If you aren’t familiar with National Novel Writing Month, go get familiar with it. Yeah, 50,000 words in a month. Sounds pretty daunting, right? My position is that not only should everyone attempt NaNoWriMo(National Novel Writing Month), but everyone can win it.

A little background here. I’ve successfully completed NaNoWriMo twice during very busy school years.

Why you should try it

Everyone should try NaNoWriMo. If they are interested in writing, that is. Writing is one of those things you can only learn by trying; it really can’t be taught, despite the best efforts of people. If nothing else, NaNoWriMo is more practice. And it is practice that is hard to get. It also helps us appreciate just how hard writing a good story is, but also how easy it is, in some respects. It really is just writing, but at a greater length than most people do.

Before NaNoWriMo

Starting NaNoWriMo actually begins far before November 1st.

Prepare your schedule

This is important. Before you get into November, you should make sure you have some time everyday in which you are absolutely free. Practice clearing this time. NaNoWriMo is a time sink, so you’ll want to prepared when it enters your life. I would recommend clearing a space each day to read a book at extended lengths of time, as practice.

Prepare your friends

NaNoWriMo is time consuming to the point that you might not have the time to do fun things you might normally do with your friends. So you’ll want to bring up that you’ll be doing NaNoWriMo as often as you can, to remind them that you will be busy. Do it as often and obnoxiously as you possibly can, and make sure they know exactly what you are getting into. And make all sorts of promises about how great it will be, and make sure people ask you to read it when you are done. Why do all this? Because midway in November, all your friends will ask you about it how your novel is going. And if you tell them you quit, they will hate your guts. So you better keep writing, kiddo, after bothering them about it so much.

Prepare an idea

Yes, NaNoWriMo is supposed to be about spontaneity, but I still find it helps to have some semblance of an idea before starting. The reason is this, it is awfully hard to come up with a coherent idea on November 1st, when all the pressure is on. And you definitely want to start NaNoWriMo ahead, so you have some breathing room if you get more busy later in November.

So my advice is this: if you’ve been keeping a thoughtbook, then find a promising idea and run with it, if not, then start thinking about an idea the first chance you get.

Having too much structure in place before NaNoWriMo begins can stifle creativity, so I don’t think you should outline, but you should think of a brief cast of characters. The characters can be very vague, just general temperament is fine. Then you should of three specific scenes you would really like to see these characters in. Think specifics in terms of the settings these scenes would take place. Now, arrange the scenes chronologically. There, you are done. I’ll explain more about this later.

Practice killing your inner critic

You know those “random” kids who are always yelling things like “cheese! toaster! cow! llama!” and generally being really obnoxious? Well, you should practice writing really “random” sentences full of nonsense like: “the middle aged libertine sipped his tequila from the bowl of a dismantled toilet, which only brought on his premature balding—and premature something else.” The point is that you should let your stupid ideas flow, without the interruption of your “respectability-filter” who just wants to rain on your parade, poop on your party, and generally ruin a good time.

Find other people who are doing NaNoWriMo

Failing that, convince other people to do NaNoWriMo. Having a group of insane people you can talk to about NaNoWriMo will vastly help. You need someone you can relate the pain to. Also serves the purpose of fostering encouragement when it gets low. Plus, competing with people in word races is great fun. The NaNoWriMo forums do a pretty good job of encouraging community, but you might want to look around for something a little smaller. ImpishIdea will be doing some sorts of NaNoWriMo related activities as it comes around, if you are interested.

Come November

Understand the numbers

50,000 words in 30 days is 1667 words a day. This is about 3 pages. Not an impossible thing to do each day, especially if you type quickly. At 50 words per minute, you’d be done in about half an hour. Of course, you are realistically pausing to stop, so you aren’t actually that fast. The pauses might half you speed, and then again. It should probably take you between 45 to 90 minutes a day to finish the day’s writing. This is extremely reasonable. It just requires the quickness of thought that we will learn to develop.

Seize the first day

November 1st is a big deal. Getting off on a good foot is pretty important, I think. Otherwise it is really easy to get behind. And also, writing for NaNoWriMo has to become a daily habit, so you’ve really got to start ingraining it at the start.

For some people the first day might be the hardest of all. I would recommend allotting extra time for the first time, because you’ve got to start the story, and that requires extra effort. Starting the story can be extremely hard, especially if this is your first attempt at writing a novel, and you are really self conscious about your writing. My first year I deleted my first paragraph more than seventeen times, before I finally settled on something. This was unfortunate, because I was under quota my first day. Hopefully it won’t be as painful for you. The first day is an important day in achieving the mental breakthrough of killing your inner critic.

