Everyone Else Is Doing It (So Why Aren’t You?)

Absolute BlankBy Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

NaNoWriMo is the pumpkin spice of the writing world. Come September, it starts seeping into everything a writer touches. By October, it’s ubiquitous. So when November rolls around, it’s inescapable. NaNo is a great excuse to hang up the “do not disturb” sign for the month of November, whether you’re doing it or not. If you’re not NaNo-ing, how else can you use those 30 days to become a better writer?

Set Goals

National Novel Writing Month isn’t so much about writing a novel in a month as it is about discipline, goals, and practice. If NaNo isn’t your thing, set your own goals for the month (or the season). These might include “write for two hours five days a week” or “outline a story in early November, write in November and early December, then edit and submit it before the New Year.”

If you’re already a writer who’s disciplined and working as much as you can, look at your comfort zone and where you might be able to break through it. Are you writing a little every day that never goes anywhere? Use November to pore over abandoned pieces and maybe link them or finish them. Polish them and submit at least one before November 30 and you could have a fresh publication credit by the end of the year.

Background Image: Toban B./Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Background Image: Toban B./Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Write poetry, CNF, or memoir

NaNo is made for fiction writers but not all writers create fiction. Many of us are poets or memoirists (or would like to be). The nonconformists among us looking to co-opt NaNo might want to use November to create our own November challenges.

Write a poem a week; use Mondays and Tuesdays to explore ideas, write on Wednesday, revise Thursday, rewrite on Friday, and ask for feedback over the weekend.

Use your favorite writing prompts as the impetus for memoir instead of fiction. Write a memoir every day in November, even if it’s only a sentence or two. At the end of November, reread and look for a uniting theme among the 30 pieces you’ve created. Flesh out those stories and gather them together. Do you have a collection or at least a good beginning?

Write Short Stories

Lots of my NaNo friends are short story writers. Most of them use NaNo as an excuse to stretch themselves by working on novel-length fiction. Some like to use NaNo simply to create longer short stories. Usually they write five 10,000-word stories, which they plan in October. Those stories tend to have a connecting thread, like a character who appears in each story or a theme that carries through every story.

The NaNo police are not going to show up at your door and tell you your work for November doesn’t “count” because you didn’t write 1667 words per day on a single piece. You win NaNo by having 50,000 words of original fiction written in November. You don’t edit yourself as you go. You don’t delete paragraphs that aren’t working. So who cares if you realize on November 10 that this piece is complete? End it and begin something new. If you’d like to connect them later, you can, if it makes you feel better about the way in which you participated in NaNo.

NaNoWriMo’s Young Writers program allows the setting of a word count of your choice as a goal. NaNo Rebels maintains a discussion board at the official site (search it; if you read this after 2014, this link to the welcome thread may no longer be valid).

Write Character Sketches/Bios

Okay, you’re a fiction writer. You want to write a novel (or another novel). You’re down for NaNo… but uninspired. Still, you want to go to the coffee shop and answer “I’m doing NaNoWriMo” when the person beside you asks what you’re doing. Do you have a character in mind? It doesn’t have to be a main character. Write that character’s background story. You can fill out a Character Development Worksheet. You can write diary- or blog-like paragraphs from any time in the character’s past. Take an online quiz, giving the answers a character would give. Try a Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test for the character you have in mind to learn more about him.

Everything you write about the character is fiction. You can count it toward your total word count of fiction on your NaNo project. You might be able to get a novel off the ground by the end of November but you might not. You can create your own NaNo project by creating 10 original characters (one every three days) and writing 5000 words about them, from their names to the story of their first heartbreaks. You might put them all into a single project or you might hang on to them until you find their stories.

Explore New Genres

NaNo has no restriction on genre. How many genres are your NaNo friends working on? NaNo is a great excuse to write in a new genre. Start something fresh or take a false start and continue it. If you feel your fiction pulling you toward horror or sci-fi, follow it.

If it doesn’t work, go back to where you consciously began the new genre (maybe a little further back than that), and try a different path. If you were writing a romance novel that turned into erotica and fell flat, think about why it wasn’t working. Character motivation? A setting that didn’t add to the plot? A word that you were uncomfortable putting into your narrator’s vocabulary? Change it up and give it another shot. None of your writing will be wasted.

