Ah, National Novel Writing Month.
Every November, this popular global writing challenge brings forth a season that writers everywhere simultaneously hold dear and dread. It is as much a time of creativity and perseverance as it is the worst fucking thing we do to ourselves each year. Write fifty thousand words in a mere thirty days? Sure, why not! Writing is hard enough the way it is—might as well stab my eye with a hot poker while I’m at it!
And to think, Earth has the audacity to keep revolving while we attempt this. How rude.
Let me clarify—I say this all with love, and as an absolute die-hard fan of NaNoWriMo. Possibly the biggest fan. This year will be my 17th consecutive NaNoWriMo, and daresay I expect my 17th consecutive win (not that I’m counting) (I’m totally counting). I love NaNoWriMo. I live and breathe it in November. But I’ll be the first to admit I break out into a cold sweat as Halloween nears, knowing it will all begin again come November 1st.
There are so many good parts about National Novel Writing Month. For example, my favorite part is December 1st, when it’s over. It’s awesome to have done NaNoWriMo. Trouble is, to have done NaNoWriMo, you have to, you know, write a novel in a month.
But without November, would we really appreciate December? (I mean yes, probably. December has a lot going for it. But we’re getting off track).
I clearly keep coming back for more, and you’re still here, so that means I haven’t scared you away yet. If you’re up for the challenge, here are my top ten tips for winning NaNoWriMo (or at least giving it the old college try).
Pick something that will be “easy” to write. This might sound like a cop-out, or even like cheating, but hear me out. NaNoWriMo isn’t the time to write the next great American novel. It’s a time to practice. It’s a time to get free form. It’s a time to write something that will hopefully spill out of your fingers. Especially if you’re newer to NaNoWriMo, try something “easy”. Write a romance novel. Write a fun sci-fi romp. Write whatever it is you think you can have the most fun with, so you’re excited to come back to the page day after day.
Write a one sentence summary of your idea before you begin writing. If you can’t fit your idea into a single sentence, then your idea is too complex. Keep working on it until you can whittle it down to that single sentence. The act of doing this will help you pinpoint what exactly it is you’re trying to do or say with your novel, and will help you iron out the central plot or the main arc of your story, and will help things from getting too muddy from the get-go. Bonus: it’ll also help you answer the dreaded question you’ll receive all month: “What’s your novel about?”
Decide if you’re a planner or pantser—basically, do you want to put the “work” in before or after you write your first draft? I hate to break it to you, but there’s no getting out of the work—not for planners, not for pantsers, not for plantsers—whatever you are. There’s just a distinction between when you like to put that work in. Do you want to figure out your plot arcs and story theme and characterization and pacing before you start writing? Or do you want to just get words on a page and untangle it all later? There’s no wrong answer here, but it’s good to check in with yourself about which one sounds better.
Give yourself permission to be mediocre! As Jane Smiley said, “Every first draft is perfect because all the first draft has to do is exist.” NaNoWriMo isn’t about coming out the other side with something ready to query—literally no one can do that, so don’t hold yourself to an absurd standard. NaNoWriMo is about breaking down the noise and the mental hurdles we put up for ourselves and just trying to find writing flow. What feels like garbage in November is probably going to surprise you in January.
Level set with the people in your life about what you’re doing—you can’t completely shut out the world (unfortunately—believe me, I’ve tried), but you should set certain times aside to write as if it’s your job. If people understand how seriously you are taking this, they will take it seriously too! Hopefully. If not, then you can base a character off of them in your novel and then put them in really awkward situations to make yourself feel better. That’ll teach ‘em.
Set yourself some ground rules. How strict you need to be is up to you, but make sure you’ve thought about ways to set yourself up for success before November. Do you need to delete social apps or games from your phone? Do you need to block off certain days or times on your calendar? Do you need to give yourself a free pass on holidays, or a few “days off” from writing to maintain your mental health? Do you need a bowl of candy beside you to reward yourself every time you write 500 words? Do you need to rent a one room cabin in the middle of the woods a hundred miles out of civilization and not leave until your novel is written? Whatever it is you need, plan for this.
Be okay with deviating from your outline or plan and follow where your noveling path takes you. Listen, I’m a planner. To my core. I don’t say this lightly. But sometimes what felt like a good idea in an outline doesn’t work in practice, and you just gotta let those little fingers of yours take over. You might be surprised by what you come up with while writing in the thick of it!
Find your writing community. NaNoWriMo is great because it takes an activity that’s generally a solitary one, and it makes it social! Join a writing discord server, connect with your local region, follow the #nanowrimo hashtag on twitter. Find people to share your daily word count with, or to do writing sprints with, or to complain about how sick of writing you are. As writers, complaining about writing is our god-given right, and everyone deserves some writing friends who get it.
If you’re stuck on a scene—skip it! No use slogging through mud; there simply isn’t time for that. I used to have to write chronologically, but now I’ve found it only slows me down. Get to the good part! If you’re bored, then what you’re writing is boring! Move on! Come back later! Go wild! Anarchy!
Listen, by deciding to participate in NaNoWriMo, you’re doing something crazy. I’m honestly not sure why you’re doing this—no one is making you. You could stop at any time. You could do something so much easier than this. You could binge that new show on Netflix. You could take a peaceful walk through the countryside. You could lie on the floor and have someone wrap you up in a blanket like a burrito. But no—you’re insisting on writing a novel and insisting on doing it in a month. That’s like, way too short. So give yourself a break. Think of the people who decided to spend November as burritos. They’ll be comfortable, but they won’t start December with a novel under their belt. You will. In 30 short days, you will be a person who has done NaNoWriMo. And that’s the whole point, right?
Good luck in November, everyone. I’ll be cheering you on, and complaining the whole way through, right alongside you. You got this. We got this.
If you want more NaNoWriMo advice and enjoy the audio-format, check out my podcast How To Win NaNo, hosted everywhere podcasts are available. My friend Liz Leo and I post weekly episodes in the months surrounding November to get people hyped, answer questions, and give our best advice year after year for everyone who feels the pull of NaNoWriMo. We also have a vibrant Discord community full of writers eager to wordsprint with you, share ideas, and generally help each other through this grueling month. It’s a lot of fun.
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Kristina Horner is an author who writes contemporary and urban fantasy for young adult and middle grade readers. She runs a small, independent publisher called 84th Street Press through which she has published multiple anthologies. She also created the writing podcast How To Win NaNo, has written for a number of tabletop RPGs, including Vampire: The Masquerade and has been a consistent winner of National Novel Writing Month since 2006.
Kristina lives and works out of her home in Seattle, Washington alongside her husband Joe and their son, Maximus. When she’s not writing, she can be found in her garden or playing board games.
Copyright ©2022 by Kristina Horner. Logo use courtesy of NaNoWriMo.
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