NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. The name is a bit of a misnomer now that NaNoWriMo is international, going well beyond the borders of the United States. Participants can probably be found on every continent except for Antarctica. Every November, writers commit themselves to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days.
I know, but it’s also fun.
Why would anyone commit themselves to something as crazy as that?
There are a number of reasons. The main reason I decided to give it a go was to see if I could write without my internal editor slowing me down. During NaNoWriMo, there’s no time to ask whether this or that is right. You have to make a choice, commit to it, and keep moving forward. It’s the only way to make it to that 50,000-word mark within 30 days.
The support and camaraderie is also great. You’re not alone when you do NaNoWriMo. Not only is there a website that lets you register, track your progress, watch inspirational and how-to videos, and connect with fellow participants, but there are local groups that organize Write Ins and other NaNoWriMo events. My local group had a “Publishing Track” event in early October and will be holding a kick-off event on November first, with several more events to follow. Participants also get motivational emails, some of them written by famous writers. Last year, these included Lemony Snicket, Holly Black, and John Green. The year before that included Robin McKinley, Tamora Pierce, Maureen Johnson, Lynda Barry, Gail Carson Levine, and Jasper Fforde.
Winners--as in all those who make the 50,000 word goal--get a bunch of nice prizes, like badges they can post on Twitter, Facebook, and their blogs. The bragging rights are nice, but if that’s not enough, there are also deep discounts on Scrivener software--which is great--and the option to get a physical copy of your NaNoWriMo work from Amazon’s CreateSpace.
Of course, the main reason to do NaNoWriMo is that once you’ve written a 50,000-word novel in 30 days, you feel like you can do anything!
And there’s the novel itself, right? At the end of NaNoWriMo you have another novel to submit to agents, editors or contests, or you can self-publish it?
Um, yes and no. Lots of people throw out their NaNoWriMo novel when they’ve finished NaNoWriMo.
Some writers do it just for the experience, the sense of accomplishment, or to get out of a rut. But if you do decide your novel is worth publishing, it’ll probably need a lot of editing.
I wrote Why My Love Life Sucks, the first book in the Legend of Gilbert the Fixer series, during NaNoWriMo, and I edited it for about eight months after it was over. It was a lot of work, because I wanted to get the humor exactly right. I took a page from Improv to write many of the scenes several times in different ways so I could choose the best one. Sometimes the best option led to changes in other places in the story. It was a ton of work, but I do believe it’s helped me write a really great story. It was also a lot of fun, so much fun I didn’t want to leave Gilbert’s world when NaNoWriMo was over.
I’ve read that the bestseller Water for Elephants started out as a NaNoWriMo novel, so NaNoWriMo can definitely be a time to create a diamond in the rough. It has been done before. Of course, you shouldn’t set out to write a masterpiece. Nothing can stifle creativity like perfectionism. Remember that you can always edit something badly written, but you can’t edit a blank page. Give yourself permission to write as badly as you need to, just as long as you get it done.
Do you have to write one novel from beginning to end?
Technically, no. One year, I started one novel, gave up, and then started another one. The second one was Why My Love Life Sucks. I could have added the parts of the two novels to make up the 50,000-word document, but I didn’t have to, because I ended up almost completing Why My Love Life Sucks within the 30 days and with over 50,000 words. The goal is to reach the 50,000-word mark. If that only takes you halfway through your story, that’s fine too.
Another year I worked on the outline for the Legend of Gilbert the Fixer series. If I do NaNoWriMo this year, I’ll probably work on the outline for the Toren the Teller series.
What if you’re not a novelist? What if you write picture books? What if you’re an illustrator? Or what if you’ve written your novel and you just want to edit it? Can you still do NaNoWriMo?
Actually, there are similar events geared to different kinds of writers and even illustrators. Picture book writers have PiBoIdMo, which is organized by Tara Lazar in November. The idea is to write 30 picture-book ideas in 30 days. Too much? Maybe NaPiBoWriWee is more your speed. That involves writing seven picture-book manuscript drafts in one week, and it’s held in May. Illustrators last January had the KidLitArt Picture Book Dummy Challenge, which encouraged illustrators to create and submit a picture-book dummy in 25 weeks. Even script writers have Script Frenzy in April, and comic-book writers and illustrators have 24 hours to write and illustrate a 24-page comic book on (what else?) 24-Hour Comics Day. And there’s NaNoEdMo if you’d like to work on revising your novel. That’s held in March. There’s a list of other events at: http://ywp.nanowrimo.org/node/415569 (although some of these are out of date).
If you don’t see something that works for you, you can create your own challenge.
For several years I ran PB Jammers, which was my attempt to create an easy version of NaNoWriMo for picture-book writers. The goal was to write 26 picture-book manuscripts, one a week for six months. Later I expanded this to include those who write middle grade and YA novels and who wanted to commit to writing 1,000 words a week. That’s something anyone can do, and if you keep it up, it will give you a full-length novel in a year.
This year I’m creating IlloMo, because I want to draw 30 illustrations in 30 days (full-color, full-page chapter headers for Toren the Teller and the Tale). I’m hoping IlloMo could help me stay focused and on schedule. You’re welcome to join me if you like.
It still sounds pretty daunting. Any tips to make it easier?
