A Complete, No-Nonsense Guide to NaNoWriMo

NaNoWriMo: what’s it all about?

It all began with twenty-one aspiring writers. Twenty-one people who set themselves a collective challenge: to complete a 50,000 word novel in one month. It was brave, certainly. Naive, even. But do you know what? They all did it; every single one. And they decided that if they could do it, others could too.

And just like that, National Novel Writing Month was born: a gargantuan project for writers of all backgrounds. Sixteen years on from that first experiment, NaNoWriMo can quite comfortably be classed as a global phenomenon. Last year 310,095 writers took part, with 2014 set for even greater things.

The rules of NaNoWriMo are simple. On 1st November, sit down and write the first word of your novel. Keep going until you have at least 50,000 words: just make sure you hit that target by the end of the month. From crime thrillers to YA fiction, anything goes: as long as you hit the word count.

As this year’s event draws ever-closer, the writing community is gearing up for another 30 days of furious noveling. Whether you’re a seasoned author or a total newbie, here’s everything you need to know about NaNoWriMo.

Why participate?

Ah, that fantastical dream of becoming a fully-fledged writer. If only you had the time, inspiration or fairy dust to get the job done (*sighs*). Of course, it doesn’t quite work like that – not by any stretch of the imagination. If you want to be a writer, no amount of romantic notions will get you there. You have to damn well sit there and write.

NaNoWriMo is about doing exactly that. You want to be a novelist? Well you need to put one word in front of another, set yourself a goal and forget the fairy tale. Writers work hard. There’s no magic spell or secret to change that fact. NaNoWriMo doesn’t care who you are or what you’ve done. You may have written ten novels, or none at all. Either way, everyone has a fair shot at writing a book: no excuses allowed.

Of course, NaNoWriMo has its critics. Some say it’s too contrived; too formulaic. But if you need a kick up the backside to actually start and finish a novel, it’s surely worth giving NaNoWriMo a try. Combine a goal and a deadline with a vast, supportive community, and you’re giving yourself the best possible chance of success. So, less thinking please. More writing.

To prepare or not to prepare?

As the folks at NaNoWriMo put it, you’re either a ‘planner’ or ‘pantser’ when it comes to preparation. Planners spend time outlining their novel, shaping characters, creating backstory and crafting plot lines. Their process varies in intensity, but they all prepare ahead of time. In contrast, pantsers will sit in front of their laptop at 00:00 on 1st November and just GO: flying by the seat of their pants on a journey with no set destination.

There’s no a ‘right’ way to be, of course. Preparation methods are very personal – but considering you have 50,000 words to write in 30 short days, it’s worth at least putting some thought into your novel before the madness begins.

If you’re a natural-born planner, hats off to you. Planning your novel is a great way to get a headstart for NaNoWriMo. You’ll be clear-headed and focused: ready to go, armed with a map and a compass. But a word of caution; don’t become a slave to the plan. Your novel needs a little room to breathe, so try to be open-minded if characters evolve or plot lines unfold in ways you didn’t imagine.

Pantsers are the gutsy explorers of the writing world. If that’s you, you’ll be diving in headfirst, trusting that a story will emerge as you write. Sometimes an incredible tale unfolds, but all too often you lose grip on the direction of your novel. And if you are lost by chapter 5, spare a thought for your poor reader.

Planning: where to begin

The general consensus is to at least attempt a plan of sorts. The extent of your planning is up to you – but some preparation will help you to write concisely. Which is important, given you’ve only got 30 days to wrestle with this thing into shape. Preparation for NaNoWriMo doesn’t have to be painstaking – so experiment with planning techniques, and find the method that works best for you. Here are some ideas to get you started.

  • Explore your options for outlining. Author Chuck Wendig’s process is a great place to start: he gives an honest and open insight into his own planning methods. His Terrible Minds blog is endorsed by Margaret Atwood, which tells you all you need to know. His advice is spot on, but be warned: he has a penchant for an expletive or two.
  • READ. Read your favourite book. A book you can’t stop thinking about. One that makes you laugh out loud; sob into your pillow; daydream at the bus stop. Pay attention to why the novel just seems to work, and take away as much inspiration as you can.
  • Determine your approach to narrative voice. Are you writing from the first or third person? Why? Have an idea of point of view before you begin – so you can dive straight in without deliberating over the details.

