This is it! What you’ve been waiting for. It’s Halloween, the clock ticks closer to midnight. The second it rolls over to November 1st, you’re off, writing words like they’ll burn you if you keep them inside any longer. In those moments you feel invincible, like writing this novel will always be easy.
It won’t be. Writing is hard, whether it’s November or not. But NaNoWriMo is all about helping you get those words on the page.
1. Get Ahead Early
Try to set aside lots of writing time early in November, because a few thousand extra words in the first week will make your life so much easier later on. November is a hectic month, but let’s be real. Every month is hectic. Life is messy in a way stories aren’t, life is messier than the roughest first draft you could write.
If you give yourself some buffer words early, it’ll take a ton of pressure off you.
2. Take Care of Yourself
It’s easy for me to forget my brain is part of my physical body, at least until my blood sugar drops. When you neglect your body, your mind suffers, too. So remember to drink lots of water, eat some vegetables, get a little exercise most days, and please, get some sleep!
3. Accept There Will Be Bad Days
Something will happen–you’ll get sick, your kids or spouse will get sick, work or school will be overwhelming–at least once in November. Those are going to be days where you can only manage a few hundred words, if even that. Don’t sweat it. If you got ahead early, you’re still fine. If you didn’t, you can make up the words later. Bad days happen. Try not to stress about them.
4. Attend Write-Ins
The frequency of write-ins will vary depending on your region, but they’re great ways to stay focused and stay motivated. It might seem counter-intuitive to get a group of people together just so you can all sit in silence and write, but in between writing sprints you can chat and get to know your fellow WriMos, and you can challenge each other to hit certain goals.
If your region isn’t that active, you can hold your own write-ins at your favorite coffee shop or other writing haunt. If no one else shows up, you can still write in the time you’ve set aside for it.
5. Write in Sprints
Occasionally I see Hot Takes about why writers shouldn’t do NaNo, and if you’re anti-NaNo, that’s fine. But one of the more common criticisms is “Writing is a marathon, not a sprint! You can’t finish a good novel in one month!”
Some authors can and have, but in general, that’s right. You probably can’t write a good novel in a month. Luckily, first drafts don’t have to be good, they just have to be done. Taking a novel from the first lines of the first draft all the way to published is a marathon, and a grueling one. The first draft is just the first step. Getting it down as fast as possible is a good thing.
The best way to write fast is to sprint. Typically I do 15-minute sprints, with a five minute break in between to stretch, get some water, and refocus on where my scene is going. (Sometimes my breaks are longer, especially if I’m out at a write-in or sprinting with friends online.) Starting out, you can expect to write only a few hundred words in 15 minutes, but by the end of NaNo, you might be up to 800-1000 words in a single sprint.
The pros of sprinting are many. Forcing yourself to dive completely into your writing for a short time can actually produce better prose. If you’re immersed in the world of your story, characters will whisper new insights to you, scenery will be more vivid and more relevant to your narrative, dialogue will flow naturally, and action will be crisp and impactful.
The con of sprinting is typos, at least for me. But typos are an easy fix, way easier to fix than a half-written draft.
So sit down, limber up your wrists, set a timer for 15 minutes, and throw yourself into your story.
6. When You Hit a Wall, Take A Step Back
Notice I said “when,” not “if.” Maybe it’s just me, but I hit some sort of wall when writing every first draft, no matter how much or how little I plot.
Writer’s block isn’t some mysterious malady that strikes writers, it’s just a symptom of a larger problem. When it happens, I take a step back and assess the situation. To figure out why I can’t move forward, I go through these common reasons until I find the culprit.
- Do I feel physically miserable? Sometimes it’s as simple as needing to take a break and recharge, get some water and a healthy meal, let my brain rest. This usually happens if I’ve been writing a while. I tend to hyper-focus and forget things like “eating” exist.
- If there’s nothing physically wrong with you, there might be something wrong with the anatomy of your story. Take a few minutes to think about where you are, what beats you’ve hit and what beats your approaching. If a character is pulling you in another direction, or not behaving as you planned, mentally follow different courses the story could take. Sometimes you’ll have to ret-con things as you write just to keep things moving forward.
- If you can’t move forward because you’ve backed your characters into a corner, take a while to let the problem simmer in the back of your mind. Go for a walk, spend time with friends or family, watch a little Netflix, read a book. The answer will come to you. If it doesn’t, talk it out with someone, even if they have no idea what your novel is about, really. Usually, just saying something out loud will help you see the answer. If the answer is a deus ex machina, go for it, just make an in-line note to foreshadow it a bit earlier on when you revise. Readers will never know the difference.
7. Kill You Inner Editor, and Don’t Look Back
As with any murder, it’s best to just put it behind you. Leave your editor dead and buried until your draft is done. Don’t worry, your editor is one of those obnoxious villains that just keeps coming back no matter how many times you’ve killed them. They’ll be there when you need them.
Don’t look back at your words, either, not even to check the name of a character or place. If a character changes names halfway through a first draft, who cares? It takes about three seconds to do a find + replace later. If you realize you forgot to mention something important, make a note [like this] in the text and keep moving forward. Don’t waste time going back to perfect a scene you’ve written, because in revisions you might have to trash the scene completely. Killing a beautiful darling is much harder than killing an ugly one, I promise.
Oh, and never delete words. They all count, even the awkward ones. If you know a sentence is terrible as you’re writing it, don’t spend five minutes crafting the perfect alternative. You’ll still know it’s awful when you’re revising, and at that stage you’ll be better equipped to know what kind of sentence the story needs.
8. When You Start losing Steam, Remember Why You’re Writing
It happens every year, usually in week two, when I’m getting into the Middle. I sit back and think, “This novel is terrible. Why am I even writing it? What’s the point?”
At that time I focus on those scenes, those moments and snippets of dialogue that I just can’t wait to get to. I remember the climax I’m building to, the ending that’ll wrap everything up just enough to satisfy. I focus on the puns my characters are soon to make, the sweeping metaphors and high-stakes action scenes.
I remember why I fell in love with the story and characters in the first place.
This is it for my mini-series on NaNo for now. Feel free to ask questions here in the comments, or over on Twitter. I’ll be tweeting out writing sprints all month, so jump in if you see me!