If you really just can’t think of a story to start on the first day, then think back to that 3-scene outline I detailed in the previous section. Build the rest of your NaNoWriMo around this. The first scene on your list doesn’t have to be your first scene of the novel, but it could be the beginning. Likewise with the second scene not necessarily being the exact middle, and the last scene not being the climax. All this list does is give your story a direction if you get lost. Often, going from one scene to another, it is hard to figure out where to go next. When you run into this, you look at your list, and think. “I’ve already been to the first scene, but how do I get to the second scene?” And then the second scene can become your direction, and you can construct your scenes with the goal of leading to it.

Of course, if you have a strong sense of direction when you start writing, you can disregard this guideline completely, because if aiming for that second or third scene feels wrong to you, don’t do it. It’s all about doing what feels natural.

Learn to feel the flow

As you might have guessed, NaNoWriMo is too rushed to really have a coherent thought process. The point of it is to get your creativity on paper, to get to that point where the words simply fall out of your fingers onto the computer. This isn’t an easy thing to do, and there are several parts to it.

As I’ve touched on already, an important thing to do is to take that inner critic and push him down an elevator shaft. If he is still living, drop the elevator on him. There are some little things you can do to aid his death. Turn off spell check and grammar checking on your word processor. NaNoWriMo isn’t going to produce a polished and ready to publish novel, and you shouldn’t be trying to write one during the month of November. December is for editing. November is for writing. November is for putting a lot of poorly chosen words on paper. December is for correcting those word choices, fixing sentences until they shine, spacing paragraphs to conduce thought, and titling chapters. You should never look back on what you have just written, because that will trigger an urge to rewrite it, and you don’t want to get hung up over one sentences while time passes. (If you know the perfect sentence that will be a brilliant work of art, then I make an exception.) Just blow on straight ahead. You’ll have plenty of time for retrospection. And besides, retrospection is more valuable given time, anyways.

Create strong characters, and run with them. This is absolutely the most important thing you can get out of NaNoWriMo. Christopher Paolini said, “characters are born out of necessity”, but really, the opposite is true: the story is born out of the characters. If you can establish sufficiently vivid characters in the beginning, they will carry you through to the very end. The decisions the characters make will advance the story, and they will surprise you. The important thing to remember your role in the grand scheme of things. You are the story teller, nothing more. Narration and modern writing was born from prehistoric story telling. You are part of a grand tradition. Some might say that you are a god in your fictional realm, but I think that attitude is destructive, it makes you want to interfere. Interference brings you such sins as inconsistent characters. You should always let your characters act independently of whatever ‘plot’ you have in plan for them, and the result will be more organic, flowing, and convincing. The decisions your characters make will almost always surprise you. Two years in a row, I’ve had characters steal the story from me, and make it their own. You should welcome this surprise. No surprise for the writer means no surprise for the reader.

Ignore a lot of advice you hear

I’ve noticed that you hear a lot of really bad advice on the NaNoWriMo forums. Much of this concerns the ways you can cheat the system. One tip is to never use contractions. This is stupid because it actually slows you down when you are writing. If you are absolutely desperate, and think you need this cheap trick to increase your word count, do a find-and-replace of all contractions of the last day. But don’t even think about this rule while you are trying to write, because it interrupts your thought process.

Another piece of advice you’ll hear is to fill your pages with description, to meet your word count. This is also known as the Paolini school of writing, and should be avoided like the plague. You should not interrupt narrative flow with description, especially not in paragraphs. Obviously, description as appropriate is still needed to make a good story, but you should not be adding it to fill space. Besides, description actually takes a lot of time to come up with, so it is faster to fill your pages with other methods—like actually writing the story. NaNoWriMo is done the way it is for a reason, trying stuff like this to get around the word requirement defeats the purpose; the purpose is to force you to quickly express your ideas, and create a story.

This advice is usually given to people running out of plot midway through, and I understand that. I too ran out of plot after 30,000 words my first year. It’s just there are far more constructive ways to get those words. My recommendation is to add another character or Point-of-View if you ever run out of things to write. At least another character will only cause a discontinuity in your plotline, and not the practice of bad writing.

So, also, ignore the advice about writing dream scenes to get more words. This is just lame. Unless there is a specific reason your character would dream, and this fits in with his character and the story. In that case, please make the dream significant.

The Holidays are hard

Yes, Thanksgiving happens right smack dab in the middle of NaNoWriMo, and this can be hard to deal with. My best suggestion is to try and involve your relatives in the process, get them to give you feedback, character ideas, and so forth. If they are interested enough, they might tolerate you missing a meal to write.


