At this time of year, I start seeing posts and updates and articles mentioning NaNoWriMo, which stands for National Novel Writing Month ... the idea is to write a novel in a month!
The concept is incredible, but as crazy as it sounds, it's possible to do it ... I've tried and "won" (finished a first draft before the end of the month) the last three years, and the purpose of this blog is to share my top five tips so you can do the same thing.
1) Fully commit to the process and jump in the deep end before giving yourself a chance to think too much
Tell your family and friends that you will be participating in NaNoWriMo, and explain the process to them. They may think you're crazy, and that it's impossible (and they might even be right), but many of them will be supportive and ask how they can help.
Sign up on the NaNoWriMo website as soon as you can. Don't worry if your title and synopsis and other details aren't set in stone; the important thing is to shout your intention to write a novel to the heavens.
Now is the time to decide when/where in your life you can carve out a couple of hours a day for the month you'll be NaNoWriMo-ing ... for a month, you can live without some combination of the stuff that makes up your normal life if it means writing your novel.
Give yourself permission to ask for help and time and absolution from some of your regular responsibilities at home and work ... you'd be surprised at how many people will give you a hand with other things to leave you more time/energy to focus on your writing (especially when they know it's just for a month).
Fully committing to the process was magic for me, and my writing. I'd always dreamed of writing a novel, but never made the space in my life for it. I was hooked the second I heard about NaNoWriMo, knowing that it would be the only way I'd ever get my novel written.
2) Know the story, characters, and setting ahead of time ... make a plan
I can't stress the importance of pre-writing enough; it was the key to my three-time success at NaNoWriMo. There are lots of people who take pride in being a "pantser" (someone who writes by the seat of their pants), and I will tell you that I hear lots more of them talking about their novels at the beginning of the month than at the end.
I like to start the planning months ahead, with notes and memos to myself, but only get serious about mapping out characters and the story arc in the month leading up to NaNoWriMo.
The arc of the story is next ... I like to know where the story begins, where it ends, what the main (and secondary) conflicts will be (and how they'll be played out; I map this part out on a big sheet (or sheets) of construction paper.
Having a plan, even as simple as a what I've outlined above, gets me thinking about how the story will both start and play out. I think of these steps more as a general map than a recipe ... the guideposts along the way give me form, but also allow me to wander where the story wants to take me.
3) Set up your working environment & conditions to maximize efficiency and minimize distractions
Stephen King knows of what he speaks. You need to set up your NaNoWriMo time and space so as to give yourself privacy and quiet and space.
You should be writing in a place that is physically comfortable for you, and as distraction-free as you can manage.
Beyond that, you need to try and close the door on the rest of your life and relationships for the hours each day that you're writing for NaNoWriMo. Leave work and family matters on the other side of the door; at the end of your writing sessions, leave the story in the writing space (you'll be tempted to share details about the story ... resist, and instead keep your fans/supporters updated with generalities).
I like quiet classical music, Stephen King likes loud hard rock, you may like something in between or something entirely different. I alternate between writing at the kitchen table and at a standing desk, depending on my mood, the angle of the sun through the windows, and whatever else is going on in the house ... the important thing is to acknowledge what works for you and set up those conditions.
4) Tell your story, trust the process, JUST WRITE, don't edit
The important thing with NaNoWriMo, more than with any other writing process/project you've experienced before, is to find a way to start writing everyday, and get a couple of thousand words down before you stop.
The NaNoWriMo goal of 50,000 words works out to 1667 words per day, if you write every day during the month; I have never been able (or willing) to write every single day, so I aim for 2,500 words, so that if I miss a day I don't feel horrible/defeated.
My three years of NaNoWriMo, I have ended up writing 75,000, 90,000, and 85,000 words for my first drafts ... if the day is going well, I don't mind running through my goals and have produced as much as 7,500 words during a marathon writing day.
