National Novel Writing Month is once again upon us, when anyone and everyone can write an entire 50,000-word novel in the month of November. Will you be among the thousands of writers tapping out the first words of your novel on November 1? I truly hope so, because finishing NaNo is one of the most rewarding things a writer can do. It builds confidence (Yesss! I finished a novel!) and helps you form a daily writing habit.
This will be my fourth…or fifth?...year joining the legions. In full disclosure, I’ve finished only twice. But, hey, a 40% success rate is better than 0. Over the years I’ve discovered that the most successful NaNos are those I prepared for. And the better I prepared, the more likely I was to cross the 50K finish line by November 30.
The goal of NaNo is not to complete a literary masterpiece by November 30, but to have a sloppy draft. That’s right—a sloppy draft. You know what I mean—not a wayward, drifting, aimless collection of typed words, but the bones of a story that you can then revise into a better second draft, and then an amazing novel. If you’ve done the prep, your actual writing will go smoothly and quickly each day, and you'll stay excited and motivated, all increasing your chances of finishing.
So, are you in? Yes! If you’re reading this post on October 22, you have 10 days to prepare. I’ve broken down the prep steps into the 10 days until November 1. If you're reading this a little later, no worries—you can catch up in time to begin your novel with confidence on November 1. The countdown begins…here we go!
Day 10 – Oct 22: Sign up to participate in NaNoWriMo. Once you sign up, you can link up with writing buddies who are also NaNo’ing. Buddies keep you accountable and give you lots of cheers. And they can offer you virtual soft shoulders and chocolate.
Day 9 – Oct 23: Decide on which novel you’re going to write in November. If you don’t know yet, brainstorm a list of 5-8 story ideas. Ask yourself: What have I been burning to write? What would I like to write? What do I need to write next? What has my mom/dad/critique buds/children/teacher/probation officer been bugging me to write? What has my agent or editor been waiting for?
Days 8-7 – Oct 24-25: Choose one of your ideas, then write a one-sentence description about the main character (your protagonist) that includes what she wants, why he wants it, what stops her from getting it, and what he gets in the end. (“What, Why, But, Then.”) For example, Mary wants to travel to Tasmania to meet her online soulmate, but she has no money, so she starts a catering business and realizes the real man of her dreams has owned the shop next door all along. Then do the same for every other major character in your story.
Here are a few ways to help you create a structure or outline for your story:
- The Snowflake Method. This organic plotting method, developed by Randall S. Ingermanson (“The Snowflake Guy”), helps you build a story painlessly from idea to summary draft. There’s even a software program, Snowflake Pro, with all kinds of great tools for snowflaking your book.
- Index cards. Here’s a great video by author Kimberley Griffiths Little about how to outline a book using index cards.
- Spreadsheet outline. Open a new Excel (or other spreadsheet) document, and label columns Chap, Desc, What’s Next. Number the Chap rows 1-30. For each chapter, write a brief description about what happens. This can be a short as one sentence. Don’t forget the story arc—add disasters in (or around) chapters 15, 20, and 28. You can get fancy and add more information in each row, but these are the very basics. In the What's Next column, write what needs to happen in the next chapter or later in the story. And you can track your word count in another column.
- Notebook outline. Do the same as for a spreadsheet, but in an ordinary notebook. Number the rows 1-30, and write a one-sentence description about what happens in each chapter.
- The 9-box method, storyboarding, outlining your story backward, plotting your story in 15 minutes. You can find information about all of these on the web.
Day 2 – Oct 30: Decide on a tool you’d like to use for writing fast. You’ll need to write an average of 1667 words each day in order to finish on Nov 30, so the trick is to write fast and not look back to edit or revise, or sit and ponder the universe. You can use your everyday computer, but you’ll be tempted to stare at the blinking cursor or search the thesaurus on every other word. This is not efficient or productive. Here are some tools that will help you write quickly:
- Free writing. Get a steno pad—a small spiral stenographer’s notebook, which has a vertical line down each page. Start writing really fast, ending each line at the vertical divider. You write faster because you don’t have to move your hand all the way to the edge of the page. When you come to the end of the page, flip to the next page—don’t flip to the other side. Keep writing as fast as you can and fill about eight pages. (You'll have to shake out your hand once in a while.) When you get to the last page, flip the notebook over and start writing on the other side of the page last page. This is good method for daytime writing when you have a block of about 20 minutes—at lunch hour or waiting in the dentist office, for example. Later, when you’re in front of your computer, transcribe your pages.
- Flash writing. When you only have cracks of 3 or 5 minutes to write, fill them in with flash writing. Set a timer, and do some fast typing or handwriting (see above), or tapping on your smartphone. You'll be amazed at how much writing you'll accumulate in those bits of writing.
- Write or Die by Dr. Wicked. This software program forces you to write quickly without looking back. If you pause too long, it does things like turns your screen a scary red or starts deleting what you just wrote. Believe me, this really works!
Day 1 – Oct 31: Take out a calendar and block out days you know you won’t be able to write at all, not even for 10 minutes. (You probably won’t find any.) Then, block out time every day to write, keeping in mind that you’ll need to write a daily average of 1667 words to meet the 50K word count. Visualize yourself writing each day and meeting your daily goal, and then meeting your final goal and how great it will feel. Finally, get a good night’s sleep!
Day 0 - November 1: Start writing!
Here are some tips:
- Set your expectations for quality very low. Remember the goal—a draft with bad skin and muscles, but excellent bones.
- Read your outline to see what you need to finish that day. Write fast, don’t edit (see above). If you can’t think of a word or a necessary transition, write <??> in the text and keep going. You can fill in those blanks after NaNo is over.
- Each day, try to write a little more than your goal, giving yourself a cushion for days when you unexpectedly can’t write.
- Each day, open the file you worked on the day before, and save it as a new file with today’s date. That way, you have a trail if you need to go back.
- At the end of each writing session, copy your work to a USB drive or email the file to yourself for backup. You don’t want to lose your precious work!
- Find some way to reward yourself for finishing, and keep that reward in mind as you work.
- If you know any young writers in your life, check out Amy Cook’s post on the NaNo Young Writers' Program.
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