I hope that gave you an overview of the process. I feel like I’m missing a lot, so maybe I’ll come back and update this as November approaches.

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  1. DrAlligator on 23 September 2008, 13:42 said:

    Ah, I’d forgotten NaNoWriMo’s coming up. Might have to mention it in my Creative Writings class sometime. :P

    I didn’t get too far into NaNoWriMo last year, ‘cause about a week into November, my laptop broke down, I couldn’t recover the work, and it had to be taken out of the country to be repaired, so by the time I got it back… well, you know the rest.

    Since then I’ve moved on to short stories, they more enjoyable for me to write, but I suppose I’ll have to try again come September.

  2. Garrick on 24 September 2008, 09:07 said:

    I did this once, but I think it was called the Book in a Month Challenge back then. The goal wasn’t 50K words, either. You wrote a book. You were expected to finish an entire mss. But don’t be too impressed. Mine clocked in at 65K. (The market I was targeting had a 65K standard length.) So it didn’t have to be a 100K tome or anything.

    Awesome experience. Two thumbs up.

    Tip to turn off the internal editor: change your font and formatting. I generally write in manuscript format – 25 double-spaced lines per page in 12pt courier new. Switching to single-spaced 10pt verdana in block style turned the trick for me. It didn’t look like it was supposed to, made it easier to blow off the rules.

  3. Lady Stardust on 26 September 2008, 15:32 said:

    Last year I did about 11 000 words.

    (the story wasn’t very good, but I can at least say it’s one of the weirder things ever written)

  4. Undertow on 27 September 2008, 02:44 said:

    Thanks for the encouragement! I tried this last year and basically failed miserably after a few days because I was daunted by the prospect of having to write so much (didn’t have any idea of calculating hours/pages per day, thank you!), and also because when it comes to my writing, I’m a complete perfectionist. I think I’ll try again this year, though, since I now feel inspired (:

  5. Virgil on 28 September 2008, 17:42 said:

    Ooh, this sounds fun. I’ve had some ideas for a while, but I never got around to them. I wonder if I could finish in a month, it being a challenge certainly helps.

  6. Snow White Queen on 5 October 2008, 19:28 said:

    Hey, I discovered this site just yesterday, already I’m a big fan.

    Anyways, to get to the point, this year is my first participating in Nanowrimo. The thing is, the story I want to write has been stewing in my head for a long time, so I’ve already got a skeleton of a plot, characters, etc.

    It’s also placed in a fantasy world. Now, what I’m wondering is whether I should spend October developing this world, its cultures, etc. or whether I should just let whatever come, come while I’m actually writing.

    Advice would be Appreciated.

    Great article though, it really helped me get rid of some of the nervousness I had about writing so much in only a month. (I even sent this to my two friends who got me into Nanowrimo in the first place)

    Keep up the great work!

  7. Virgil on 5 October 2008, 20:16 said:

    Hi Queen,

    I would go ahead and develop the backgrounds beforehand. If you just wing it everything will feel forced and as if you made it just to move the plot along. Once you’ve gotten everything the way you like it, you can have the story go at its own pace.

  8. SlyShy on 5 October 2008, 20:50 said:

    Hey Snow White,

    My advice is to let it keep stewing. If you think up something great, you should write it down in a thoughtbook so it isn’t lost. However, I think it is great to enter November with an idea you haven’t worked out too much. Then it can just pop out, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised. I think December would be a better time to do any detailed world building. You can go back and add the details later if you’ve got a good story in place.

    All this said, Virgil is right too. Having an idea of setting before you start is good too. My very first time doing NaNoWriMo I had a ridiculous amount of trouble with the first day, not because I didn’t know what my character was going to do, but because I didn’t know how to describe the initial setting.

    Stick around, we are going to be organizing some cool stuff for NaNoWriMo. :)

  9. Snow White Queen on 6 October 2008, 00:02 said:

    Thanks for all your advice!

    I’m thinking that since I already have a pretty good idea of my characters’ personality, what their role is, etc. (I’ve been stuck on the whole ‘developing’ stage for a while now) I’ll just let the ideas flow…and of course I can always edit it.

    I’m looking forward to the stuff you’ll be organizing for NaNoWriMo…I’m really glad I found this site.


  10. hopeudance on 6 October 2008, 14:47 said:

    Hi peoples!

    I’m also doing NaNoWriMo this year, and I’m planning on killing off my main character. Any advice on how to do this convincingly? I’m having some real trouble coming up with a reason, too… any and all advice would be awesome!

