Tips for Your First NaNoWriMo

Tips for Your First NaNoWriMo

Last Friday, I went with my younger sister to the NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) kickoff party for our local NaNo chapter. They are doing a Harry Potter theme this year and had creative ways of implementing it, like “first years” getting an altered Hogwarts acceptance letter applicable to NaNoWriMo, Ferrero Rocher chocolate in golden wrappers decorated as Snitches, Dark Mark cookies, and a cauldron of ice at the drinks table that had the ingredients for butterbeer.

And Monday morning, I texted my younger sister:


As of this post, it is now LESS than a week until November. Less than 7 days until NaNoWriMo begins! This will be the first time I am really participating in NaNoWriMo. I have known about it for a while and I may have even tried once before, but it has been a while and I am not quite certain. I definitely did not “win” by hitting the 50,000 word goal by the end of the month.

And as my “first” NaNoWriMo approaches, I may be further behind in the planning phase than some of the local writers I see on Facebook. That’s right: these novels are getting mapped out. Just like an actual feet-hitting-the-pavement, heart-pounding marathon, cramming 50,000 words into a month can take some preparation and planning. And for those who are new, you might be looking for some guidance on how to prepare and advice on how to go about NaNoWriMo. So here are some points you might find useful.

Most, if not all, of these suggestions come from fellow NaNoWriMo-ers that were nice enough to answer my question in our Facebook group. If you want to connect with this group of 24,000+, request to be added here.

(By the way, if you are not interested in writing a novel this year, but would like to participate in National Novel Writing Month nonetheless, consider checking out Brian’s post about doing NaNoWriMo as a poet).


An outline doesn’t have to list every single move your characters will make on the page, unless, of course, that is what you would like. But briefly outlining major events and developments can be important for someone trying to “win” NaNoWriMo. It will help you know which direction your characters need to be headed, even if writer’s block gets you at some point in November. And as you lead your characters there, you may get new ideas for plot points.

You may find outlining to be very helpful, or you might find that it just doesn’t work for you. But if you are new enough to writing novels that you do not know which is better for you, you might as well start with an outline and throw it out part way through NaNoWriMo if you don’t like it. That may be better than assuming you’ll be fine, then running into a difficult spot part way through the month.

If you need help knowing how to create an outline, check out this article that gives eight types of outlines for novels.

Use the Buddy System

Before Brian and I got married, we attended an undergraduate literature conference with students and faculty from our university’s English department. We got to be in the same room as writers like Michael Ondaatje, Terry Tempest Williams, David Lee, and Alan Cheuse. One of the times when Cheuse was addressing the room of conference attendees, he said, “I think all writers need a spouse, someone who gets what you’re doing, because being a writer is a lonely business.” David Lee sat next to him, nodding his agreement. Funny enough, Brian and I got engaged during our trip to this conference. (Perfect timing, right?)

I am not telling you to get married within the next week in order to survive NaNoWriMo, but you could consider taking the underlying principle to heart: having a buddy who is aware of what you’re experiencing during this next month might be a good idea. Your buddy doesn’t need to be participating in NaNoWriMo, but it might be useful to find a friend who is willing to ask you how you’re doing, how much you’ve written that day, and cheer you on for the progress you’ve made so far.

And maybe they can even celebrate with you once you make it to 50,000 words. Better yet, celebrate no matter how many words you write.

Find a Community

This kind of goes along with the previous point, but look to see if there is a local NaNoWriMo group that you can connect with online and in person.

In order to find your local NaNoWriMo group, make sure to register on the NaNoWriMo website. Here you can select your local region. Once you’re in, you can then go to the “Region” tab and select “Home Region.” This will pull up information about the volunteers in your area who you can contact through “NaNo mail.” This page can also have forums for your local region, links to Facebook pages or websites, or anything else the local volunteers want you to have. It can show a calendar of events the group is putting on. Mine even has a note with instructions on how to get our group’s 2016 NaNoWriMo design on a shirt, hoodie, or bag.

Along with the option of a physical community, you might also find yours online. There is the NaNoWriMo Facebook group with over 24,000 members that I mentioned before, but there are also forums on the NaNoWriMo site under the “Conversations” tab in the main menu. Some of these forums are about tips, strategies, etc. But others are just for chatting. Some are by genre, are focused on when you hit a milestone, talk about what to do after your novel is done, and more. I even found one about 20-something bloggers. Feel free to browse and make connections.

A community can add another level of fun to your November writing. Our local chapter is holding group write-ins at different locations in town, with “word sprints” happening every half hour. They threw that kickoff party with treats. At the party they also announced a points system that they have set up for the group that can lead to a few prizes, like a Time Turner, Hogwarts House ties, and a local award they have made (it’s a statue made of golden potatoes. We do live in Idaho, after all.) So not only will we be writing novels, but there are incentives, prizes, and some socializing that this group has set up for local NaNoWriMo participants.

This community is made up of people with various levels of experience. There is the university professor with an MFA, who is participating for the first time, as well as a librarian for the local library who I believe has written multiple novels (or at least their manuscripts), possibly all through NaNoWriMo. There is my sister, the college freshman who has written a number of fanfiction pieces that have gotten a good amount of attention but who is now going to be working on a novel that is her own concept. There is me, the self-employed college grad with a BA in English in one hand and a smartphone checking prices on eBay in the other.

