15 tips to NaNoWriMo success …

Yesterday I told you about NaNoWriMo. I also said something about how it’s the writerly equivalent of running a marathon – and just like running a marathon, the key to success is in preparation. 

Sure, you mightn’t be pulling on your trainers each day (although daily exercise is pretty important for writers – the subject of a whole other post) with November just a few days away, here’s the (last minute) training plan:

  1. Decide how you will be writing your novel.

I use the Scrivener app – I love how it sets session targets. I especially love the corkboard – so much that I might just manage a separate post on it. It is, however, a paid app, and if you’re just starting out or taking the idea of long-form writing for a spin you might not want to invest in that just yet. (You can trial it for free – the link is here.) As of the time of writing, a standard licence for Mac/Windows laptops is $90AUD.

If you’re writing your novel in word or freehand, simply enter your word count daily into the nano website. You can stay on track, and the graph is cool. I told you about the graph, didn’t I?

2. Have a backup strategy…and use it

Be paranoid. I back up to Dropbox and weekly to a hard drive – just to be sure.

3. Carry a notebook and pen with you at all times. Jot down scene ideas, dialogue or character backstories while you’re on the bus or stopped for a coffee. Even if you are writing on a laptop, this could give you a head start on your next writing session or help you solve a plot point that stopped you in your tracks during your last stint with the keyboard.

4. Have coffee – or wine – on hand.

The quote “write drunk edit sober” was attributed to Ernest Hemingway who apparently didn’t say any such thing, but it makes for a good story. I have to admit that wine (in moderation of course) does help the creativity flow a tad – although be prepared to edit a lot afterward (not in November…see tip no. 14).

Seriously though, I’m a tea drinker and during November I drink a lot more of the stuff than at any other time of the year. The ritual of stopping to make it actually helps. 

5. Set your targets

Dig your calendar out from wherever it’s languishing and mark in your writing days for November. Decide how many days a week you will be writing. (Hint: be realistic)

5 days?

7 days?

This will determine your NaNoWriMo daily target.

If you intend to write 7 days a week, you’ll be heading for a target of 1667 words a day.

I go to bed an hour earlier and write there. It works for me – just don’t tell my chiropractor. Quite often I dream about what happens next.

This year I have the luxury of not juggling a day job but in past years I’ve grabbed moments wherever I could – in the hairdressers, during lunch hours, in airports, on planes, in the car. Wherever, whenever. The year my daughter did the HSC I got heaps of words written waiting outside maths tutorials. I felt like I’d been called to the headmaster’s office.

While you have your calendar out, mark in all your commitments – places that you know you have to be. Be honest, and be realistic.

Maybe you can manage half an hour in the morning before the kids get up and all hell breaks loose, or an hour at night after they go to bed. You might choose to fit it in on a weekend or get together with friends for a marathon writing session.

However you schedule it, keep to it.

6. Schedule your downtime

You have to. Getting out for a walk, a coffee, or whatever will help keep the creative juices flowing – and ensure you stay sane. If you want to stay inspired while you’re walking, listen to your favourite writing podcasts. 

7. Expect life to get in the way – it will.

There will be some days where you can sit down uninterrupted at the keyboard and others where you’re clawing five minutes here, there, or anywhere. Life doesn’t stop just because you’re doing this: houses will still need cleaning, clothes will still need washing, gardens will still need weeding, and arguments will still need mediating.

In the same vein, there is no perfect year to do nano – it’s what you make of it.

8. If you really want to do it, you will make time.

I recall finishing my first nano experience in 2009 in the airport in Perth.

As well as the normal demands of home and my full-time job, the relocation project I was working on for Perth (and managing largely from Sydney) had blown wide open.

2010 was much the same, although this time the relocation was in Hong Kong, and the final chapter was finished at that airport.

On both occasions, I carried my notebook with me and scribbled during coffee and lunch breaks. Back in my hotel room each night I’d transpose my scribbles into real words and somehow the word total grew. Having so much on added to the sense of achievement.

In 2015 I spent most of November road-tripping around England, and in 2016 I was climbing a mountain in New Zealand – or, rather, walking Milford Track, which is much the same thing. 

Weirdly, the years when I’ve smashed nanowrimo have been the years that I’ve been busiest. Conversely, the years where I’ve struggled with word count have been the years when the day job and other commitments have been lighter. Go figure.

9. Run your own race

I tend to go hard in the first week of the challenge and, despite the session targets I set myself, usually end that first week well ahead of schedule.

This is good because I hit my personal wall at about the 25,000-word mark – and things slow from there. It allows me some contingency – the efforts of the first week get me through the middle two … which leads me to…

10. The middle two weeks are hard.

Most stories are abandoned somewhere between 15,000 and 25,000 words. The story is often in the saggy doldrums, enthusiasm is waning, and the end is still a long way off.

11. What if my story gets stuck?

When I get really stuck, I jump scenes – sometimes writing the end first, other times writing another scene that has jumped into my head. It works for me. Nowhere does it say that you need to write in a specified order.

Sometimes if you’re stuck it’s because you haven’t quite got to know your characters and their motivations well, so why not interview them or write their back story.

12. What if I don’t know if my idea has legs?

That’s what makes NaNoWriMo so great – it allows you to explore an idea and determine whether there really is a 75-100k novel in it.

My effort in 2009 was 50,000 words that will never see the light of day (heaven forbid) but needed to come out of my head. (As an aside, the base of this became – more than ten years later – It’s In The Stars.) Once those words were out, other ideas started to flood in, plus I knew that I could do it. I now have a board full of potential stories – most of which consist of a single line “What if…” or a character name or occupation. 

If you want to write something but have other words taking up too much real estate in your head, I’d urge you to use this year’s Nanowrimo for precisely that purpose and write as if no one will ever read it.

13. Plotter or Pantser?

If you like to know where you’re going to go with the story and how you’re going to get there, you’re probably a plotter.

If you’re starting with the germ of an idea, maybe a character or two, and just seeing where it leads you, you’re a pantser.

Most likely you’re a combination of the two. As for me, I’m definitely a pantser.

Nanowrimo is a great time to play with something different. If you’re a plotter, why not give yourself the freedom to see what happens? If you’re a pantser, why not experiment with a different technique?

14. Don’t edit

The point of nanowrino is to get the words out, so resist the urge to edit as you go. There’s plenty of time for editing in December.

15. What if I don’t make the 50,000 words?

So what? You’ll still have more words than you started with.

And finally…

Nanowrimo is meant to be fun, so try not to be too hard on yourself, or do the analysis paralysis thing. Just write.

There’s no judgment, or right or wrong. There are just words – and hopefully, more of them by November 30 than there was on November 1.