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 messes 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.
This year I made a Goodreads tag of books that I think relate to my plot or general themes. 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!