National Novel Writing Month (also known as NaNoWriMo) is a self-guided competition for writers to challenge themselves. The goal is to start a novel on the first day of November and finish it by the final day. For practical reasons, NaNoWriMo calls “finished” hitting 50,000 words. That’s on the shorter end of a novel. But aiming for more words pushes the bounds of how much a reasonable person can write in a month.
I am a huge fan of NaNoWriMo, and I’ve taken part three times over the last four years. Leading up to this year’s competition, I’d like to share with everyone a little about how I prepare.
The competition stipulates that the writing must happen during November. But that doesn’t mean you can’t do a lot of prep work! Everyone will have their own methods for preparing stories. I like to dedicate most of October to get myself prepared for writing in November.
The first step is always to find the story I want to tell. For me, that means cracking open my ideas notebook and picking something. Normally, I’ll have spent a lot of time stewing on different ideas I think I want to pursue. By the time October rolls around, I’ll already have a solid idea about what my story will look like. For example, I decided on this year’s story back in mid-June while reading a novel. The idea coalesced with another idea I’d had simmering for some time. I knew almost immediately that I had a plan for NaNoWriMo.
The idea that came to me was a simple one. And I’ll be honest, the story I’m designing is nothing groundbreaking. The plot is old and it’s seen a lot of mileage. But I realized the plot I wanted to use for the world I wanted to write the story within. I often come to story ideas like this; developing either a plot or a place or a character first. From there, I slowly add in the other pieces as they occur to me.
This year’s story started with a place I’ve inhabited for a few short stories already. A version of our own world with some unexplained differences that I suppose pushes my stories toward Science Fiction. I liked this world and I liked the stories I’d already written there. So I stowed the idea of the place away. And when a plot struck me, I knew almost immediately that using this place would be ideal.
Because let’s be honest, most characters and places already exist in some form. There isn’t really anything new out there, but the way we put these characters and ideas together can be new. It has never put me off by using a character or place or plot that seems overdone. So long as I’ve got something new to turn the story on. How we put the pieces together determines how the finished puzzle will look.
Preparing the plot
Preparing for NaNoWriMo, the first step is to align the characters, the place, and the plot. Nothing needs to be set in stone. But the more you know about your characters before you write, the less likely you are to be surprised by how they act. The more you know the place, the easier it will be to write scenery. The more defined your plot is, the easier it will be to maintain your momentum.
For the plot specifically, I try to write a single sentence to guide me through each scene I want to write. If my goal is 50,000 words, this usually means at least 10 scenes, probably more like 15. So that becomes my goal. Something like 15 sentences to tell my entire story, obviously with a minimum amount of detail.
I love this exercise. It helps me zero in on the exact trajectory of the story without spending a lot of time on details. Think of it as if you’re a historian and you’re trying to record the points of an event for a textbook.
Last year, I jotted down 23 scenes. I finished NaNoWriMo at 45,000 and change words. Over the course of the month, I cut back to 11 scenes. Then I did a redraft, nearly doubling the word count. And working in 7 more scenes, 2 of which weren’t on the original list. The point being, those initial plot guides stuck with me even after November ended. I needed the guide to direct me in revising and expanding the story.
How ever you go about it, having a strong design for the plot will be a critical tool for success during NaNoWriMo. Without some sort of guide, it can be easy to get lost in the idea of your story and not make any forward progress. Then November will abruptly be over you won’t have the word count you’re looking for.
The more you know about your characters, the easier it will be to write them. Nothing new here, but it bears repeating. Create a character sketch. Preferably do one of these for every character in your story, but at the very least you must outline your main characters. This includes your protagonist and antagonist. I’ve found in my work that I often neglect the antagonist, then I struggle as I write to pin down their motivation and goals. So don’t let the “bad guy” go unformed or you’ll find yourself unable to generate the level of tension a story needs to propel itself forward.
- Physical Description:
- Other Notes:
Pretty simple, right? But thinking about simple things helps us get to know our characters. I’ll add that I really like to include some specific details under the “Other Notes” section, which some might find justify their own category. If you think you need to add something specific, do it. For example, if you’re writing a fantasy novel, you might have characters that perform magic. That might be a category to define for each character. Or you’ve got a story that takes place in the military you might need a category for rank.
The point is that you should modify your character design sheet to fit your characters and story. I know there are many of these pre-made templates on the web too, and using one of those might simplify matters for you. Do what’s right for you and your story.
One thing I will warn away from: don’t overdo it. I’ve seen character templates with upwards of forty questions. While that might work for some, that level of detail is draining. You want to be excited to write these characters. It shouldn’t feel like work to build out these characters, and laboring through a long list of questions is getting awfully close to work in my opinion.
How many characters you incorporate will vary based on the story, but for NaNoWriMo, I try to limit my characters to avoid letting the story become too wide open. This year, I’ve done 5 character templates so far, and I’m thinking I’ll need 3 more to get all of my important characters laid out. Does this mean I won’t add a new character if I need to? Of course not. But having a pretty solid idea of what my characters will look like and act like is very useful once you start writing.
A file note on outlining the plot and the characters: I always do this writing by hand. I’ll often copy this material into a folder in my Scrivener binder for the story, but I find it easier to get to know a character when I write by hand. Obviously, this won’t be true for everyone, but the point is that we each should find the writing habits that work for us.
Think of NaNoWriMo as an extended sprint. To hit 50,000 words in November, you’ll need to lay down 1,667 words per day. That’s a lot. At this point in this blog post, we’re not even at 1,300 words. Getting to almost 1,700 words a day is no easy task. That’s why I like to think about writing as a sprint. Just go as fast as you can.