Practice With Prompts

If you’re not into creating a single 50,000 word project for November but you’ve set the goal of daily writing or reaching 1667 words of fresh fiction per day, practice with prompts. You can find writing prompts right here at TC, at Twitter, at Pinterest, and all over the web.

Again, you can connect your daily pieces later if you want a more coherent feel to the work you’ve done in November but there’s no rule saying you must reach someone else’s goal. If you use NaNo to get into daily writing practice, you “win” when you have 30 prompts that worked for you, even if it was a few sentences jotted down in a Moleskine book before bed.

Enter a Contest

Lots of journals and publishers have contests going on in November (TC included) and with so many writers focusing on NaNo, you have a better chance of making the cut. That’s not to say that you can slack; you never want anything less than your best out there. But you can spend November writing a single short story that gets published rather than a 50,000 word novel that will never see the light of day.

Research (and query) agents or markets

When prospective NaNo-ers are writing outlines, you can research markets, publishers, and agents. October and November are opportune times to send your polished query to an agent. When the agent requests more from you, you’re ready to go. If an agent or editor responds to your piece asking for a few edits, you’re not caught up in NaNoWriMo madness. You’re ready to fulfill those requests.

As always, you’ll be writing to keep from watching your inbox, but you won’t feel the pressure that NaNo writers are feeling. Your November harvest could be a publication credit, a signed book contract, or the payment for a short story.

Keep your goal specific, like “research and query one agent per week” or “research markets every MWF and submit on the weekends.” Specific goals are harder to slack on.

Submit or Workshop

Even if you’re eschewing NaNo to the point of taking the month off of writing, send something out. TC’s inbox is most swelled in January when the New Year’s resolution to submit inspires writers. Beat the rush. Submit something in November for publication. Send a piece a week to the journals you’ve researched. Find the best possible fits, follow the submission guidelines, and send it in.

There’s more going on in your local real world of writers than NaNo. In addition to write-ins, there are workshops at bookstores, libraries, and cafes. Everyone will be talking about their NaNo frustrations while you show up with a story (with a beginning, middle, and end) ready for feedback. It’ll be a welcome distraction for the NaNo-ers and you’ll come out with some fresh opinions.

What Now?

Implement one of our A Pen In Each Hand accompanying exercises (culled from the above), get yourself a lovely seasonal beverage, and enjoy the month of November. Pumpkin spice: optional.

NaNo Rebellion

A Pen In Each Hand

By Baker

For the Traditionalist:

  • Join National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and write 50,000 words on a single piece of fiction.

For the Habitual Line Stepper:

  • Write 50,000 words of fiction spread among several projects.
  • Write ten 5,000-word short stories.
  • Write 50,000 words of memoir or non-fiction.
  • Blog 50,000 words.
  • Write a poem a day.

For the Non-Conformist

  • Write in a new place at least once a week.
  • Create ten new characters; work on their character backgrounds three days each.
  • Write fresh fiction every day based on a writing prompt. When you hit 1,667 words, stop for the day. Pick up the unfinished pieces in December.
  • Write anything in a new-to-you genre.

For the Eschewer

  • Submit four or more pieces for publication, at least one per week.
  • Spend the first two weeks of November researching markets and the remainder of the month submitting.
  • Research and query one or two agents or publishers per week.
  • Attend a workshop or write-in. If you can’t find one, create one.

Writing After NaNoWriMo

It’s NaNoWriMo, Day 25.

Maybe, despite your best efforts, you’ve fallen off the NaNoWriMo wagon. (It’s ok!)

Maybe you’re already a winner (congratulations!) and are psyched to continue writing.

Either way, what you need right now is… Beyond NaNoWriMo: Writing Challenges for Everyone.

If you’re starting to think about writing goals for 2014, pay particular attention to the ongoing/monthly challenges. These smaller, quieter challenges are designed to keep you writing year-round. If you establish a daily writing practice, when November 2014 rolls around, 50,000 words in a month will either seem like a piece of cake (you’ve got this!)—or completely unnecessary. Remember: just a little bit of writing each day adds up over a year:

100 words a day = 36,500 words in a year.
250 words a day = 91,250 words in a year.
500 words a day = 182,500 words in a year.
750 words a day = 273,750 words in a year.

Keep in mind that 80-100k is a good length to aim for if you’re writing a novel. See Colleen Lindsay’s breakdown of novel lengths for specifics. In other words: by writing just 250 words day, you could finish a novel in a year.

Are you a fan of writing challenges? Which ones have worked for you?

