NaNoWriMo: Tips and Tricks for Staying Alive and Typing

Completely unbelievably, this is my eighth year participating in the slightly horrifying, always interesting, yearly tradition known as National Novel Writing Month. For my first three years, I took the challenge very seriously and hit 50,000 words every November; after that, I felt I’d learned what NaNo was meant to teach me and became what is known as a “rebel” by setting my own goals. If you think you might be interested in writing a novel this month, here are some tips and tricks I’ve learned over the years.

  1. Make a pact with yourself to not care about the quality of your novel.

This is the most important rule. NaNoWriMo invariably produces messy first drafts, not pristine manuscripts ready to be sent off to agents, and that’s why I always recommend this challenge to friends who are having trouble getting past their inner editors. If you’ve never finished a novel before, finishing NaNoWriMo will prove to you that you can do it, which is invaluable knowledge for anyone with bookish ambitions. It will also prove to you that writing is a process, and Stage One of that process is going to be (as mentioned) slightly horrifying.

To be perfectly honest, this fact is the reason why I’m now a NaNo rebel rather than a typical WriMo-er. After proving to myself that I can indeed finish a novel, I’ve discovered that there are other things I want to learn, things about plot structure and character development that I think I can only really understand by feeling my way through it. But I don’t necessarily want to rush myself through this, and while I expect my drafts to be, you know, pretty eesh, I’m not comfortable with the “I wrote this in a month” level of eesh anymore.

Don’t be me. If this is your first NaNo, bask in the idea that this isn’t going to be your best work, but it is going to be something that you can make truly beautiful in the drafts to come. That’s worth a lot. Turn your inner editor off and put off the tweaking for later.

2. Go to write-ins. Get competitive.

The best way to be sure of getting to 50,000 words is to know people who are going to do it, regardless of how you do. If you’re sitting in a coffee shop across from someone who has written 10,000 more words than you have, the natural human tendency is to go all “Eye of the Tiger”, down several highly caffeinated chais, and type until your fingers break. This is good. Actively encourage it.

Over the years, I’ve met people who have gotten to 50,000 within a week, people who write more than one novel over the course of the month, and people whose goal it is to make their book as long as they possibly can. I’ve had to learn to let these people motivate me instead of terrifying me. You’re always going to meet crazy overachievers in any arena, and the best thing to do is to gape in awe at their supernatural abilities—and then see if maybe you have any of your own.

If you live anywhere with a decent community of writers, write-ins will be super easy to find. The NaNo website makes this even simpler, as it allows you to select your region and then sends you e-mails about write-ins hosted by your area’s municipal liaisons (MLs). I’ve had great experiences going to these events. I’ve discovered coffee shops I’d never heard of before, met some truly fantastic people, and got much more writing done than I would have if I’d stayed home. I particularly recommend the NaNo Boston community—they have a little bell you can ring when you reach your daily wordcount, and the applause you get is very exciting.

  1. Make a Thanksgiving game plan.

Everyone who’s ever done NaNo tells you to be wary of Thanksgiving, and it’s true that you should. Thanksgiving is a time when you’re generally expected to talk to Cousin Susie about her new hedgehog farming business, not hole yourself up in your room to meet your daily wordcount (however tempting this latter option might be in the face of relatives who just need to know where you see yourself in five years). But Thanksgiving is also a time when you have a day or two off from work or school, and you might find yourself slacking off in the days before, telling yourself you can catch up on a few thousand words once you’ve got a substantial amount of pumpkin pie in your stomach.

Don’t do this. Once you start slacking, you don’t stop, because it’s hard to force yourself to write 1,667 words every day. And that means you just might spend the night after the feast trapped in your computer chair, muttering to yourself amid the utter despair of having to write 10,000 words in one night. Stay on track. Treat Thanksgiving like any other writing day.

  1. Make it fun. Keep it fun.

At its best, NaNo is painful, but it’s a fun kind of painful. It’s knowing you’re challenging yourself beyond previous challenges, being part of a caring, vibrant community, and knowing that the reward is going to be worth it.

This means that, no matter how things might be going, you can’t let yourself take NaNo too seriously. If the fun starts to evaporate, and you find yourself agonizing over your wordcount, or your inner editor sneaks into your writing despite your best efforts, then you need to take a step back and evaluate what you need to do to make things better again. One trick I’ve discovered is to make something happen in your novel that you really, honestly don’t want to happen. Putting something in your draft that you’re going to have to take out later stops you from feeling like your writing needs to be perfect and opens the gate for all kinds of crazy and creative ideas to come flooding in.

Another thing you can do is read weekly pep talks by successful authors. Since NaNo has been going on since 1999, there’s an archive of amazing inspirational letters from authors of all stripes, from Neil Gaiman to Rainbow Rowell to Lemony Snicket to Robin McKinley. Every single one of them made—and continues to make—slightly horrifying first drafts. And then they edit them until they’re beautiful and meaningful and someone out there’s favorite book of all time. And that’s what you’re going to do, too.

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