Your goal isn’t quality. That comes later. It’s all about speed. Get those words on the page. Therefore the preparation is so key. If you’ve prepped character templates and designed a coherent plotline, you’ve got a roadmap to guide you. All you need to do now is follow it as quickly as you can. For some, this means eating microwave dinners instead of cooking so they can plop down in front of the keyboard for longer. For others, it might mean some long and sleepless nights.
I like to do as much of the 1,700 words per day in one sitting as I can. I force myself down in front of the screen in the evening and just type. No editing, no stress. I don’t worry about how much I “tell” rather than “show,” knowing full well that it’s not worth lingering on descriptions or ideas I can’t fully form. Push forward with the content and clean it up later.
I’ve spoken to other NaNo writers who have other methods. One friend has completed multiple NaNo novels by writing in daily blocks. Sit for 30 minutes or so and then step away. Come back and do it again. Three or four blocks of writing like this can get you to 1,700 daily words and might feel less monotonous. I personally find my concentration is best when I’m writing for a longer period of time, but again, do what works for you and your story.
Daily Word Count
For this specifically, I can’t say enough about the NaNoWriMo daily word count. Once NaNo officially begins, you’ll be able to start updating the Stats for your Novel (found under the NaNo dashboard for your novel). I suggest doing this every day. Don’t be lax about updating your progress. The stats page will display a trajectory to follow, and with that, you’ll easily see if you’re hitting the word count you need to be successful.
Dovetailing with the consideration for how you approach the writing is the frame of mind you’re in during November. Positivity is crucial. Being upbeat and thoughtful about the work you’re setting out to do is a major factor in completing the NaNoWriMo challenge.
How do you get in the right “mood” to write? I have two factors that get me ready and excited to write: early in the morning after a good night’s rest, and in the evening after a fulfilling meal. I spend most of my day writing, but that’s a different kind of writing. Crafting a blog post or developing website copy is a very different process from creating a story. So I’m talking here just about the time of day when I feel creative for fiction.
For me, a story comes most freely when I’m contented. When I’m happy, I’m more able to pour words onto the page. If I’m sleepy or grumpy or distracted, writing is harder to focus on. That might seem obvious. Still, it’s worth taking a moment to acknowledge the times when you work best and try to cater to those moods during November.
Take that knowledge and build your schedule for the month around it. My plan involves planning meals so I know I’ll be eating well on a regular basis, going to bed a little earlier and getting up with an extra 30 minutes or so each day so I can write before work, and allowing for some extra time on weekends to play catch up. Because I know I’ll fall behind—I literally always do fall short of my word count goals—I build in an allowance for November.
The last thing I’ll mention here is Thanksgiving. I know for many of us, this holiday can put a major wrench in our daily writing goals. All I can say is have a plan for it! Last year I cracked open my laptop early on Thanksgiving and got more than a day’s worth of words down because I didn’t have other expectations until later in the day. If you’re traveling for the holiday, you’ll absolutely need a laptop to keep up with your writing goals, but if not don’t forget that programs like Google Docs allow you to write on almost any machine with an Internet connection.
Alright, last point. How are you going to write your NaNo story? The vast majority of us will write with a word processor like MS Word, Scrivener, or Google Docs. I suppose it is possible to write by hand, but tracking word count is tough if you use paper and pen. Let’s assume you’ll use a computer to write.
What software should you write with? I love Scrivener and will advocate for it over any of the other commonly used programs. Google Docs is nice too and has the same limitation as Scrivener (you need the Internet to retrieve your document). Scrivener can backs up onto your computer too, so not having a connection isn’t a full stop, but it is a consideration.
MS Word is the most widely known and used word processor, but the more I use it, the less I like it. For NaNoWriMo specifically, I avoid Word because there’s just too much going on. There are formatting and layout and design all over the place, and it can be distracting. Since our goals are simply powering out words, you want as little distraction as possible. My recommendation is Scrivener, with the tools to help sketch out your story and the distraction-free writing mode to channel your work. Be sure to check out Scrivener’s NaNoWriMo special trial if you haven’t already started using Scrivener.
This year though, I will test out something new. I’ve used Scrivener for two years solid now and I love it. But I also like to see what else is out there. This year I’m giving Write! a try. You find out more about the application here, but the basic idea is to take the best parts of Scrivener’s writing experience, but without the binder controls for the more extensive organization. I’ve only poked around in the Write! app a little but I’ll be back with a full round-up of the software in December after I’ve had a chance to really get to know it better.
Alongside your software is the keyboard you write on. I know quite a few writers who never think about this, but having a good keyboard can make a huge difference. Imagine a professional musician strumming on a taut piece of string instead of a guitar. They might still make some nice sounds, but they won’t be able to really take their music to the next level with a subpar piece of equipment. Writer’s should think about their tools in the same way.
Not everyone thinks about these kinds of things, but there is an entire world of different keyboard designs out there, and I encourage everyone who can to spend some time trying out different writing experiences. I have been an advocate for mechanical keyboards for years, and even prefer certain types of keys—based on the plastic used to make the key—over others. A small difference, but remember that you’ll be pushing the limits of creativity and word count, so finding the writing experience that makes you the happiest will help make the process easier.
Get started today by refining that outline, finishing up those character sketches, or even writing a short story or two (maybe even a little flash fiction for our Halloween contest). Start exercising those writing muscles today. November is right around the corner!
And throughout the month of November, I’ll be updating all of our blog followers with a little word count graph from NaNoWriMo, and my general progress. Look for those updates every Monday in November, at the end of our regular blog posts!
Good luck this November! Let us know how you’re doing and we’ll be here cheering you on! Write that novel!