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A Comprehensive Guide for Aspiring and Seasoned Writers
Welcome, future NaNoWriMo winners! Whether you’re an aspiring writer hearing about this national novel writing challenge for the first time or a seasoned participant still reaching for that elusive win, this guide is your roadmap to NaNoWriMo victory. You’ll learn how to prepare, write, and survive this exhilarating writing month while nurturing the quality of your work.
Who Am I?
Hey, I’m Kathy Haan. I stumbled upon National Novel Writing Month on Halloween 2020, and like many of you, the competitive spirit in me was instantly ignited. I plunged into the writing journey headfirst, amassing an astonishing 175,000 words by the end of the month—even while grappling with a long bout of COVID-19. I won in 10 days.
Winning at NaNoWriMo is more than achievable; it can also be a pivotal experience that transforms your writing career. I should know. Just a year after my first NaNoWriMo win, I published my debut novel. Fast forward another year, and I’m publishing my eighth book.
What is NaNoWriMo?
Before we start, you’re probably wondering … what is NaNoWriMo? Let’s break it down:
Na No Wri Mo
This is an annual event that kicks off every November. The challenge begins at 12:00 a.m. on November 1st, local time, and wraps up at 11:59 p.m. on November 30th. During this period, participants attempt to write a 50,000-word novel from scratch. Hosted by a nonprofit organization, the NaNoWriMo website provides a supportive community and various tracking tools to help you through your writing journey. In addition to the main event, there’s also Camp NaNoWriMo for those who prefer a less intensive experience, which takes place in April and July.
What are the NaNoWriMo Rules?
Here’s the gist: write 50,000 words within the month of November. That’s your word count goal. Your daily word count should average around 1,667 words to stay on track. While the word count reigns supreme, remember, the real prize is the first draft you’ll have by the end of the month. And yes, it is a rough draft. Many first-time NaNoWriMo participants trip up here, obsessing over every line until their writing time evaporates into endless revisions.
Why 50,000 Words?
How many words make a novel? Traditionally, a novel is considered a lengthy work of fiction that’s at least 50,000 words long, hence the goal. The challenge is not just to meet this minimum but to create a story with a beginning, middle, and end within those confines. You’re not writing a blog post or an outline; you’re crafting a full-fledged story, which makes NaNoWriMo an excellent exercise in discipline and creativity.
It’s worth noting that word count varies significantly by genre. For example, you’re probably not going to get away with a 50k word novel in an epic fantasy. In a meet cute romcom? Absolutely. All my novels average 100k words at publication date.
Preparing for the Challenge: The Art of NaNoWriMo Prep
Wanna win NaNoWriMo? Get prepared.
Get Your Writing Routine in Place
Seasoned writers will tell you that one of the biggest hurdles in a month-long writing challenge like this is consistency. So, well before the challenge begins, start getting into a daily writing routine. Estimate how much writing time you can realistically allocate each day and stick to it like glue. Tools like a word processor with built-in goals can be beneficial, or use apps specifically designed to count words written.
Plan Your Writing Project
Remember, you’re not just jotting down random thoughts; you’re embarking on a writing project with the goal of completing a new novel. To do that effectively, you’ll need a game plan. Whether you’re a planner who loves outlining every detail or a “pantser” who prefers to let the story unfold organically, having some sense of direction will keep your writing on track.
Character Development and Story Ideas
You don’t need every character detail nailed down, but some basic character sketches can make a world of difference. What motivates them? What challenges will they face? These character outlines can serve as a roadmap through your story idea, giving it the structure it desperately needs to evolve into a great novel.
Writing Groups and Community
Join writing groups to stay motivated. The NaNoWriMo website offers a ton of community features, including forums and local events to help you connect with other writers. These writing groups act as accountability partners, people who will encourage you to meet your daily word count and writing time commitments. And don’t forget, NaNoWriMo is an international event, making it a fantastic opportunity to interact with a global community of like-minded individuals.
Technology and Tracking Tools
Don’t underestimate the power of good tracking tools. The NaNoWriMo website itself offers a variety of these, including word counters and progress graphs. Some writers also use separate apps or features in their word processors to track their work in progress. I’m partial to using Notion.
Control Your Inner Editor
Your inner editor will be the bane of your writing journey this month. The goal is to get your first draft done. Editing can wait. Resisting the temptation to edit every line you write will free your creative juices and allow you to achieve your creative goals within the stipulated time.
