Image: Matthew Loffhagen
November is National Novel Writing Month, a not-quite-celebration, not-quite-competition all about helping authors write the first draft of their novel in thirty days or less. Generally known by the abbreviated NaNoWriMo, the practice is incredibly popular and has quickly outgrown its original title to become an international phenomenon.
Despite this, a lot of authors miss out this potentially productive endeavor because they aren’t sure how to go about it. That’s why in this article, I’ll be discussing the most effective way to approach NaNoWriMo and hopefully answering any questions writers may have.
The most important thing to understand is that while you can run your NaNoWriMo in whatever way you like, the challenge does have an official home.
#7 – Sign up now
There are two main sites NaNoWriMo participants should know like the back of their hand. These are the National Novel Writing Month website and Camp NaNoWriMo. The former is the official home of the challenge, a non-profit charity working ‘to empower and encourage writing and vibrant creativity around the world’. It administrates the challenge from November 1–30, acting as a hub for the NaNoWriMo community.
Camp NaNoWriMo is a little less formal, running sessions in April and July with a more permissive approach to both word count goals and ‘non-novels’. It describes itself as a ‘creative retreat’ and has its own year-round community.
Both sites are great ways to learn more about the challenge, and are best accessed before it actually begins. Signing up a few weeks in advance will allow you to learn where everything is, become comfortable in the community and explore the resources on offer. It also means that November 1st becomes the day you start writing, not the day you start preparing to write. How long will that preparation take? It really depends how much new stuff you want to use…
#6 – Explore every resource
Both National Novel Writing Month and Camp NaNoWriMo have a huge list of sponsors, many of whom offer free materials or software to participants (and special prizes for ‘winners’ who finish their draft).
Sites like BookBaby, Bibliocrunch and Kobo Writing Life offer free literature to participants, while Evernote, UpLiterate, Freedom and more offer free subscriptions to writing services and software. There’s no better (or cheaper) time to explore writing resources, and these offers make NaNoWriMo’s free membership worth your time even if you have no intention of writing to a goal. This can also support you to…
#5 – Find a new way to write
NaNoWriMo is all about using special circumstances to produce more work than you otherwise would. Artificial as it is, having a deadline and a set goal can motivate you to new heights, and there’s another way to enhance this effect: utilize a new way of writing when creating your draft.
This could be as simple as including a physical pen and paper in your writing process, or it could mean trying out a new piece of writing software.
Why would you do that? Simply put, because it adds to the perception of November as a ‘special time’. Opening up your usual word processor could mean you’re about to work on your novel or it could mean you want to write a list of odd jobs that need doing around the house. Having writing software dedicated to your NaNoWriMo project means that every time you open it you’re stating your intention to create fiction.
A different approach invites a different mindset, and along with the support offered by the National Novel Writing Month site and the specific month-long deadline, it can motivate you more than you’d ever expect.
The good news is that NaNoWriMo is the best time to look into new writing software, with Scrivener, Storyist and Ulysses all offering free trials or steep discounts to participants. If none of those grab your attention then check out our article 7 (free) online writing tools that will make you more productive.
It can even make sense to use a program with fewer features than your own, especially if it offers a minimal interface to help you focus (as is the case with several entries in the article above). The key is to make your NaNoWriMo writing time feel unique. The more effectively you can do that, the more successful you’ll be. ‘Success’, of course, being something only you can define…
#4 – Define your goal before you start
National Novel Writing Month has an official goal of 50,000 words. That’s the number after which the site will declare you a ‘winner’ – allowing you to ‘validate’ your victory when 50,000 words are entered into the site’s word counter – but that doesn’t mean it’s set in stone.
The site’s official recommendation for authors of handwritten works is to have a random text generator spit out 50,000 words that can be copied and pasted into the word counter for validation, and this can be done by anyone who feels like setting themselves a smaller goal than the suggested 50,000.
In fact, the National Novel Writing Month website is really just a mechanism for self-assessment. All your milestones and successes are self-recorded, so there’s no real pressure to live up to someone else’s goal.
With that said, it is important to have a goal, and to stick to it. It’s a sad truth that if you’ll let yourself slip in a small way then you’ll let yourself slip in a big one.
Whatever you want your goal to be, it’s essential that you set it before NaNoWriMo begins and you don’t change it. In this situation, failure is better than compromise since a) you’re only working for yourself and b) continually trying to reach your goal will get more out of you than lowering the target. This advice comes with the caveat that your goal should be realistic, and you should be prepared to really work during NaNoWriMo.
If you don’t feel comfortable subverting National Novel Writing Month’s 50,000 word goal, but still don’t think it’s for you, then Camp NaNoWriMo may be the answer. They welcome word count goals ‘between 10,000 and 1,000,000’, a range that should satisfy everyone from the novella author to the serial killer from Se7en.