Beyond NaNoWriMo: Writing Challenges for Everyone

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

Every October, the internet buzzes as thousands of writers start thinking about characters and plots in anticipation of National Novel Writing Month. Meanwhile, others start grumbling about why they won’t be participating in NaNoWriMo. We’ve all heard these complaints (or uttered them ourselves):

  • “I’m too busy in November.”
  • “I write, but not fiction (or novels).”
  • “Real writers write every day, not just in November.”
  • “I don’t like the shitty first draft approach to writing; I prefer to take my time.”
  • “I’ve already finished a novel. Now I need to edit (or sell) it.”
  • “50,000 words isn’t a novel.”
  • “50,000 words? I could never write that much.”
  • “I should finish what I’ve started before I start something new.”

And so on. I hear you. NaNoWriMo may be the oldest and best known online writing challenge, but it’s not for everyone. Maybe you’re new to writing and the challenge is just too intimidating. Maybe you’re a seasoned professional and you don’t need an intense month-long challenge to spur you to write. Whatever your rationale (or excuse), it’s okay. But just because NaNoWriMo isn’t right for you doesn’t mean you should disregard writing challenges altogether. In recent years, a variety of writing challenges have sprung up, making it possible for just about any writer to find a challenge to suit.

So what’s a writing challenge? Like a contest, a challenge sets out parameters for participation, but unlike a contest, anyone who completes the task “wins” and the only prizes are personal satisfaction (and perhaps a badge to display on your website). A challenge is also similar to a resolution, but its goals are more specific and concrete. Its main allure is that it’s a communal endeavor as well as an individual one. Each participant is in charge of her own fate as she works toward the goal, but at the same time, all participants, who are each working toward the same goal, agree to support and encourage each other in their efforts. Challenges build community.

While just having a concrete goal to work toward can be motivating in itself, working toward it with a group of people doing the same can more so, because all those doubts you have about your ability to succeed are mitigated. Not enough time? Wait, here’s someone with even less free time than you. If he can do it, why can’t you? Hit a wall? Well, that happened to a friend last week and she wrote about how she got through it. And the same is true in reverse. A challenge gets you out of your own head—fretting about yourself and what you can’t do—and into the space of encouraging and supporting fellow writers. And that helps you focus on what you can do.

Finally, writing challenges put writing into terms that non-writers can understand. And this is where a challenge can be of value to even the most self-motivated writer. You may well be disciplined enough to write without needing a challenge. But how accommodating are your friends and family? If finding time to write is a constant battle, if your family and friends just don’t get why you’re always staring at that screen, if they’re always nagging you to do something else when you’re trying to write, a challenge can be the perfect opportunity to get them on board.

Participating in a writing challenge for a writer is much like participating in a running event for a runner. Suddenly you’re not out there on your own “just writing.” You’re working toward [specific goal] with all these other people who are doing the same thing. It makes what you’re doing real for the non-writer and it allows you to say to those who would sabotage you (intentionally or not), “I must write today in order to reach [specific goal] by [deadline]. When I reach [specific goal], we’ll celebrate. Until then, bear with me and don’t forget to cheer me on!”

Beyond NaNoWriMo: Writing Challenges for Everyone


Picture Book Dummy Challenge
Founded by the #kidlitchat administrators (@kidlitchat) in 2011.
Challenge: create and submit a picture book dummy over 25 weeks.
Aimed at: author/illustrators, but “writers who are not artists can benefit from portions of the dummy exercise, and illustrators without an original manuscript can use the process to create a dummy portfolio piece.”
Hashtag: #PBDummy


National Novel Editing Month (@NaNoEdMo)
Founded at nanoedmo.org in 2003; moved to nanoedmo.net in 2007. Meet the NaNoEdMo staff.
Challenge: spend 50 hours editing a novel during the month.
Aimed at: people who completed NaNoWriMo and now want to edit their novels.
Hashtag: #NaNoEdMo

is National Poetry Month.
Created by the Academy of American Poets (@poetsorg) in 1996:

National Poetry Month is a month-long, national celebration of poetry established by the Academy of American Poets. The concept is to widen the attention of individuals and the media—to the art of poetry, to living poets, to our complex poetic heritage, and to poetry books and journals of wide aesthetic range and concern.

