Lessons from Past NaNoWriMos

National Novel Writing Month begins on Tuesday. For the uninitiated, NaNoWriMo is a 30-day, 50,000 word novel-writing challenge held every November. But to describe it so plainly does not do it justice. Visit the official website of National Novel Writing Month for full details about the program and the incredible people who participate. I cannot say enough good things about this annual event!

Since this will be my fifth NaNoWriMo, I have learned a few things about how to survive this insane challenge. Since last year was my best year ever–I reached 50k on day 10 and wrote a total of 97,100 words in the month–when the month was done, I wrote down my tips for completing the challenge with sanity intact.  Here is what I came up with eleven months ago, plus a few extras.

  • SNACKS: It takes a lot of food to write a novel. Have lots of finger food on hand. My favorites include pretzels, popcorn, snack-sized candy, and fruits and veggies.  Trail mix is great, too.  Basically you want anything that you can eat with just one hand, and that won’t make a mess on your keyboard.
  • BEVERAGES: It is equally important to stay hydrated. Variety is key. Keep lots of different hot and cold beverages around. Make sure to have caffeinated and non-caffeinated drinks. My go-to is hot tea. Since my office is on the second floor of our home, I keep an electric kettle and a few kinds of tea in my office so I don’t have to go downstairs to refill when I get thirsty. Yeah, I’m a bit lazy when I’m noveling.
  • WRITE-INS: Attend as many write-ins as possible. If you don’t feel like going, that’s probably a sign you need to go. Write-ins are one of the main things that set the NaNoWriMo program apart from other writing challenges. Wrimos are a crazy bunch, full of wonderful ideas and encouragement. You can get a huge boost in your word count, meet writing buddies, and generally get recharged at a write-in.
  • NO PLOT? NO PROBLEM! Order Chris Baty’s book on writing a novel in 30 days from the NaNo store, or from your local bookstore. It has all kinds of tips on surviving the month with your sanity mostly intact, from the one who started it all.
  • USE SCRIVENER: Scrivener is an incredible writing software made by Literature and Latte that allows you to have everything related to your novel (the manuscript, research notes, character profiles, inspiration photos, and anything else you can think of) in one file with an amazingly simple, functional interface. I am relatively new to using Scrivener, having jumped on board during the beta-testing for the new Windows version, but I fell in love immediately. They are offering a special free trial of either the Apple or Windows version for NaNoWriMo participants. Check it out!
  • TRACK IT: If you still want to use Word or some other word-processing software, use the bookmark and comments features to keep track of scenes, characters, or anything else you might need to find quickly in your master document. If you’re using Scrivener, all of this is MUCH easier! I will be posting screenshots in future posts to show how I use this software that I love so much. I promise, I’m not getting paid by them. Scrivener has just made novel-writing immensely easier for me.
  • BACK IT UP: Please, please, please back up your novel! Save frequently, and don’t just save to your hard drive. USB drives are inexpensive and don’t take up much space. E-mailing a copy of your novel to yourself daily is the easiest way to have a remote back-up. A writer friend of mine recently had a fire in her home. She lost all of her notebooks and her computer was damaged. Thankfully, she did have backup copies of her work stored online. Learn from those who have gone before you: losing words is terrible. Back up your novel!
  • FIRST AID FOR WRIMOS: Keep eye drops, over-the-counter pain meds, antacids, nail clippers, tissues, and band-aids handy. I just keep a little zipper bag tucked inside my laptop bag. Also, if you are supposed to use reading glasses (like me), actually use them to prevent eye strain.
  • EDITING IS FOR DECEMBER: This should be every Wrimo’s mantra throughout November. Don’t edit. Don’t censor. Just keep writing. If you get stuck, skip ahead. If you get REALLY stuck, go to a write-in.
  • DAILY WRITING: I have had the most success when I write SOMETHING every day. Once I get past the daily goal of 1667, I find it’s easy to get to higher numbers. Try not to take more than two days off in a row. It’s too easy to get complacent. Just keep writing, whatever happens.
  • REWARDS AND PUNISHMENTS: Break the challenge down into small goals, and reward yourself when you reach each goal. I use chocolate for little goals. Order your winner t-shirt early in the month and use that as motivation, or treat yourself out to your favorite restaurant when you hit the halfway point. Whatever will get you motivated. Penalties for NOT reaching your daily word count goals can be good, too. NaNoWriMo founder Chris Baty suggests getting friends to pledge donations to a good cause (or to NaNoWriMo itself) if you win, but promising that you will personally contribute to a less pleasant organization if you don’t reach 50k. The threat of having to put your money on the line can be a great kick in the pants.
