Would you believe that every November thousands of writers around the world sit down and type out approximately 53 AP English essays—or 160 pages—in length of fiction? National Novel Writing Month, usually shortened to NaNoWriMo (or simply NaNo), has been a 30-day writing-intensive event since 1999. Its challenge is simple: write 50,000 words of fiction in the month of November. At the end of the month, winners walk home with 50,000 more words of a manuscript than before and a certificate to hang on their wall; many, though, don’t finish and walk away defeated. The challenge itself sounds simple: just write. That simplicity, however, hides the more complex truth that winning the challenge isn’t just about your typing speed—it’s about preparation, motivation, time management, and willpower. With the right mentality, any writer can cross the 50k finish line!
On the NaNoWriMo website, the terms “planner” and “pantser” are thrown around quite often in blog posts and on the community forums. As you might (correctly) guess, a “planner” is someone who creates an outline of where their story is going before they start their journey. A “pantser” follows the age-old saying, “fly by the seat of your pants!” They might have a vague idea or two, but they dive right into November without any concrete ideas about where the story is going. The debate has gone on for years: planning or pantsing? While many argue that it depends on the author, the truth is that it is planning, not pantsing, that truly gives you a leg up in terms of wordcount.
The first step towards victory, therefore, is simple: find an idea. While the simplest step of all of them, this part of the NaNoWriMo challenge trips up would-be participants the most. They’re overcome by blank page syndrome, staring with glazed eyes at a blinking cursor. The issue, however is not that they have no ideas—it’s that they’re not sure they have the right idea. Writers try to find the perfect plot like college
girls try to find the perfect husband, spending hours weighing pros and cons and fretting over the tiniest of flaws. Anyone who’s married knows that every man has his issues—problems are unavoidable—and so it is with novels. Find a plot that inspires you, a story that lights your eyes with a spark of creativity when you talk about it; worry about the details later. Chris Baty, the founder of NaNoWriMo, puts it this way: “The world is a lot more fun when you approach it with an exuberant imperfection.”
Next, once you’ve found a story spark, you must expand upon it. The bare bones of the plot must be laid out; the story’s skeleton, so to speak. Naturally, this means coming up with the two most important parts: the beginning and the end. Once a writer knows how his story will begin and end, the rest becomes dramatically easier. I would advise anyone attempting NaNo to go into it with at least those two key elements; without a clear idea of either, the writer will lose focus—either he will freeze, not knowing how to begin, or he will drivel aimlessly on for pages because he does not know where to stop.
At this point in your outlining journey, I give you permission to leave your story where it is if you so desire. Once you have the starting and ending points, the middle is less important to map out. A character-driven story may succeed better with more freedom for characters to do as they wish. Continue to plot out the middle, however, if you are prone to getting sidetracked or the plot is driving the story rather than the characters. More planning is generally better than less planning; but if you want to move on to more exciting things, you can do so without too much worry.
In order to move on to the more exciting bits of NaNo, though, you’re going to want to do something that will guarantee that you actually sit down to write—namely, motivating yourself. The best method for doing this is telling others that you plan on writing 50,000 words in November. It catches people off-guard, and they’ll be sure to ask you how that book of yours is coming along when they see you next. For maximum motivation, tell anyone you think might take interest; the last thing you want to do is explain to everyone you know that you didn’t finish that challenge you’d told them about.
Additionally, if you’re the kind of person who works harder when you know there’s a reward at the end, you’re in luck—many participants reward themselves for finishing the challenge. Some people eat a square of chocolate for every hundred words they write; others buy themselves a video game and don’t take off the shrink wrap until they write word number 50,000. Telling others and using small rewards will motivate you to cross the finish line—even when you don’t want to write.
Even so, there will still come times when you feel like you just can’t write. I’m sure you’re familiar with the most common complaint—”I don’t have any time!” That’s when the fourth step comes in: block off time specifically for writing. Write during lunch breaks, time between classes, those board meetings you have to attend that never have any relevant information. If you really can’t squeeze in 1667 words somewhere, sacrifice a little sleep—wake up a little earlier or stay up a little later. One thing I’ve learned in NaNos past is that sometimes a little sleep deprivation is worth it. NaNoWriMo is not for the faint of heart—only the truly dedicated make it to the finish. Be strong and sacrifice what you must—then you, too, may claim victory! The skill of time management will prove invaluable during the month of American thanksgiving, family gatherings, and NaNo.
The final step might prove the most obvious: just write! NaNo’s purpose is writing—writing no matter how bad it is or how many plot holes you’ll need to go back and edit later. The NaNo philosophy goes something like, “your writing will suck, but at least you wrote something.” Accepting the fact that one out of every hundred words you write will be any good is vital to keeping your spirits up and allowing yourself to write without constantly assessing quality; and while it sounds ridiculous to value quantity over quality, it actually works. New York Times bestselling authors Rainbow Rowell and Erin Morgenstern wrote their novels, Fangirl and The Night Circus respectively, during NaNoWriMo. Writing poorly can discourage even the best of writers, and the willpower it takes to charge through to the finish won’t always appear when you need it. The best way to write is to tell yourself that quality doesn’t matter just yet—the purpose is getting words down on the page to recycle later, not writing the next Harry Potter. Concentrate on getting the words on the page and trust that you’ll be able to reuse the good bits later when you edit or rewrite; don’t fear mistakes. Instead, use them to your advantage.
NaNoWriMo is a challenge for people who aren’t afraid to, in the words of Mrs. Frizzle from the children’s show The Magic Schoolbus, “take chances, make mistakes, and get messy!” To win, you need to get prepared, get motivated, and get writing without constantly worrying about quality. As a past participant—and a winner!—I can assure you that writing is hard; but finishing the month with 50,000 more words than you had before? Bragging rights aside… it’s totally worth it.