Tips For Surviving NaNoWriMo

As we all know, National Novel Writing Month, better known as NaNoWriMo, is just around the corner (though considering it’s done all over the world these days, it might need a name change). If you are not familiar with the tradition, it’s basically that every year authors try to write a novel in the course of a single month, usually one that’s around fifty-thousand words, and always in November. Of the authors that choose to participate each year, some do it independently, while others do it through an international organization that can hook them up with other participating writers in their region and even let them know about local events centered on helping authors during the month.

I’m on the fence on whether or not I’ll be participating this year. I’ve three other books at various stages of editing and I have to decide if one of those books needs to be rewritten (if so, then I’m participating because that’s basically starting from scratch). Even so, I thought I’d serve the writing community and do my civic duty by posting some notes on how to survive and get through NaNoWriMo with all your fingers still attached to you and your sanity somewhat intact.

Because let’s face it, writing fifty-thousand words in thirty days? I don’t know about the rest of you, but normally that many words takes me six to eight months. Cramming all that work into a month, we need all the help and advice we can get.

So first off, don’t get stressed about the word count. To get fifty-thousand words written in thirty days, you’d have to write approximately 1,667 words, or about 6.7 pages per day.* I know for a lot of writers it’s difficult to get that much out in a single day. The thing to remember is not to feel upset if you can’t force yourself to get that many words out per day. Remember, all good stories take time, and there’s no prizes for meeting daily quotas (the NaNoWriMo organization hands out badges, but they’re like the ones from Audible, nice to have when you get them but they don’t make much of a difference after you get them) or getting the full fifty-thousand words written out besides bragging rights. Besides, if you have to force yourself to put out words when your heart is not in them or just to meet a quota, your first draft might not turn out so well.

That’s another thing: remember that this is a first draft. And a rushed one, too. So if you look at what you’ve written and wonder what the heck you were thinking, that’s a normal reaction to a first draft. They’re supposed to be full of errors and passages that make no sense to you upon the second read-through. It’s during that second read-through that you touch it up and get it closer to the gem that you know it’s going to be.

Now that we’ve gotten the tips that’ll keep you in a good frame of mind out of the way, let’s cover how we actually survive NaNoWriMo:

Prior to November, research and prepare. We’ve still got twenty-two days till NaNoWriMo kicks off. During that time, it might help for you to get an idea of what you’re working on, where it might be heading, and maybe learn a bit more about the subject matter you’re writing, especially if it’s a topic you don’t know very well (like a murder mystery in Tang China or a coming-of-age story set in an ROTC unit). Now I know a lot of you might like to write by the seat of your pants, but just doing a little bit of prep can be helpful, especially if it means you don’t have to stop midway through writing because you realized you don’t know a thing about car maintenance and you lose four days because you got a car maintenance manual and needed to cram all that info in.

It also helps to prepare so that you can make plans in case you have to stop writing for any reason. Whether you need to attend a wedding midway through the month or you have to put the metaphorical quill down because you have a Poli Sci exam coming up you need to study for, having a contingency plan in case that happens can work wonders.

Speaking of which, while it is important to get out as much writing as possible, make sure not to neglect your life just to write. Many of us have day jobs, school, families, friends, and a variety of other things that require our attention. While it is important to write and maybe give up a few social obligations or fun outings to work, don’t neglect the real world entirely. I find the real world can not only give me great ideas for stories, but also reenergize me so that when I sit down to write, I’m not restless and looking for a distraction or yearning to go out and see the latest horror movie or something.

And while you’re working so hard, remember to take care of your health. In some ways, NaNoWriMo is like the last three weeks of a college semester: you’ve got a ton of work to do, only so much time to do it, and you’re willing to get maybe four hours a night of sleep and eat ramen noodles three times a day if that’s what it takes to get through it on top. I’m advising against that. There are no consequences to not getting out the full fifty-thousand words, so your health shouldn’t be a consequence of trying to. Get plenty of sleep each night, eat healthy meals, and get some exercise too if you can, even if it’s just going for a walk. You’ll find you’ll have more energy for writing if you do, believe me.

It’s also healthy to take an occasional break. We all need time to recharge and let our brains focus. So if you feel approaching burnout or writer’s block, or if you can’t figure out where your story should go next, or if you’re just so tired of writing about a princess trying to cover up her father’s murder so she doesn’t have to marry against her will, then maybe a trip out to the movies or to the bar with your friends or some fun family time or an all-night Mario Kart tournament with your roommates might be what you need. Studies actually show that ideas come more easily to you if you’re distracted, so there’s even more reason to take a break right there.

And if you need a little motivation to keep you going, reward yourself for certain milestones. For every five-thousand words or so you put out, reward yourself with something fun. This could be a favorite dessert, watching Netflix for a little while, whatever you want. Give yourself something extra special when you reach fifty-thousand words and/or finish the book (I suggest some wine, some celebration music, and later a good movie with a friend). You’ll find it much easier to write if you have something to look forward to after all your hard work.

And let’s not forget to build a support network around yourself. The NaNoWriMo organization attempts to do this by putting you in touch with other participants in your area and with community events, but whether or not you decide to participate in these events, you should still have people around you encouraging and cheering you on. Friends, family, lovers, authors you’re friends with online or offline, they should all be there for you. I can’t tell you how much it means to me to have people cheering me on and willing to read my work every time I publish during the rest of the year. Imagine how motivating it’ll be when you know there’s a group of people standing behind you when you do the writing equivalent of a 5K.

Finally, take a long break when you’re done. Not just from writing so you can get your creative juices to recharge, but also take a break from whatever novel you were working on once you’re done. I always feel that a month or more between drafts allows for writers to come back to their first drafts with fresh eyes so they can see where they made mistakes in the first draft and correct them. If you start editing immediately after finishing the first draft, you can only see it as the baby you just poured so much time and energy into and miss quite a lot. Better to take a break and let it lie until you’re ready to look again.