National Poetry Writing Month
Founded by poet Maureen Thorson (@maureenthorson) in 2003.
Challenge: write 30 poems in 30 days.
Aimed at: poets and anyone else who wants to write poetry.
Hashtag: #NaPoWriMo

Script Frenzy (@scriptfrenzy)
Founded by the Office of Letters and Light (the people behind NaNoWriMo) in 2007.
Challenge: write 100 pages of original scripted material in 30 days.
Aimed at: individuals or writing teams of two people who want to write a script.
Hashtag: #scriptfrenzy

is National Short Story Month.
Created by Dan Wickett (@DanWickett) in 2007:

While the poets of the world have shrewdly united to have April be National Poetry Month every year, creating a fair amount of attention for their craft, we (proverbial) here at the EWN have decided that we sort of like concentrating on one form for a lengthy period of time, so we’re declaring that around here, May will be Short Story Month.

Hashtag: #ssm[year] (e.g. #ssm2012) or #nashostomo

National Picture Book Writing Week
Founded by Paula Yoo (@PaulaYoo) in 2009.
Challenge: write 7 first drafts of picture books in 7 days (May 1-7).
Aimed at: anyone who wants to write a children’s picture book.
Hashtag: #napibowriwee

Story a Day
Founded by Julie Duffy (@StoryaDayMay) in 2010.
Challenge: write a short story every day in May.
Aimed at: anyone who wants to write short fiction.
Hashtag: #storyaday or #storyadaymay

Note: these are two separate July novel-writing challenges.

July National Writing Month (@julnawrimo)
Founded by Reannon in 2004.
Challenge: write a 50,000-word novel in 31 days.
Aimed at: anyone who wants to try a NaNoWriMo-style challenge in July.
Hashtag: #JulNaWriMo

July Novel Writing Month (@julnowrimo)
Founded by Robert Watson in 2005.
Challenge: write a 50,000-word novel in 31 days.
Aimed at: anyone who wants to try a NaNoWriMo-style challenge in July.
Hashtag: #JulNoWriMo


Write Fifteen Minutes a Day Challenge
Founded by Laurie Halse Anderson (@HalseAnderson) in 2008
Challenge: Commit to write for 15 minutes a day for the entire month of August.
Aimed at: anyone who wants to write: “You can write fiction, non-fiction, memoir, or poetry.”
Hashtag: #wfmad


Toasted Cheese’s Mini-Nano Challenge
Founded by Theryn Fleming (@theryn) in 2011.
Challenge: Write 5,000-words of fiction in September.
Aimed at: people who want a NaNoWriMo warm-up and those looking for a less-intimidating alternative
Hashtag: #TCmininano

is Picture Book Month.
Created by Dianne de Las Casas (@storyconnection) in 2011:

In October 2010, the New York Times published an article that declared “Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children.” It set the children’s book world on fire and it set me on fire. In September 2011, I had the idea to create a campaign, an international initiative designating November as Picture Book Month.

Hashtag: #PictureBookMonth

National Novel Writing Month (@NaNoWriMo + @NaNoWordSprints)
Founded by Chris Baty (@chrisbaty) in 1999.
Challenge: write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days.
Aimed at: anyone who wants to write a novel.
Note: NaNoWriMo has a Young Writers Program (@NaNoWriMoYWP) for people aged 17-and-under and school groups, which allows them to set their own word count goals. Teens 13-and-older who want to participate in the 50k challenge can register at the main site.
Hashtag: #NaNoWriMo

National Playwriting Month
Founded by Dorothy Lemoult in 2006.
Challenge: write a 75-page script for a stage play in 30 days. Note: no screenplays.
Aimed at: individual playwrights, as an alternative to NaNoWriMo
Hashtag: #NaPlWriMo

Picture Book Idea Month
Founded by Tara Lazar (@taralazar) in 2010.
Challenge: create 30 new picture book ideas in 30 days.
Aimed at: picture book writers, as an alternative to NaNoWriMo
Hashtag: #PiBoIdMo

National Novel Querying Month
Founded by Tracy Buscemi (@TracyDawn2802) in 2011.
Challenge: send 1 query to 1 agent every day for 30 days.
Aimed at: writers with complete, polished manuscripts they are ready to send out.
Hashtag: #NaNoQuerMo

Academic Book Writing Month (@PhD2Published)
Founded by Charlotte Frost (@charlottefrost) in 2011.
Challenge: write a 50,000-word academic book in 30 days.
Aimed at: academics, as an alternative to NaNoWriMo
Hashtag: #AcBoWriMo


