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  • Jess Lawrence

NaNoWriMo: A survival guide

Alright, folks, it’s that time of year again. No, not Halloween. And no, not Christmas either (don’t even think of putting lights up yet!). That’s right, it’s NaNoWriMo 2019!

For the uninitiated, NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month and it happens every November. On 1st November you begin writing your novel, aiming for 1667 words per day, and have a complete first draft of a novel (50,000 words or thereabouts) by the end.

I did my first NaNo in 2018 and I went in a little sceptical. As an editor, I had these visions of rushed novels bashed out in 30 days and it made my heart weep. But once I’d actually thrown my hat in with everyone else, I realised that NaNo is a lot more than this. If you’re interested in my first experience with NaNo (and why wouldn’t you be?) then you can read my blog post about it here.

This post, however, is your NaNoWriMo survival guide. My advice, tips and tricks for before, during and after NaNoWriMo 2019.

Let’s get into it.

Before – it’s prep time

Consider making an outline

If you’re anything like me then the thought of this makes your nose wrinkle. An outline? I hear you say. But I’m a proud pantser! As am I, buddy, but trust me when I say that daily word count goal will fluctuate between looking easy and impossible, and when it starts to look impossible you’re going to wish you had an outline to fall back on.

In my case, I was writing the sequel to a book I’d just finished, so I was pretty smugly confident that I knew the plot well. It had been stewing in my head for more than a year; how could I not know it? Ha, I'm haunted by how foolish I was.

Now, I’m not saying you need to do a detailed scene-by-scene breakdown, but having at least a rough scaffolding in place will do you a lot of favours.

Schedule your time

This doesn’t have to be a strict schedule. You don’t need a diary with time slots pencilled in for every day of November. But knowing ahead of time which days are going to be a boon and which will be a bust is going to help.

You may know in advance what days you’re certain won’t permit any writing, but it helps to also factor in a little buffer for the times when life gets in the way. An unexpected social event you can’t miss, childcare that falls through, a bad day at work that saps your energy. You may not be able to predict these days, but you can counter them with your boon days.

Maybe it’s Sundays, or the hour between 5am and 6am when you’re the first up. Make a little note of the days you’re likely to make good progress so you don’t get hung up on the days you won’t.

Find your crew

NaNo is a community thing as much as it’s a personal challenge. Make the most of the website and join one of the local groups, buddy up or burrow into the forums for advice and wisdom from past and present NaNo’ers. Having an accountability buddy or a cheerleader will come in handy if/when writer’s block starts to rear its ugly head.

Writing a novel in 30 days is already a tough ask so make sure you connect with other participants to make the journey easier and more fun.

Avoid the blank page nightmare

We’ve all stared into the void of the blank page and felt the page stare back, mocking us for our inability to write the first words. I experienced this when I NaNo’d in 2018. I didn’t write anything for the first three days because my mind went completely blank with intimidation. So why not remove the pressure of the blank page and get some words down to start you off?

If you’re starting a brand new project (some people choose to add to an existing WIP) then this might sound a little like cheating, but you don’t have to include those words in your total count. At the end of the day, having a jumping off point is going to make it much easier to start.

During – get those words down

Forgive yourself the days you miss

As I mentioned above, I didn’t start my NaNo 2018 for the first three days. I tried, I really did, but the words just didn’t come. It happens. Life gets in the way. Your muse takes an extended coffee break.

Forgive yourself for those days. Beating yourself up for not getting your 1667 words will do you no favours. Any progress that you make, whether it’s 50 words or 5000, is still progress.

Capitalise on your productive days

Just as you will have days where the river of words runs dry, so you will have days where its banks burst and overflow. Capitalise on those days. Ride the wave and keep going for as much as you can rather than settling for reaching your daily goal.

You will be grateful for having done this on the days when 1667 words seems less achievable than it did before.

Be public about it

Like I’ve said, NaNo is a community event so don’t miss out on that aspect while you’re making gains. Share your progress with your local group or with the #WritingCommunity on Twitter. The latter is one of the most supportive communities I have ever encountered as a writer and they will always be there for you if you need a little boost to get you over the line.

Writers might be individuals when it comes to the actual work we create, but our journey doesn’t have to be solo. No one will ‘get you’ quite like other writers who’ve been where you are now, so never be afraid to reach out to them for support or some praise on a rough day.

Let the words suck

Don’t strive for perfect; strive for words on the page. As many authors will tell you, you can edit a bad page but you can’t edit a blank one. Get the words down and ignore whether they are the right ones. You can fix them later.

One of my favourite quotes is from the great (and greatly missed) Terry Pratchett: ‘The first draft is just you telling yourself the story’. Keep that in mind as you go. This draft is for you. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be written.

Reward yourself for the little victories

50,000 words is the big one, but you don’t have to wait until then to celebrate. Treat yourself when you achieve little victories. Maybe you just hit 1667 words after a few slow days. Maybe you knocked it out of the park with 5000 words. Maybe you had an epiphany that has changed the direction of the story for the better.

Whatever it may be, give yourself a pat on the back every now and then.

After – let the dust settle

Congratulate yourself

Whether you ‘won’ NaNoWriMo or not, congratulate yourself. Revel in what you achieved. Because whatever word count you came away with, you just made progress on a new project. You put yourself out there. You rose up to the challenge. And that deserves to be celebrated.

Take a break

As much as you might be riding on a high after finishing your novel in 30 days, jumping straight into edits is not a good idea. At this point, you are much too close to your story to be of any use to it, so take a break. Put it in a metaphorical draw, step away and go focus on something else for, at the very least, two weeks, but ideally longer.

If you try to start your edits too soon then you’ll miss some really obvious mistakes. You won’t be able to see the flaws quite as well. No matter how keen you are, resist!

Make plans for revisions

Self-editing is on the horizon, my friends, and you’re in for a treat. Okay, if you don’t love editing like I do then this might not sound so fun, but self-editing needn’t be a chore. In fact, I’ve already put together some tips for helping writers reshape their novel:

The golden rule of NaNoWriMo

Whatever happens during NaNoWriMo 2019, remember to enjoy yourself. Don’t forget why we do this crazy work in the first place: because there’s a part of our soul that calls for it.

Deadlines and word count targets are great motivators but, at the end of the day, nothing is more important than writing for the sheer love of it. If you’re participating in NaNoWriMo this year, best of luck to you. May your muse visit daily and your word count rocket. But most of all, may you have fun exploring your new project.



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