38 Tips for Kicking NaNoWriMo in the Butt This Year

Is it already almost November? With less than a week to go before the start of National Novel Writing Month (aka NaNoWriMo) we’re starting to feel that mix of excitement and anxiety that accompanies such an undertaking!

In the run-up to our most creative month of the year, the Reedsy team reached out to dozens of top editors and bestselling authors — some of whom have written extensively about NaNoWriMo before. We asked them for their single greatest piece of advice for writers about to embark on a 30-day writing binge. Not only were their answers practical and helpful, but some of them were also downright inspiring.

To help you get into gear for NaNoWriMo 2016, here are the 30 best tips for kicking the month of November square in the seat of the pants.


#October Tips: What should you write?

1. If your primary goal is to win NaNoWriMo, you must LOVE the book you’re writing

nathan bransford nanowrimo advice
“Write the book you love, not the one you think you should write. If you’re creating something you aren’t head-over-heels in love with, you’ll peter out before page 50. Make something you’ll be proud of for a lifetime.”

Nathan Bransford, Author

2. Understand the sorts of books people like to read 

“Make sure you read contemporary publications in your genre and age target. As they say: write to the current market.”

Tom Flood, Editor

If you’re unsure what your genre and target market are, check this out.

3. Know your characters as though they were your real friends

Harry Bingham NaNoWriMo Advice“Why do you want to write a really shit novel of an unsaleable length in a very short time? But if you must… make sure you know your characters. Know them intimately. Know them better than you know your husband, your wife, your child, or your best friend. Know them intimately, give them a challenge — then write like the wind.”

Harry Bingham, Author (Talking to the Dead)


Creating a Plan

Once you know what kind of book you’re writing, you can figure out what it’s actually about.

4. Distil the concept of your novel into a single sentence

CS Lakin NaNoWriMo Advice“Novelists need a solid framework to the story. Make sure your premise is compelling enough to deserve a full-length story. Otherwise, it’s a waste of time. Get that one-sentence story concept nailed first, which clearly defines the protagonist and his goal.”

C.S. Lakin, Author

5. You can reverse-engineer your story by starting with the ending

“If you are a first-time author, you don’t need to outline every single step in your story. Only outline where you want to go with your story, then start writing and keep moving forward until you get to the end. Once you have your first draft, go back and rework the novel, using what you’ve learned about the ending to layer in all the elements that will get you there in the best possible way.”

Mary-Theresa Hussey, Editor

6. If you’re a big fan of planning, you can outline the whole book, chapter by chapter

“Once you have your idea and characters in mind, take the time to plot your story from beginning to end — before you start writing. This allows you to know the purpose of each scene and streamlines the writing process.”

Shelly Stinchcomb, Editor

7. Or, instead, only plot your most important scenes and use them to navigate your story

Derek Murphy NaNoWriMo Advice“Plot your book. It’s much easier to keep writing if you know where you’re going, or at least where you want to end up. If you at least sketch the main dramatic scenes and major points of conflict, you’ll have a roadmap to work from. If you spend all your time writing scenes that aren’t working towards your larger goal, you’ll end up with dozens of pages you’ll need to cut and a story that may not work. Whereas, if you start with an outline, as long as you hit those major scenes then the story will have purpose and direction. And you’ll be able to spend your time writing, not trying to figure out what happens next.”

Derek Murphy, Author

8. If you’ve got extra time, do some research and start ‘building the world’ of your novel.

A lack of worldbuilding, continuity, or cause and effect are the biggest problems I encounter with NaNoWriMo manuscripts. A little planning on backstory, geography, infrastructure, culture, specialist knowledge (e.g. police procedures for a crime novel), or working out the technology for a sci-fi novel, can go a long way. Having the basic story arc and plot worked out on paper can help with continuity issues further down the line.

Michael Rowley, Editor

More tips from Michael Rowley — the UK Editor of Andy Weir’s The Martian — on worldbuilding here.


Finding the Time to Write

9. NaNoWriMo is a way for you to discover a sustainable writing routine

“Treat your writing time as a job. Set aside a certain amount of time each day, whether half an hour or two hours, to write — and then show up. Make sure friends and family know this is your writing time: you are not to be disturbed. And no calling in sick!”

Lourdes Venard, Editor

10. Set some rules: when must you write, and when must you not write

“Have a plan. Even a half-ass plan. Make your choices about that plan before November arrives. These decisions might include no writing on holidays, no writing on weekends, no writing when exhausted, etc. Accept these choices entirely and inform those around you. Argue your point now, not in the middle of November.”

