Having successfully completed NaNoWriMo on a couple of occasions, I thought I’d provide a few tips that I found helpful during my efforts. Each time I completely NaNoWriMo, it was with the intention of writing at least 50,000 words of what would ultimately become a full novel. So these tips may not apply to folks who are just out to write 50,000 words for no reason other than to complete the contest. Here you go:
1. Plan ahead
To write 50,000 words in 30 days, you need to write 1,667 words each day. For me, this required some planning. I spent a good deal of my writing time in October planning what I would write in November. This included a fairly detailed outline of my novel. My approach was to aim for chapters that were roughly 2,000 words1 long. I outlined about 45 such chapters, and I expected to get through about 30 of them during November. Planning ahead had the added benefit of letting me know what I would be working on each day. I never woke up and said, gee, I don’t know what to write today. It was always there in the outline, and I could often think about it the night before. That often allowed me to start faster.
Once I had the outline completely, I used Scrivener to a NaNoWriMo novel project and I created 45 chapters. On each chapter, I included my summary of the chapter from my outline. I didn’t worry much about naming the chapters at this point. I just wanted to make sure I had them all set up before I got started. Scrivener allows you to create a goal for each document, so for each document (and I had one document per chapter) I created a goal of 2,00o words. This comes in hand later when you are writing because you can see the progress bar turn from red to yellow to green as you get closer to your goal each day.
2. Start early
My favorite time to write is early in the day. This isn’t true for everyone, but it worked particularly well for me. During NaNoWriMo, I would write between 5-7am. During those two hours, I’d do my best to complete the chapter I’d planned. Starting early had several benefits for me (your mileage may vary):
- My wife and kids were still asleep. I wasn’t interrupted by phone calls or email. And I knew I’d have 2 hours of distraction-free writing.
- I have a day job and it wasn’t tenable for me to write during the day
- While I often write in the evening, with kids and the day job, I am also more often to be too tired to get a decent amount of writing done.
- Most importantly for me, I like an early win. It feels good to me to get 2,000 words written and in the books before 7am. For the rest of the day I am working off a success. I feel good on these days whereas on those days when I don’t get the writing done early, I don’t feel nearly as good.
Those early wins were critical for me. I think I wrote between 5-7am on 25 of the 30 days last year. And if you plan ahead, it is easy to start early. There’s no sitting in front of the keyboard wondering what you are going to write. You pop open Scrivener, open up chapter n (where n corresponds to the nth day of NaNoWriMo), read over your summary, start writing and keep writing until the progress bar turns green.
3. Aim high
To hit 50,000 words in 30 days requires writing 1,667 words each and every day. In laymen’s terms, that’s about 6-1/2 manuscript pages each day. But I always aimed higher. I aimed for 2,000 words each day and in fact, I often achieved more than 2,000 words in a day. The reason for this is that I anticipated there being at least a few days where writing, for one reason or another, would be impossible. The kids would be sick, or I’d be out of town, or there would be some reason that prevented me from getting that day’s writing done. Writing 2,000 words/each day means writing 333 words more than par. In just 5 days of writing 2,000 words/day, you’ve already gained an entire day. That means you could miss a day of NaNoWriMo completely and still finish on schedule if you write 1,667 words for the remaining day. Last year, I think I finished with somewhere over 60,000 words and was several days ahead of par by the end.
This means putting in an extra effort each day, but it pays off in less stress, and a feeling, each morning, that you are already ahead of the curve. Also, with good planning, I was aiming for chapters that were about 2,000 words long and that became my daily morsel. After just four or five days, I began to get the feel for how to get 2,000 words done in 2 hours. It become more like telling a small story within a larger story each day of the competition.
Scrivener allows you to not only set document targets, but set overall writing targets based on length and date. So you can tell Scrivener that you want to write 50,000 words (or 60,000 words) by November 30, and Scrivener will tell you how many words you need to write each day, based on how much you’ve already written. If you miss a day, those numbers go up. If you exceed your daily quota, those numbers go down. It makes it very easy to see where you are.
4. Do NOT rewrite
Rewriting is probably what kills a large portion of NaNoWriMo success. Remember that the competition isn’t for the best written 50,000 words, it’s simply to get to 50,000 words. It’s like running a marathon. It doesn’t matter how messy the running is, you are just aiming to cross the finish line. I didn’t rewrite a single word during the entire month of November and this is an enormous help because it means that every word you do write adds to your total.
But you are trying to write a novel and you want it to be good, right? Well, think of the 30 days of NaNoWriMo as a sketch of the novel. Get as much of the sketch as you can down on paper. But don’t worry about the details. Those can come later, in a second draft.
And what if you see things that need to be fixed or corrected? What if the story is starting to move off-book, or in an unexpected direction? Well, here is what I did:
- After each NaNo writing session, I’d read over what I wrote. If there were problems, or comments, I’d make notes on that document in Scrivener. Often the notes were things like, “I haven’t established this character as the love interest yet, and it eventually needs to happen.” Or: “For this scene to be effective, I need to go back and plant a conversation with so-and-so back in Chapter 2.” Or: “This scene is crap. Cut it or rewrite it in the second draft.”
- When NaNoWriMo was over, I read through all of the chapter notes, consolidated them into a single document and used that as a guide for changes that I wanted to introduce in my second draft.
I did not make the changes during NaNoWriMo.
Scrivener is great for capturing these notes and annotation. And when you are all done, you can take a snapshot of your NaNoWriMo draft before you start working on your second draft and compare your subsequent changes to the original. Often times there is a lot to learn about how to improve your writing in these comparisons.
5. Make it social and have fun
Writing is a lonely business, but NaNoWriMo provides an opportunity to have friendly competitions with friends and other writers. You can discuss your progress and struggles, follow along on the NaNoWriMo website, encourage one another, and even write posts about your experience. Other things you can do to have fun:
- Group writing. My writers group reserved a few sessions for folks doing NaNoWriMo to write together. This year, Google+ Hangouts might be good for this.
- Treat yourself to something special when you win. I ordered a NaNoWriMo winner’s t-shirt
- Celebrate your success!
Those are my five tips for a successful NaNoWriMo. I wasn’t certain that I’d be doing NaNoWriMo again this year, but after giving it more thought, I am leaning toward trying again. You can find me over on the NaNoWriMo site. My username is jamietr.
And for those curious about what it is like to go through 30 days in an effort to write 50,000 words, you can get some idea by looking through my NaNoWriMo blog posts from 2010. Click on the date to read the NaNoWriMo-specific entry.
|12||November 12 morning, afternoon||3,862||30,076||Best day|
|14||November 14||2,318||34,780||Part 1 of novel completed.|
|19||November 19||2,023||46,542||Passed halfway point for 90K word novel|
|20||November 20 morning, afternoon||3,617||50,159||Wins NaNoWriMo!|
|21||November 21||1,875||52,034||Worst day|
|23||November 22, 23||–||52,034|
|30||November 30||2,043||61,131||NaNo over|
- See tip #3. ↩