I’d like to wrap it up here and wish everyone participating next month good luck. Whatever you do to make the month of November one of the most productive and crazy of the year, I hope you found these tips helpful and that you have fun trying to get a full novel out in thirty days.

Are you participating in NaNoWriMo this year?

What tips do you have for getting through the month and writing as much as you can in so little time?

*That’s if you write like I do, which is Times New Roman, 12 point font, and double spaced on 8.5” x 11” paper. Otherwise it varies.

22 Comments

  1. Really amazing post! You summed that up really great! Chris Baty, one of the creators of NaNoWriMo, has written a couple of books to help with prep and staying sane and the tips are fairly the same as yours. If people are interested in the books, they are called:
    – Ready, Set, Novel! – this one is about prepping and plotting your story and getting to know your characters. It’s really interactive and prompts you to fill the pages yourself in order to create your own sort of character bible for your story
    – No Plot? No Problem – this one isn’t as interactive and covers what to do if you have no idea what to write about and how exactly to face NaNoWriMo

    1. I may have to get those books someday. Thanks for bringing them up, Katja.

      1. Sure, no problem at all! I thought people might like to know about them 🙂

  2. Juli Hoffman says:

    I think I’m passing on NaNo this year. I’ve been dealing with a lot of stuff this year: loss of a job, start of another, blah, blah, blah. I FINALLY got back on track with my writing. Actually, I feel like I’m getting my life back on track, period. Depression was kicking my butt, but now I’m feeling MUCH better. I’m taking better care of myself. I feel happy, balanced. I don’t think I’m ready to upset the apple cart just yet. I’ve done NaNo in the past. Successfully. I think everyone should try it at least once in their life. It’s an awesome experience. Maybe I’ll be in a different place in my life next year. Starting back in June, my goal has been to write ONE sentence in my work in progress every day. That’s it. If I write more, fantastic. If not, I don’t beat myself up over word counts. One sentence. Even on my WORSE days, I can write ONE sentence. And honestly, because my goals are sooo attainable, I’ve actually squeezed more writing into my days than I have in many years.

    1. Glad to hear you’re doing well. And it’s cool if you want to pass this year. I’ve passed two years in a row because my life is too crazy for it. I might have the same problem this year. We’d be part of a very big club that way.

      1. Juli Hoffman says:

        We’ll be part of Team NoNoWriMo. LOL

        1. Oh, I would love to see that catch on. “Team NoNoWriMo.” Or maybe “NoNaNoWriMo.” NOt participating in NAtional NOvel WRIting MOnth.

          1. Juli Hoffman says:

            Woo hoo! Like a support group for former NaNoers. We can all bring our wrist supports to the meetings, for our carpel tunnel. 50,000 words are hard on the wrists! 😉

            1. Alright, but you’re organizing it! It’s your idea!

  3. JoanneBest says:

    This is my first time participating in NaNo and I’m really looking forward to it. I’ve been going back and forth between 3 different WIPs and I think I need to tabula rasa, start new with a blank page and all new ideas and characters. I’ve been ignoring my writing more than I’d like due to life stuff that has been going on since we lost our house when Hurricane Irene came through NJ, a good year getting the house rebuilt only to have my Mom pass away 4 months after they moved back home, that led to me becoming a caretaker for my Dad who passed away almost 2 weeks ago. I need this, I need to get out of my head and into someone else’s head aka new characters. Will I end up with an entire novel? It doesn’t matter to me, as long as I try. My folks wanted me to write, I want to write, it’s time for me to raise my head, look life in the eye and get it done. I may channel my grief into something good, but I won’t know unless I try, so try I will. Good luck everyone, lets do this!

    1. My condolences on your losses, Joanne. I wish you the best of luck with this year’s NaNoWriMo, no matter what the results are.

  4. When I participated for two years in NaNo, I couldn’t do what you’re saying. I DID stress if I didn’t meet my 1,667 goal, and when I missed a day, I had to double up the next day. Otherwise, I felt like I had failed. The whole point of NaNo was to get the 50K words out in 30 days. And I did neglect my life to the point where my husband was hoping I would never do NaNo again. He hated it. This challenge isn’t for the faint of heart. You have to be committed (you can actually take that two different ways, LOL). That’s why I stopped doing NaNo and started doing ROW80, which is much more forgiving.

    I’m not trying to discourage anyone from doing it. I actually made the goal both years. And I kind of miss it in a way. If you can follow the advice here in this post, you will be much happier when taking the challenge. I’m just saying I couldn’t do it without being stressed out. I do kind of miss the excitement of it all, though.

    My advice? First of all, take Rami’s advice! It’s excellent advice. Second, have fun and enjoy the excitement surrounding the whole thing. That does make it easier.

    Hmm, I’ve almost talked myself into doing it again. Not really. But I will honestly say, if I didn’t have a full time job, I would do it again in a heartbeat.

    1. I’m sorry you can’t do NaNo anymore. But tell me, what’s ROW80? I’ve never heard of it.

          1. With my stressful job, I need flexible. LOL

  5. Barb says:

    NaNoWriMo has been invaluable in helping me turn off my internal editor and just write. Get the story down on paper. I , too get much of my research done ahead of time. I also have a skeleton outline. I find it helps my forward momentum so I’m not asking myself, okay what’s next.
    The rest of the year is for editing and polishing the rough out, but November is the month to let our hidden stories fly, fly, fly.

  6. I wrote my first book and a big chunk of #6 during different NaNos… I haven;t decided yet on this years.

    1. I think I’ll coordinate my writing schedule around doing it next year. This year I have too much to edit.

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