5 Must-Read Tips for NaNoWriMo

So you’re fully signed up, prepped and ready to throw yourself headlong into NaNoWriMo. To help you through November’s inevitable frolics and frustrations, here are 5 must-read tips.

  1. Do it your own way
  2. First thing’s first. Where on earth are you going to find time to actually write? There’s no set formula – so experiment as you go and stick with the routine (or lack of) that works for you. Try early mornings, snuggled in bed as the sun rises. If you have the luxury, take a morning at your favourite coffee shop. Grab fragments of time around school runs, batch cooking and bedtime stories. Full-time jobs; part-time hobbies; you’re going to have to just go with it. Whatever gets the job done.

  3. Write, and don’t look back
  4. You’ve got 50,000 words to write in 30 days. That’s 1,667 words every day: more if you don’t work weekends. And that means – shock horror – you need to stop obsessing, and actually write. Write, and don’t look back. Stop concerning yourself with imperfections; resist the urge to revisit clunky paragraphs or jolting dialogue. Your task is not to write a full-polished, publishable novel in one month. NaNoWriMo is all about getting a first-shot manuscript; a raw draft that’s ready to be sculpted into something worth reading sometime AFTER November.

  5. Don’t wait for divine inspiration
  6. Unless you’re incredibly lucky, inspiration won’t just hit when the time is right. As Stephen King puts it in his memoir On Writing:

    amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work

    Brutal honesty at its best. You need to go find your inspiration it – or at least try and coax it out of the woodwork. Reimagine a classic story. Use short prompts. Take on a subject that keeps you awake at night. If need be, ask someone else for a title! Do whatever it takes.

  7. Embrace the community
  8. NaNoWriMo is a rare moment in time when thousands of writers are united in their enthusiasm, stresses and fears. You’re all starting out at square one, and you’re all working towards the same goal. Use this community to your advantage: because it’s one of the few times in your writing career that you’ll feel quite so connected to others in the same boat. Contribute to forum discussions; buddy-up via the NaNoWriMo website; read blogs; chat on Twitter. Even venture beyond the digital world and attend local events and write-ins. Take strength in the fact you are not alone.

  9. Don’t stop at November (and don’t even think about publishing…yet)
  10. With any luck, you’ll emerge victorious at the end of November with a rough manuscript in hand. But now is not the time to stop. By all means, take a moment to rejoice at being a NaNoWriMo winner. This is a true achievement – so grab a glass and let the bubbly flow. But keep yourself in check: this is the first step on a long journey, and there’s lots more work to be done.

    One of the writing industry’s biggest bugbears is the enthusiastic souls who rush to publish their work post-NaNo. Don’t do this: you do not have a finished novel – not by a long shot. So when you’re ready, re-read your work. Hack it apart, and piece it together again. Fill in the blanks. EDIT. The important thing is to be realistic: your novel deserves more time and attention, so make sure you do it that honour. November is a big step on your journey as a writer – but it is just the beginning.

Triumphant WriMos: The Success Stories

Not everyone manages to complete 50,000 words in one month. Those who do are awarded the accolade of ‘WINNER’: a badge of honour earned only via hard, honest graft. Every NaNo winner is a success story in their own right – but some manage to traverse the unforgiving fiction-writing market better than others. A portion of novels drafted during NaNoWriMo have gone on to be published. Some are published via the traditional route, while others are self-published. A smaller portion yet have been recognised on a global scale.

Have you read Water for Elephants? The New York Times Bestseller that went on to star Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson in its film adaptation? Yep, that was written during NaNoWriMo by a lady named Sara Gruen. In this pep talk, she admits to falling behind on the word count. Even success stories of this scale are perfectly human, just like you.

Then there’s Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. Looking Glass by James R. Strickland (who talks about his own writing process in this insightful blog post). The list goes on, and helpfully there’s a full directory of published NaNo novelists on the official website.

So as November edges ever-nearer, take inspiration from these success stories. Face up to the inevitability of hard work. Prepare. And get the job done, however you can. Whoever you are, NaNoWriMo could be all the motivation you need to simply GET WRITING. Good luck, brave souls!


  • CymruZombiesCathod

    Ooh, this sounds like a fantastic idea! Great tips too!