Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Fifteen tips for completing NaNoWriMo

These are tips specifically to help people complete NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), which challenges people to write a brand new 50,000-word novel in the month of November, from start to finish. These are not tips for writing a good novel, nor a ground-breaking novel, nor an important novel.

That’s not to say the results can’t be interesting or worthwhile. The novels I wrote while taking part in NaNoWriMo are infinitely better than any of the novels I’ve written since, because the latter don’t exist. And there’s much to be said for sometimes writing novels for your own amusement, rather than just because they might sell.

So, here are the tips:

1. Aim to write a 50,000-word novel from start to finish in a month. Yes, that’s the whole point of NaNoWriMo, but there are still people who plan to write the first 50,000 words of a fantasy brick, the back end of an unfinished project, or 50,000 words in their journal. If you’re not writing a novel from start to finish, you’ll be a hanger-on, and that’ll sap your enthusiasm for whatever project you’re trying to crowbar into NaNoWriMo. Use another month to write your memoirs.

2. Plan to write the kind of novel that is well-suited to being written in a month. Some novels are easier to write than others. Books with one point of view, with linear timelines, with quests from A to B, etc, or books that draw on clear memories, develop long-held beliefs and ideas, and are set in locations you know well. NaNoWriMo isn’t the best time to write books about the overlapping lives of multiple time-travelling, world-hopping protagonists, nor books that require historical accuracy and extensive research.

3. Write a treatment to narrow your focus. Before you start writing there are a million ways the book could go, which is exciting, but it can be hard to think very far into the novel until you’ve made some firm decisions. Take a sheet of A4 paper and set out your novel’s characters, plot, themes, setting and twists, just as if you were trying to sell an agent, editor or movie producer on the idea. If you’re not happy with it, write another, and another, till you are happy. Each one will only take half an hour or so: much better than getting thirty hours into writing the actual novel and then realising your mistakes.

4. Aim to write 1666 words a day. If you keep doing it each day it’ll build up your writing muscles. If you can’t make 1666, try to write at least something every day, anything to push that word count up. One day without writing can easily turn into two or three and before you know it you’re putting it off to the weekend and facing an uphill struggle.

5. Give yourself a nice, clear job to do each day. I tend to split my NaNoWriMo novels up into thirty chunks, one per day/writing session. It helps to be able to wake up each morning and think, this evening I’ll be writing a chapter where my character goes to see a psychiatrist to deal with his anger issues and discovers the psychiatrist is an alien. And make sure you get that task done. Tomorrow you have another. Don’t get up to 40,000 words and realise you’re still writing the prologue!

6. Draw a map as you go along. I’m not big on world-building: I don’t think it’s necessary for the kind of novels best written in NaNoWriMo. But drawing a map instantly suggests plots and events. How do they get over that mountain? Why is that city surrounded by forests? Who lives in that house on the edge of town? It’s also a good idea to draw a line marking your characters’ progress around the map, noting the dates and times they arrived at and departed from each location.

7. Use your router to block your internet access during the times of day when you’ll be writing, and have someone else set the password. In fact, do everything you can to dedicate a set part of every day to your writing.

8. Stop watching television for the month. Let it build up on the TiVo or Sky+. The only reason you’ve never written a novel before is that you haven’t set enough time aside for it. A novel this length is going to take something like 40 to 60 hours to write. Cut out two hours of television a day and you’ll be well on the way. If you can’t bear to quit the television, give up the Xbox, or reading, or drinking, or however it is that you spent your time last month.

9. Feeling stuck? Never ask yourself what should come next. Ask yourself what could come next. Your character’s thoughts on whether time should be decimalised (clue: it should!) may not be relevant to the plot you have planned, but if you can’t think what else to write, that’s a way to keep moving forward. You can always delete any crap in the second draft. You may find that the digressions turn out to be the best bits.

10. Give your characters a reason to talk to each other, different ways of reacting to things. When you’re struggling to make your word count, having a bunch of idiots jibber-jabber can be very useful. Give them different points of view. Think of something happening in Friends. How does Joey react? (Stupidly.) What about Chandler? (Sarcastically.) Rachel, Ross, Monica or Phoebe? (Selfishly, academically, anxiously, weirdly.) Every new reaction is a way to push up your word count.

11. Ignore the naysayers! Every time NaNoWriMo comes around you get lots of people, often professional writers, sniffily proclaiming their disdain of the event. No wonder, when you think about it: you’re doing for fun what they do for a job, and that can be irritating for them. They’re writing for the man, you’re writing for your inner child. Although some do take part, NaNoWriMo isn’t aimed at professional novelists who spend all day every day staring at a keyboard: writing a fifty thousand word novel in a month isn’t any challenge at all to someone who has all day to write. (Full time, you could be done in under a fortnight.) It’s for people who have other jobs, who wouldn’t clear the space to write a novel otherwise. And remember, however bad your novel ends up being, it has a valuable quality rare in commercially published work: it’s the book you wanted to write, not the book you thought would sell.

12. Give your main character some of the same interests as you. It makes it much easier to win. If you’re mad about the cancellation of Happy Endings, and your character is too, that gives you something to fall back on when you run out of steam. And you know what, while you’re writing what seems to you at first like a digression, your brain is working on a way to integrate it into your plot. An episode of Happy Endings will come to mind that reflects the situation your characters are in, your characters will start talking about that, and maybe it’ll help them to figure a way out.

13. Attend the local write-ins if you can, as long as they are actually focused on writing. The social pressure of being among other people who are quietly typing away makes it easier for you to do the same.

14. If you fall behind a bit, don’t immediately set yourself a increased daily target or try to catch it all up the next day. Focus on getting 1666 words done in a day, and then try to get the hang of writing 1666 words in a single writing session. Once you are confident about doing that, schedule two sessions for a day on which you’ll have time to give it a fair shot.

15. A bit late for this year, but learn to touch-type, ideally using the Dvorak layout. Makes it so much easier if you can type all day without your fingers aching. And look after your fingers this month: don’t play any button-mashing videogames. (Future Stephen, this means you: no Dynasty Warriors!)

Back when John and I were the Birmingham MLs, we created a handout for our local writers, with achievements, graphs to fill in, bits of advice, useful websites, etc. We haven’t updated it for a while, but it’s still available to download and print out on our old website.

Do you have any tips? Pass them on in the comments.

Good luck! See you at the finish line!

Wednesday is usually the list day on our blog. This is list #8.


  1. And if you've completed NaNoWriMo so many times that it doesn't seem like a challenge any more, see if you can do it while doing the opposite of all this!

  2. Still..I dunno Stephen. I've been hurt too many times before by Nanowrimo.

  3. I'd say go on! But it's such a drain on your time and you're doing so well with your short stories that it might be a bit of a distraction.

    But next year I reckon we should both do it but plan each other's books. We could exchange plans on November 1.

  4. With regard to number 1 on the list, I should probably note that the Nanowrimo website FAQs now specifically say: "You will still win if you reach [50000 words] but have not yet completed your novel".

    Well, no. I think that's a bit like the original organisers of Talk Like a Pirate Day saying that it's also now okay to Talk Like a Cockney. Until you finish your novel, you haven't written a novel, you've just written something that may one day form part of a novel if you ever return to it. Which you probably won't.