On the off-chance you aren’t acquainted with the acronym, NaNoWriMo is short for National Novel Writing Month. November is the month, so about now, around the country and across the world, writers are sharpening pencils and clearing off kitchen tables. They’re preparing loved ones to do without them for 30 straight days or at least until Thanksgiving. And if they’re smart, they’re using October to do the prep work: character development, narrative arc, settling on setting, and so forth.
If NaNoWriMo is new to you, here’s a little history: The annual event has been around for 23 years. It was launched in 1999 by writer Chris Baty, and the challenge began with a group of 21 writers in the San Francisco Bay area. No telling how many of them finished what they started, but they must have talked it up.
By the second year, the dedicated scribblers grew to 140. And so on. Skipping forward to 2020, some 383,000 people got serious and signed up at the official website, National Novel Writing Month.
NaNoWriMo may be what you need to get motivated. The rules are short and simple. Baty devised them back in 2000, and they still apply:
- The writing project should be new.
- It should be written by a single person.
- It should reach 50,000 words by midnight on November 30.
Here’s the thing: Although the writers who sign up have every intention of going the distance, only a fraction reach the finish line. In any given year, fewer than 20% of official participants get it done. But that’s understandable, right? All sorts of things can trip you up when you set out to write a novel in a month. Some are unavoidable while others can be anticipated, planned for, and thereby side-stepped. If you have your heart set on winning NaNoWriMo in 2021, I suggest the following:
50,000 words is novella territory
A work of fiction that logs in at 50,000 words is actually a novella, though publishers in the United States will be reluctant to label it as such. (Why, you ask? Because you can charge more for something called a novel than for something called a novella.) The average contemporary novel ranges in length from 80,000 to 120,000 words, but many of our most celebrated fictions are novellas of around 50,000 words, the goal post for NaNoWriMo:
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
The Giver by Lois Lowry
Sula by Toni Morrison
A Separate Peace by John Knowles
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
To finish what you start during NaNoWriMo, don’t plan to write a magnum opus. Instead, devise a story that fits the novella container of some 40,000 to 60,000 words.
A novella plot is manageable
Novellas are easier to plot than novels because they are constructed around one strong but flexible narrative arc with room for a subplot or two. Where plot is concerned, novellas are like screenplays. They get right down to business. Novels are McMansions to get lost in, while novellas are one or two bedroom apartments.
The cast of characters is small
Developing characters is time-consuming, and the larger the party, the more work it creates, both before (planning) and after (revising). Novellas tend to be focused on one protagonist with a small cast of supporting characters. Consider Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, for instance. The protagonist is the fireman, Montag. Secondary characters include Millie, Montag’s wife; Beatty, his boss; and Professor Faber. There are cameo characters, too—notably, Clarisse in the beginning and Granger at the end.
Novellas are situated in one place
If description isn’t your strong suit, you may dread the setting work required for a novel. Happy news: if you’re writing a novella, your characters are likely to be firmly situated in place and time. Whereas novels are often peripatetic—moving from place to place—novellas tend to be planted. And often enough, the novella’s plot is tied to the place. Think of Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, for instance, which is set in the frigid, snowy Starkfield, Massachusetts. Or Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It, set in and around Missoula, Montana. The takeaway? Your descriptive efforts will be focused—and they will be meaningful.
Novellas cover a shorter period of time
Chronology tends to be one of the trickier parts of storytelling. Whereas novels can stretch over decades and require calendars and tables for tracking the passage of time, most novellas take place over a short interval: a week, say, or a season. Although backstory may be significant, it’s often hinted at rather than spelled out. Hemingway’s masterpiece, The Old Man and the Sea, takes place over three days. Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day covers a mere twenty-four hours. Remember: the shorter the interval between the beginning and the end, the easier it is to plan your story.
The ending is latent in the beginning
In my experience, there’s nothing harder to write than the last five to ten pages. I have friends and neighbors who’ve written manuscripts of more than 50,000 words—though not in a month—but have never found their way to the end. There’s nothing sadder than an unfinished manuscript.
My advice is to write the ending before you get there. By that, I mean jump ahead. As soon as you have a glimmer of the finale, stop where you are and get it down on the page. When you’re writing the novella, finding your way to the end is a little easier and not just because the word count is more attainable. Many novellas have an ending that is latent in the beginning. Take Fahrenheit 451, for instance. It opens with Montag starting a fire and it ends with him extinguishing one.
A final note
Planning is key, as Julie Artz discusses in Want to Win NaNoWriMo? I also recommend identifying a touchstone, a novella that’s exactly the sort of book you want to write—but different. A touchstone can keep you inspired even as it offers you the answers to so many questions about how to begin and end, how to develop scenes, and so forth. Your best teachers are always your favorite writers.
Sharon Oard Warner is the author of two novels, a short story collection, an edited anthology of stories on AIDS, and the craft book Writing the Novella (University of New Mexico Press). Warner’s essays and articles have appeared in The AWP Chronicle, The Writer, Writer’s Digest, Studies in Short Fiction, Studies in the Novel and others. From 1999–2016, she founded and directed the Taos Summer Writers’ Conference, one of the largest such gatherings in the country. In recent years, she has been studying and writing feature-length screenplays. Warner is Professor Emerita of English Language & Literature at the University of New Mexico and Co-Chair for the D. H. Lawrence Ranch Initiatives.