Ten Tips to Make NaNoWriMo Easier
1. Register on the NaNoWriMo website. The number one thing you can do is simply decide to make the commitment. Once you do, you’ll find a lot of support, advice, and encouragement on the website and through the organizers and other participants. Tell people on Twitter that you’re doing NaNoWriMo, and use the #NaNoWriMo hashtag to keep you accountable and motivated. Get as many people as you can to cheer you on.
2. Get Dragon Naturally Speaking. Try to do this way ahead of NaNoWriMo, so you have time to get used to using it. Dragon Naturally Speaking is speech-to-text software, the best kind out there. If you’re like most people, you talk a lot faster than you can type. However, there is a learning curve, and it’s not just on your end. The program takes time to learn how you talk and write. One year I started really fast by using DNS, but then I ran into a technical problem and had to finish the month without it. It was so much easier with DNS. I also recommend getting a really good headset. Mine is the Sennheiser PC 350 headset with an added USB adapter. Wearing a headset and talking to yourself is also a good way to tell other people that you’re working and don’t want to be disturbed.
3. Write an outline before NaNoWriMo. I know some people are pansters (as in they like to write by the seat of their pants), and if that works for you, great. Still, for most people, an outline will give you a direction in which to go so you don’t wander off into the proverbial woods never to be heard from again. I like to outline both the general story and each chapter before I write it, so I know exactly what has to go into every scene, but you don’t have to be that thorough. Scrivener software can help you with your outline. As I mentioned earlier, you might want to hold off on buying it, because NaNoWriMo winners, in past years, were given a significant discount. Any kind of outline will do. I usually write a general one and then a chapter by chapter one in Word. Other writers like to use corkboards with index cards. Whatever works for you.
4. Now write an outline for a second story. Why? Just in case you either get stuck or you find you’re not enjoying the work. A second story means you can changes horses if you have to, so you won’t feel like you have to force yourself to finish NaNoWriMo. Make sure at least one of your novels is one you’d find fun to write. It’s easy to stop mid-novel when you’re not having fun. And like I said, you can include both novels in your word-count so long as those are words you wrote in November.
5. Trust your instincts. If you feel like you don’t have any ideas for one novel let alone two, take a tip from Neil Simon. In his autobiographical book Rewrites, he explains that writer’s block isn’t when a writer has no ideas; it’s when a writer has a lot of ideas, but doesn’t trust himself to make the right choice. Trust yourself to make the right choice. The truth is, when it comes to NaNoWriMo, any choice is the right choice as long as it keeps you writing and getting closer to your goal.
6. Take a page from Improv. Actors doing Improv have even less time than you do to create a story and get it across. Scenes usually take under three minutes. How do they do it? In Improvisational theater, the rule is always “Yes, and . . .” Never “No” and never “Yes, but . . .” This is like what I said about trusting your choices, because in Improv there’s really no time for doubt. Stories are built around a topic. The topic can be explored in many different ways, but the story should never be allowed to stray from the topic. In fact, writing is even easier than Improv, because in Improv the topic is supplied by the audience, while you get to choose your own topic. The main character wants something related to your topic, but other characters create obstacles or conflicts that prevent him or her from getting it. That’s called “raising the stakes.” So ask yourself what topic you want to write about. What can the main character want related to that topic? What obstacles will he or she encounter that will raise the stakes? Remember that these obstacles have to be related to the topic, not external obstacles. Anything at all can be your topic, but you have to stick with it, so make it a good one. Otherwise, you might lose direction, which will make moving forward so much harder. It’s okay to stray for a bit, just as long as you keep bringing the story back to its topic. Pick a topic you’ll enjoy writing about. For Why My Love Life Sucks, the topic was “A geek’s worst nightmare.” Everything in the story relates to that. It helps if you pick a topic that’s close to your heart. I’m a total geek, and I love geek culture in all its forms, so creating Gilbert and writing his story was a lot of fun. What topic is close to your heart? What are the different aspects of it? What obstacles can you create? What might your main character do to overcome those obstacles?
7. Make sure your family and friends know that you’re serious about NaNoWriMo. Let them know the laundry might not get done, you’ll probably eat a lot of take out, and when they see you slumped in front of the computer with your headset on you’re not to be disturbed unless something or someone is on fire.
8. Set daily goals that allow for setbacks. Instead of aiming for the end of the month, aim for Thanksgiving. Use the NaNoWriMo website to track your progress. There’s a graph showing you where you are and where you should be with your word count. Try to avoid falling below the line, but if you do, no harm. You can catch up and even get ahead another day, just as long as you reach that 50,000-word mark by the end of the month.
9. Send your internal editor on vacation until December. If you do see a big-picture item you’d like to change, use comments in Word (or something similar in whatever writing program you’re using) to make a note of the thing you’d like to change at the start of the place you’d like to make that change. You can even attach that comment to the entire section (although I wouldn’t recommend that for really long sections, because multiple comments on top of each other can be confusing). Then continue writing as if you’ve already made that change.
10. When you win, celebrate! Shout about it on Twitter. Use the NaNoWriMo badge on Facebook to tell your friends of your accomplishment. Post it on your blog. When something feels good it’s easier to make it a habit, and winning NaNoWriMo feels awesome! Instead of looking at it as a daunting task, you’ll look forward to doing it again next year. And what if you don’t make it? Don’t feel too bad. A large percentage of participants don’t. Figure out where you went wrong, and try to fix your mistakes so you can do better next year.
Oh, yes, and there’s one more tip: have fun!
Have any more tips, comments, or questions about NaNoWriMo or anything else in this post? Leave them in the comments section below, and I’ll try to get back to you.