NaNoWriMo 2018: A Postmortem and Practical Tips From a Beginner

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. 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.

NaNoWriMo Word Count

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 words—a big feat for a beginner like myself who was absolutely 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 I don’t finish?

What if I fall short of 50,000 words, or I end up hating my manuscript?

These were the thoughts that kept me up at night.

There’s a ton of NaNo “how-to” posts out there, and I don’t want to add to the deluge. But if you’re thinking of participating in NaNoWriMo and you’re an anxious writer like myself, these personal tips might help.

As always with writing advice, take mine with a grain of salt: there is no right or wrong way to go about drafting a story. This is doubly so if you write on the fly or you’re a panster. 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 NaNo, and research takes time to complete.

To avoid an even longer period of social isolation that naturally comes with writing a story in a month, I got a head start on my research. I recommend that you do, too.

It doesn’t have to be a lot of research. Just do a little bit of it each week, so you’ll have it ready in time for NaNoWriMo.

That said, once you’re finished 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. This was 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—whether you’re writing for NaNoWriMo or doing a freeform schedule—writing a novel with a definitive end point is infinitely less overwhelming than writing a series.

Another great thing about standalones? They take less research to write. There’s less plot points to keep track of and tie up. So my advice is to start small and work large at a later date if you need to, especially if this is your first NaNoWriMo.

4. Understand That First Drafts Will Always Suck

No, seriously, they will. Your first draft will be terrible.

In the beginning your NaNo manuscript will be vaguely story-shaped, and it’ll have a beginning, middle, and end. Unfortunately it won’t be great. Not even close, especially in a thirty day time-frame.

However: No one will read this first draft but you. 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 veer towards, too.

So write the story that you want to see. Remember that you can fix the details later.

5. Break Down the Daily “Word Count” by Scenes

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”—roughly 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 by having to reread my own mess to remember what had happened.

This meant that some days I’d write as few as 900 words. Other days, it would be closer to 6,000. The added benefit of working scene-by-scene was that it allowed me to take some days “off” because I had shot past my daily word count. I used that extra time to get other things done.

6. Use Pacemaker or Google Sheets to Track Your Story Word Count

Use Pacemaker to Keep Track of Story Word Count

One useful thing I strongly recommend is using some sort of tool to track both the time allotted to your project and your overall word count for your story.

NaNoWriMo already has a tracker in place, but I signed up for a free account with Pacemaker. Through the website, I was able to:

  • Customize the type of project I was working on.
  • Customize the target word count.
  • Figure out how many days I wanted to work on the project.
  • Figure out how many words I needed to write on particular days, so I could plot which days I wanted to “skip” writing.

All these settings were calculated according to my personal preference.

After I inputted the schedule and word limit I wanted to work with, Pacemaker charted all this information on a graph to show me my progress, which was super helpful for a visual learner like myself.

Alongside this, I also created a Google Sheet so I could track how many words I wrote for each chapter. At the bottom of the spreadsheet, I put a counter where it told me how many words I would need to cut if I went over my word limit.

This helped me stay on track with my draft. Overall it also helped me cut out a lot of areas where my story was dragging.

Tip: If you want to publish traditionally, you might be worried your story is too long. Here’s a helpful link on how many words your manuscript should be, according to industry standards.

7. Use NaNoWriMo’s Official Toolkit

Earn Badges From NaNoWriMo Progress

One thing I absolutely love about NaNoWriMo is the tools located on its website. They make the process of drafting a novel ten times easier. When you’re completing your manuscript I recommend using them to their fullest extent.

Some things you can do:

Want to feel like you’ve done something with very little work? Do you get a rush out of participation badges? Click on My NaNoWriMo > Profile, then scroll down to the Personal Achievement Badges section.

There, you can check off the badges of the activities you’ve completed, like “Writer Wellness” or “Identify as a Planner.”

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 community of them out 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.

Tip: In my experience, your networking needs to be genuine. Don’t reach out to people because you’re looking for clout. Reach out to them because you genuinely want to be friends, on a personal and professional level.

9. Love What You’re Writing About

In order to write a novel in thirty 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.

I mean, a big reason why my NaNo book came so quickly to me was 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

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 about yourself.

I’ve been through the process of writing a book a couple times now, and after comparing mental notes with other writers, it seems that our minds collectively decide that the last couple paragraphs required to complete “the thing” are too hard. They abruptly give up.

Sometimes crying is involved, and feelings of self-doubt—like am I good enough to finish this?—creep in. But once you come down out of that period of stress, and the draft actually gets done, you’ll feel better.


NaNoWriMo was a great experience for me, and I’ll definitely be doing it again next year. I’m also hoping to make more friends and writing acquaintances through the program.

So if you’re participating in 2019, let me know!

If you’re looking for more tools that you can use to help you complete your novel, check out this article I wrote for MakeUseOf on the best programs for creative writers.

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