Tips for the NaNoWriMo Newbie

For the past month I’ve watched the online writing community pretty much explode with advice, tips and all sorts of “helpful tools” for writers planning to participate in this year’s National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo, or “NaNo” for short, and to drive iPod NaNo owners nuts on Twitter). It’s easy to get caught up in all the hype and planning and spreadsheets and new software and outlining and plotting, and whatever else people are touting as the “best way to win NaNo and end up with a novel that doesn’t suck.”

And watching it all, trying to decide whether I want to make time to do it again this year (yes, I’m going to), all I can think is, “Dang, we humans really are good at making simple things complex.”

I can understand if you’ve already completed a novel (or several), the pull of wanting to write faster…better. Which is where all those bells and whistles everyone’s talking about come in. Writers who already have a good idea of how they work best will want to leverage NaNo to their own advantage, using the tricks and tools they’ve learned and developed for themselves over the years. And there’s nothing wrong with that. You’ll be doing that too someday. I’ll be doing a little more set-up this year than normal as well (still not nearly as much as a lot of people), simply because of the type of project I want to produce for publication. But this is my ninth year. 

But for those of you who are just embarking on your first NaNo noveling adventure, or who may have started some stories, but never quite finished, here’s my advice for you: 

– Ignore all the advice on advanced planning, plotting, and tools outside the NaNoWriMo site itself. Writer’s are horrible when it comes to being perfectionists and wanting everything “just so” the first time out. I get it, I do. But NaNo is not the time for perfection. It’s the time for playing in the mud and getting dirty – especially if you’re just starting out.

– Come up with a title, names for two characters, and a simple setting. That’s all you need to start. You don’t need to know your characters – you’ll get to know them as you write. You don’t need details on your setting, you’ll explore it as you write. Don’t bog yourself down right from the start – just dive in, headfirst, and “discover” your story as you write it. There are *no rules* in NaNo land. Embrace that!

– Create your accoun
t at, and browse around the forums a bit. Connect with your local forums and writing community there.

– On November 1st, open a new document and start typing. Put one of your characters in the setting you chose, and then have the other character enter and do something that makes the first character mad, sad, excited or scared. Once you’ve done that, just write one word that goes after the word before. One sentence that goes after the one you just wrote. Rinse, repeat. It doesn’t have to make sense, it doesn’t have be good, or even written well. Just keep writing, no matter what comes out.

 Dare to be bad. Dare to write the worst thing anyone’s ever written in the history of writing. I bet you can’t do it, but you can certainly try – and should, for this particular exercise. Do not restrict yourself or your ideas, for any reason. *That* will kill your momentum faster than anything.

– Write 1,667 words per day, or 2,000 words per weekday (to take weekends off). When you’re on a roll, keep writing. Stockpile as many words in the beginning of the month as possible, because by the end, I guarantee you’ll be burning out. The only 3k and 5k days I’ve ever done have been during the last days of a NaNoWriMo draft.

– Really, really stuck? Go to the Plot Doctoring or Adoption Society forums on the NaNo site, steal an idea, and stick it in your novel. Blow something up. Kill someone off. When you don’t know what happens next, ask yourself what the absolute worst thing that could happen is, and then write that. Even if it’s the cheesiest, stupidest thing you can possibly think of. Just write it. This is your time to play – play with words, play with stories, play with characters, play with plots. Nothing is taboo, nothing is “bad”…the best way to learn how to do anything is to play with it, break it, and put it back together again. So play.

– Every day or every few days, update your total word count on the site (note: the site tends to get bogged down the first week. Wait a few days before entering that first count). The NaNo site will auto-generate charts and daily word count lists for you based on your updated word count. No need for a separate special spreadsheet or software. Don’t get bogged down in the bookkeeping. Focus on the writing.

 Do not neglect your life. Eat. Do laundry. Take showers. Kiss your spouse/significant other and hug your children/pets. Trust me, your mind will work better when you sit down to write if you aren’t worried about dirty socks or neglected loved ones. And more to the point, if you’re going to be a writer past this November, you’ll need to know how to stay sane and keep writing even as “life” pulls you in a
ll different directions. That’s the whole point of this exercise – to really learn that you *can* fit writing into your daily life, even after the month is over.

– At the end of the month, if you’re behind, you’ll have two choices – sprint, or fail. If you can see the 50k light at the end of the tunnel and you have a few days to devote to your story, sprint. Otherwise, fail, and do so with the knowledge that you have more words written at that point that you probably ever have in your life, and that “failure” in this case is far, far better than never having tried at all. Next year, you’ll have more experience. You’ll probably have finished this particular book and moved on to the next, whether you edited/rewrote this one or just scrapped it and started something new. You’ll have methods and strategies to employ, some of which you may have even developed during this year’s NaNo exercise.

You’ll be that much more experienced as a writer. And really, that’s what NaNo is all about.

That’s my advice, for whatever it’s worth. Go forth! Write words! Have fun! Many writers (myself included) have finished their first full novel during NaNoWriMo. Here’s to you – join the club! 

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2 comments on “Tips for the NaNoWriMo Newbie

  1. Stacy

    Great Advice. I went for perfection last year and failed. This year the goal is to read 50K and that is it.I wasn’t going to shower or eat but…

  2. Ardee Eichelmann

    Jamie, great advice even for someone who has participated in many NaNos. We won’t discuss how many I have won or how BAD my first efforts were(terrible to say the least)but it is the experience of concentrated writing to read a certain deadline in a month. I love NaNo.

    I loved reading your blog post. Well done!