Okay, so not only have you decided to participate in NaNoWriMo, you have yourself a plot, and are counting down the days to get started.
Or maybe not. Maybe the idea of writing 50,000 words — a word goal of 1,667 words per day— seems impossible and you’re starting to second guess the whole writing a novel in a month thing.
As a three-time NaNo winner, with a word count of over 100,000 last year, I’m here to share with you all the tips and tricks I know — and wished I had known when I first started doing NaNo— to get you to 50,000 words and beyond.
1. Be Honest About Your Free Time
This is probably the first thing you should think about when considering NaNo. It’s understandable that you might have a busy life— a full-time job, significant other, family obligations— and wonder how you can even find the time to write. It is possible to find time— getting up early in the morning, using your lunch hour at work, and setting aside some time at night.
But sometimes life can be just too busy to do NaNo. In 2016 I didn’t participate in NaNo because I knew I’d be spending a week at Disney. Having gone before, I knew that I would have been too exhausted after getting back to the hotel to write, and giving all the planning I put into Disney— reading reviews, creating schedules for each day to maximize efficiency and avoid crowds, planning what to take— I knew that I didn’t even have time to plan for NaNo, which is essential for me finishing NaNo. As a result I didn’t sign up for it that year.
Now you don’t have to go to Disney in November like me— though it certainly beats visiting in the summer— but if you know that you have something big in November that realistically would make it too hard to find the time, don’t feel bad about taking a step back. You could always do your own NaNo in December, or participate in a Camp NaNo in either April or July.
2. Outline, Outline, Outline
If you’re new to the NaNo community, you might see terms like ‘planner’ and ‘pantser’ being used a lot. If you’re a planner, you’re a writer who needs a plan or outline in order to write. If you’re a pantser, then you can ‘fly by the seat of your pants’, or write as you go, with no overarching plan in mind.
If you’re a pantser, then you have my congratulations for I’m definitely a planner. In my younger years, I tried writing novels and never got very far because I didn’t outline my story. Perhaps one of the biggest things I’ve taken away from writing fanfiction, is that if I want to finish a story, I need to know how it ends and have a plan.
Some writers use note cards and plan out every single scene and story beat. You don’t have to go that far, but I certainly recommend having an idea of how you want your story to begin, how you want it to end, and how you get from the beginning to the ending. What key scenes must be included to set up and the conflict and resolution? Where should your main characters be and what do they need to know/do in order for your story to come to a satisfying conclusion?
Think of writing a novel like driving somewhere new. You typically start driving with a destination already in mind and need some sort of guide— a map, GPS, your phone— to get you there. You’re free to take bathroom breaks and detours along the way, but ultimately you’ll return to the main path in order to get to your destination.
Outlining/planning your story is very similar. While writing a subplot or new idea might pop into your head, and your ending might change from what you originally had in mind, by having an outline you stand a better chance of reaching your end goal.
3. The Very Beginning… Isn’t Always the Best Place to Start
Sadly this is a trick I didn’t learn until last year. When you read a book, you start at the beginning and continue straight through to the end (unless you’re doing a Choose Your Own Adventure book). That doesn’t mean you have to do the same when you write one.
If you’re not very excited about your beginning, or not quite sure about the details, then don’t start at the beginning. Is there a certain part you’re really looking forward to? Maybe an action scene, a villain’s grand reveal, or a long overdue reunion between characters? Then start there. Start at the point in your novel that you’re most excited to write to guarantee you’ll actually write it. If simply getting to that point in your novel is a struggle, then you probably won’t get that far along into your 50,000 words.
4. Don’t Stick to the 1,667 Word Count Goal Per Day
50,000 words may average out to writing 1,667 words a day, but that doesn’t mean you actually have to write that many a day.
The bad thing about November is that it only has 30 days in it. The good thing is that it comes with a couple of bonuses— at least for Americans, I can’t say the same for international writers. In November, Americans gain an extra hour on a Sunday— which could be used for writing. There’s also Veteran’s Day— which most Americans get off work— and Thanksgiving and the Friday after if you’re lucky enough.
