NaNoWriMo – the Survivor and Thriver’s Guide

Ah… October. As a Florida girl, I do love summer. But when it’s over, when I can’t go to the beach anymore, then Fall needs to just move on up. And, since last year, there’s another reason besides cowboy boots and cool days – NaNoWriMo! (I’ve written a lot about NaNo here, and about it’s detractors and why I think they’re wrong, so feel free to explore the blog for those!)

For those who are new to it, NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month. Their slogan is “30 days and nights of literary madness.” The goal is to write 50,000 words towards a new novel during the month of November (to save you the math, that’s 1667 words a day). You can do other things: Fan fiction, a short story collection, a screenplay, a memoire. But then you’re called a rebel. No one turns you away – but the real point is to do what everyone at some point in their life thinks or says: WRITE A NOVEL.

Of course, many follow that up with, “How hard can it be?” Most of those never write one, so they never find out. Many others spend years, even decades, trying to do it. It’s a serious endeavor, right? It needs time. It needs planning. It needs pondering. It needs careful crafting and a thesaurus and agonizing over every word.

Except when it doesn’t. Chris Baty, the founder of NaNo, had this crazy idea over a decade ago – to write a novel in a month. Not necessarily a good novel, mind you. He was not against throwing in aliens and zombies, a deaf person that required lots of repeated dialogue, or anything else that, in the middle two weeks when you’ve run out of ideas, you can throw in. He readily admitted — celebrated, in fact — that most of the novels thus produced would be crap. His point was that that was okay. You have to give yourself permission to write crap, or you won’t ever write anything.

If you’re doing NaNo, I definitely encourage you to get his book No Plot, No Problem. A few things have changed since he wrote it. You used to not be allowed to even plan until the week before the event, for instance. Now some people start planning on December 1st (not me, I think those people are crazy… But some people!). I’ve done 4 NaNo events since last November 1, so I’m coming up to my 5th. I’ve learned a few things, which I thought I’d share. I’d love to hear your survivor/thriver’s tips, too!

Join the activity on the forums. As I write this, there are 9,039 people on the NaNo forums (there’s a number at the bottom of the page, I didn’t just make that up or do some complicated hacking). During November, there will be 175,000+ on at any given time, from all around the world. While the forums can be used as a brilliant procrastination tool, they really are encouraging. Everyone is pushing hard for the same goal; everyone is punchy and grouchy and ecstatic and exhausted, just like you. There are forums for every conceivable age group, genre, and topic. You can make friends that will carry on well past November 30, plus get over that hump you can’t seem to climb on your own.

Join your region. I actually belong to 3 regions: North Carolina: Raleigh-Durham; North Carolina: Elsewhere; and Africa: Elsewhere. The reason for that is that we have a little house on the coast, and there are people there doing NaNo (that’s the “NC: Elsewhere), and I travel frequently to Africa (and write about it sometimes). So I want to see what people are doing. But your own region, where you live, can be quite active. Ours in RDU is, and there are a ton of parties, write-ins, workshops and other activities that go on before, during and after November. Each region also has a chat room, which is great for encouragement and silliness, and, one of my favorite things, word wars. One of the people I met in my region and I started a local writers group after NaNo, so you never know who you’ll find in your community.

Do at least some planning. A lot of people on NaNo are known as “pantsers,” meaning they go into November 1 with absolutely no idea what they’re going to write about. Others are “plotters” and have extensive outlines, scene sketches, character portfolios and the like all ready to go by midnight October 31. I haven’t seen any official survey by OLL (the Office of Letters and Light, the non-profit that runs NaNo) about who wins and who doesn’t, but from reading forums, I think more plotters than pantsers cross the 50k mark. However, I’m not a plotter. I’m also not a pantser. I go into NaNo knowing the following: my main characters; most of the locations they’ll go to; the storyline, in general, from start to finish. That’s pretty much it. I make up my secondary characters and scenes as I go, keeping in mind where the book is headed.