Whatever goal you choose, if you’re approaching NaNoWriMo as the challenge it’s meant to be then be strict with yourself. The more firmly you set your sights on a goal, the more chance you have of reaching it. To that end it can help if you’re not the only one who knows about it…
#3 – Make your goal public
This advice may not be for everyone, and it comes in two variations. The first is to tell some people in your life what you’re hoping to achieve. Outlining the goal you hope to reach to someone else makes it real, and while it can be awkward, that awkwardness is a powerful prompt to keep working. Wanting to reach 30,000 words by Tuesday and wanting to be able to confirm to a friend that you’ve done so are very different feelings, and the second is generally more powerful.
That’s not to say you should become a NaNoWriMo bore (and, cards on the table, a lot of competitors do), or that it’s sensible to externalize the source of your enthusiasm, but broaching the subject with someone who’ll be interested does give you a new viewpoint on your situation.
Not only does it allow you to speak aloud about your goals, but your achievements will look different to another person. Sure, you know that you’re 1000 words under where you want to be, but to someone else the 5000 words you have written so far are cause for celebration.
In extreme cases, say if you have a particularly writerly group of friends, you could even have people sponsor your writing. National Novel Writing Month is always looking for donations, or you can pick a cause of your own to support. For those who would never dream of running a marathon, NaNoWriMo can be a great way to earn money for charity by doing something impressive.
That’s the extreme option, of course, and it may be that you’re not comfortable exposing your efforts to your own friends and family. That doesn’t mean you can’t share your goal, since National Novel Writing Month maintains a huge online community specifically built to support other competitors.
This is the second way you can share your goal – among a likeminded group undergoing the same struggle and victories you’re facing. It’s an audience who are guaranteed to be interested, supportive, and often insightful.
#2 – Engage with the community
The NaNoWriMo demographic is vast, but they all come together in the site’s forums. That means two key things for those embarking on the challenge:
1) There is someone facing the same problems as you.
2) You can talk to them about it.
Not only that, but since the challenge has been running for over a decade there’s a wealth of good advice, both on how to reach your targets and on the art of writing itself. That advice is likely to be pretty valuable in its own right, given the frankly stunning list of writers who have been published off the back of the challenge.
Even if you don’t need help or advice, the presence of a whole community dedicated to a similar goal will help make your own novel feel more achievable and normalize the process of working on it. Humans instinctively enjoy communities, adding a tempting edge to checking in with the NaNoWriMo and getting some work done.
You can even take the formal process one step further by forming smaller groups on the site with their own goals. It might sound strange from the outside, but setting an hour a night where you and a group of friends are all writing can provide incredible motivation – especially if the reward for doing so is a friendly group catch-up afterward.
Success over NaNoWriMo is all about finding ways to encourage yourself to work, whether that’s by making the writing process as enjoyable as possible or ensuring a feeling of attainment…
#1 – Track your progress
This may seem like obvious advice, but it’s one of the first things to fall by the wayside during NaNoWriMo. Competitors rightly decide that the writing process is the important part of the challenge, and so update their word count only when they happen to be on the site.
While this is understandable, it underutilizes the challenge’s best form of motivation – the ability to see, day by day, the effect your work is having. The site is perfectly designed for keeping track of words, offering a plethora of rewards and visual representations of your progress.
Since there’s a final, definitive goal, every word has value in reaching the total, so even a bad day brings you closer to where you want to be.
The site allows users to award themselves ‘badges’ based on smaller goals, tapping in to the human desire to collect and complete. It’s the difference between stopping writing because you should clean the bathroom, and writing 300 more words because it will bring you to a badge-worthy milestone.
If there’s a single piece of advice NaNoWriMo competitors observe in this article, this should be it. It’s easy to get frustrated or disheartened when writing, but tracking your progress with an eagle eye lends every word value and helps you compartmentalize the process and make it more manageable. While later drafts require a more nuanced approach, this kind of goal-orientated approach is perfect for creating the first iteration of something great.
If you think NaNoWriMo might be for you then I suggest visiting their site immediately for a closer look at what they offer. Their FAQs should cover any element of the process I haven’t, but if you still find yourself with questions then please ask them in the comments and I’ll do my best to fill you in.
For more on competitions check out 5 writing competitions perfect for budding authors, or if you’re hoping NaNoWriMo will help you finally begin your novel check out Writing your first draft is not as scary as it seems.
Finally, if you are taking part in NaNoWriMo this November then Standoutbooks wishes you good luck! In fact, we wish you luck even if you’re not.