Winter (Writing) Is Coming: Tips for Winning NaNoWriMo

It’s that time of year again. The crisp rustle of (page) leaves, the chill in the air (at the thought of writing a novel in a month)…it’s not just autumn, it’s National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), that magical/maddening season when aspiring authors around the world sprint toward a 50,000-word draft. I participated last year and won. It wasn’t easy, but I discovered some strategic points that can shift the balance between stress and success:

In October

1. Assess your writing pace. Find an hour today you can devote to writing—a story, a blog post, any content will do—and determine roughly how many words you can produce in that time. Divide 50,000 (or whatever target number you’ve chosen for NaNoWriMo) by that word count. That’s the estimated hours needed to complete a novel draft. Don’t worry if your pace seems slow. You can still reach your destination traveling at a lower speed limit; you just need to allow more time for the journey. With that in mind…

2. Set a schedule. Now that you know approximately how long you’ll need to reach your goal, carve time out of your calendar like a jack-o-lantern. If you work full-time like I do, it’s hard enough to find time for 500 words a day, much less the average 1,667 needed to win NaNoWriMo. Identifying that time in advance will reduce the stress of scrambling for words before midnight. Figure out which activities you can shorten or sacrifice for the month (binge-watching TV) and which you can’t (work, exercise). Don’t forget to build in compensatory time for any holiday engagements (unless you’re fortunate enough to have understanding in-laws who don’t take it personally when you haul your laptop to Thanksgiving dinner).

3. Logistical planning. Writing a novel in a month means accepting a certain amount of neglect in other life areas. A little preparation now can mitigate the decline, plus free up valuable drafting time. Wintery meals like chilis and stews typically freeze well; make a week’s worth now to nourish your keyboard-weary fingers in November. It’s an election year, so take advantage of early voting if it’s available near you and spend that Tuesday evening with your manuscripts instead of caught in the poll crowds. Stock up on whatever essentials you can. Reschedule whatever outings you can for December. Lay in for siege.

In November

1. Delete nothing. During November, consider your laptop or notebook a stone tablet. Thou shalt not cross out a single precious word. Change a plot point in the middle of the story? Don’t go back to edit for continuity; note it and write the rest of the draft as if the first part matched. You’ll have alternatives to compare in revision. NaNoWriMo is not about creating a polished manuscript, but generating raw material: you’re digging up the clay that later you’ll sculpt into a masterpiece. Embrace the chaos and watch your word count soar.

2. Manage mental and physical health. You’ll be drawing hard on the creative aquifer this month, so don’t deny yourself non-writing activities that replenish your reserves. When I did NaNoWriMo last year, I maintained my daily exercise habit, which kept me sane and often generated good ideas that sped up my drafting later that night. Leave necessary time for friends, family, and pets. Try not to compromise sleep or meals. November is also flu season, and getting sick could derail your project (another excellent reason to get your flu shot).

3. Relax. Life happens. Inevitably there will be days you have a work/family emergency, or get stuck in traffic, or just can’t summon the story. And that’s okay. Don’t berate yourself if you miss a daily goal. You can make it up the next day, or gradually through the week. I found that producing extra on the weekends created a buffer for the low-word-count days and allowed me more peace of mind. And even if everything falls apart, what’s the worst that happens? You’ve still finish the month with more words than you had in October. With writing–especially part-time writing–progress itself is winning.

Those six writing tips helped me win NaNoWriMo and still keep my life mostly intact. Although I’m passing on NaNoWriMo 2018 to focus on revising my third novel, I’d love to hear from fellow writers tackling the challenge. Hit me up in the comments below or on Twitter @jk_ullrich for writing advice, a bit of encouragement, or to share your own tips for triumph. Good luck with your November writing goals!

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