I typically take advantage of those extra days off, along with the weekend to ‘stock up’ on words. Instead of 1,667 words, I’ll write anywhere from 5,000 – 10,000 words on those days. This gets me ahead of the NaNo writing goal and prepares me for when life throws me an unforeseen curve ball such as a cold or illness (since it is that time of the year) or suddenly having to go out of town for a family emergency, which happened to me last year.
By writing more on some days, you’re allowing yourself more free-time on others and ensuring you won’t be scrambling to finish 50,000 words at the end of the month.
5. Use Placeholders
So you’re busy writing and suddenly realize, you don’t have a name for the parents of your main character’s best friend. Or you have no idea for a name of the restaurant your characters are suddenly eating at or that country right next door that is rather important to the plot.
Rather than take a break from a good writing streak to try to come up with a name, use a place holder such as DADNAME or RESTAURANTNAME, or even ASDF. Then when you go back to edit like a good little writer, you’ll see that you still need names and actually have the time to do so. I put place holders in all caps so they’ll pop out more when I’m editing, and I know I have to change the name versus actually belonging in the story.
6. Focus on Quantity, Not Quality
This is another tip that took me a while to learn.
One of the hardest parts of writing, is fighting the urge to not go back and fix all your errors. The red squiggly lines under misspelled words, run-on sentences, incorrect grammar, or the perfect line for that sentence on the last page. The time to deal with all of those is after NaNo when you’re editing, which is another post entirely. The word validator on the site doesn’t care about all your errors, it only cares about how many words you’ve written.
If you find errors are too distracting, simply close your eyes while you type— assuming you don’t need to look at the keys when you type. I find closing my eyes also makes it easier to concentrate on my story as well, one more way to add to my word count.
7. The Word Vomit Method
This is the method that managed to get me to over 100,000 words last year, and is closely related to the above tip about quantity over quality.
Basically I would close my eyes, and type as the words came to me. As I started typing I wouldn’t worry about grammar, spelling or punctuation, I would just type. If a scene was emotional, I might go into what the character was feeling and thinking, and why in order to get more insight into their personality. Sometimes I would realize that a character’s action or dialogue wasn’t working, or contradicted an earlier point. Rather than going back and correcting it, I’d simply type something like, ‘this doesn’t make sense, why??’. I’d also type whatever random idea suddenly popped into my head that may relate to the world and mythos, ideas for earlier scenes that need to be included, or ideas for later ones that I haven’t gotten to yet.
The downside with using this method is that your novel will require a lot of editing to make your word vomit into something legible. Last year I had so many typos, Word gave me a message stating it could no longer display all of the red lines for typos, which I didn’t even know was possible.
But remember, NaNo is all about quantity over quality, and this will definitely get you a high word count.
8. Take A Break (Screw Your Courage to the Sticking Place)
It can be very easy to get so caught up in trying to reach your daily word count or making up for lost time, that you spend all your free-time writing.
Which can be a bad thing. It can be really easy to get burned out when you’re writing all the time, or start losing interest in your novel. It’s important to remember it’s okay to take a break from writing and do something else be it simply vegging out, spending time with friends and family, or doing a different fun activity or hobby.
Every November it seems like Nintendo is releasing some new Pokémon game and I may or may not have a copy of Let’s Go Eevee! pre-ordered. During weekdays I’ll write on my lunch break and finish up a little at home, but at night I’ll spend time with my SO and de-stress.
This is important for several reasons. The first is to remember it’s okay to have a life outside of writing, and your family and friends do like to have some interaction with you that doesn’t involve having your face looking at a screen. Also, sometimes you might hit a wall in your writing, not knowing how to end a scene or coming across a plot hole. In those cases simple taking a break and doing something else can be useful. You might suddenly come up with a solution while doing your laundry, or watching a TV. Or you might return to writing the next day with ease and wonder what the big deal was about.
9. Quick Cheats
These are the tips that can add a few more words to your word count if you’re really desperate. Write out your contractions— do not vs. don’t. Refer to your characters by first and last name all the time and give them extra long names if possible (Robert John Williams Jr.). For more, check out the thread on the NaNo website.
Those are all my tips and tricks. Hopefully some will be useful on your NaNo journey. Did you find them useful? Have some of your own? Let me know in a comment.
During November, I’ll be blogging my NaNo progress. It won’t be everyday, but as I reach certain milestones I’ll write a short post on my progress.
— Kay S. Beckett