What is NaNoWriMo? And How to Win in 2020
Ah, fall. Cozy sweaters, pumpkin spice lattes, and… writing marathons? While it may not be the first thing that comes to mind, for many people that’s exactly what this season signals. Every November, writers all over the world sign up for NaNoWriMo and take the next step in their writing journey: writing a novel in just 30 days!
What is NaNoWriMo?
National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is an annual event in which participants commit to writing a 50,000-word novel between November 1st and 30th. It began in 1999 as a challenge between friends, but 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 rewrite of an old one), and must attempt to finish before the end of the month. Planning and outlining beforehand are allowed and even encouraged, but continuing a current work-in-progress is not officially sanctioned by NaNoWriMo — though plenty of writers bend the rules to suit their needs.
To win this November writing challenge, 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. Winners are given banners and certificates to display if they choose, and winner’s T-shirts are available for purchase in the store.
But most importantly, you’ll have a brand-new draft of a novel, and the satisfaction of knowing that you rose to the challenge — which, for most writers, is the greatest reward of all.
Get started now! Register for NaNoWriMo here
Why participate in NaNoWriMo?
Maybe you’ve always wanted to write a novel, but could never find the time. Or you’ve tried writing novels but just can't manage to finish them. Perhaps you’ve even completed one before, but were frustrated by how long it took you. Or maybe NaNoWriMo just sounds like a crazy, exciting writing challenge!
Whatever your reasons, you're not alone. People come to NaNoWriMo from all sorts of writing backgrounds. But perhaps the three biggest driving factors are:
- It forces you to simply sit down, turn off your inner editor, and work.
- The practice of writing so much so fast can really improve your craft (even if it doesn't always feel that way).
- NaNoWriMo turns a solitary struggle into a collective event; not only will you enjoy the camaraderie of fellow participants, but you'll also learn from this knowledgeable writing community!
Indeed, one of the best things about NaNoWriMo is that thousands of other writers have already done it — and are very happy to offer their own pearls of wisdom on how to succeed. On that note, we've compiled all the best NaNoWriMo tips from both authors and editors on how to conquer this November writing challenge!
We hope these tips will provide an extra push as you take off towards NaNoWriMo 2020. For your convenience, we've divided them into roughly chronological stages: starting with how to choose your subject and create an outline, ending with more advanced writing tips and what to do with your finished novel. Let's jump right in!
Tips for winning NaNoWriMo 2020
🤔 Choosing what to write about
Laying the foundation: your plot, your characters, and who you're writing for.
1. Find a story you absolutely love
“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
That said, if you're hoping to eventually publish your novel, you'll still want to incorporate elements that appeal to your target market. This is why, according to editor Tom Flood, reading is a key part of NaNoWriMo prep: “Make sure you read contemporary publications in your genre and age target. Then, as they say, write to the current market.”
3. Come up with strong characters
Harry Bingham, author of the crime thriller Talking to the Dead, wasn't especially keen on NaNoWriMo when we reached out to him. “But if you must do it... know your characters,” he says. “Know them intimately. Know them better than you know your husband, your wife, your child, or your best friend.”
Getting to know your characters will naturally make them much stronger — and the more familiar you are with their personalities and motivations, the more quickly and easily you'll be able to write about them.
📝 Creating an outline
Once you know what kind of book you’re writing, you can outline it! Here are a few ways to approach this stage.
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. Consider writing a chapter-by-chapter outline
Having nailed down your concept, editor Shelly Stinchcomb recommends expanding it into a chapter-by-chapter outline. “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.”
6. Or plot only your most important scenes
Then again, maybe a “skeleton outline” will work better for you. “Sketch the main dramatic scenes and major points of conflict, so you'll have a basic roadmap to work from,” says author Derek Murphy. “Hit those major scenes so the story will have purpose and direction. Then you'll be able to spend your time writing, not trying to figure out what happens next.”
