My Top 5 Tips for Winning (and enjoying) National Novel Writing Month

I still feel like a rookie as I embark on my 11th NaNoWriMo project, but I think I have a little bit of wisdom to share. Big projects like this are all about finding what works for you and leaving the rest. The catch is that in order to find what works for you, you need to try the things that don’t work first.

Tip #1: Think About Your Story Before You Write It

I can’t tell you whether you should be a planner or a pantser – that’s a very personal choice. Do you write better with an outline or a plot summary, or do you find that hinders your creativity? You won’t know until you’ve tried – so I recommend trying a brief outline first, which will at least prevent you from being one of those people who signs up for NaNoWriMo but never writes a word because they have no idea what their story is.

I naturally lean towards pantsing in my writing, because no matter how hard I try I can never stick to an outline. For years I just started November with just a one-sentence story idea. After years of losing more years than I’ve won, I’ve decided that doesn’t really work. I need to grapple with my story at least a little bit if I want to write 50,000 decent words of it.

Tip #2: Try to Write Something Good (to an extent)

Many people advise that you shouldn’t worry about the quality of your writing during NaNo, and I think that’s mostly true for people who haven’t written stories before. The number one problem I see brand new writers face is this idea that writing is something other people can do, but not them. You have to show yourself that writing is actually all about making it up as you go along.

Those of us who want our NaNoWriMo drafts to succeed as partial first drafts that we can keep working on in the months to come may need to take a different approach. To keep your story cohesive, I recommend setting aside time before or after each writing day to reflect on what you’ve written, re-read and do basic edits. November is not the time for deleting or rewriting, but line edits are helpful. I also think re-reading what you’ve written after each day helps to maintain flow and continuity in your writing. In a past November I’ve accidentally switched from first to third person without realizing, mostly because I was forcing myself not to reread my work. This is a mistake that completely fucks up a manuscript and is pretty disheartening, BTW.

Revision also gives you a chance to catch plot holes before they turn into novel-destroying black holes. If you plan to continue your draft post-NaNo, you should try to fill them in before they get out of control or else you’ll end up trashing it all.

This advise goes against the general spirit of NaNoWriMo, which is to keep writing, don’t edit, and never look back. I’ve realized that that advice isn’t helpful to me, so I don’t plan to follow it, and you may find yourself feeling the same way.

Tip #3 – Write Something You Will Have Fun With

I am a bit loose about my outline this year, because, well, I never seem to be able to follow an outline. For this year’s project, I’ve prepared a sentence or two per chapter, with the chapters divided into parts. I have left a blank page for Part III, because I don’t have the ending clear yet, and I think I will have to write the first part before I do. How detailed your outline will be is up to you. I choose to give myself a little room to have fun with it. I want to be able to go off into tangents and spontaneous story lines if I want to.

Last year I was much more detailed, with scene spreadsheets and character bios (I used the Snowflake method). When it came time to write, I drew a blank and realized I had absolutely no connection to my story at all. I didn’t win last year, and I didn’t enjoy any of the 20,000 words I did write. In this way I realized strict outlining before I get a chance to write anything kind of kills my excitement. I much prefer to write the first few chapters in order to figure my story out.

This is maybe the most important tip I have about winning NaNoWriMo: make sure you enjoy your story. If that means you’re writing fanfiction, erotica or a memoir about all the people you hate – do it. You’re spending your free time on this because it’s something you want to eventually be proud of, but that doesn’t mean you need to write the next great American novel. Don’t be Jonathan Franzen – be you. Write something you will want to come back to day after day, and don’t be afraid to deviate from your outline and do something different if you notice you’re not in love with your story.

Tip #4 – Figure Out Your Tools Now

This year I will be using a combination of a paper notebook and Scrivener. I will use the notebook for my base outline, list of characters, and writing log. Scrivener will be used for my actual manuscript. I will also use the notebook for writing in during the day when I may not have my laptop.

I used to use Word and that worked fine, too. Scrivener is nice but not necessary. I like it mostly because it enables me to easily make my chapters separate documents and one big document at the same time. If you want to try it, they have a special NaNoWriMo free trial. I suggest you spend a little time fiddling around with the software and watching tutorials before you start writing, because it can be a little overwhelming.

