10 Steps to Succeed at NanoWriMo

NaNoWriMoNaNoWriMo is an amazing writing challenge. During the month of November, writers around the world commit to writing a novel in a month. In this post, I’ll give you the basics about NaNoWriMo and then provide 10 easy steps to help you succeed as a writer during this month-long writing adventure.

A Little NaNoWriMo History

Way back in 1999, National Novel Writing Month began as an idea and a challenge. Writers challenged each other to write 50,000 words of a novel in thirty days, notably during the month of November. The idea took off and as of today, 798,162 novelists have participated, completing 367,913 novels as participants in NaNoWriMo.

The program is really successful as a way to light a fire under you and get you writing. Many of these novels do end up getting heavily revised (that’s almost always necessary with a first draft) and being published! The novels that have been written during this month and went on to be traditionally published include Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants, Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, Hugh Howey’s Wool, Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, Jason Hough’s The Darwin Elevator, and Marissa Meyer’s Cinder.

NaNoWriMo also provides a number of other programs for writers young and old. Experienced authors offer mentorship and support through pep talks. Some of the past author mentors have been Gene Luen Yang, Roxane Gay, John Green, Andy Weir, N. K. Jemisin, and Veronica Roth.

Each year on November 1, hundreds of thousands of people kick off a writing adventure, each of them determined to end the month with a brand new novel. Everyone begins in the same place — with a blank page. And many of them end the month with over 50,000 words of a new book.

How can you make NaNoWriMo a successful acceleration point in your writing career? Here are 10 easy steps.

How to be a NaNoWriMo Success

Writing 50,000 words in a month is not an easy commitment or a trivial pledge. But it can feel overwhelming at first. The trick is to not let the big idea overwhelm the daily practice of just putting words on paper.

Here are the best ways you can help yourself succeed:

1. Sign Up

Too many people — including many writers — are always waiting for something to happen to them. They are waiting for their ship to come in. They think the world will move without them taking action. Don’t be that writer — do something for yourself.

If you sign up at NanoWriMo, you’re making a public commitment that you want to write something.

That’s all it is — just a commitment to write something. It’s not a commitment to precise length (just a goal). It’s not a commitment to brilliance. It’s not even a commitment you’ll finish your work. Your commitment is to yourself, and it’s in front of everyone. Go for it! You can do it!

You’d be surprised how many people get anxious and never really do it, but the first step is to actually sign up at NanoWriMo.

2. Understand and Embrace Your Writing Style

Writers today tend to refer to themselves as either “pantsers” or “plotters.”  Both are valid ways of approaching a writing project. Here’s a complete post on what those terms mean.

Pantsers VS Plotters

The short version is that “pantsers” are people who “fly by the seat of their pants.” Birdbox by Josh Malerman was written this way.

Writers who are “plotters” like to outline their work and then attack these plot points step by step. Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone (and its many sequels) was written by J.K. Rowling in a plotted mode.

Note that many writers combine a little bit of the “pantser” and “plotter” styles. They produce a high-level outline, but they don’t create a chapter by chapter (or page by page) outline. Beloved, by Toni Morrison is an example of a great book written using an in-between style. (more details in this post)

Do your homework

Whichever style you prefer, try to sort this out before you get going, or else you’ll have a frustrating time trying to determine what is going wrong in your writing, when you really just need to know what works for you.

3. Plan to Succeed

Once you know what style of writer you are, then embrace that style for yourself. Prepare the creative ground for your genius gardening!

If you are a pantser, get your ideas or your characters firmly in mind, and start dreaming about them. If you need to research your characters to understand them and their world better, do that in advance.

If you are a plotter, then start writing your outline well in advance of November 1. You don’t want to start your month of writing by spending a day or two creating an outline. (Typically, writers don’t count “outlining” work as contributing to a daily word count, because those words won’t get published.)

So write your outline in advance, and hone the outline so you know precisely where you’re going to start the story, and how it’s going to go.

If you are somewhere in between a pantser and plotter, that’s great. Just outline as much as you need to, in order to have a few navigational aids to point you forward.

4. Get Support in Place

NaNoWriMo is not an easy commitment. It’s like running a marathon. And all marathon winners have a support team in place.

Your support team can be your friends and family who are encouraging you to write. The support team for you can also be friends in your local writing group.

Writing coaches like the Novel Doctor offer special consulting sessions to support you through NaNoWriMo as well. (You can sign up here for a weekly consult on your writing progress.)

It is also helpful to work with a support group of people who are going through exactly what you’re going through. You can find these people in the NaNoWriMo online forums and social media groups.

To connect with fellow NaNoWriMo participants, follow the #nanowrimo hashtags on Twitter, or you can join Facebook groups dedicated to NaNoWriMo.

Here are NaNoWriMo Facebook groups to join:

5. Remove Distractions

NaNoWriMo is a time during which you should be focused on producing words for your next great novel.

But what happens when you’re in the middle of writing, and suddenly there’s a new hashtag on Twitter or a Facebook notification pops up or you find something cool to watch on YouTube, or you have to look up how to use the semicolon correctly, or the election is uncertain, or you have to…

It’s easy to get distracted when you’re trying to write.