Maria D’Marco, Editor

11. If you can’t block off a few hours each day, write in several shorter ‘sprints’Lindsay Schlegel Reedsy Editor

“All you need is two 15-minute bursts of writing each day. Sit down, do it, and move on. Don’t worry if you don’t write enough words the first few days. The creative juices will start flowing, and you’ll make up for it by the end. For me, NaNo is about building discipline and learning your best practices as a writer.”

Lindsay Schlegel, Editor

If you’re one of those writers who love Facebook and procrastination a bit too much, we highly recommend this (free!) online course on building a rock-solid writing routine!


#November Tips: Writing (and finishing) your first draft

12. Don’t expect your writing to be perfect. Enjoy and explore.

“First, give yourself permission to be imperfect. You may want to iron out every plot detail, every character trait, and motivation before you even begin, but often these are details you figure out as you write the first draft. Be playful. Explore.”

Kate Angelella, Editor

13. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes — they often result in inspiration!

“My advice would be the same for anyone trying to get through a significant chunk of early work: in the creation phase, there are no mistakes. This is not a time for the critical voice. It’s time to be open and forgiving to yourself and the material. Pare down and parse later. For now, welcome all of it.”

Jim Thomas, Editor

14. If you meet interesting characters along the way, see where they take you

Alice in Wonderland NaNoWriMo Advice“Keep it fun! Remember the real point of NaNo is not to write a perfect book or stick to some outline; it’s to break through mental barriers and release your creativity. So follow whatever crazy character shows up and leads you down the rabbit hole and let yourself be surprised!”

Anne R. Allen, Author

Be careful how far you follow these tangents, though. If Alice were a NaNoWriMo contestant, her constant adventures in Wonderland would impact her daily word count.

 


Put on your blinkers and keep writing

15. ‘Perfect is the enemy of good.’ It isn’t exactly best friends with NaNoWriMo authors either.

“When your goal is 1,667 words a day, you can’t obsess over the quality of your writing; just write, and revise later.”

Kaitlin Severini, Editor

16. You can’t fix something that doesn’t exist. 

“Ignore the nasty voice in your head — the one that says your story isn’t any good or that everything you’re doing is wrong — and just keep writing. It’s easier to fix something that’s already written than it is to be completely perfect on the first try.”

Constance Renfrow, Editor

17. Nobody needs to see what you’ve written — so let it rip!

NaNoWriMo Advice J.F. PennI did NaNoWriMo in 2009, and it changed my writing life. My biggest tip would be to use the time to play. Don’t take it too seriously. No one ever needs to see what you write. So let go of any self-censorship and let it rip on the page. Don’t hold back.”

— Joanna Penn, Author

18. Use your NaNoWriMo draft to gather ideas for your subsequent drafts

sand castle nanowrimo metaphor“First drafts are all about putting sand in the sandbox; you come back to build a castle later. The goal of NaNoWriMo should be to collect as much sand in the box as you can. Give yourself the resources you need to approach subsequent drafts with plenty of options. Not every grain of sand will end up being part of your masterpiece, and that’s okay. Just get the sand in the box, and go from there.”

Rebecca Heyman, Editor

19. In your mission to hit 50,000 words, make sure you don’t completely sacrifice quality

“Don’t say your NaNoWriMo manuscript is a story when it’s actually a disjointed stream-of-consciousness mental regurgitation. The point of writing 50k words in a month is not the number; it’s about the process, the discipline, and connecting with your ability to converse in prose.”

Sasha Tropp, Editor


Find new ways to inspire yourself

20. Refocus and find a burst of inspiration by creating a ‘mood board’

“Make a Pinterest board (and possibly a cover). Grab pictures of actors or models that fit your characters. Add pics of your scenes, houses, towns, objects or places of interest. Find art that matches the mood of your story and makes you feel the way you want your readers and characters to feel. If you don’t like Pinterest, post all the pics in a blog post, or cut them out and make a bulletin board. Look at your “world” before you start writing.”

Derek Murphy, Author

You can learn more about how authors can use Pinterest effectively here.


Don’t Edit as You Go

21. Get all the words on the page before you worry about cleanliness

Ben Galley NaNoWriMo Advice
“Don’t try and edit as you go. Instead, let the ideas and words flow unhindered by not worrying about the previous chapter or paragraph. That way you can focus on using your daily time wisely, and get all the words onto the page before worrying about the cleanliness of your manuscript! You’ll hit that 50k target a lot faster that way.”

