My Guide to Surviving NaNoWriMo

Tonight, with NaNoWriMo just a three short weeks away, we offer those of you who intend to participate some tips and motivation. This post, by Cameron Chapman, originally appeared on her site on 10/11/11 and is reprinted here in its entirety with her permission.

NaNoWriMo officially starts in less than three weeks! I’ll be participating again, this time hopefully finishing up the third and fourth books of The Steam and Steel Chronicles. I feel like I’ve finally got some plot issues tied up in my head, so I can move forward with it. The thing is, when I wrote the first two books last year (for NaNoWriMo), I didn’t really have an overall story arc in mind. I just sort of threw everything in there and waited to see what stuck.

So now I’ve got all these potential plot threads that need to be tied up in the third and fourth books (I’m thinking those will finish the story, though I’m also planning a short story or two that will take place between books one and two). I’m not one to just let things go unanswered, and I want to make sure that things people liked in the first two books are featured again in the third and fourth books, without being shoehorned in. I’ve got them all figured out now, though, so I’m eager to get writing again!

But I wanted to put together a guide for surviving (and even winning) NaNoWriMo. I’m hoping it will be useful whether you’re a NaNo veteran or a first-timer.

1. Make sure you’re passionate about your story

This is key. If you’re not really, really into your story, you will very quickly get sick of it. Trust me. I’ve been there. I’ve done that. And I’ve lost because of it. So the first thing to make sure of is that you’re absolutely, positively in LOVE with your story.

2. Use the forums

The NaNoWriMo website has great forums. They are insanely active during October and November, so be sure to use them. If you get stuck, head on over to the Plot Doctoring section. If you’re tearing your hair out, visit NaNoWriMo Ate My Soul. And be sure to check out the tips in Reaching 50,000!

3. Don’t be afraid to suck

First drafts often suck, but NaNoWriMo first drafts have the potential to suck a lot more, because of the insane time constraints. So give yourself permission to suck. You can fix it in December.

4. Turn OFF your internal editor

This can be one of the hardest things to do, but it’s vital. Turn off your internal editor. In fact, don’t just turn it off, banish it to the basement for the duration of November. Tell it you’ll give it lots to do in December and January as a trade-off.

5. Use Write or Die

Write or Die is probably the most useful tool you can use during the month of November. Set yourself a time limit (tight, but not insanely tight). Then write. Your computer will start giving you nasty looks if you stop typing, and if you set it to kamikaze mode, it will even delete your words if you don’t reach your goal. This was my secret weapon last year, and I’m eternally grateful to it. Without Write or Die, I can almost guarantee I would not have made my word count goals. In fact, I think this year I’ll purchase the desktop version (it’s only $10) to show my appreciation.

6. Play dirty

There are a few times in life when playing dirty should be applauded. NaNoWriMo is one of those times. Forget about contractions. In fact, do a search for apostrophes in your document and eliminate contractions (instead of “don’t” it should be “do not”, etc.). Make yourself a list of the contractions you’ve replaced, so that way you can easily go back and re-contractionate (yep, totally just made that word up) them when you’re done. Other ways of playing dirty include having your characters tell completely mundane stories just to eat up word count, adding tons of adverbs you can eliminate later, quoting poems, song lyrics or other written works, and creating characters who are naturally verbose. If you’re worried about creating a draft that’s going to be a huge pain to edit because of all this crap, just set off anything you think you’ll want to eliminate at a later date in [brackets].

The goal here is to keep up your momentum. Dirty tricks like this can work wonders to keep your morale high and keep you on track. That’s the important thing to do here. You need to stay motivated to finish, and if you see yourself falling behind, you’re going to get discouraged. It’s better to complete your 50,000 words and win and feel motivated even though in actuality you only have 30,000 usable words than to get discouraged at 25,000 words and give up entirely. If nothing else, you’ll have a novella in the end.

7. Write often

I work more than full time. I’m often putting in well over 40 hours a week, and my “day job” is writing. That means I can be left with little creativity at the end of the day. So rather than leaving all of my writing to the end of the day, I write in bits and pieces throughout the day. I’ll head on over to Write or Die whenever I need a break, set myself a word count goal of 400-500 words, and a 10-15 minute time limit, and write. If I do that just 3-4 times a day, I’ve met my word count goal. Other days, if my schedule was a bit more relaxed, I’d spend an hour writing first thing in the morning, before starting any of my other work. By switching back and forth between those two schedules, I was able to reach my goal without too much struggle.

8. Write more when you can

If you’re in the U.S., there’s one major holiday during the month of November: Thanksgiving. There are also a number of weekends. And sometimes, life pops up and requires you to take a day off. NaNoWriMo requires you to write an average of 1,667 words per day, every day, for 30 days. It can seem like a huge hurdle if you miss a day, as it means you have to write even more every day after that. So instead, I try to write more from day one. I aim for 2,000 words a day, and on that schedule I would reach the goal by the 25th of November, giving me 5 days off. Some days, I might even hit 3-4k words. The first year I did NaNo, I reached the 50k goal by about the 15th of November, and had 95k words in 33 days. Now that I’m working more than full time, though, that kind of pace is less realistic for me.

So, do you have any other tips for surviving NaNoWriMo? Questions I can answer? Please feel free to comment!


Cameron Chapman writes regularly for Mashable, Smashing Magazine and Noupe. Her published works include the Steam and Steel Chronicles (Aboard the Unstoppable Aerostat Fenris and The Great Healion Race) and Hold My Hand