Here’s what that looked like for my November 2011 story. I knew I was going to write a treasure hunt adventure, and I had determined the places where the clues and treasure would be. There were 7 in all. Because my goal was to finish the novel, I decided that each location would average 15,000 words (ish), which would make the finished book 105,000 words (ish). I had 2 storylines, one in the 1680s to establish the clues and treasure, and one in modern day to find them. I knew the main characters for both. That’s what I knew on November 1. Thankfully, Google Earth and Wikipedia and Bing Images and other internet sites let me do more extensive research as I went along. (Thankfully too, Homeland Security apparently wasn’t monitoring my searches!) The rest I let flow, with the knowledge that they always had to get from point A to point B to point C, etc. Especially for your first attempt, having at least a vague map can be really helpful after the adrenaline of week 1 has passed and you’re in the doldrums of weeks 2 and 3.

Don’t edit. Most people agree with this, some disagree, but I will tell you that the single biggest hindrance to getting 50,000 words written is your inner editor. We all have one — the shrillness of its voice depends on our level of perfectionism. The point of NaNo is just to write. You’re writing a first draft, not War and Peace. First drafts can and will suck. Get over it. The best way to get over it is not to read it. Ever. Until after November 30. When I’m mid-NaNo, I read the last couple of paragraphs at most, just to see where I left off. If, like happened with my August Camp NaNo project, I have to take several days off, I might read the last section, just to make sure I remember what’s going on. That’s it. And I don’t edit it at that point at all.

If you are a serious perfectionist, there are some tricks. Make your font white, so you can’t see what you’re writing. If you write a paragraph that you immediately hate, make only that paragraph white. Do not delete! You are going for 50k words. No one at NaNo is going to read it – the validator is just going to count the words in about 10 seconds and that’s it. Don’t get rid of precious words until after they’ve been counted! Even if you get 5,000 words into it, decide you hate the story, and start another, just start the new one. Never, ever delete in November! Never. Ever. Delete.

Also, never, ever insert. If you realize that you need a scene way back on page 57 to set up your main character (MC) as a psycopath, don’t go way back to page 57. Just write it where you are, in a different color. Make a note on the pad where you’ve scribbled all your research and character sketches and the name of the guy in Chapter Two that you’ll never remember when he comes back in Chapter 10. Fix it later. Why? Because if you go back to insert it, you’ll have to read to figure out where exactly to put it. When you start to read, you will start to edit. And the whole point of this tip is what? Do. Not. Edit.

Figure out your schedule. November is a great month for NaNo except for one eensy weensy little problem. Thanksgiving. If you’re not responsible for Thanksgiving in any way, and merely show up at someone’s house, it still will take most of a day. If, like me, you’re the mom who cooks the whole thing, plus cleans the house, plus sets the fancy table, plus does the shopping… Don’t even think about writing on Thanksgiving.

I have learned that I need some days off during a month of writing, especially since my goal is always to finish the novel, not stop at 50,000 words (I just do better that way – here’s why). If I don’t, I get mentally and physically exhausted. If I take a day here or there off, I can recharge and write more the other days. I’ve written a blog post on how I do this, but here’s the bottom line: If you’re going to take Thanksgiving off, have a wedding to go to, and want a mental-health day, that leaves you 27 writing days. So instead of 1667 words a day, you need 1852. Every day, write at least 1852 words, and you have those 3 days off, guilt free. Don’t plan for them, and you might be panicking by the end.

Realize that the middle 2 weeks will suck. They will. Deal with it. Slog through anyway. During week 1 you’ve got excitement, adrenaline, panic… You’re off and running. Maybe you write 23,000 words that week, and you’re halfway, and you think, “What is wrong with these people? This is a piece of cake!” Well, hold on to your hat, because it’s about to take a nose dive. Those middle two weeks – which, not coincidentally coincide with the middle of the novel, are tough. You’re tired. The beginning and end of books are always more exciting than the middle, so maybe you’re bored, or you just don’t know how to take the story to the end, or the characters aren’t doing what you thought they would and you don’t know where to go from here. Your family’s a bit cranky because you’re spending so much time writing, mumbling, taking notes on napkins, and not sleeping. You don’t talk about anything but your book. You’re obsessed, but writing feels like trying to walk through quicksand.