The Writing Marathon: A Strategy to Win NaNoWriMo
It really is a marathon.
The Real Prize: Completing Your First Draft
The real prize in NaNoWriMo isn’t just hitting the word count; it’s about completing a rough draft of your novel. Too many writers focus solely on achieving the 50,000-word count goal. While hitting that milestone is certainly cause for celebration, remember that a great novel is more than just a collection of words. Focus on your story’s development, characters, and your unique voice. If you nail these elements, you’ll not only “win NaNoWriMo” but also end up with a first draft that has real potential.
Quality vs. Quantity: The Delicate Balance
Winning NaNoWriMo isn’t just about word counts. Think about your writing process and how you can improve the quality of your work in progress. If your goal is to become a published author, consider the length and depth of your story. Aiming for a novel that’s too short might leave your characters underdeveloped; conversely, an excessively lengthy work might struggle with pacing or unnecessary details. So aim for balance.
Writing Tools and Beta Readers
As your writing journey progresses, you’ll find that feedback is invaluable. Invite a few trusted beta readers into your writing process. They can provide insights into plot holes, character inconsistencies, and even grammar issues. Most word processors have built-in review functions that make this collaborative process more straightforward.
Time Management and Local Time
NaNoWriMo begins and ends based on local time, so make sure you’re aware of when the clock starts ticking. Plan your writing time accordingly to make the most of the month. If you’re an aspiring writer who’s juggling other commitments, it’s crucial to manage your time effectively. Apps and tracking tools can help you maintain a consistent writing routine.
The Inner Editor: Your Frenemy
Earlier, we talked about sidelining your inner editor during the initial stages. But as you near the finish line, don’t hesitate to let that editor back in—sparingly. Refine sentences, clarify expressions, and cut redundant phrases. This will make the revision process more manageable later on.
The Three Phases of NaNoWriMo: A Deep Dive
Everything you need to do before November 1.
The Preparation Phase: Mapping Your Writing Journey
It’s essential to prepare before embarking on your writing journey. In your NaNoWriMo prep, focus on plotting your story idea. Create character sketches for your main characters, outline the major events in your plot, and familiarize yourself with the world you’ll be building. Many writers overlook the preparation phase, leading to roadblocks later. The NaNoWriMo website offers various resources and tracking tools to help you map out your novel. Consider joining writing groups, either online or locally, to get feedback on your plot ideas and character development.
The Execution Phase: A Month of Creation
The challenge begins when the clock strikes midnight in your local time zone. Armed with your outline, start writing. Aim for a daily word count that’s both achievable and aligned with your 50,000-word target. If you’re a first-time NaNoWriMo participant, the goal might seem daunting. But remember, the real prize lies in the discipline and creative juices you’ll foster over the month. To maintain your writing routine, allocate dedicated writing time each day. Employ tracking tools to measure your progress, but don’t forget to engage with other writers. Writing is often a solitary endeavor, but during NaNoWriMo, you’re part of a larger community of aspiring and seasoned writers.
The Post-Event Reflection: More Than Just a Word Count Goal
Once the annual event is over, you’ll likely have a rough draft that needs refinement. Your work in progress is a significant achievement, but your writing journey doesn’t end here. Reflect on what you’ve learned throughout the month. Did you hit your creative goals? What writing habits have you developed? Think of the month as a starting point to achieve your long-term creative goals and build your writing career. Engage in the revision process, utilize beta readers to polish your draft, and consider what steps you’ll take to publish or share your work.
Strategies for High-Quality Writing and Effective Time Management in NaNoWriMo
Here are a few tricks to hit your writing goals.
The Pomodoro Technique: Breaks as Your Ally
The Pomodoro Technique is a proven method to maximize productivity while minimizing fatigue. Set a timer for 25 minutes and focus intently on your writing. Once the timer rings, take a five-minute break. Use this time to stretch, hydrate, or simply breathe. After four cycles, treat yourself to a longer, 15- to 20-minute break. This technique not only boosts your word count but also ensures that those words carry weight.
Characterization: Build from Within
When constructing your characters, don’t just rely on physical descriptions or superficial traits. Think of their backgrounds, motivations, and even their deepest fears. Jot down dialogues that exemplify their tone and attitude. This exercise enriches your characters, making them relatable and engaging to readers.