Looking into a community may mean finding new friends, mentors, and people to cheer you on as you work toward finishing your novel. It also could mean forming friendships that last into December and beyond. Give your community a chance to connect with you, and see if it doesn’t brighten your day, week, or years.

Reverse NaNo

I heard of this concept in that giant NaNoWriMo Facebook group I mentioned earlier. If you divide 50,000 words equally over 30 days, you will be writing about 1,667 words a day. Reverse NaNo means you instead start on November 1 by writing 3,346 words when the excitement over your novel and NaNo are high (all of these numbers come from this Reverse Nano page, which outlines the day-by-day word counts for this strategy). Then each day your required word count lessens by about 115. Sometimes it is 116, and sometimes it is 130. Most of the time it is 115.

If you keep up with the required word counts, then on November 16, you’ll have to write 1,609 words. That is less words than the 1,667 your friends who have split it all up into equal chunks will have to write. And your daily word goal will continue to shrink each day. As the month wears on, perhaps fatigue and discouragement will lessen along with your daily word requirements.

One nice thing about the Reverse NaNo strategy is even if you fall short of the high goals set at the beginning of the month, it is possible you will have written more than other participants, and your word count might still end up lightening up sooner than theirs.

Another benefit to this strategy is that on Thanksgiving, you’ll only have to write 690 words. That is nearly 1,000 less than everyone else’s 1,667. For you shopping that weekend, Black Friday will be 576 words, and Cyber Monday will be 231. By November 30, your word requirement for the day is 1.

Write Every Day

Writing even a little bit will mean less to write the next day. It will also help you form the habit to write every single day, which will hopefully be a habit you carry with you into December and the new year. You may have crazy days that unexpectedly leave you little time to write, but show your dedication by getting out a few hundred words or even just fifty. And maybe it will be that much easier to get yourself to sit down and write again the next day.


Set up a rewards system. Give yourself a treat whenever you write a certain number of words. Maybe that will be every 500 words, every 1,000, every 1,667, or every 10,000. Consider letting yourself have something fun or special once you hit 50,000.

Or instead of having to hit a certain word count, let yourself indulge in treats only while writing, giving you more incentive to sit down and type. Whatever it is, just make your system of self-bribery and reward effective.

Do NOT Edit

Editing is for December and beyond. You can tear your novel to shreds if you need to, you can erase half of it, or you can start from scratch if you decide it is just that bad, just don’t do it during NaNoWriMo. Get the words out and let those terrible lines of prose go for now. If you have to, you can highlight them. But ultimately you will be slowing yourself down if you keep deleting sentences and rewriting them, and getting to 50,000 words will be that much harder. No one has to read this rough draft. Don’t feel undue pressure to see perfection the first time through. In the words of author Jamie Freveletti, “Awful first drafts are fine—Agree with this. If you don’t finish something, you’ll never get in the game. Just quell the voice in your head that says “Are you kidding? No one is going to want to read this drivel” and keep on going. You’re going to revise and revise and then revise again anyway.”

Don’t be Afraid to Wander

If you hit writer’s block, try writing in the point of view of a different character, or let your character wander a little bit or encounter something completely different than what you might have expected to happen in your novel. Even if you end up cutting this in later editing, you are at least adding to your word count. And not just that, but you might end up finding something interesting in these winding paths of prose. Maybe you’ll earn something important about your character that you can use in the novel moving forward. Or maybe it will all be garbage. But at least you are writing and taking steps toward your goal of 50,000 words rather than staring at the blinking cursor on your computer screen or the tiny fibers of your page.

Be Prepared to Fail

This might seem like a disheartening way to enter NaNoWriMo, but it may be important to not set your feelings of self-worth and self-confidence on a month long writing marathon that doesn’t determine much. Would finishing be awesome? Sure! But be okay if you don’t quite make it. Let yourself celebrate what you did accomplish, and keep writing. Even a couple thousand words is an accomplishment.

Remember that winning or losing NaNoWriMo will not determine your future success as a writer. But being too hard on yourself might affect your ability to enjoy writing and pursue that dream of being published.

You Can Do This

Maybe these two points seem like a contradiction. How do I mentally prepare myself to be okay with failure while also believing I can finish this challenge? However you manage it, believing you are capable of writing 50,000 words in a month may be important to your actually doing it.

Have Fun

Let’s remember this. We should enjoy our writing. Even when it is stressful and we’re tired, we should ultimately be writing because we want to. This isn’t a homework assignment or a big task given to you by your boss (wouldn’t it be nice if we could get paid for doing NaNo?). No, we are writing our own ideas, characters, and stories. We are exercising a kind of freedom here. And at its core, it should be something that makes us feel good. That doesn’t mean it’s not stressful or that it does not require some sacrifice and self-control, but at the end of it let’s be happy with the fact that we are writers, happy with the creative process and injected with a kind of peace or excitement over the whole thing, happy for being able to speak through prose these rough, as-yet unheard words.

Are you ready for November? Tell us in the comments some advice you would give to new NaNoWriMo participants.

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