To prevent distractions, it’s useful to have software that can block distractions.

There are three apps that I’d recommend to help you take back your writing time from the endless rabbit hole of distractions that can happen online.

  • Freedom is an app that you can use to restrict your own access to specific websites and applications for a preset period of time. Whenever you try to visit restricted websites during the time you have scheduled to write, you’ll be reminded to keep writing.
  • StayFocusd is a Chrome browser extension that can block a series of websites, or can restrict access to those websites so that, for example, you can only be on Facebook for 10-15 minutes a day.
  • RescueTime is a paid app that provides time-tracking, distraction blocking, and much more. With this app, you can see exactly where your time goes, block your worst distractions, and get reports to know what you’re doing with every minute of your day.

6. Schedule in NaNoWriMo

To write a 50,000 word book, you have to produce about 1,667 words per day. So you’ll need to find the time — hopefully every day — to sit down and write.

The best way to make sure this happens every day is to plan what time you’re going to write, and write during that time. Producing a book isn’t a matter of inspiration — it’s perspiration.

In Stephen King’s book on writing, he points out that truck-drivers don’t get to say they aren’t “inspired” on that day to drive their truck. They just get in the truck at the right time every day, and drive forward.

That’s what you’ll have to do as a writer this month. Schedule your time, plan your time, and write during that time.

Curious if writers succeed at night or in the morning? There’s no answer to that question. Some writers write best at 4 a.m. Other writers like to start at midnight. You don’t have to write at any particular time. You just need to plan time to write. And then write.

7. Write in one place (or every place!)

A good trick for any creative task is to always do that task in the same location and the same environment. Don’t use that location for any time-wasting activities (like watching TV or playing games). Instead, make this space a dedicated location for your writing.

This act will both save you from distractions and will help your brain to remember that you are in that location to write.

It doesn’t matter if this location is inside or outside or is located in the basement or the attic. There are no perfect locations. Prize-winning literary author Annie Dillard loves to write in a writing shed. In fact, she doesn’t write inside at all!

Find out where you feel the most productive and then write there every day.

It’s worth noting that even the idea of “having to go to a special place” to write may also be a hindrance to some writers. Because, after all, if you have a notebook and a pencil (or even a phone with a writing app), you can write almost anywhere. CNN anchor Jake Tapper wrote his novel Hellfire Club in moments in between meetings and business tasks, finding a minute here and there to scratch down a fresh scene. Writers like Jake prove that you can write a novel anywhere, just by making that your focus for those few stolen moments.

Where you write doesn’t really matter, but the fact that you’re writing every day can help you make progress toward your goal.

8. Stop Editing

Writers can be their own best editors and their own worst editors. Whether you’re a good self-editor or a bad editor, during NaNoWriMo you should just try to turn off the editor.

NaNoWriMo is for producing new words — not editing old drafts. Your goal is to deliver a new set of 50,000+ words by the end of the month. To accomplish that goal, you’ll have to plow forward and stop looking backward.

An editorial eye on things will slow you down during the month of November. When you get to December, you can turn that editor back on. For now, turn it off!

So if you’ve written a scene that seems imperfect or a character who has the wrong name for your plot, don’t bother to go back and fix it now. Instead, just flag that passage with a written comment or a highlighter with a note to yourself to fix it later. And then just keep going.

9. Keep Going

You have to eat an elephant one bite at a time. To reach the monthly word count goal, it’s important to be able to make progress at a steady pace. And your pace might be different than anyone else. That’s fine. The important thing is to keep making progress, day by day.

If you can put in those 1,667 words per day, then you’ll make your goal with room to spare.

However, there are other ways of hitting that word count goal. If you can’t put in much time during the week, just commit to 500 on every weekday (that’s only 2 double-spaced pages) and then add in an additional 5,000 words on the weekends. Alternatively, you could put in over 2,000 words per day.

10. Stay Chill

Writing days sometimes go awry. Occasionally, things won’t go as planned. During your writing time, your child might require a bandaid, or your dog might desperately need a walk. Or your spouse might need your help.

And on the next day, you might have gotten up early in an empty house, turned on your distraction-free apps, turned off your inner editor, booted up your Word processor and yet… the words just refused to come.

Things happen. That’s ok.

You won’t make the daily word count every day, and that’s ok too. Don’t shame yourself for this lack of progress on that one day. Don’t talk down to yourself. This will just slow you down more.

Just remind yourself that this is just one bite of the elephant. You can take two bites the next day, or the day after that. You can recognize if you’re behind, find some additional time to catch up, and still make your goal.

The important thing is that you’re building a habit of mind and a physical habit of doing the work every day.

Be easy on yourself. Stay chill. Writing is hard work, and you’re doing the work! Yay!

Good luck and happy writing!

Read more notes on writing: 

➤ The Big List of 152+ Metaphor Examples for Writers
➤ Literary Devices and Terms: 52+ Examples
➤ A Word Count Guide for Every Book Genre
➤ How Many Words Do Famous Writers Write Every Day?
➤ How to Deliver a Book to an Editor: How To Format Your Manuscript