Story Arcs: Subplots and Twists
While your primary plot drives the story, subplots add complexity and depth. They can also provide much-needed word count boosts. Be attentive to how subplots interact with the main plot and contribute to character development. Introduce unexpected twists, but ensure they make sense within the established narrative.
Word Sprints: Short Bursts, High Impact
Word sprints involve setting a short time limit—usually around 10 to 15 minutes—to write as quickly as possible. These sprints can be incredibly useful for overcoming writer’s block and generating new ideas. Engage in word sprints alone or with other writers to bring a sense of competition and urgency.
Outlining: Know Your Milestones but Allow Detours
Start with a solid outline that identifies key milestones in your story. However, give yourself the freedom to stray from it. If a new plot idea or character enters your thought process, explore it. Sometimes the most creative breakthroughs occur when you least expect them.
Dialogue: Keep it Natural but Purposeful
When crafting dialogues, avoid making them sound like an information dump. Conversations should sound natural, yet every line should serve a purpose, whether revealing character traits or advancing the plot. Aim for brevity and substance.
Repurposing Content: The Art of Recycling
If you find that a scene doesn’t fit within your current framework, don’t discard it. Instead, modify it to serve another function in your story. This practice maximizes the value of your efforts and contributes to a richer narrative tapestry.
Time Blocking: Designate Creative Hours
Identify the time of day when you’re most creative and block it off on your calendar. These are your non-negotiable writing hours. Whether it’s early morning when the world is still quiet or late at night when your inner editor is less inhibiting, protect this time fiercely.
Reverse Engineering: Work Backwards from Climaxes
Start by writing key climactic scenes or important dialogues that you have a clear vision for. Once those are complete, you can write the preceding scenes that lead up to these moments. This approach not only speeds up your writing but also creates a cohesive flow.
Daily Goals: Beyond Word Count
While hitting your daily word count is important, also set goals that contribute to the quality of your writing. Whether it’s improving dialogue, adding depth to characters, or introducing a new subplot, these incremental achievements make the writing process fulfilling.
The Importance of Story Beats: Pacing Your Narrative
In any compelling story, pacing is the heartbeat. It establishes the rhythm, sustains tension, and controls reader engagement. One way to expertly manage your story’s pace is through story beats—a series of events or emotional shifts that propels the story forward. Here are some strategies to employ story beats in NaNoWriMo effectively:
Identify Key Emotional Milestones
List down the emotional highs and lows your characters will experience. These emotional milestones can serve as your guideposts for story beats. Whether it’s the elation of triumph, the despair of loss, or the suspense of a looming conflict, these emotions infuse your narrative with life.
Integrate Three-Act Structure
A time-honored approach to pacing is the three-act structure: setup, confrontation, and resolution. In the setup, introduce your characters and setting. The confrontation involves escalating challenges and obstacles. And finally, the resolution brings closure. Think of these acts as larger beats in your story.
Action and Reflection: Balance is Key
Even in fast-paced thrillers or sweeping epics, not every moment is filled with action or dialogue. Intersperse quieter, reflective moments where characters grapple with their choices, contemplate their actions, or prepare for what comes next. These beats are as vital as action scenes for building depth and tension.
Foreshadowing: Planting Seeds for Future Harvest
Strategically place hints or elements early on that will become relevant later in the story. This technique not only engages your reader’s curiosity but also offers you a way to seamlessly integrate key plot points when their moment arrives.
Subtext in Dialogue: The Unspoken Beat
Subtext can often carry more weight than what’s explicitly stated. When characters converse, what they don’t say can be just as telling. Use these moments to create subtle emotional beats that enrich character dynamics and add layers to your narrative.
Revise Beats in Subsequent Drafts
The nature of NaNoWriMo encourages fast writing, but once November ends, you’ll likely need to revisit your beats. The revision process allows you to refine pacing, eliminate redundant beats, and fortify weak spots, thereby strengthening your narrative’s heartbeat.
Conclusion: The Finish Line and Beyond
Success in NaNoWriMo is not just a matter of reaching 50,000 words; it’s about crossing that finish line with a draft you can be proud of. By understanding and employing the power of story beats, alongside the various strategies for writing quality content and effective time management, you arm yourself with a robust toolkit for novel writing. Remember, NaNoWriMo may be a sprint, but the writing life is a marathon. The techniques you hone during this challenge will serve you well long after the final day of November has passed.