Nanowrimo 2017: Tips that Make National Novel Writing Month More Fun

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girl with book no plot no problem

I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember, but I didn’t write a draft of a book until after college. Until then, it was melodramatic short stories, a lot of embarrassing poetry and a decent chunk of features stories published in city papers. I didn’t like to write — I liked the idea of being a writer, and I was told I was good at it. My favorite part of writing was the moment I finished the last sentence; the process of writing a draft in the first place was always painful.

That changed when I was flipping through a magazine one day and saw a blurb about National Novel Writing Month (a.k.a. NaNoWriMo). The piece was tiny and didn’t have many details, but the gist was this: A group of friends had started a tradition: Every year in November, each of them tried to write a novel — the a whole novel, just in that one month.

Nanowrimo defines “novel” as at least 50,000 words of fiction. That’s a short book — about the length of Catcher in the Rye. It’s long enough to be a serious challenge, but short enough that if you skip a day or two, you can still catch up.

I was intrigued: I enjoy projects with arbitrary timelines, and I’d always wanted to write a fiction book. Running across that article about writing a book in November only a few days into November felt like a sign. (I’m also the kind of person who feels comforted by things that feel like signs, even if they’re actually just coincidences.) So I wrote that novel in November.

And the book was terrible.

But that’s actually the point of Nanowrimo — not to write a fantastic book, but to write a bad one. During Nanowrimo, it’s okay — no, it’s encouraged — to shitty first draft, because that’s pretty much all you can do if you’re actually trying to lay that much story down on paper in 30 days. Because the deadline comes ridiculously quickly, you’re forced to concentrate on quantity over quality, and doing that kills off your inner perfectionist so you can finally be creative and ultimately get some work done.

I did get work done. I did get creative. Most importantly, I learned to love writing again. A couple of weeks in, writing didn’t feel like such a chore. I was interested in my characters, and I wanted to know what happened to them. I wanted to write, not just for the feeling of getting a task completed, but for the fun of it. Actually being free enough to write silly things and shutting down my self-critic felt really good, and it’s a feeling I was able to take at least partway into my non-Nanowrimo writing as well.

If writing a novel is your “someday” dream, consider making someday this November. It doesn’t really matter if you have writing experience or not; I was already writing professionally when I wrote my first Nano book, but some of my favorite memories of National Novel Writing Month are of writing with my friends who weren’t used to tackling anything longer than an email. Writing with friends and seeing people who’ve never thought of themselves as writers discover the cool feeling of bringing a story to life is really incredible.

If you’ve always wanted to write a book, Nanowrimo is your chance to just jump in — without plans, without research, without outlines. I talked about Nanowrimo on my podcast this week with bookseller extraordinaire and fellow Nano-writer Sara Glassman (listen here or by searching “Everybody Hates Self-Publishing” on iTunes or Stitcher), and she agrees: Don’t try to wait until next year so you’ll feel more prepared, because part of the fun of Nanowrimo is not being prepared. Don’t wait until you get a great idea, because these rambling, silly Nanowrimo books actually work better with half-baked ideas. If reading about Nanowrimo gives you a glimmer of excitement, if part of your brain is telling you, “I’ll bet we could actually do this crazy thing,” then I think you should do it. Consider this your sign.

Here are my best Nanowrimo tips to get you started:

Chris Baty, the founder of Nanowrimo, wrote about most of this stuff in the book No Plot, No Problem. I’ve read so many times it’s drilled into my brain (a lot of these tips are his originally), and I can’t recommend it enough.

Write Every Day — Every Word Counts

Do I ever actually follow this advice? No. I’m pretty sure I’ve skipped days every year that I’ve done Nanowrimo, and it’s definitely possible to catch up from a deficit. Those marathon catch-up sessions are actually where I’ve had the most fun some years. In general, though, try not to let a day go by without writing — not because you can’t catch up, but because you’re less likely to want to. The number of words you’ll have to write to get back on track will seem too big, you’ll start second-guessing whether this whole Nanowrimo thing was a good idea, and next year you’ll look back on your failed novel instead of your completed one. Even if you can’t hit your daily word goal, just getting 100 words on paper brings you closer to your ultimate goal and helps psychologically.

During the First Week, Write Like Crazy

In the first week, you’ll be excited about your book. It’ll be full of possibility, and you’ll probably be enjoying the feeling of playing writer a little bit, too — drinking obscene amounts of coffee, crumpling up pieces of paper and throwing them dramatically at the trash can, feeling self-important because your coworkers spend their nights marathoning Game of Thrones and you spend yours CREATING FICTION. It’s a fun week. But there’s something demoralizing about that second week: Your characters start floundering, you lose sight of any plot you thought you had, and the self-doubt that plagues even professional novelists finally hunts you down. When you pile up lots of words in the first week, you can shift into a lower gear in Week Two — and believe me, you’ll really want to. The good news is, things start picking up again in Week Three, and by Week Four you’ll be about to see the finish line. But the second week can be a real bummer, so do yourself a favor by heading into it in good shape.

Resist Researching

Say you’re writing about doctors falling in love, or zookeepers falling in love, or baristas falling in love. It’s natural to want to learn about hospitals and zoos and coffee shops. Of course you want to find out more about the environments your characters would inhabit, and it’s tempting to turn to Google for answers. As much as possible, though, try to stay off the internet when you’re writing; it’s a black hole that will swallow both you and your novel. Plan to research for five minutes, and before you know it, you’ll be creeping on the Facebook page of some kid you went to elementary school with. You’re writing fiction here, so make it up. Imagining the specifics of your characters’ worlds will lead to new ideas anyway, and if you decide to edit your novel, you can research and rewrite to your heart’s content at that point.

