I finally did it.
Every now and then – when Murphy’s Law cuts me a break and the planets align through some sort of ordinance – a couple good things happen in quick succession. I’ve always been wary of putting too much faith in good events because I’m a cautious person by nature, but November was a good month for me. For the first time ever I managed to participate in NaNoWriMo (details on the event are here).
Not only did I complete the 50,000 words required to ‘win’ the competition, but I finished the first full draft of my novel at just under 80,000 – a big feat for a beginner like myself who was terrified of entering.
I’ve known about NaNoWriMo for ages, but I’ve always been held back by my anxiety. What if I start and don’t finish? What if I fall short of 50,000 words, or I end up hating my manuscript? These are the thoughts that kept me up at night.
There’s a ton of NaNoWriMo how-to posts out there, and I don’t want to add to the deluge, but if you’re thinking of participating in NaNo and you’re an anxious writer like me, my tips might help.
As always with writing advice, take mine with a grain of salt – there’s no right way to go about drafting a story. This is doubly so if you write on the fly. You’ll probably find my need for structure to be suffocating.
1. Plan Your Story In Advance
I started planning my story roughly six months before November, around May or June. Your social life is dead during NaNoWriMo, and research takes time. To avoid prolonging the social isolation that comes with writing a story in a month, I got a head start on my research so I could do a little bit of it each week, and still have time for other things.
That said – once you’re done your story mapping, don’t feel constrained by the plan. Things can and do change during drafting.
2. Do A 2-Month Practice Run
Leading up to NaNoWriMo, I actually did a practice run where I wrote a story in two months instead of one, to get me used to writing at a quicker pace. It made the leap into NaNoWriMo less of a shock.
3. Write A Standalone Novel
Again, seems basic. But speaking from experience writing a novel with a definitive end point made NaNoWriMo less overwhelming. It also takes less research to write a standalone, and there’s less plot points to tie up. Start small and work large at a later date if you need to.
4. Understand That First Drafts Will Always Suck
No, seriously, it will. Your NaNoWriMo draft will be terrible. It’ll be vaguely story-shaped and it’ll have a beginning, middle, and end, but it won’t be great. Not in 30 days. However no one will read this first draft but you, and once you accept the inevitability of this conclusion and give yourself permission to fuck up, it’s freeing. Especially if you’re a perfectionist, which is what I veered towards. So write the story you want to see, and remember that you can fix the details later.
5. Break Down The Daily Word Count By Scenes – Not Words
NaNoWriMo is all about making the process of writing as painless as possible. They do a great job of this by breaking down how many words you need to write per day in order to ‘win’ – 1,667. That said, I actually found it easier to break down my word count by scene, so I didn’t lose the flow of my story as I was writing it. I didn’t get tripped up by the plot or having to reread my own mess to remember what had happened.
This meant that some days I’d write as few as 900 words, and other days it would be closer to 6000. The added benefit of working scene-by-scene was that it allowed me to take some days ‘off’ so I could get other things done.
6. Use Pacemaker or Google Sheets to Track Your Word Count – Or Both
One thing I strongly recommend doing – not just during NaNoWriMo but for all your projects – is to use some sort of tool to track both the time allotted to your project and your word count.
NaNoWriMo already has a tracker in place, but I signed up for a free account with Pacemaker. Through that I was able to customize the type of project I was working on, the target word count, the number of days allotted to the project, and how many words to write on particular days, or even days I could skip. This was all according to personal preference.
Pacemaker then charted all this information on a graph, which was super helpful for a visual learner like myself. I also created a Google Spreadsheet so I could track how many words I wrote for each chapter, and put a counter at the bottom where it told me how many words I would need to cut if I went over my limit. It keeps your story from dragging.
Side tip: here’s a helpful link on how long your story should be, according to genre and industry standards. Definitely use this to ballpark the length of your manuscript.
7. Use NaNoWriMo’s Official Toolkit
One thing I absolutely love about NaNoWriMo is the tools on their platform. They make the process easier, and while you’re completing your manuscript I recommend using them to their full extent.
Follow the official NaNoWriMo account on Twitter to keep up-to-date on their latest announcements. Check out their in-house forums to connect with other writers or find people in your area to network with.
Want to feel like you’ve done something, or get a rush out of participation badges? Click on your Hello! (User Name) tab at the top of your page, then click on Badges. Scroll down and check off the Personal Achievement Badges that you’ve completed during the month – such as creating a writing playlist, or drinking so much coffee that you don’t sleep for three days straight.
8. Connect With Other Writers On Twitter
For me one of the best things to come out of NaNoWriMo was connecting with other writers on Twitter. There’s a whole hive of them there, ranging from folks who are just starting their journey to those who are already published. It helps to have friends who are your peers, who can cheer for your book and whom you can commiserate with over the state of your manuscript. First drafts are always rough.
A tip on networking, though – in my experience those connections need to be genuine. I recommend reaching out to writers whom you actually want to be friends with, on a personal and professional level.
9. Love What You’re Writing About
In order to write a novel in 30 days you really need to know the topic you’re writing about. You need to enjoy it. Otherwise it’ll feel like a chore and you’ll struggle (a lot). A big reason why my NaNo book came so fast to me is because I was writing about a topic I love, and I know a ton about it. It’s 100% in my wheelhouse.
10. Understand That You Won’t Have A Social Life For 30 Days, And That The Last Chapter Of Your Book Will Make You Hate Yourself
Finishing a book is hard. Finishing a book on such a short timeline is worse. In order to do so you usually have to sacrifice your free time elsewhere, which in my case was my social life. Be prepared to be lonely.
Additionally, when you reach those last couple chapters of your novel you’ll probably feel terrible. I’ve been through the process a couple times now, and after comparing notes with fellow writers it seems that our minds collectively decide that the last couple paragraphs required to complete The Thing is ‘too hard’ and give up. Sometimes crying is involved, and feelings of self doubt – am I good enough to finish this? – creep in. But once you come down out of that period of stress you’ll feel better.
Anyways, NaNoWriMo was a great experience for me and I’ll definitely be doing it again next year. I hope to see some new people join me!