Ben Galley, Author

22. You’re not writing a novel. You’re drafting one.

“NaNoWriMo should be called NaNoDraMo, National Novel Drafting Month, because that is what you are actually doing: writing the first draft of your novel. Avoid the temptation to edit or perfect your work as you go along — just get the bloody thing written!”

Scott Pack, Editor

Scott has written a fantastic (free!) course on the subject of Traditional Publishing for Reedsy Learning. If you can spare a few minutes each morning — and who can’t? — sign up to receive his lessons via email.


Maintain your productivity

23. Make a game out of hitting your daily word count

“Join some Facebook groups or start your own where everyone posts their daily word count. Seeing everyone share their progress works as a fun and sociable competition. Not only will it keep you writing, but it will also give you an immediate endorphin rush when you post your word count wins.”

Derek Murphy, Author

Even if you’re not sharing your results with a community, you can always reward yourself with a little treat (chocolate, or 20 minutes with a video game) whenever you hit a milestone or a goal.


Tips for writing fiction

24. Don’t bombard your reader with too much information; use dialogue to convey your backstory

Laurie Johnson Reedsy Editor“Avoid too much introspection and the dreaded info-dump. Try to weave the backstory into the present story, thread it through using dialogue or mini flashbacks. Don’t take pages and pages to show a memory; it doesn’t have to be verbatim, a flashback can be much more powerful if you feel the character’s emotions about it in the present as well as the past. Dialogue is an excellent way to show your character’s history while keeping things very much in the present. It’s a much sharper way of delivering info, as it allows you to keep up the pave and show how the character feels about it now.”

Laurie Johnson, Editor

25. Help your reader “see” the world you’ve created

“Give great care to your imagery. It’s hard for readers to form visuals in their mind’s eye, and the author has to guide them every step of the way. See Elaine Scarry’s Dreaming by the Book for the best guide to writing imagery that I know of.”

Geoff Smith, Editor

Geoff had so much good advice to offer. Here’s another solid gold nugget of wisdom:

26. Don’t write pages of lush prose when plain English will do

“Serving the reader most often means telling your story in the clearest possible way. Plain English is beautiful, and ideas deserve to stand or fall on their own merits. Make your point and move on.”

Geoff Smith, Editor

27. Sometimes the best thing to do is follow the next logical step in your story

Eliot Peper NaNoWriMo Advice“Only write what must happen next. There are so many things that could happen next that writing fiction can sometimes feel like an exercise in the paradox of choice. But at every point in every story, there is something that absolutely must happen for that tale to function. The detective discovers a fateful clue. A disaster separates tragic lovers. The protagonist realizes that she’s been lying to herself her whole life. Writing what must happen generates momentum, and momentum is the fuel that drives any compelling narrative (and any NaNoWriMo writer!)”

Eliot Peper, Author


On beating writer’s block

The two things almost all NaNoWriMo contestants are afraid of: a blank page and the taunting stare the blinking cursor.

28. If you feel blocked — stop and move on to writing something else

Dylan Hearn NaNoWriMo Advice“NaNoWriMo is all about getting words on a page, so keep going no matter what. Never look back, don’t edit anything and if you get stuck writing a scene, stop, make a quick note of what you want to happen and then move on to write something else. You can always go back and finish it off later.”

Dylan Hearn, Author

29. Be kind to yourself when you can’t write

“Accept that there will be delays, interruptions, and times where you are brain-dead. Navigate these obstacles as they arise and move past them — they are not the ‘enemy,’ they are just life.”  

Maria D’Marco, Editor

30. Not only is dialogue is a flexible storytelling tool, but it’s also a fine way to break through your writer’s block.

Mark Dawson NaNoWriMo Advice“If you get stuck, start with dialogue and see where it takes you.”

Mark Dawson, Author

 


#December Tips: Congrats! What’s next?

You’ve reached the end of November with a 50,000-word manuscript. Well done! Now, before you get carried away and start printing off hardback copies, it’s important to realize that you only have the first draft and that a lot of fun (and hard work) has still to come.

31. Put your draft away for a month before you work on the second draft

“After NaNoWriMo, writers should put their manuscripts aside for a month or more. In the meantime, you can read books about the craft of writing, perhaps. Then go back to that initial draft and revise, revise, revise!”