Write about the Boring Stuff (like Weather)

Because Nanowrimo’s finish line is tied to a word count, part of the game is simply racking up words — not great fiction, not sparkling dialogue, not witty banter. Just words. So when you have an opportunity to add more words, do it. Give your characters weird dreams that they explain in detail even when their dream worlds have no relation to the plot. Write at length about the latte art on their cappuccinos. Get specific about what clothes they’re wearing and whether they’re soft or itchy. Write pages and pages about the weather! Embracing rabbit trails is pretty fun because you’ll see your word count grow. But the weird thing about indulging these tangents is that they often give you pretty great ideas about what your characters are thinking; they lead to new plot points you never would’ve thought of if you hadn’t explored an initially pointless line of thought. Sure, you’ll eventually delete that rambling page where your character does nothing but watch clouds roll in — but the storm you create might turn into a key plot point.

Don’t Reread

Chris Baty is very big on “silencing your inner editor,” and for good reason. That voice in your head that tries to get everything perfect is probably why you haven’t written a novel before now, so don’t let it trip you up. For me, it’s important to at least partly believe that what I’m writing just might be really good, and rereading just tends to remind me of my own — and my book’s — limitations. There’s a time for humility, but it’s not while you’re writing your first draft. That’s when you need to believe in yourself and your book the most, so help yourself suspend disbelief by not revisiting the previous day’s pages.

Leave Notes to Yourself

The spontaneity of Nanowrimo can be difficult for me; it’s hard not to reread or research or critique my work. To avoid the lingering dread that I get from moving on without making everything perfect first, I leave myself notes in the text to indicate where I’ll definitely want to come back later.

Usually I just add a couple of line breaks and type something in all caps, like: FIX THIS LATER or REWRITE AND EXPLAIN BETTER. I also use this technique when I feel like a section needs research and I don’t want to get sidetracked (RESEARCH AND REWRITE), or when I make a decision to change something about a character that I’ll need to go back and change in the first part of the story (LAURA IS A CHEF, NOT A BARISTA — GO BACK AND REWRITE). I don’t usually go back and fix these issues because I don’t often edit my Nanowrimo books, but leaving the notes helps me to move on knowing that I could find and fix them if I wanted to.

Print Your Book on Paper

Some people have published their Nanowrimo books, but most people don’t. For me, Nanowrimo is incredibly rewarding in lots of other ways, and it has helped me make improvements to my writing process and style that show up in my other work, so I don’t really mind not seeing my work as a bound book. But there’s something really satisfying about at least printing your novel. It’s kind of amazing to realize you’ve written something with that much literal weight to it. It’s a fun way to read your draft at the end of the project (if you read on a screen, you’ll be tempted to rewrite instead of just reading). Plus, every published author talks about the “unfinished novel they have at the bottom of a drawer someplace.” If you print your novel, that could be you!

Write with Friends

I’ve made a living as a writer more or less since college, and I have other friends who are writers, but we never write together — we write separately and complain together. Nanowrimo encourages you to gather together with fellow Nanowrimo-ers and have “Write Ins” where you all sit in a coffee shop or a library or wherever and write together. You’re not supposed to read each other’s work or critique; you just sit together and separately try to chip away at your word count. This seems kind of silly, but it’s been one of my favorite parts of Nanowrimo. It’s fun to get together with other people taking on this crazy project, and their energy is infectious. It’s easy to sit alone at a coffee shop and end up daydreaming or browsing the internet instead of writing; it’s harder to do that when you have a little peer pressure to write instead. You can also have speed-writing contests where you compete to see who can post the highest number of words in 20 minutes; you can make bets about how high your work count will be by your next meeting; you can essentially make Nanowrimo into more of a game, which is in some respects exactly what it’s supposed to be. If you can’t bully your friends into writing with you like I did, check out the Nanowrimo website to find a Write In near you.

Get out of the House

Use Nanowrimo as an excuse to visit every coffee shop in town. Hold a Write In at a bar (not a busy one, and not during peak hours). Take advantage of the tables at libraries and bookstores. Come into work an hour early and get a couple hundred words in while the office is dark. One of the best things about writing is that you can do it pretty much anywhere, so embrace that freedom. Sure, you’ll log a lot of hours behind your desk, but that doesn’t mean your entire novel should be written there. Getting out of the house brings a freshness to your work. It’s fun. It also facilitates people watching and generates new ideas for characters, settings and plots — all tools that will be extremely helpful in finishing your book.

Binge Days Are Your Friend

Scheduling in a binge writing day or two can be helpful for keeping your word count up, especially if you know you might miss days because of work or social obligations. I usually shoot for three two-hour sessions in one binge day. I have goal word counts, and I try to move to a different location between sessions (or at least take long breaks to get up, move around, and grab a coffee or a snack). These days end up being pretty fun because you get to feel like some kind of novel marathoner, and they really help you to post a lot of words so you don’t get too far behind (or, if you do fall behind, so you can catch up).

Just Go for It

I’ve just written a really long blog detailing Nanowrimo tips, but you can forget them all if you want to — because my best advice is not to overthink it. This is supposed to be fun and creative, and even though it’s a lot of work, it’s very fun work. There’s really no right or wrong way to do it (it doesn’t even have to be done in November, although I do think it’s more fun that way). The only real rule is to get started. And if you want a little more inspiration, head over to my podcast and listen to me chat about all things Nanowrimo with Little Professor’s Sara Glassman.

Carrie Rollwagen is a book reviewer for Southern Living and BookPage. She hopes you’ll read as many books as you can, and that you’ll get them all from your local bookshop or library. You can find Carrie on Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter @crollwagen.

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