Introduction to National Novel Writing Month

By Greg Hullender: Every November, NaNoWriMo challenges would-be writers to produce an entire 50,000-word novel from scratch in 30 days. It sounds almost impossible, but it can be done, it can be lots of fun, and you can learn a lot in the process.

National Novel Writing Month logoYou’re not supposed to start from something you’ve already partially completed, but the entire thing is on the honor system, so it’s really up to you.

You submit a daily update on your word count so far, and they predict whether you’ll make it or not. More important, they tell you how many words you need to write today to be on track. This turns out to be very motivating.

To give you more motivation, they encourage you to share your experience with friends, neighbors, co-workers, and relatives. They have a number of widgets you can post on Facebook or Twitter to share your word-count info and progress estimates. The idea is that you’ll make yourself work harder rather than be humiliated in front of all those people.

Participants help each other out by answering questions in numerous forums. SF authors seem to ask a lot of questions about relativity and celestial mechanics. E.g. “Can my planet orbit two stars in a figure 8?” (No.)

Forum participation is a good way to find a few “writing buddies.” Your friends and family will get bored with you talking about NaNoWriMo pretty fast, but your writing buddies will be happy to cheer you on every day for the whole month. Some may even become friends for real.

They have a lot of materials for people to study prior to beginning NaNoWriMo, but there’s no requirement to use any of it. http://nanowrimo.org/nano-prep

Some areas even have real-world NaNoWriMo events, where you can chat in person with others about how it’s going. Some events include quiet time when everyone is supposed to be writing.

Different things will work for different people, of course, but a few things worked well for me when I did this in 2012:

I devoted an hour or two every evening to writing, and I didn’t let anything preempt that time.

I started with a really rough outline of what would happen. I never prepared a proper outline, but I started off knowing how it would end. That doesn’t mean that’s how it actually did end, but at every point, I thought I knew how it would end.

Every few days, I’d spend 15 minutes or so making a rough outline of the next few chapters or scenes. The rest of the time I was filling those in.

I (almost) never went back to revise. The story had to move forward.

I didn’t allow myself to browse the forums until after I’d already made that day’s quota of words.

In the end, I think most people have fun and learn a lot about writing, even if they don’t get a publishable work out of it. It’s very cool to be able to tell people “I’ve written an SF novel. I never published it, but I did write one from beginning to end.”

The sense of satisfaction when you hit that 50,000-word number is hard to describe. Almost as good as when you write “The End” a day or two later.

[Greg Hullender is the co-creator of the SF recommendation site, Rocket Stack Rank.]

20 thoughts on “Introduction to National Novel Writing Month

  1. There might be a good side business for the makers of bracket head cloths, wordcount head cloths.

  2. By the way, if anyone needs it, I wrote a relativity calculator to handle problems with acceleration. (Those seemed to come up a lot at NaNoWriMo).

    http://gregsspacecalculations.blogspot.com/p/blog-page.html

    After Nano, David Gerrold posted a few similar questions on Facebook, so I decided I’d put together a web-based calculator so I could just refer people to it in the future.

    Naturally, no one has ever asked me such a question since. 🙂

  3. I’m a huge nanowrimo fan! Did it 3 years in a row and had a blast. I actually found that doing that helped me get past some non-creative writing road blocks too – teaches you Butt-in-Chair Hands-on-Keyboard like nothing else can. Of course you pay for it with an antisocial word-count focused Thanksgiving attitude and a slightly manic attitude towards the fourth week of the month.

  4. I intend to give it a go for the first time – mainly because I drew a book cover and it will need something to go inside it. (That is the right way round to do these novel things right? I assume so.)

  5. @Camestros Felapton If you need a WriMo buddy so you know someone’s watching your wordcount and judging you on making quota or not, my username there is Iphinome.*

    *I find fear of failure, and being exposed as incapable worthless little shit who can’t even do one simple thing to be a good motivator. YMMV

  6. Iphinome on October 28, 2015 at 9:19 pm said:

    @Camestros Felapton If you need a WriMo buddy so you know someone’s watching your wordcount and judging you on making quota or not, my username there is Iphinome.*

    And I’m cunningly disguised there as Camestros Felapton 🙂

    *I find fear of failure, and being exposed as incapable worthless little shit who can’t even do one simple thing to be a good motivator.