Lourdes Venard, Editor

32. Consider workshopping your draft or finding beta readers

Kate Angelella Reedsy Editor“Sometimes writers will want to turn a manuscript over to me the moment they’ve finished NaNoWriMo. To get the most out of your editorial experience, do your second and third pass, and consider beta readers or workshopping before turning the manuscript over to the editor.”

Kate Angelella, Editor

33. Don’t get an editor to work on your first draft

“When you finish the draft, by all means, enjoy the moment and uncork the champagne. Then put your manuscript aside for a few weeks. After that, come back to it and get to work on the rewrite. Working with an editor should come after this point. It will be a frustrating — and probably costly — experience if you get an editor to work on a first draft.”

Andrew Lowe, Editor

For more of Andrew Lowe’s insights on refining your first draft, check out his Reedsy Live session on that very topic. 


Tips for Rewriting

Before you start looking for an editor (using the greatest publishing network known to man), you should make sure you’ve re-written your manuscript as best you can.

34. Re-read your first and last chapters side-by-side

“So much of NaNoWriMo is about hitting small daily (or weekly) targets that it can be difficult to see the forest for the trees. Sometimes writers start with one story in their head, and it ends up changing into something so slowly over the course of writing it that they don’t notice the stark tonal shift between from start to finish. Reading chapter one and your final chapter side-by-side can help control for that, too.”

Jill Saginario, Editor

35. Read your manuscript out loud

“I always suggest that writers read their writing out loud to themselves to make sure that it sounds good, flows well, and will be easily understood by readers. I do this as I edit, and find it incredibly helpful if I’m unsure about the structure of a sentence or the pacing of a paragraph. A lot of writing gets bogged down by unnecessary details or excessive wordiness, and this is a great little trick to help avoid that.”

Sasha Tropp, Editor

36. Learn to recognize what’s unique in your voice

“As an editor, authors sometimes move so fast that they don’t heed their own storyteller’s voice and recognize what makes their story unique. Learn to recognize the themes and style that belong to them and expand on those elements.”

Mary-Theresa Hussey, Editor

37. Go through your manuscript and cut out all the words you don’t need

“Cull excess verbiage from your style. Remove time signifiers (now, then, etc.), overuse of ‘that,’ unnecessary adverbs (consequently, et al.), and too many adjectives. This can help speed the pace of a story and control word count sprawl. Old adages, but constant issues.”

Tom Flood, Editor

38. Don’t let the cat out of the bag too soon!

“One of the products of quick writing, in general, is something called front-running or heavy foreshadowing. It’s common in nearly all manuscripts I edit. Often the writer doesn’t even realize that they’ve given away too much too early. Readers are often more astute than you initially might presume, and they want to figure out the plot for themselves. So let the twists and turns of your plot be revealed in the action, rather than allude to the impending doom beforehand — it’s that old thing of “show, don’t tell.” Being hyper aware of your foreshadowing will truly help you with tension and pacing.”

Katrina Diaz, Editor

For more tips on revising a novel, check out our awesome infographic!


We can’t wait for it all to kick off. As an extra reward for this year’s competition, Reedsy and our friends at Kobo are offering a free professional editing sample for all winners. To find out more about that, check your inbox at the start of December.  Best of luck, and happy writing!

Are you a NaNoWriMo veteran? If you have any advice for new (and not so new) writers about to take part in the competition, please share it in the comments below.

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Are you ready to unleash the novel inside you? Learn the basics of writing great fiction: create compelling characters, build intricate worlds, and fine-tune your pacing and prose.

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  • Douglas Kelly

    I’m working on a non-fiction book about marketing for small to medium sized businesses. I would like to enter it for the exposure and feedback I might get.

    Is this about writing fiction only? Would someone be so kind to tell me which this is?

    • Julie

      It is for fiction and although you copy and paste your finished words into the website to verify the final word count, it doesn’t go anywhere. Therefore it does not give you exposure or feedback. I write non fiction and would not do NaNo for it. Did it twice for fiction but won’t do it again because the quality was so poor it took me even longer to edit it – needed a complete rewrite of the first draft, even with outlining. That’s my personal experience and style though – others will love it as a technique for forcing themselves to achieve the word count or spark creativity.

      • Douglas Kelly

        thank you very much for your honest candor. I appreciate it.

        • Jodi Compton

          Sorry — just saw Julie answered your question quite thoroughly …

    • Yes, the main point of NaNoWriMo is to 1. set a firm deadline and 2. create a huge “accountability group” of hundreds of thousands of writers to help fiction authors write.
      It makes a lot of sense for fiction because the main challenge for fiction authors is creativity. For non-fiction, deadlines and a proper routine obviously help, but you also need a clear plan/structure and can’t afford to rush it.

