Writers, take your mark.
National Novel Writing Month—or NaNoWriMo—is an annual online event, starting every November 1. Writers of all backgrounds and experience levels (from aspiring authors to established and bestselling ones) accept the challenge to draft a 50,000-word manuscript in 30 days. (You still have time to sign up at NaNoWriMo.org.)
One of the benefits of the event is that in order to meet your word count, the aggressive goal pretty much requires participants to write without self-editing. This encourages writers who have a tendency to agonize over word choice and sentence structure to simply concentrate on getting their book written, without worrying whether it’s any good. The process is like stream of thought … with a destination.
So how can you give yourself the best possible shot at rising to the challenge and reaching your goal?
Here is our Quintessential Guide to Surviving NaNoWriMo.
Decide What Your Goals Are
One of the most glorious things about NaNoWriMo is that there is no pressure to get published, find an agent, or catch the eye of an editor. It’s simply a means of encouraging writers of all stripes and experience levels to just sit down and write. There’s no competition, no judgment, and no expectations other than joining a huge group of people as you all try to reach the same goal.
Which means you have to ask yourself, “What are my personal goals in all of this?”
Are you writing for yourself, or are you participating as part of the NaNoWriMo fund-raising effort? Are you working on an existing book, or are you starting something completely new? Is completing 50,000 words the goal you wish to achieve?
The truth is that everyone participates for different reasons. For some, it’s not even about reaching the goal but dedicating as much time as they can spare to writing—and creating the habit of it. For others, it’s about getting a new book started and then seeing it through beyond NaNoWriMo. So before you sign up, think about what you want to achieve by the end of November. (Hint: it won’t be a finished, polished manuscript you can send to publishers. But it might be the beginning of one.)
Plan to Succeed
Even experienced runners don’t just go leaping into a marathon without some level of preparation. This challenge means writing 50,000 words in 30 days—an average of roughly 12,500 words a week, or 1,667 words a day. So as we count off the last few days before the Great Event, you still have the opportunity for last-minute planning to get yourself comfortably organized.
1) Sign up! It sounds obvious, but just committing to the event by setting up your profile is the first step on the road to writing a draft in 30 days. This will also allow you to join local groups for advice, support, and friendly encouragement if you need it.
2) Put together a book outline. Even the most dedicated of pantsers (intuitive writers) can benefit from having a rough idea of their book outline, main characters, setting, and genre. Make a few organizational notes and do any necessary research in advance.
3) Choose your writing time and place. This is an important step, especially if you are working full-time, and doubly so if you have a family. Make sure you establish your writing place(s) and come up with a schedule for when and where you need to work. For many folks, early mornings and late nights tend to be the quietest moments when they can finally sit down and focus on their book. If you do have a family, try to make arrangements to minimize disruptions and get their support.
4) Announce that you’re doing NaNoWriMo. Telling people your plan works on two levels. First, it’s a great way to team up with others who might be participating. Second, it makes you much more accountable to completing your task when you know people are watching and cheering for you. Which leads to …
Let’s Talk Accountability
Sometimes, when you’re faced with a big task, you need a nudge to keep you going. Sure, there are rumors of people who can manage to keep driving forward on their own steam just because they want to, unaccountable to anyone or anything. But if you’re struggling, unpublished, a beginner, or you have some heavy time commitments (like care-taking, a full-time job, and/or family), it can help to know that there are people nearby who won’t allow you to slide off your writing perch and just give up.
1) Make a deal with a family member, friend, or partner. Chances are, one of your loved ones has something they’ve either been putting off or avoiding. Make a deal. “I’ll do NaNoWriMo this year if you do your back taxes from the last couple of years.” (Yes, this is actually a deal I made for 2019.) You both want each other to succeed, so hold each other accountable.
2) Reward yourself. Yes, yes, we all know that at the end of the day, the reward of a job well done should be enough. Along with badges and gloating rights. But it can be pretty easy to give those things up, so think about treating yourself to something you’ve been wanting, whether that’s a fancy dinner at an even fancier restaurant, a vacation, or a hot new mattress for your bed. (Hey, treats can be practical too.)