100 Words (@100words)
Founded by Jeff Koyen in 2001.
Challenge: write exactly 100 words a day, every day, for one month
Aimed at: anyone who wants to participate in “an exercise in disciplined creativity.”
Hashtag: #100words

Toasted Cheese Daily Writing Prompts
Founded by Toasted Cheese (@toasted_cheese) in 2002.
Challenge: use the daily prompt to jumpstart your writing.
Aimed at: anyone who enjoys the challenge of writing in response to a prompt.
Hashtag: #TCPrompts

National Blog Posting Month (@NaBloPoMo)
Founded by Eden Kennedy (@MrsKennedy) in 2006. Now run by BlogHer (@BlogHer).
Challenge: write a blog post every day for a month.
Aimed at: anyone who wants to blog daily.
Hashtag: #NaBloPoMo

One-Sentence Journal
Founded by Gretchen Rubin (@gretchenrubin) in 2006.
Challenge: write one sentence each day about what happened that day.
Aimed at: people who want to keep a journal/diary, but find the idea too daunting.
Hashtag: #thehappinessproject

Inkygirl Wordcount Challenge
Founded by Debbie Ridpath Ohi (@inkyelbows) in 2009.
Challenge: write 250, 500 or 1,000 words a day, six days a week.
Aimed at: writers who want to commit to an achievable writing goal on an ongoing basis.
Hashtag: see Debbie’s list of Twitter “slow chats” for hashtags you can use.

750 Words (@750words)
Founded by Buster Benson in 2010.
Challenge: write 750 words (the equivalent of 3 pages) each morning.
Aimed at: writers who want to journal in the spirit of The Artist’s Way‘s morning pages, but online. Note: All entries made on the site are private.
Hashtag: #750words

Final Poll Results

Surviving NaNoWriMo

Absolute Blank

By Erin Nappe (Billiard)

By now, most writers are at least familiar with Chris Baty’s brainchild; write a 50,000-word novel in one month, with the focus on getting the darn thing finished rather than worrying about how good it is. Back in 2004, I was a first-time participant in NaNoWriMo. I decided to dive right in, and I was not fully prepared for the task that lay before me. I started off with the best of intentions, but my intentions didn’t quite carry me far enough.

It took me three tries, but I finally earned the title of NaNoWriMo winner last year. I thought I’d share some of my own wisdom for completing the challenge.

Background Image: Ted Rheingold/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

It’s possible to be busy and still be a winner.

At this time last year, I was teaching four college classes and working as a substitute teacher. When the grading started to pile up, it was tempting to just give up, walk away, throw up my hands and say, “I can’t do it. I’m too busy.” But I didn’t. I made myself a schedule. I told myself I’d devote a certain number of hours each day, no matter what. I blogged and emailed less. I spent less time poking around the Internet. I did very little reading. And I survived! I even spent one weekend visiting a friend, and spent Thanksgiving with my family.

The laptop is your friend.

I don’t know that I would have gotten through it without my trusty iBook. I’m not saying it’s impossible to be a winner without one, but it sure made my life a lot easier. Since my life tends to be mobile, being able to take my novel with me wherever I went helped me reach my goal. Don’t have a laptop? Get yourself a flash drive, pronto!

Another possibility for portable writing is the AlphaSmart. It’s a portable word processor for about $219!

Announce your participation publicly.

If you want to succeed, it’s important to let people know what you’re doing. I posted my progress meter on my blog, and I found that facing the possibility of public shame was sometimes what I needed to keep myself going!

If you don’t have any place else to announce it (or even if you do), make sure you visit our NaNoWriMo forum and let everyone know you’re participating!

Get a writing buddy.

Or two. Or ten. The NaNoWriMo forums can be a great source of support. (Warning… the official forums are very slow right now!) If you find yourself overwhelmed there, you can always post on our forum. You’ll find that the encouragement of other people in the same situation will be invaluable.

Learn to love writing prompts.

There were countless times when I found myself stuck. I’d go online and search the calendar at TC, or look for prompts at other writing sites, and find something that would give me the spark I needed to get going again.

Roll with the changes.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t have a plan or an outline—many people can’t work without them! I’m just saying that you shouldn’t be so committed to anything that you refuse to change it. Because when you’re writing a novel in a month, well… things happen.