    🙂

  7. I know the daily quota thing works for some WriMos, but I’ve won a dozen NaNos and I’ve never come close to hitting daily quota in the first two weeks. Generally, in fact, I end up doing 15-20k in the last 3 days.
    Different strokes.

  8. Yes, everyone works in different ways, and NaNoWriMo is one way of finding out what ways work for you!

    I’ve been doing it every year since 2003 (and “won” every time to date), and spent six years as the “Municipal Liaison” (regional cheerleader and events organizer) for the Oxfordshire region… so, yes, I know NaNo fairly well. (You will find me stalking its fora under the impenetrable pseudonym “Steve Wright”.)

    If you’re someone who writes like Robert Musil or Douglas Adams – every word carefully chosen, every phrase and sentence precisely composed – NaNo is going to be hell for you. If you’re someone like Edgar Wallace or Robert Silverberg, on the other hand, you may just be wondering what to do with all that spare time. I think most of us fall somewhere in between. Personally, I can compose fairly fluently at speed and under pressure, so I find the NaNo framework stimulating, and usually wind up with what I think of as a workable first draft at the end of the process.

    (Let’s draw a veil over whether I’ve had anything published yet, of course.)

    Although everyone works differently, the overall most common pattern is for people to make a strong start, peter off somewhat in the second week, spend the third week getting “over the hump” and pulling things back together, and winning via a final sprint in the last few days. (The Oxfordshire region, at one time, was notorious for its last-minute success stories, with some people churning out ten or even twenty thousand words in the last two days.)

    There’s a lot of good advice given in many places about NaNoWriMo – some of it good, but not actually applicable. Despite all the exhortations to do so, I find I can’t “turn off” my “inner editor” – if NaNo is to be anything but an unendurable chore, I have to care about what I’m writing, which means that inconsistencies and inaccuracies and missing research will bother me, and I am going to spend time correcting them, no matter what.

    If there’s one thing I would say, from my own experience…. One of the great unspoken truths about NaNoWriMo is that it is actually bloody hard work. Now, I know this sounds like stating the obvious – but it is amazing how many people start that first week full of buoyant optimism, only to crash out when the sheer grind of the task becomes apparent. (Which it does. Oh, boy, does it become apparent.) NaNoWriMo is both mentally and physically demanding. Check your ergonomics when you’re writing! Bear in mind that a comfortable working position might be OK for 1,667 words of typing – but if you miss that daily quota (and almost everyone does), you could be making up lost ground for hours extra, further down the line. Make sure you’re sitting comfortably for 20,000 words of typing, not 1,667 – you might need to do them!

  9. NaNoWriMo last year was instrumental fOr me in breaking a major decades-long writers block. I spent the rest of the year turning that 53 thousand words into a 100,000 word-long novel. One that may sneakily be publishable. I also learned a lot of writing techniques in that past year.

    Part of the reason I’m doing this year’s NaNoWriMo is to take a break from my current novel, whose current editing pass should be done Saturday. It really does need to sit for a month. And as an aside, I tend to think NaNoWriMo novels tend to need more editing passes then the stereotypical “One, two, three, Done”. Then again, maybe I’m someone who needs seven or eight passes to beat a novel into shape.

    It IS gruelling, and I really aim for about 2000 words per day. I also do my research and prep work throughout the day, so it really is a full-time thing. The internet and television really are the enemy’s of productivity.

    Also, be nice to your loved ones, and don’t slack off too much on chores, or your loved ones may have harsh, cruel words of doubt when doing the next NaNoWriMo, like. (Holding up cat) “Our daughter misses her parent”.

  10. I ‘won’ the last two years*, but I’m still debating even starting this year. Partly because I have a novella to finish editing before then, and partly because 2 kids, one 7 months. one thing’s for sure, though; if I do, I’ll be commenting a lot less on File770. :}

    * Technically cheating; the first time I used it to pour on words to a stalled manuscript and finish the darn thing, the second time I had about 10k of a new novel idea sitting around and decided to keep going on it. This year would either be cheating again by pressing on with that exact project, to which I have added zero words, or starting a thing I’ve been knocking about with regarding parallel worlds and dopplegangers, even though I haven’t yet even decided if the world travelling mechanism is sfnal or fantastical, and if the predatory species is more fae or alien.

