What is NaNoWriMo? And How to Win it in 2020
Ah, fall. Cozy sweaters, pumpkin spice lattes, and… writing marathons?
While a burst of creative frenzy might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the season, for many people that’s exactly what it signals. Every November, writers all over the world sign up for NaNoWriMo and begin planning the next step in their writing journey.
What is NaNoWriMo?
National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is an annual event where participants commit to writing a 50,000-word novel between November 1-30. Starting in 1999 as a challenge between friends, NaNoWriMo has since grown into a global writing marathon with hundreds of thousands of participants each year.
The rules are simple. Starting after midnight local time on November 1, writers begin drafting a new novel (or a fresh re-write of an old one). Planning and outlining beforehand are allowed and even encouraged, but continuing a current work-in-progress is not officially sanctioned by NaNoWriMo.
To win — or complete the challenge of writing a 50,000-word novel in 30 days— you’ll need to write an average of 1,667 words per day. Once you’ve hit the 50,000-word mark, you can upload your novel to the NaNoWriMo website to verify your word count. No prizes are awarded, though winners are given banners and certificates to display if they chose, and winner’s t-shirts are available for purchase in the store. And of course, you’ll have a brand-new draft of a novel, and the satisfaction of knowing that you rose to the challenge — in many ways, the biggest prize of all!
Hosted in April and July, Camp NaNoWriMo is an offshoot of National Novel Writing Month. Instead of having one pre-determined goal for everyone, Camp lets participants choose their own goals, which can be based on words, lines, pages, hours, or minutes. Camp NaNoWriMo also allows people to group together in “cabins” for more immediate support and community.
Created as an educational tool, NaNoWriMo's Young Writers Program (YWP) is a version of NaNoWriMo specifically tailored to helping children and teenagers get writing. In addition to allowing under-18 writers to set their own goals, the YWP offers resources to educators who want to bring NaNoWriMo to the classroom — either during November or any other time of year!
Why should you participate in National Novel Writing Month?
Maybe you’ve always wanted to write a novel but have never found the time. Maybe you’ve tried writing novels but have never managed to finish them. Maybe you’ve written novels before but are frustrated by how long it takes you. Maybe it just sounds like a crazy, exciting challenge.
Whatever your reasons, you won’t be alone. People come to NaNoWriMo from all writing backgrounds. But perhaps the biggest driving factors are:
- It teaches you how to get your butt in the chair, turn off your inner editor, and get the work done.
- It shows you that finding time to write a novel is possible, with the right commitment.
- Because you’re writing so fast, you learn about craft quickly, and will almost certainly see improvement from the beginning of your novel to the end.
- It takes something solitary and turns it into a social event.
- It’s a great opportunity to join (and learn from) a community of writers who are all striving to create an uber-efficient writing routine.
And speaking of writing communities, one of the great things about NaNoWriMo is that thousands of other writers have been exactly where you are — and most of them are only too happy to offer their own pearls of wisdom about how to get through the challenge.
We’ve compiled 41 great tips from both authors and editors that we hope will provide an extra gust of wind at your back, as you take off towards NaNoWriMo2019.
Tips for winning NaNoWriMo 2019
What Should You Write About?
1. To win, you must LOVE the book you're writing
“Write the book you love, not the one you think you should write," says Nathan Bransford, author of the Jacob Wonderbar series. "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.”
2. Understand what people like to read
According to editor Tom Flood, you must “make sure you read contemporary publications in your genre and age target. As they say: write to the current market.”
If you’re unsure what your genre and target market are, check this post out.
3. Know your characters intimately
"Why do you want to write a really shit novel of an unsaleable length in a very short time?" asked Harry Bingham, the author of Talking to the Dead when we contacted him for a NaNoWriMo tip. "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."
Creating a Plan
Once you know what kind of book you’re writing, you can figure out what it’s actually about.
4. Write a single-sentence story concept before you start
“Novelists need a solid framework to the story," says author C.S. Lakin. "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.”
5. Start at the end and work backward
“If you are a first-time author, you don’t need to outline every single step in your story," suggests editor Mary-Theresa Hussey. "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.”
6. Consider writing a chapter-by-chapter outline
On the flip-side of Tip #5, editor Shelly Stinchcomb says you can go nuts with your planning (if that's your thing). “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.”
7. Or... only plot your most important scenes
“Plot your book," says author Derek Murphy. "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.
8. Research and 'build the world' of your novel
A lack of worldbuilding, continuity, or cause and effect are the biggest problems I encounter with NaNoWriMo manuscripts," says Michael Rowley, the UK editor of Andy Weir's The Martian. "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."
Get more tips from Michael Rowley on worldbuilding here.
9. Outline your characters and let THEM determine the story
"When you outline a character’s motivations, you'll uncover what situations would cause them the most conflict," says ghostwriter Hannah Sandoval. "You’ll also learn how they react to situations and interact with each other. This can help you turn a general plot idea into a complex web of biting conflicts, high stakes, and exciting, realistic dialogue. If ever you get stuck along your plot trajectory, you can use character maps to fuel a new idea."
Finding the Time to Write
10. Use NaNoWriMo to discover a sustainable writing routine
“Treat your writing time as a job," says editor Lourdes Venard. "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!”
11. Set ground rules: when must you write, and when must you not write
“Have a plan — even a half-ass plan," suggests editor Maria D'Marco. "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.”
12. Try writing in several shorter ‘sprints’ per day
"All you need is two 15-minute bursts of writing each day," says editor Lindsay Schlegel. "Sit down, do it, and move on. Don't worry if you don't write enough words in 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."
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!