For example, I changed point-of-view characters well into my novel. The voice I started out with just wasn’t working for me, so I shifted to a different character and finished the novel in his head. I fretted about it for a while before convincing myself that it didn’t matter—I could go back and change things later. Don’t ever forget that—you can go back and change things later. I typed notes to myself within the text to change this, or fix that, or flesh this out. It’s not going anywhere, and no one ever has to see that first draft but you!

Don’t give up.

Try to keep up with your daily word count goals, but don’t be too hard on yourself if you don’t make it one day. Things happen. You can make it up. It might seem impossible, but I promise you, it’s not. I frequently found myself getting behind, but it’s amazing how much you can make up in a short time when you get on a roll.

Don’t forget food and water.

It sounds silly, but make sure that you’ve stocked up on food and drinks that you like, things you can enjoy while sitting in front of the computer. You’re not going to want to cook much, so try to find things that are easy to prepare. A loving spouse or partner who cooks is always a big help. 😉 I made sure to keep myself stocked up on tea and Dr. Pepper, because that’s what I like. Baker is partial to Vitamin Water. But whatever it is, keep it close!

Do follow the rules.

Particularly if you’re a first time participant, you should follow the guidelines set forth by NaNoWriMo. Start a fresh story instead of trying to rework, re-imagine, or reinvent something you’ve already started. You’ll have more enthusiasm for the project, and therefore more momentum.

Don’t panic.

Your muse smells fear. She doesn’t respond well to it. Keep your cool, and keep going.

Above all, keep reminding yourself that you can do it!

Here’s a quick guide to sites and other resources to help you get through November:


Sign-ups are underway now! Look for local groups, forums by genre, and more!


In particular, the writer’s tools are quite helpful. I used the word meter and posted it on my blog!

Writing Prompts

There are lots of writing prompts sites, but these are some of the ones I used: Creative Writing Prompts, Writer’s Digest prompts, Toasted Cheese calendar, Story Spinner online.

The Snowflake Method

Several of our editors swear by this method for designing their novel. Check it out!

No Plot? No Problem!

NaNoWriMo creator Chris Baty shares his secrets for a successful novel writing experience. I bought this book last year, and found the advice in it incredibly valuable

WriteBoard and Google Docs

More options for document portability. Both WriteBoard and Google Docs are free, secure sites where you can update your documents from any computer that has web access. Even better, you can share your documents with anyone you want!

Final Poll Results

A Novel in a Month? Am I Crazy?

Absolute Blank

By Ana George

I think I first became aware of National Novel Writing Month in 2002. Several people on a community site I frequented at the time seemed to be doing it, and I’d been writing little vignettes and short stories. Chris Baty decided in 1999 that it’d be fun to get a bunch of people to all write 50,000 word novels in a month, and so he declared November to be National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). It’s still going, stronger than ever.

I’ve started three of these things, and finished two, in 2003 and 2005.

In my case, going into November the essential ingredients I had on hand are a few characters (but feel free to make up more of them as the need arises), an idea for a plot or at least a situation, clearing one’s schedule as much as possible, and a writing buddy. Note that this list does not include communion with the Muse.

If you wait for the Muse to whisper something in your ear, you’re not going to make it. Lightning strikes are nice, and they can make for some rip-roaring tales, but they’re rare. Just write. Something will happen, often something rather nice, or even wonderful. I found myself sitting down wondering what comes next. Putting myself into the head of one character or another, and watching what happened next. The NaNo thing is really about getting past writer’s blocks, the need to edit everything to death before going on.

Background Image: Lee Penney/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

I found this approach rather incompatible with plot outlines, or writing scenes out of order. The characters have a way of peeking over my shoulder at what’s already been written, and then can’t resist a certain foreknowledge of the plot, which changes how they react. So, for me at least, the discipline of writing the story linearly, in the same order I expect it to be read, was an important survival strategy. Your mileage may vary; I tend to write character-driven fiction. But I found it hard enough to keep track of what all was going on in a linear story, let alone juggling several story threads and trying to remember who knew what in which scenes.

That said, I found I’d left enough threads untied that I could figure out who-done-it at the end, and, during the long Thanksgiving weekend, pull out a rather interesting tale. Then, in both cases, I had to go back and plant the gun (metaphorical) in the drawer in chapter 3, so it’d be available when someone needed it to straighten out my tangle of plot lines.

