Don’t Let November Win: A NaNoWriMo Reflection and Strategy Guide

This year I won National Novel Writing Month for the first time, in what was my second year of participating.   My first year I washed out after about 11,000 words, and every other novel writing attempt I’ve made has died out within the first few pages (and that’s being generous).  Still, this year I cranked out over fifty thousand words of usable prose for my novel, which puts that novel at about halfway done and ready to be finished over December and then edited.  I did this in spite of being arguably busier this year than last year between work, school, and other life obligations.  So, what did I do this year that worked so well and, more importantly, how can you use it to your advantage?  Well, let’s start with…

  1. Be Passionate About Your Story

You need to be writing a story that you are passionate about.  You’re going to be stuck with this idea for at least fifty thousand words and if you are not passionate about the story that you’re writing you probably just won’t get there.  You’ll get bored and when you get bored you’ll get lazy and when you get lazy you will inevitably stop writing.  This has to be a story that you want to tell, with a lot of emphasis on the word “want.”

Now I feel like some clarity is important here because sometimes there’s a misconception about what constitutes a story.  A character or protagonist is not the same thing as a story.  Last year I decided to write “Brick Neilson’s (Last) Space Adventure” and I didn’t have any idea what sort of story I would tell, thinking instead only about how cool it would be to take a guy like Brick Neilson, who is exactly the sort of person you’d imagine from his name, and send him on a space adventure.  It was fun to write, but it got me about 11,000 pages before I ran out of steam.  A setting is also not a story.  Before I settled on writing about Brick Neilson last year the idea I was working on revolved around a world where the world spawned magical creatures in unpopulated areas.  It was a fun world to build and I spent a lot of time fleshing it out only to realize that I didn’t have an actual story to tell in it.

So what qualifies as a story?  A story is an inciting event and the events that follow.  A good friend of mine and fellow writer oncetold me that every story begins with a question. In my writing I have found that these questions often take the form of “What would happen if…” and what comes after that ellipsis is your inciting incident.  The more interesting the question, the more excited you as the writer are likely to become about answering it with the events that follow it.  This year my question was “What would happen if two people each promised their firstborn child to separate demons and then had a child together?”  Which I refined down to “What would happen to that child?”  That gave me my protagonist and my focus, which told me what events I would need to build my story and it was a story I could be passionate about.

  1. End Each Session With More to Write

People tend to want to finish the section they’re on before they stop, but I think that this can be counterproductive when writing.  Why?  Because starting a new section is usually the hardest part, at least for me.  Once I have “Where do I begin?” answered the rest of it comes a lot easier, so I find it helpful to stop at before I have to answer that question again.  Whenever I sat down to write, getting started was always much, much easier if I was in the middle of a scene than if I was starting a brand new chapter.  I don’t know what the actual psychological reason for this is, but I assume it’s similar to the way you forget what you were doing as soon as you walk through a door.  End your writing sessions while you’re still in the room and picking it up should be a lot easier.

  1. Write Every Day

Normally I would say something about setting goal, but the good news is that NaNoWriMo does that for you.  The goal is 1666 words a day, which will give you a full 50,000 word count by the end of November if you stick to it.  If you’re writing a novel outside of NaNoWriMo, though, 1666 words a day is still good goal to have set.  So, since your goal is already set for you, you just have to meet it.  This means sitting down and writing new words every day.  You might be tempted to take a day off, thinking that you’ll make up the extra words the next day, but taking a day off is the first step to quitting because it will break your momentum.  Barring an actual emergency, you should be putting something new on the paper each day just so you remember that you’re working.

Now this doesn’t mean you have to get your full word count every day.  As I write this I’ve only gotten maybe two hundred words onto the paper in the last two days because they have been really busy and I am going into finals week.  I might be lucky to get another hundred words written today, but writing every day as a rule is less about meeting goals and more about keeping up momentum.  Momentum is extremely important, especially during a time crunch like NaNoWriMo, which brings me to…

  1. Keep Moving Forward

When I was in high school I attended a few writing conferences and at one of them I got what I think is the best advice a writer can receive.  I think the speaker was Sena Naslund, who wrote the novel Ahab’s Wife: Or, the Star-Gazer, and the advice she gave was “First, write a sentence.  Then, write another one.”  Now this seems really obvious, but it is where I (and I believe most aspiring writers) have the most difficulty.  We end up not being writers of novels and instead become eternal editors of our opening paragraph and this is why we don’t get a lot done.

So, if you’re doing NaNoWriMo and possibly during the entirety of your rough draft, don’t give in to perfectionism.  Don’t submit to the urge to go back and rewrite a section because you think it’s clunky or to cut a section out entirely because you don’t think it was necessary.  Hell, Tom Bombadil wasn’t necessary and they didn’t cut him out.  So keep moving forward, keep adding new words and worry about editing it all when the rough draft is done and it’s time to edit.  Does that mean that your rough draft might have some sections that are absolutely terrible?  Probably.  And you’ll fix those, but while you’ve still got goals to meet you really don’t want to get too far ahead of yourself.  Which segues nicely into my final point…

  1. Don’t Get Too Far Ahead

“What?”  You ask, “Isn’t being ahead a good thing?”  Well, yes, and honestly this advice is less universal than the rest of it.  Some people are writing machines, and getting ahead one day means that they’ll just further ahead the next day.  I, however, am not one of those people and I would be willing to bet most other people aren’t either.  For people like us, getting too far ahead is a trap.  Why?  It goes back to writing every day.  If you’re far enough ahead, you may get complacent, you may choose to take a day off from writing, and that will break your momentum.

This isn’t to say you shouldn’t get a little bit ahead.  I finished NaNoWriMo a day early, and at certain points during the month I would be anywhere from a day behind to two days ahead, and things were always less stressful when I had a bit of a lead.  However, when I was a full day ahead or more there was always the temptation to just take a day off.  After all, what could one day hurt?  How bad could it be?  But anyone who has ever worked on a routine knows the answer.  Whether it’s writing or running or remembering to floss when you break your routine once it becomes easier to justify doing it in the future.  That’s why I recommend not getting more than one full day ahead of your goal at any given time.

So, those are the chunks of wisdom that allowed me to pull out a win and write something that even unfinished is larger than every other creative work I’ve pulled off combined.  I hope that they help you with your writing in the futu

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