found that the thing I needed to cure my writer’s block was a little liquid lubrication. It became a joke between me and my husband. One year he bought a box of the nastiest Franzia and brought me a half glass if he didn’t hear my fingers typing. It wasn’t that the alcohol inspired me to create as much as it was awful, and it was a punishment for not typing.
  3. Do the meetups. You can join a regional forum group and meet up to type with other writers in your area. This is nice if you tend to get distracted at home, and it’s also a great way to make new friends.

Do you NaNoWriMi?

Do you participate in NaNoWriMo?

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Conclusion

NaNoWriMo will teach you that you can accomplish your goals by working at them a little at a time. Finishing is incredibly liberating. Remember, it’s a first draft. It won’t be good on November 30th, but with the skills and confidence you gain through this experience, you can polish your novel into something shareable, and maybe even write more than one.

What's your favorite method?

Which method do you use to write your novels?

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    • Jcpuddles profile image

      Jcpuddles 3 years ago from Ohio

      Follow the Nanowrimo page on twitter for tweets on word sprints, as I believe their called.

      Participated last year and loved it.