3) Raise funds. Some folks use NaNoWriMo as a means of fund-raising for a favorite charity. Reach that goal of 50,000 words? Great! Everyone who has supported you can now donate to a cause, and knowing you are making a difference can add a little additional incentive to reach your writing goal.
4) Join up with fellow writers. Whether you have a few writing friends to team up with or you are relying on chums you know through social media, create a support group where you can encourage each other, moan and gripe, and celebrate each other’s victories. Don’t forget to also join your local NaNoWriMo group for tips, advice, meet-ups, and even writing sessions!
5) Hold yourself accountable. Never underestimate the power of a strategically placed sticky note. For the month of November, place a few sticky notes with encouraging or motivational quotes around your home: bathroom mirrors, your refrigerator … and maybe one on the TV remote that reads “Shouldn’t you be writing?”
Create a “Writing Destination”
Carve out a space somewhere at home or in a spot where you have a comfortable chair and you feel inspired. Windows, plants, art, books, maybe even a cozy blanket—make your writing space a place you enjoy being in. If you enjoy music while you write, make sure you have it. If you need quiet, do what you can to create it. One of the biggest mistakes writers can make is turning their work desk into a place they don’t want to be. Basements and cramped little corners are less likely to be places you want to spend hours in.
If things at home feel too cramped or chaotic, find a nearby local retreat that’s writer-friendly, whether it’s a library, a small coffee shop, or even a quiet local pub where you can enjoy a few fries and a pint while you lose yourself in your book.
Make sure your writing destination has everything you need. At the very least, it should include reference books, notes, and any other sources that inspire you. Keep a supply of snacks handy, and even consider designating a special mug as your “NaNoWriMo fuel receptacle.” Are you going to need caffeine? Yes, you’re going to need caffeine.
One of my favorite tricks when I have to work late from home is having a “Writing Date Night.” You can do this with a friend or alone, but the idea is to look forward to a quiet night with your computer. I’ll pull out my favorite Billie Holiday songs (I like an old-timey atmosphere), pour myself a glass of a good pinot noir, turn all the lights down low and light a few candles, and just enjoy a relaxed night of writing. (Sometimes it also includes a bowl of Cheesies, but that’s because I like romance.)
You can also check out Kirkus Writers’ Center’s “Top 10 Tips for Work-from-Home Success” for additional ideas for managing your writing time and space.
The first time I attempted NaNoWriMo, I flunked with flying colors. Despite an encouraging first week, the second week quickly spiraled into an intense, work-filled schedule that didn’t let up. Because I already write from home full-time, I had to make a choice: prioritize my NaNoWriMo writing or the writing I do for my clients that allows me to pay the bills. Being able to keep my apartment and being able to buy groceries won out.
Did I cave in too easily? Did I push myself as hard as I could? Did I give myself every chance to make room for writing? The answer is both yes and no. But however much I wanted to complete NaNoWriMo that year, I had to balance my personal goals against maintaining my professional reputation as an excellent, deadline-oriented writer who submits clean copy. Which doesn’t happen if I am exhausted and “all writed out.”
The reality is that life is always going to throw a few flaming, screaming curveballs at you. Some of them can be navigated and therefore merely throw your schedule off a bit. Others can be larger and more demanding and throw you off course entirely.
Succeeding at NaNoWriMo isn’t just about writing that 50,000-word book in 30 days. It’s about dedicating your spare time to a writing project you want to work on—and keeping at it. No matter the time constraints, the challenges, the terrible odds of being published.
Because at the end of the day, that is what it is to be a writer. November will come and go, but that will never, ever change.
Did you complete NaNoWriMo? If you're looking for an editor to help you turn your draft into a manuscript you can publish or submit to editors and agents, Kirkus Editorial can help. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject NaNoWriMo 2019 for a 15% discount off editing services.