  • WRITE EVERYWHERE: Take a notebook with you everywhere you go. That way you can write when inspiration strikes, or whenever you have down time. I do a lot of writing at the laundromat. Doctors’ offices and other waiting rooms are great places to make use of down time, too.
  • WRITE THE PAINFUL SCENES: Even though it hurts, push through to the end, and weep afterward. It’s cathartic, and the toughest scenes to write are usually the best ones to read afterward.
  • SURVIVING BAD WEATHER: When it comes to weather, November can be a pretty unpredictable month for much of the northern hemisphere. If you’re stuck inside when you’d rather be at a write-in, check out the dares listed on the NaNo website, do word sprints with others on the forums, or follow the @NaNoWordSprints Twitter feed. Make sure to give yourself some silly challenges and rewards to make it feel like a real write-in!
  • EMBRACE THE UNUSUAL: When you get ideas about what to do next, pick the crazy ideas over the sane ones any day. Give yourself permission to be silly, strange, or difficult to understand. You can fix anything in editing later. You will write more and write better if you are having fun.
  • DISTRACTIONS: Take breaks, but watch out for time-suckers like tv and internet. I use a kitchen timer to limit my online time, and choose ahead of time which shows I’m going to watch and which ones I’ll give up for the month.
  • CROSS-POLLINATE: Go to museums, watch a movie, listen to a variety of music, and try new foods. Use these experiences to add sensory details to your novel.
  • READ: Read some good books before, during, and after NaNoWriMo. But beware: what you read during NaNo will distract you, and may creep into your novel in bizarre ways.
  • PLAN YOUR CELEBRATION: Buy a bottle of bubbly and keep it in the fridge to toast your victory when you hit 50,000 words. Plan a victory party and invite all your friends. There is probably a TGIO party in your area. Mark it on your calendar. It’s great to decompress with your fellow Wrimos.
  • FINISH THE NOVEL, NO MATTER WHAT: Whether you reach 50k or not, get the whole story arc written out before the month is over.This is probably even more important if you are ahead on word count, like I was last year, because you may not really know how the story is supposed to end until well into it. And once November is over, you likely won’t want to even look at your novel for at least a month, so it’s crucial to have the whole story written or you won’t remember where you were going with it when you pick it back up again. Get through the scenes you know you need. You can add more details later when you are doing revisions.
  • DID I MENTION FOOD? Seriously, be ready to go through a ridiculous amount of food. And don’t count on having the time, energy, or motivation to actually cook. Prep dinners ahead of time and freeze them, or budget for extra fast food or take-out. Soup, casseroles, and slow-cooker meals are great because they reheat well, don’t have to be closely watched, and usually pack a good nutritional punch.
  • SURVIVING THE END: Fatigue becomes overwhelming toward the end of the month. Keep hydrated, stay healthy. Even if you’re a pantser, write out a small description for each scene you plan to write to help you keep focused. Restock your treats and office supplies before the last week starts so you don’t run out right at the end.
  • RECHARGE WHEN THE MONTH IS OVER: Since the end of the month tends to be a mad dash to the finish line, it’s a good idea to take a day off on December 1st if you are able. Take a bath or a long shower, get caught up on sleep, finally reply to all those e-mails that have been building up, and generally reconnect with friends and family. And of course, brag about your accomplishment!

I hope others can learn a little bit from my experiences. Much of this will probably seem obvious to those who have participated in NaNo for a few years, but to those who are new, I hope it gives you a sort of game plan for the month. You can do this! Thousands have gone before you, and made it through as winners with their very own brand-new novels in hand. Don’t stress out, just write. Happy noveling!

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8 Comments

Filed under NaNoWriMo, Writing

8 responses to “Lessons from Past NaNoWriMos

  1. Great words Amy, thanks for sharing.
    This will be my third at bat – Looking forward to it in a twisted way.

  2. Great post. Its my sixth time and I pretty much agree with it all. Have a good time this year…

  3. Kristin

    Great post, Amy! I’m gearing up to NaNo for the first time, and I think your tips will help me survive.

  4. Joyce S

    Another solution for beating bad weather is joining a NaNo chat-room. Many NaNo regions have set up chat-room. If you can’t get to a physical write-in, these chat-room write-ins are an excellent alternative, complete with word wars and, well, chatting.

    • Thanks for the suggestion, Joyce! From what I understand, the site upgrades will include chat rooms for each region. Those, paired with the rest of the forums, should make for great online write-ins.

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