Finishing Your First Draft
13. Don't expect perfection. Enjoy and explore.
“First, give yourself permission to be imperfect," says Kate Angelella, an editor formerly of Simon & Schuster. "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.”
14. Don’t be afraid of mistakes — they often result in inspiration!
Editor Jim Thomas echoes Kate's thoughts and urges writers to not sweat the small stuff: “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.”
15. See where your characters take you
“Keep it fun!" says author Anne R. Allen. "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!”
16. ‘Perfect is the enemy of good’
According to editor Kaitlin Severini, perfection 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.”
17. You can't fix something that doesn't exist
“Ignore the nasty voice in your head," urges editor Constance Renfrow. "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.”
18. Nobody needs to see what you've written
"I did NaNoWriMo in 2009, and it changed my writing life," says author and beloved blogger Joanna Penn. "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."
19. Think of your draft as a way to gather ideas for subsequent drafts
"First drafts are all about putting sand in the sandbox; you come back to build a castle later," says editor Rebecca Heyman. "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."
20. Don't ditch quality just so you can hit 50,000 words
While NaNoWriMo's ultimate goal is quantity, you shouldn't be completely cavalier with your writing, according to editor Sasha Tropp: “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.”
21. Find new ways to inspire yourself
Author Derek Murphy suggests making use of Pinterest to create a mood board for your book: “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."
You can learn more about how authors can use Pinterest effectively here.
22. 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," says Derek Murphy. "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.”
Don't Edit as You Go
23. Get all the words on the page first and edit later
“Don’t try and edit as you go," says author and book coach Ben Galley. "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.”
24. You're not writing a novel, you're drafting one
“NaNoWriMo should be called NaNoDraMo or National Novel Drafting Month," says editor Scott Pack. "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 has written a fantastic course on the subject of Traditional Publishing for Reedsy Learning. Sign up to receive his lessons via email.
Tips for Writing Fiction
25. Use dialogue to relate exposition
“Avoid too much introspection and the dreaded info-dump," editor Laurie Johnson recommends. "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 pace and show how the character feels about it now.”
26. Help your reader "see" the world you've created
Editor Geoff Smith encourages writers to take great care with 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."
27. Don't write pages of lush prose when plain English will do
Geoff had so much good advice to offer. Here's another solid gold nugget of wisdom:
“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.”
28. Avoid clunky info-dumps in dialogue
While it's important to get your story across in a short space of time, author Bridget McNulty warns writers to not rely too heavily on dialogue:
"Exposition is important. Dialogue is a useful vehicle for letting readers know key plot details. However, dialogue is also best when it contains concise narration as opposed to too much exposition. Reveal plot points through arguments and surprises: it feels hollow and obvious when characters share information they both know already, clearly for the reader’s benefit."
29. If you're stuck, follow the next logical step in your story
“Only write what must happen next," author Eliot Peper urges. "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!)”
Conquering Writer's Block
The two things all NaNoWriMo contestants are afraid of: a blank page and the taunting stare the blinking cursor.
30. If you're blocked — stop and move on to writing something else
“NaNoWriMo is all about getting words on a page, so keep going no matter what," says Dylan Hearn, author of Second Chance. "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.”
31. Be kind to yourself when you can't write
Editor Maria D'Marco reminds writers not to beat themselves up too much: “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.”
32. Dialogue can get you out of many problems
Author and self-publishing guru Mark Dawson has a simple tip to offer: “If you get stuck, start with dialogue and see where it takes you.”
What to do in December
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.
33. Put your draft away for a month
“After NaNoWriMo, writers should put their manuscripts aside for a month or more," editor Lourdes Venard suggests In the meantime, you can read books about the craft of writing, perhaps. Then go back to that initial draft and revise, revise, revise!” And when you're not writing? You can read, read, read. For a taste of the seasonal, here are 40 Christmas books that you can read in December.
34. Workshop your draft or find beta readers
Editor Kate Angelella also suggests finding help from readers at some point in your rewriting journey: “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.” And if you're writing outside of your own culture, consider whether or not you need a sensitivity reader before going to press.
35. Don't get an editor to work on a first draft
“When you finish the draft, by all means, enjoy the moment and uncork the champagne," says editor Andrew Lowe, who also suggests taking a break from your project. "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.”
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.
36. Re-read your first and last chapters side-by-side
To help with maintaining consistency with your manuscript, editor Jill Saginario offers one simple technique: “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.”
37. Read your manuscript out loud
“I always suggest that writers read their writing out loud to themselves," says editor Sasha Tropp. "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.”
38. 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," says editor Mary-Theresa Hussey. "Learn to recognize the themes and style that belong to them and expand on those elements.”
39. Recognize repetition in your writing
One thing you should aim for in your writing (especially in the revision process) is efficiency of language, according to editor Laura Mae Isaacman. "Analyze the message of each sentence. What is it conveying? If two sentences in a row are using different words to convey the same information, this is repetitive, and one might need to be cut. Hint: keep the simpler one. When your language gets too flowery or stressed, it becomes inauthentic, and you’re probably veering off the road of your narrative tone."
40. Cut out all the words you don't need
“Cull excess verbiage from your style," says editor Tom Flood, echoing Laura Mae's sentiments. "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.”
41. Don't let the cat out of the bag too soon!
And our final tip comes from editor Katrina Diaz who will leave you with one final warning.
“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.”
For more tips on revising a novel, check out our awesome infographic!
Bottom line, NaNoWriMo is a lot of fun, and can be incredibly useful to achieving your writing dreams. And while it is certainly challenging, that’s a big part of what makes it so rewarding!
Are you a NaNoWriMo veteran? If you have any advice for writers about to take part in the competition, please share it in the comments below.