    I’m trying to organize a December/January editing month, where everyone edits someone else’s (or more than one someone’s) story. does anyone want to help me? I’ve already got two recruits, but that doesn’t seem like enough…

    Thanks a lot!

    And may all the Harry Potter fans always be more numerous than Star Wars fans….

  11. SlyShy on 6 October 2008, 15:36 said:

    Heya Hopeudance,

    Without a reason this seems pretty difficult. Readers like it when things happen for a reason—

    BUT, things in real life don’t always happen for a reason. People die of stupid things like lightning strikes, traffic accidents, and disease. All of these things happen without good reason, it’s just something the world inflicts on people. So if you write your main characters death, then show the people around him/her as they react to his pointless death it could be very powerful. I would love to see a novel dealing with the implications of an irrational death in a world becoming increasingly arbitrary. The shock of realization that everyone is frighteningly mortal seems like a very powerful theme.

    Good luck, and be sure to check back before November. :)

  12. Rand on 6 October 2008, 18:35 said:

    Thank you, Slyshy, for your helpful tips.
    This is my first year doing Nanowrimo and I never knew there was this entire ‘underground’ writing revolution going on!
    It’s also my first major writing project- up till now I’ve only done personal essays and started the first few paragraphs of stories I quit three days later… but I’m going to stick through this project this year, thick and thin.

  13. Snow White Queen on 6 October 2008, 19:40 said:

    Hey Dance!

    Am I counted as one of your recruits for your editing thing? sounds pretty cool.

    If not, I’m signing up.

  14. hopeudance on 6 October 2008, 20:01 said:

    Totally! Anyone else want to join?

  15. SlyShy on 6 October 2008, 22:41 said:

    Oh, about that. Where were you planning on organizing it? Because I would be happy to provide you space on here to do it.

    For November I’m planning to have people post their progress and thoughts. I’ll be posting all my writing each day, and I hope some people will join me. :)

  16. Virgil on 6 October 2008, 22:48 said:

    I’ll probably post my writing each day. I got a friend of mine to join me in the event so I can gripe to someone. I doubt he’ll post anything though, but who knows.

  17. Rand on 7 October 2008, 17:06 said:

    Oh, yes, I would like to join this post-o-rama. Definitely.

  18. Amelie on 8 October 2008, 20:16 said:

    Post-o-rama ahoy! ImpishIdea is gonna be an explosion of awesomeness come Nov. I’m so looking forward to it!!! And a word of advice to everyone: Just write! I’m worried about making it too, not only because I am so ridiculously busy, but because I’m such a perfectionist! But I’ve promised myself that I will just write and edit LATER. This is about getting words on paper, here. And as far as the Post-O-Rama goes, I think comments would be awesome, but they should be more general— I would suggest no heavy editing until AFTER November!

  19. Virgil on 14 October 2008, 21:59 said:

    Ugh. I’ve been considering starting early, because I want to do a lot in this world I’ve created. I get nightmare day-dreams that the story will be short and concise, and I want to have a lot of things happen and really develop my characters. I don’t think I’ll have any trouble reaching 50k, because I’m telling the story from two points of views, so it will almost be two separate plot-lines entirely. I’ve created a large, realistic world (hopefully), and I want to be able to examine it all. Maybe the trick is to spread out my plot points more, and plan out some side stories. Or else everything will end up like a wavelength diagram, all wavy and spread out but joining together at certain points.

  20. SlyShy on 14 October 2008, 23:26 said:

    Hey Virgil,

    You can always do things in the world with other characters, so it won’t be cheating on NaNoWriMo. That’s sort of what I had going on with the short story I posted. I wanted to work with the world to do worldbuilding, but I didn’t want to use any of my preexisting characters for the time being, so I wrote up a new group. Forcing yourself to come up with new stories in your world is good, because you have to really search your world for sources of conflict and interest. It opens up your eyes to possibilities.

  21. Snow White Queen on 15 October 2008, 00:32 said:

    i really am looking forward to nanowrimo…(so glad that it’s AFTER my midterms!)

    this whole posting frenzy should be cool- i’ve never really shown my work to anyone before, let alone actually finished it (i’m notoriously secretive about this kind of stuff) so i am expecting lots of constructive criticism coming my way.

    i’ve been wanting to do more writing prep. now, but i’m so busy with school stuff! :(

  22. Virgil on 15 October 2008, 08:17 said:

    Great idea Sly, thanks.

  23. Steph the Phantasmagorical on 3 June 2009, 07:19 said:

    I am so bookmarking this page.