Take heart! The other 250,000 people around the world doing what you’re doing, when you’re doing it, feel exactly the same way! That’s why planning your daily word count goal is important. Sometimes you just have to sit down and write, and it might be crap, and that’s okay. You’ll fix it later. Just write. Even when it sucks. Because the last week is just around the corner, and the excitement will mount again, and, if you’re still shy of 50k the adrenaline will kick in again, and one day soon you’ll cross that finish line, go to the Shoutout thread in the forums, and say, “I DID IT!”

Prepare your family in advance. When I did my first NaNo, I had no idea how long I’d be writing each day. I went into hyper-organization (not a state I can maintain for very long!), because I didn’t want my family to starve (or interrupt my writing with complaining). Our meals have never been better planned, and I never had such efficient grocery trips as I did during November 2011. I told my family (repeatedly) in October: “This is what I’m doing. I will do it and finish it. You all will have to fend for yourselves in areas you might not normally, and you’ll have to not complain (well, if you complain, I’ll ignore you), and you’ll have to get over it.” I explained what it was, that no there is no prize except a web badge and a certificate, there’s no contest, etc., but that it would take a lot of my time. For one month. They could spare me for one month. I repeated this until they (sort of) believed it. As it turned out, as long as they were fed, all was well… But I credit that to the advance notice. Put your foot down, be organized, stick to your word.

Just do it. Decide you’re going to, and do it. Don’t “hope” to do it. Don’t “try” to do it. Just do it. If it sucks, you never have to print it off or show it to anyone else, ever. But you will have proven you can. And that’s worth a lot.

If you’re already a WriMo, let me know your strategies; if this November is your first time at it, let me know how it goes. And look me up on NaNo. My screen name is jswwrites. I’ll be your buddy. :o)

(We’re now required to put in this disclaimer for anything containing ‘NaNoWriMo’ or ‘National Novel Writing Month’: Ā “This is not an official NaNoWriMo site, and the content has not been reviewed by National Novel Writing Month. For more information on National Novel Writing Month, visit http://www.nanowrimo.org.ā€)

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19 Comments

Filed under NaNoWriMo, Writers Groups, Writing

19 responses to “NaNoWriMo – the Survivor and Thriver’s Guide

  1. This is my first year!
    Scared, excited, nervous etc. but soooo looking forward to it. Your points really helped, especially because I am a perfectionist and my inner editor is like my mum sometimes (nag nag nag).
    Good luck!

  2. I used to wonder what you were talking about when you mentioned NaNoWriMo. Sooo out of the loop, but this does sounds interesting and motivational. Maybe one day I’ll…no, not likely. I’d never be able to keep the voices in my head organized. Can I join a NaNo forum even if I don’t want to do the NaNoWriMo?

  3. You can sign up for it and just not do it. People do that who’ve done it in the past and can’t this year, or else sign up and think they will and then don’t. Would love to have you lurking around! The community really is great in Nov. Well, builidng from now (the site just reset from last year) through mid-December.

  4. Jennings, is NaNo entirely personal accomplishment, or do participants share snippets, comment on the work of others, etc.? I’m unsure of the amount of commitment involved beyond writing.

    • Totally personal. You write your own 50k words. Technically (this is my teenage son’s plan if he ever does it) you can write the same word 50k times. No one reads it but you. The validator doesn’t do anything but count the words. You should do it – it’s a great community for the Nov event!

  5. some fantastic advice here, for sure! I’ve done nano twice before and I can tell ya’all that this post is right on the money. It certainly is a fun and rewarding experience though…and a whole lot of work. Even after the month is over (if you intend on doing anything with what you’ve written, of course….).

  6. Pingback: Your Inner Editor | Words on the Page

  7. This article is incredibly helpful. Thank you!

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