    • Jodi Compton

      Good luck with your book! However, National Novel Writing Month is for fiction only, the reason being that a lot of people are taught that only a rare few people have a novel in them, and that writing one is difficult and takes years. National Novel Writing Month debunks those ideas by getting people to sit down and write a story, or the first 50K of one, in a month.

      Also, while some people find feedback partners/critiquers through National Novel Month, this isn’t the primary focus. You write your novel at home, not on their server, and no one at NaNoWriMo HQ actually reads it.

      Hope this helps.

      • Douglas Kelly

        It helps a lot. Thank you.

        Perhaps it’s possible to write a novel in a month. But this seems more like an exercise to get the attention of potential writers rather than a serious pursuit.

        I appreciate your explanation.

  • I personally feel that Harry Bingham’s discouraging comment about writing a “shit novel” shouldn’t have been included. The simple fact is that some people, usually the happiest ones imo, are sometimes motivated by factors other than money and fame.

    This is my first year participating, surely I’m not the only one that is getting sick of questions like that.

    Also, The Great Gatsby is 50,061 words. “Unsaleable length.”

    At least 4 of the 5 short stories from the ‘Wool’ series by Hugh Howey were products of NaNoWriMo. I guess they aren’t all “shit novels” as Harry would say.

    Don’t let people talk you out of doing something that would make you happy.

    • I think Harry’s beginning of the quote was rather humorously intended than discouraging. But I get his point: there are many, many aspiring authors who know little about publishing and suddenly start on NaNoWriMo without a plan and seriously hoping their first ever work of fiction written in just a month and 50k-word long will be a major break.
      It’s important to manage expectations a bit, and indicate that 50,000 words, in the current (traditional) publishing market, is very hard to sell (to agents, publishers).

      The rest of the tips are all about inspiration and advice, and the rest of our blog showcases how indie publishing has completely changed the game and the innumerable success stories that have come from it. So we believed one tip that’s a bit more cautious and “traditional” wouldn’t hurt too much 🙂

    • Jodi Compton

      Yeah, I was a little taken aback by that too. This sadly isn’t a unpopular opinion among professional writers, editors and agents. The worst thing about his comment is that it’s uninformed. Professional writers often work at pace of about 2000 words day — more than 300 more than NaNoWriMo’s pace, giving them 50,000 words within 25 days, and a novel of 75,000 by 40 days.

      Which is what many November writers do — they don’t stop on Nov. 30; they keep going and finish by year’s end. Giving them the “saleable length” they need, if they’re trying to sell their work. Which makes Bingham’s comment off-base on both points.

  • Andrew

    Brilliant advice. I’m not planning to enter NaNoWriMo this year but this is all great advice for any aspiring author to keep up and improve productvity.

    Thanks for posting this.

    • Glad you enjoyed it, Andrew!

  • Gearing up for the Secret Society of Words’ 3rd NaNoWriMo collaborative novel – a title, 2 main characters, an outline, each writer with their own style and point of view for additional character/characters/situation. Chapters linked by creative writer/editors. It’s great fun. Helps develop different approaches to writing. SSOW NaNoWriMo publications – 2014 a fairytale retold; 2015 alien zoo fantasy; and 2016 a murder mystery is about to take shape…

    • That sounds awesome! The outline must be pretty detailed though I imagine… How much creative liberty does that leave you with during NaNoWriMo?

      • It is awesome and fun, and heaps of opportunity to be as creative as possible. We use NaNoWriMo as an incentive, though to date the word count has been less than the 50,000 words. For the members of the writing/critiquing Group who wish to participate it is the excitement and challenge of writing perhaps in a different style or genre, or choosing to write in a style different to their usual way of writing, and then seeing a story emerge.
        Within the basic outline* such as for Alien Zoo (which was a novella published last year) we were free to write and be as creative as possible. 2 writers, editors for the book from the group, write linking interludes to bring the chapters to a cohesive story. In a reading of the drafts at a group meeting we can see where our chapter fits in, what needs to be expanded upon or perhaps writing an additional paragraph to Segway into someone else’s chapter.

        *Outline: Zoo on an alien Planet; Electromagnetic enclosures; Human shape shifters kidnapped for zoo; Two zookeepers: one nice, one nasty to weave into story; Escape plans – decision to stay, fight, go etc

        If you are interested in reading Alien Zoo it is available on Smashwords for $1.99.