The first time I signed up for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), I failed. The story idea I’d come up with on October 31 ran out of steam after about 20,000 words and so did I. So I came back the next year ready to learn from my mistakes and get that coveted first NaNoWriMo “win.” Here’s what I did.
First, redefine winning
I don’t really like the term “win” when it comes to NaNoWriMo because anything writers do to cultivate a regular creativity practice is a win, even if they don’t write 50,000 words in a single month. And I’ve heard many in the writing community admit that setting such a lofty goal actually creates feelings of failure in an already fraught industry.
So redefine what it means to win NaNoWriMo right now. Do you want to write every day in November? Do you want to write 25,000 words? Do you want to sketch out the bare bones of your new story? Whatever your goal, make it something that you can reasonably achieve given the demands on your time.
Set yourself up for success
Even if you set a lower-than-50,000-words goal for November, there are still non-writing things you can do to help set yourself up for success. Consider whether you can:
- Stock your fridge and freezer with quick, easy, nourishing meals that will free up cooking time in November. I love this set of make-ahead meals from The Kitchn.
- If you share responsibility for groceries, meal-prep, or other household chores, bargain with other members of your household—can you pick up more in October so that they can give you a break in November?
- Set expectations with family and friends that you will be spending the bulk of your free-time in November writing. Creating a sign for your office or bedroom door might help remind them to stay out when you’re writing.
- Reschedule any non-critical appointments for either before or after November. No need to spend writing time at the dentist!
- In addition to preplanning some meals, stock up on your favorite snacks and beverages. Don’t be afraid to reward yourself with your favorite sweet as you achieve milestones. It really does help!
Panster —> Planster —> Planner
Listen, I’m a reformed pantser. I only had the vaguest idea of a premise when I first sat down to write that failed contemporary women’s fiction novel in 2012. The reason I came back and won in 2013 was less about will power or caffeine intake and more about doing a little planning in advance.
That doesn’t mean you can only do NaNo if you’ve created a 52-page outline and detailed character sketches. In fact, I never do that, even when I’m drafting outside of NaNo. But spending time priming the pump with ideas during September and October—sometimes called #plantober on social media—can help you get off to a good start on November 1.
Here are some things I like to think about in advance:
Comp titles and genres and mashups (oh my!)
Reading widely in your genre and age category is the best investment you can make in your writing. The last thing you want to do is waste November writing time dithering about whether you want to include a witch or a gumshoe detective or a murderous villain (or all three). Get familiar with the tropes for your chosen genre, including deciding how you’d like to reinforce or subvert them, before November comes and panic sets in.
The beginning of an arc: character motivation
If you were only going to read one craft book before or during NaNoWriMo, I would recommend Lisa Cron’s Story Genius (although I’ve recommended a great book on revision toward the end of this article as well for post-NaNo reading!). It digs deep into how a character’s backstory, desires, and misbeliefs about the world influence the actions they take as their story unravels.
That character motivation is often the first hint of the character’s ultimate change arc during the story. For more information on the strengths and challenges of starting with character, see Susan DeFreitas’s article.
The five-line outline
Although I definitely lean toward character-driven writing, I know it doesn’t work for all writers. That’s why I recommend creating at least a high-level outline before you begin NaNoWriMo. Here’s a technique I use with my planning-averse clients to get them thinking about plot without getting bogged down in an endless outline.
First, describe your story in three parts, beginning, middle, and end.
Your three parts are probably something like this:
- Once upon a time. (Ordinary world)
- But then this happened. (Story Problem)
- And they all lived happily ever after. (Resolution)
What if you added two more parts to your three-line story?
- Ordinary World
- But then (moment everything changed — story setup)…
- It was awful until (confrontation)…
- Then the hero figured it out (climax)…
- And they all lived happily ever after (resolution)
See if you can map out these five major story beats. If you know more than five, by all means jot them down. But try to at least get five down on paper.
Learn to turn off the internal editor…
Even if you spend hours and hours working on your character arc and plot points, one of the key techniques for NaNoWriMo success is learning to turn off the internal editor. That not only means just continuing to write forward even if you know you’re going to have to change something in revision, but it means being flexible enough to realize when you need to make changes to the planning you did prior to November 1.
…and explore your story idea with abandon
Because what you’re ultimately trying to do is explore a story idea with maximum creativity, minimal doubt, and total abandon. That means it should be fun, exhilarating, challenging, and new. Not a chore. And not punishment for not doing more planning in advance. That’s your internal critic talking. Kindly escort him off the premises.
Creating a routine
Even with all this great planning in place, writing every day for a month can be exhausting, especially if you’re not already in the habit. Each time I’ve done NaNo, I’ve produced significantly more wordcount per hour toward the end of the month than I did in the beginning because creativity is a muscle that strengthens with practice.
To make sure you’re getting that practice every day, consider setting aside a window of time at the same time every day to write. Regardless of your time zone, there’s usually some activity on #5amwritersclub on Twitter, and writing with a virtual friend can help you keep to your routine. And the @NaNoWordSprints account hosts regular get-togethers if having community around you is motivating.
I also like to use sensory input to help get me into the right mindset. I put my favorite essential oil blend in the diffuser, make myself a pot of tea, and sit with the same window view for each writing session. I’m too easily distracted for music, but many writers enjoy either white noise or a set soundtrack to give them an auditory cue that it’s time to write.
First draft does not equal “query ready”
Many agents and editors tell horror stories about the unedited first drafts that end up in their inboxes in the month of December because of NaNoWriMo. Don’t be that writer. Understand that even if this isn’t your first novel or your first NaNo, whatever you finish in the month of November is far from query-ready.
I love Cheryl Klein’s Bookmapping technique as a way of reverse outlining and assessing your plot and character arcs after a draft has been completed and recommend you check out The Magic Words from the library or your local indie bookseller if you’re struggling to know what to do next. Cheryl shared a sample Bookmap on her website for reference as well.
Have you ever fast-drafted a novel? What tips do you have to share? I’d love to hear them in the comments.
Julie Artz is a writer, editor, and book coach tucked away in a magical forest in the Pacific Northwest with her family and three furry familiars. Her latest story “The Wending Way” recently appeared in Beyond the Latch and Lever, a Speculative Anthology and her new story, “Space Carrion,” is forthcoming as part of Villains and Vengeance: A Sirens Benefit Anthology. Join her free “12 Weeks to a NaNo Win” course today!