It’s a good thing try to wrap up the tale at just over 50,000 words, because the steam tends to decrease dramatically once one has met the quota. If you’re planning on “finishing it later,” I’ll warrant you never quite get back to it. Everybody who writes 50,000 words in November and verifies this on the site is a “winner” (and you even get a PDF plaque to prove it).

Having a writing buddy is a Great Thing. Somebody who’ll wake up each morning, read what you’ve written, perhaps make a comment or two, but most of all be disappointed if there isn’t anything there to read. If they’re also writing a NaNo, all the better, but you probably don’t have time to read along in more than one or two other novels if you’re writing one of your own. I’m not sure if this is a unique thing for NaNo writing or not; I’ve never really had a writing buddy as such for ordinary writing. Don’t expect in-depth critiques, either giving or receiving. I think the most useful comment I got in the middle of things was “Hey, it was Christmas and now it’s Spring Break already.”

Let’s run some numbers. The goal is 50,000 words in the 30 days of November. This is 1,667 words per day. I type 30 about words per minute, so I can write 1800 words per hour, which means I should plan on at least an hour a day, day in, day out, no exceptions. In practice, it takes me a bit longer if I’m also making up the story as I type. I think I spent around 50 hours on each of my two successful NaNos.

Of course, when there are rules, there is the urge to bend them. If the only thing you’re being graded on is word count, you tend to use 10 words where one would do. And to save and run a word-count after ever sentence or two. These are bad habits, but you’ll develop them anyway.

Sometimes a plot line or a stack of prose just goes bad. When you have a deadline, you sometimes have to just go on, or throw out a chapter or two, in hopes of patching the hole in the edit, later.

It’s a good idea to keep track of everything you invent. The first time the neighbor shows up, you make up a name for him. The second time, he already has a name, and you should have it recorded somewhere so you can find it. There are a number of software tools that help with this kind of bookkeeping. Tastes vary, and finding a tool that works well for you can be frustrating, or as simple as a web search. I used a TiddlyWiki, which is a one-person, local version of a wiki, the software underlying, for example, the Wikipedia. I wish I’d kept track of more information in it.

The NaNoWriMo website has a number of aids as well. There are forums where you can ask things like how fast smoke signals propagate, and whether the ancient Chinese did anything with gunpowder. You can also register your daily progress and monitor that of your friends. Competition is a good thing. There’s also a NaNoWriMo forum on Toasted Cheese, where you can make fun of your favorite editors for failing to write a novel.

The point of the exercise, really, is just to get a draft of a story written down. To convince you that you are, in fact, capable of writing a long story. You can edit later (yes, Virginia, there’s also a NaNoEdMo in March).

And what’s become of my two draft novels? One’s still sitting in the drawer where it went at the end of the month. The other’s still got some ideas swirling around, for ways to make the plot clearer, better motivate the action, and explain the relationships between the characters. Perhaps one day I’ll dare to submit it to an agent or a publisher. The handful of people who’ve seen them seem to like them, so perhaps there’s something worth saving. It’s a long strange ride, but I now know that I can put together a story that’s pretty coherent over 200 pages or more.

Final Poll Results

Quantity, Not Quality:
National Novel Writing Month

Absolute Blank

By Erin L. Nappe (Billiard)

It’s the middle of November, and for many of us, that means desperately trying to keep up (or catch up) with our goals for National Novel Writing Month.

For anyone who hasn’t already heard about it, NaNoWriMo is a month-long challenge to write an entire 50,000 word (175 page) novel by midnight, November 30. The emphasis is on quantity, not quality, encouraging writers to ignore their inner editors and just get the words out.

In the words of NaNo’s creators, “You will be writing a lot of crap. And that’s a good thing. By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes. To forgo the endless tweaking and editing and just create.”

I talked to some previous NaNo winners, asking them to share their wisdom for reaching the finish line with those of us participating for the first time.

Background Image: June Marie/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

Debbie Ridpath Ohi, a Toronto-based freelance writer who was a NaNo winner in 2002, said keeping focused on the goal and looking for support from friends and other writers was vital.

“Whenever I started falling behind my daily wordcount goal, there was always a temptation to give up,” she said. “But one of my reasons for publicly announcing my participation in Nanowrimo was to give myself that extra motivation. Peer pressure is a wonderful thing in a situation like this.”

Ohi also stressed the importance of turning off the critic within. “One of the goals of the whole Nanowrimo experience is to allow yourself to write without self-censoring, to get over those pesky writing blocks. Editing can come later, if that’s what you want,” she said.