This is what you have to keep telling yourself, especially when you get tempted to go back and fix something that you wrote the day before ... if I really can't get a fix out of my head, I'll either go back (if I know that it's the kind of thing I can change in a couple of minutes), or write my thoughts about it down on the back page of whatever notebook I'm working out of currently.
You will find, as you get immersed in the month-long writing process, that your writing becomes easier and faster, and that the 1667 words per day that once seemed so imposing has become an easy morning's work for you ... enjoy it while you can, some days it will still be tough to get going, so it's nice to have a cushion of words.
4a) Don't you dare upnplug during NaNoWriMo
Lots of writers will tell you to unplug completely while writing your NaNoWriMo novel ... I couldn't disagree with them more.
I send emails to friends and family during breaks with updates, sometimes begging off from dinner or pickup from camp. I always have 6-8 browser windows open on my laptop, so that I can access maps and facts and do some just-in-time research and look up moon and tide cycles and historical weather data and number nerdery. I recently posted a blog describing my favorite apps to use while writing, and often have my iphone playing music, while I'm working on two or more things on the ipad, and a bunch of windows vying for my attention on the laptop ... without my tech, all of my writing would take much longer, and being able to access it on the fly makes my NaNoWriMo work.
5) Have appropriate food and fuel ready and waiting for you, for both snacks and breaks
Writer often joke about our coffee addictions, but the truth is that I have a much easier time writing, especially for NaNoWriMo, if I'm gently wired on coffee; too much, and I become jittery and the writing gets harder again, so it is really a matter of finding the correct balance.
I've found that I can't write if I'm starving or stuffed, so during NaNoWriMo I work to stay in the sweet spot as much as is possible. I also like to avoid foods that are slow or messy, either to prepare or eat or clean up. I end up making/eating a lot of GORP (a mix of dried fruits and nuts, sometimes with jerky in it, or on the side), along with apples, bananas, hard-boiled eggs, and pasta from the night before during my writing days.
I always have food and drink next to me while I'm writing, and also make myself walk away from my writing to take a 20 minute 'lunch' break every three hours or so ... I find that getting away from the story for a bit every once in while helps keep me writing longer.
6) Feel free to skip chunks that don't come easily, you will have to fix it later anyway
One of the issues that I struggled with during my first NaNoWriMo was continuity of story and writing, while still maintaining forward momentum and my daily word-count numbers. I would be having difficulty writing a scene or some dialogue, and derail my writing flow/speed.
What I learned with time and practice was that I ended up with better results when running into this sort of trouble if I just wrote something like, "THIS SECTION NEEDS WORK!", and moved on to whatever was next in the story.
It felt like cheating the first few times I did it, but you end up having to chop and graft and prune and add so much to every piece of the story that it's really better to skip the tough part and come back to it later (either in the editing stage, or sometimes the fix would come to me during the night, and I could add it in the next morning).
Keep repeating this to yourself the whole time you're writing your NaNoWriMo novel ... that way if you have some gems mixed in with the crap, you'll have convinced yourself that you're a genius. The most important thing is to get the framework of the story out and onto the screen or paper, so that you can take it to the next level with your beta reader and editors.
One of the things that I love about NaNoWriMo, besides that it has helped me become a writer (which is a pretty big deal in and of itself), is that everyone who crosses the 50,000 word line can consider themselves a 'winner'. By any measure, a person who completes the first draft of their novel has won, because it changes your world forever.
Another fantastic thing about NaNoWriMo is that it forces you to rush headlong into a process that far too many people think far too much about before, or while, they do it ... writing.
The forced march of writing thousands of words each day for a month is a form madness with a spectacular method behind it ... it forces you to put your self-consciousness aside, to think less and write more (which is always good for your writing).
If you have laid the groundwork in your planning and preparations, have the environment and sustenance taken care of, have the support of friends and family, give yourself permission to write whatever comes, and skip what needs skipping the first time around, you'll have a pretty good chance fo being successful at NaNoWriMo this year ... and every year.