  11. Rose Embolism:

    I tend to think NaNoWriMo novels tend to need more editing passes then the stereotypical “One, two, three, Done”. Then again, maybe I’m someone who needs seven or eight passes to beat a novel into shape.

    I suspect there’s some truth to this, though for me it was all copyediting level things – awkward sentences and typos – and some of that is based on technology; Dana has no spell-check. The plot and character issues were fine. Having half a novel written over time and half Nano-speed did let me compare directly, and I was pleasantly surprised. Then again, I am a 7-8 passes/rewrites type at the best of times.

    It IS gruelling, and I really aim for about 2000 words per day. I also do my research and prep work throughout the day, so it really is a full-time thing.

    I usually aimed for 2k+ myself, so I could get a decent lead in case of missed days (And last year I started a day or two late). What surprised me is that 45 minutes of dedicated typing — without pause to check for typos, and minimal pause to think through plot — adds up to about 800-1k words at my typing speed. I know that when I did the coffee with a NaNo friend and we did the 45 minute sprint on purpose (She’d set a timer), before and after which we’d spend 15 minutes or so chatting (Then rinse and repeat). My overall speed without the timer was slower, but not so much I couldn’t do it most days.

    I also shunned research until “later”.

    Also, be nice to your loved ones, and don’t slack off too much on chores, or your loved ones may have harsh, cruel words of doubt when doing the next NaNoWriMo

    Amen. I did it last year with one child by sitting at the coffee shop up the street from his nursery school in the mornings, and after he went to sleep at night. This works less well with the baby-who-does not sleep-consistent-hours-and-wants to-nap-only-on-Mommy. I might indeed be doing one-handed typing, which will kill my word count speed.

  12. I’ll add one more observation of my own, because I think it’s interesting.

    Besides writing a bunch of NaNo novels, and cheering other people on to write theirs, I’ve also read quite a few of them, in novel swaps after the event.

    The results of NaNoWriMo tend to be… interesting, rather than classic, literature. Sometimes it is very obvious where the padding’s been inserted, to bulk out the word count. (My favourite example being a description of a Christmas dinner, that went into enormous details about every course, right down to how the Brussels sprouts were cooked, and even where they were grown.)

    However, just about every NaNo I have read has been a functional story, with a plot and characters that the author, at least, could care about. Even NaNos written by absolute beginners. Even ones written by the true obsessives who can finish a novel in the first week, or even the first day. (Yes, that can be done, though not by me.)

    It’s safe to say that most of them had a hell of a lot wrong with them… but they were all proper stories, nonetheless. Leading me to conclude that, if you’re going to “win” NaNoWriMo, it’s because there’s a story inside you, crying to get out. And, whatever the result looks like on December 1st, it’s worth letting it out.

  13. Nothing like computer problems just before November. Since it took over an hour to make my desktop work today, my outline is now backed up to google docs and dropbox. Scrivener project also backed up to dropbox. I’ll do this thing on my chromebook if I have to.

  14. If anyone wants cheerleading and/or nagging and/or other NaNo-related support, I can provide that! From the sidelines. Where I will be working on the projects I’ve already got instead of trying to add writing a novel to them. Probably.

    Just let me know if anything is wanted. 😉

  15. @Meredith If you’d like to periodically remind me that I’m not getting enough words, that I need to do better, that a child could double my word count and still get in 10 hours of video-games; and that I’m worthless and always will be worthless, that would be great.

    And if you could do it in the voice of my old track coach, bonus.

  16. So my decision for November was to do a Demi-WriMo, or a half NaNoWriMo. 25,000 words. Even on that, i’m already a bit behind but I started today (er, the 2nd). So tracking my progress on NaNo’s own site makes no sense, but I need a public placement for accountability. I’m doing it on my Livejournal/Dreamwidth account (Cleverly disguised as Lenora_rose). Should I also do it somewhere on file770 for more cheers and boos?

    (Currently 947 words)

  17. @Iphinome

    I can do that! If you promise not to really believe the worthless bits.

    @ Lenora Rose

    I’d quite like to see people commenting about their progress, personally. 🙂

  18. Meredith on November 3, 2015 at 1:07 am said:

    I’d quite like to see people commenting about their progress, personally.

    6129 words – I’m a novel writing machine! Um, but not good when I go back and read what I wrote 🙂

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