S. Jennifer Stewart-Boyd is the municipal liason for Rhode Island, with 75-100 writers participating in her area this year. She was a NaNo winner in 2002 and 2003. She said she tells the writers in her area not to give up in the second week, when most participants are feeling the most fear, doubt and despair.

“If you can make it to thirty thousand words, it gets so much easier. Since I completed it the last two years, I have a lot more confidence now in my ability to see it through, even if I’m behind,” she said.

Stewart-Boyd herself was behind in the middle of the second week, but determined not to give up. “I’m still certain I’ll make it,” she said. “Just before it started this year, I looked over my two previous works, which I’d printed out and put in binders. It felt like a real book, and I thought, ‘You did this, and it’s a great accomplishment. You can do it again.'”

Most important, most of the writers agreed, was to keep going and see it through to the finish.

“Even if you only write a hundred words a day, keep at it, and see it through,” Stewart-Boyd said. “Whatever you do, don’t give up. It helps a lot to talk to others who are going through it, and that’s why we have write-ins, so that the writers will encourage each other, just by being there and going through the same thing.”

In order to motivate herself, Stewart-Boyd said she rewards herself every thousand words or so. “I get a break, to do whatever I want. I play videogames, take myself out, whatever is fun and feels special. I buy this hard-to-find stuff, Republic of Tea’s Writer’s Chai, and I allow myself a glass about every finished page or so. When I haven’t met my goal, I deny myself fun and special things, even make myself eat cold cereal instead of hot food. Every five thousand words, I get ice cream, which is one of my favourite things.

Sebastian Raaphorst, a software developer from Mississauga, Ontario, is in his fourth year as a NaNo participant. He said the key to finishing is to resist going back to delete what you’ve written.

“If you do that, you’ll almost certainly give in to temptation again and again, and you’ll fall far behind. Save the refinement for December 1st, or even better, January 1st when you’ve finished apologizing to your friends and family for ignoring them for a month.

Even worse, Raaphorst said, is resisting the urge to completely scrap your novel and start over.

“It was particularly bad this year, and by day six, my novel very nearly found its way into my PowerBook’s trash can; however, I forced my way through it, and cranked out a huge wordcount on days seven and eight, and everything fell into place: the plot, the characters, the dialogue, etc… Perseverance is the key!”

Rich Thomas, a Customer Support Engineer from San Jose, California, said the hardest part is writing every day. His advice is that it’s important to know when to be hard on yourself, and when to loosen up.

“Sometimes you need to keep going even if it is not going well. Sometimes it’s just a matter of sticking it out,” he said.

Thomas’s final piece of advice: “done is beautiful.”

“Every once in a while you will need to just write something. No matter how bad it is right now, if you keep on going, you will write something good later. That’s what your goal really is.

Megan Hoffman, a student at the University of Delaware, is a first-time participant. She said that for her, the biggest challenge is staying close to the computer.

“I go home maybe twice a month to do laundry. I visit my friends for the weekend in other states. It’s so easy just to forget about the novel for a few days, and I really have to work hard to get back into writing regularly,” she said.

She uses the peer pressure/competition method to keep herself motivated. She also carries around paper to jot down notes for herself during the day.

“You have to budget time and have things plotted out in advance. It makes a world of a difference,” Hoffman said.

Stewart-Boyd said that reaching the halfway point without giving up was an important factor in finishing.

“In 2002, I was afraid to tell anyone what I was doing, even my closest friends — even the person I was dating — because I didn’t know if I was up to the challenge,” she said. “But by halfway through the month, I knew I could do it, and I told everyone. After that, I knew I had to finish, because people I knew were pulling for me to do it.”

Some final words of encouragement from Ohi:

  • One challenge is the temptation to let Real Work interfere with one’s dedication to Nanowrimo. Fortunately I got over that pretty quickly.
  • Don’t do housework. Amazing how much extra writing time you can get that way.
  • The microwave is your friend.
  • Keep records of your daily wordcount and cumulative wordcount.

For Ohi, the best motivation was to “think ahead about how wonderful it will be to have actually Finished A Book.”

“It’s incredibly easy to start writing a book, much more difficult to finish one,” she said. “So what if it’s not the best quality? At least you’ve got one under your belt; you can now start editing, or move on to your next project.”

Final Poll Results