7. Research and “build the world” of your novel
Speculative fiction writers, this one's for you! “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, culture, specialist knowledge, or working out the technology for a sci-fi novel can go a long way.”
Get more tips from Michael Rowley on worldbuilding here.
8. Let your characters determine the story
Again, well-developed characters are key to a strong story — and if you're struggling to outline, they may just be the solution. “When you outline a character’s motivations, you'll uncover what situations would cause them the most conflict,” says ghostwriter Hannah Sandoval.
“You’ll 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. And if ever you get stuck along your plot trajectory, you can use character maps to fuel a new idea!”
⏰ Finding the time to write
Writing 1,667 words per day is a serious challenge, to say the least. Here's how to find the time to do it.
9. 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,” says editor Lourdes Venard. “Make sure friends and family know this is your writing time: you are not to be disturbed.” Indeed, setting up this non-negotiable writing time is the only way you'll get through the month.
10. Set ground rules in advance of November
“Have a plan,” suggests editor Maria D'Marco, “and 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. Make them now, not in the middle of November, when your judgment may be compromised.”
11. Try writing in several shorter “sprints” per day
“All you need is a few 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.”
If you’re one of those writers who loves Twitter and procrastination a bit too much, we highly recommend this (free!) online course on building a rock-solid writing routine!
✅ Finishing the first draft
Tips on balancing your priorities and maintaining inspiration as you power through your first draft.
12. Give yourself permission to be imperfect
When it comes to this pressure-cooker November writing challenge, perfect is definitely the enemy of good. “When your goal is 1,667 words a day, you can't obsess over the quality of your writing,” notes editor Kaitlin Severini. “Just write now, and revise later.”
13. Don’t be afraid of mistakes — they often result in inspiration
Editor Jim Thomas echoes Severini's thoughts and urges writers to not sweat the small stuff. “My advice would be that 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, wherever it takes you.”
14. Trust your characters, even when they wander
Again, we really can't overstate the value of listening to your characters as you write. “Follow whatever crazy character shows up and leads you down the rabbit hole, and let yourself be surprised!” says author Anne R. Allen. “The point of NaNo is not to write a perfect book or stick to your outline; it's to break through mental barriers and release your creativity.”
15. Use this opportunity to experiment a little
“I did NaNoWriMo in 2009, and it changed my writing life,” says author and 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.”
16. Think of the NaNo as “putting sand in the sandbox”
“First drafts are all about putting sand in the sandbox; you come back to build a castle later," says editor Rebecca Heyman, master of the extended metaphor. “The goal of NaNoWriMo should be to collect as much sand in the box as you can. Not every grain of sand will end up being part of your masterpiece, and that's okay. Just get it in the box, and go from there.”
17. But don't ditch quality just so you can hit 50,000 words
While NaNoWriMo's ultimate goal is quantity, you still shouldn't be careless with your writing. A bit of tough love from editor Sasha Tropp: “You can'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.”
18. Motivate yourself with social validation
“Join some Facebook groups or start your own where everyone posts their daily word count,” advises Derek Murphy. “Not only will it keep you writing, but it will also give you an immediate endorphin rush when you post your word count wins!”
19. Find new ways to inspire yourself
Murphy also suggests using 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.”
🙅♀️ Don't edit as you go
If you want to win NaNoWriMo, you can't get caught up in editing! Here are a couple of tips to assist you with this.
20. Try not to think about what you've already written
“Let the ideas and words flow unhindered by not worrying about the previous chapter or even paragraph,” says author and book coach Ben Galley. “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.”
21. Remember: you're not writing a novel, you're drafting one
“NaNoWriMo should really be called NaNoDraMo,” 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!”
✍🏽 Tips for writing fiction
Now for some more advanced, craft-based writing tips to help you write the best novel you possibly can.
22. 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 using dialogue or mini-flashbacks. These are both much sharper ways of delivering info than simply telling the reader, as they allow you to keep up the pace and show how the character feels about it now.”