You may end up writing with just a pen and paper. No method is better than any other, and what works for you is probably completely different. Take the time now to consider what will help you work efficiently in November, so when it’s time to write, you won’t have to think about it.

Tip #5 – Inspire Yourself

Finding inspiration helps make things fun. Some people like to make novel playlists for inspiration. These can be full of songs that remind you of your characters and follow the emotional arc of your story, or just music you enjoy writing to. Mostly I plan to have my favorite public radio station on as background noise, so I don’t have to distract myself by being picky about which Bon Iver song I want to hear at the moment. But, also, Bon Iver is really great writing music.

This year I made a Goodreads tag of books that I think relate to my plot or general themes. You can see mine here: https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/778055?shelf=novel-research. I obviously don’t plan on reading them all this month, but if this project turns out to be something I want to seriously pursue, this list of books can help me with ideas.

I also made sure I have copies of all my favorite writing books on hand, just in case I need prodding. My favorites On Writing by Stephen King, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, and The Writer’s Notebook series by Tin House.

If you find yourself completely uninspired, my best advice is to go for a walk outside. This may or may not help you come up with fresh ideas, but at least you’ll get some exercise.


Let me know if you have any other tips. Add me as a buddy on NaNoWriMo if you plan on participating this year, and we can check in with each other about what’s working and what’s not. Good luck and happy writing!

On Failing, and A Review of Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

Next month is NaNoWriMo month, as always, which reminds me that I’ve participated every year since 2006 – I was 15 and thought for sure I was some sort of wunderkind who would be published before I graduated college. These are the sorts of goals failures regularly have.I lost my first NaNoWriMo, and I never stopped trying again after that.

After I made it through college without publishing anything (I was notably rejected from my own school’s literary magazine, of which I was an editor my senior year), I had a new goal: be published by 25. I had been humbled by my failure to succeed right out of the gate, but I was still sure of my talent in the way only the young and/or truly untalented can be.

I’ve been thinking about failure a lot lately, along with a lot of other people – there’s a whole section on the TED website about the matter, and one TED talk on persevering through failure is now a popular pop psych book.

I’m 25 now and I’m rethinking what my success will look like. It’s no longer a matter of time but of shape. How will I fit writing in at the corners of my real life? How will I create work I find satisfying? How will I use writing to communicate with strangers, and tell the stories of the people I love with compassion? How will art change me? Everything else seems small in comparison.

I don’t plan on being published anytime soon. I’m just not there yet. My 15 year old self would be devastated – if being a writer is so important to me, and I’m not producing work good enough to be published, what does that say about me? I think, after all, it doesn’t say much. I could miss every deadline, and fall short of every expectation I have for myself, and no matter what the drive to write is still there. That’s the kind of passion they make TED talks about. I’m really excited for this November – I always am.


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I recently finished Margaret Atwood’s new novel Hag-Seed, which is a retelling of the The Tempest by Shakespeare. It got me thinking a lot about failure, too, because the main character, Felix, is a failed director who ultimately triumphs in a wacky but heartening way.

Felix is fired from his job as the artistic director of a theatre company right in the middle of a production of The Tempest, which is cancelled shortly after. Felix is upset at losing his job, but what especially pains him is that he had been planning The Tempest to be a sort of tribute to his three year old daughter, Miranda, who passed away. After he is fired, he moves away from civilization and isolates himself. He lives with the memory of his daughter in a literal sense; she is like a friendly ghost that he lives with like a real daughter. After a few years he decides to take a job teaching literacy at a local prison. He does this, of course, by teaching the inmates how to put on Shakespeare plays.

When he gets a chance to seek revenge against the people who had him fired all those years ago, he does it by finally putting on his Tempest. Even in a prison, with inmates for actors, with a heart desiring nothing but revenge – Felix puts everything into his work. He’s a somewhat strange and flawed character, but I fell in love with him nonetheless.

Truthfully, I know nothing about The Tempest, except a vague recollection of reading it in 8th grade English class. Luckily, this novel doesn’t require any knowledge of the play or Shakespeare, and it does a good job of not carrying on as if everyone reading the novel is familiar with the play.

In conclusion, Margaret Atwood remains a patron saint of this blog.