23. Help your reader "see" the world you've created
On a similar note, editor Geoff Smith encourages writers to take great care with their imagery. “It's hard for readers to form visuals in their mind's eye — 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.”
24. Don't write pages of lush prose when plain English will do
It's all too easy to overwrite when you're trying to fill the pages for NaNo. Here's another solid gold nugget of wisdom from Geoff Smith: “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.”
25. 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.
“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 NaNo contestants fear: a blank page and the taunting stare the blinking cursor. Here's how to vanquish them — and all other aspects writer's block — this month.
26. If you're blocked, skip that scene and come back to it later
“NaNoWriMo is all about getting words on a page, so keep going no matter what,” says Dylan Hearn, author of Second Chance. “If you get stuck writing a specific scene, stop, make a quick note of what you want to happen, and then move on to something else. You can always go back and finish it later!”
27. Be kind to yourself when you can't write
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,” he says. “Navigate these obstacles as they arise and move past them — they are not the 'enemy,' they are just life.”
28. Use dialogue to unblock yourself
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.” If nothing else, dialogue is often more fun to write than pure plot! So if you're feeling stuck or frustrated with your novel, try a few pages of light banter between your characters; you'll most likely feel more inspired afterward.
❄️ What to do in December
You’ve reached the end of November with a 50,000-word manuscript — amazing job! But remember, this is only the first stage of novelizing. Before you publish (if you choose to do so), there's still quite a bit of work to be done.
29. Put your draft away for a month
“After NaNoWriMo, writers should put their manuscripts aside for a month or more,” editor Lourdes Venard suggests. “Then go back to that initial draft and revise, revise, revise!” The time away from your manuscript will be crucial to seeing it with fresh eyes, and you'll be able to self-edit much more successfully than if you started on December 1st.
30. Make use of beta readers and/or critique circles
Again, fresh perspective is critical, and sometimes the only way to get it is through other people! This is why editor Kate Angelella suggests using third-party readers during your revision process. “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.”
31. Don't get an editor for your very first draft
“When you finish your first draft, by all means, enjoy the moment and uncork the champagne,” says editor Andrew Lowe. “But 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. Otherwise you'll just be paying an editor to fix things you could have fixed yourself!”
For more of Andrew Lowe’s insights on refining your first draft, check out his Reedsy Live session on the topic.
📖 Tips for revising
Prior to looking for an editor, make sure you've reworked your manuscript as best you can. Here are our best tips for revising your manuscript post-November.
32. Reread your first and last chapters side-by-side
To maintain consistency with your manuscript, editor Jill Saginario offers one simple technique: rereading your first and last chapters, so you can compare your original intentions to where your story actually ended up.
“So much of NaNoWriMo is about hitting small targets that it can be difficult to see the forest for the trees,” Saginario says. “Sometimes writers start with one story in their head, and it changes so slowly that they don't notice the tonal shift between from start to finish. Reading chapter one and your final chapter side-by-side can really help control for that shift.”
33. 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 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, as well as for cutting out unnecessary details and excessive wordiness.”
34. Reduce repetition and excessive description
Indeed, one thing you should always aim for in your writing is efficient language. A useful technique from editor Laura Mae Isaacman: “Analyze the message of each sentence. What is it conveying? If two sentences in a row convey the same information, 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.”
35. 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 an essential warning:
“One of the products of quick writing is something called front-running, or heavy foreshadowing. Often the writer doesn't even realize they've given away too much too early. But readers are more astute than you might presume, and they want to figure out the plot over the course of the novel.
“Let the twists and turns of your plot be revealed in the action, rather than alluding to the impending doom long beforehand. Being hyper-aware of your foreshadowing will truly help you with tension and pacing, and make your story a thousand times better.”
Bottom line, NaNoWriMo is a lot of fun and can even help you achieve your writing dreams. And while it is certainly challenging, that’s a big part of what makes it so rewarding! Best of luck — we can't wait to read what you write.