Top 10 Tips From A Four Time NaNoWriMo Winner

I've participated in the National Novel Writing Month program (NaNoWriMo) four times, and won every time. The decision to participate in this amazing program/experiment, may be the hardest and scariest thing you will ever do ... once you find your way into it, the writing will become easier and easier (I promise, despite what SK has to say about it).

After four years, I have three novels in print, and the fourth will be coming out in Early January of 2016 ... some of my success is due to luck, some to skill, and some to a simple set of routines that I try to establish and follow long before my writing sprint starts.

1) Know Your Characters
My stories start with people ... I get a feeling for the characters, and write down everything I can about the people who will be acting out the story once I get writing. If everything works out the way it should, I get to know them quite well in the weeks and months leading up to NaNoWriMo.

A classic guide to story structure

2) Know Your Story
I like to write stories the same way I like to vacation ... plan out a rough map/guide of what I want to see and do, and then follow my instincts once I'm hip-deep in the action. It's often enough for me to make notes on one of the two structure guides shown above/below ... filling in characters and conflict and crucial scenes on the sheet of paper.

The hero's journey is a well-known model for authors/stories to follow

3) Do Your Research
Once I know who will be living in my story and what will happen to them (in a general sense), I spend a lot of time looking at maps, reading everything I can about the setting of the story, topic of my plots and subplots, and details that can hopefully stimulate the wee-beasties living in the back of my head as well as appeal to future readers.

4) Establish and Maintain Your Support Network
Once you are foolish enough to decide to write a novel in a month, tell everyone you can think of ... it can help you not back out later on (once you come to your senses). Family and friends and coworkers will support you just by virtue of their knowing; some of them will go above and beyond that and actually support you in surprising ways. 

I would also recommend finding other writers who will be living the NaNoWriMo experience during the same time period. They can be supportive in ways that people on the outside cannot (cannot even know about), and you can share daily wordcounts and tips and encouragement and great spots to write and drink coffee.

5) Read, Read, and Then Read Some More
Spend time as much time as you beg, borrow, or steal in the weeks and months leading up to your writing sprint reading. Read novels that are similar to what you're hoping to write (in genre, or narrative style, or setting, or dialog structure); read great books and crappy books (you can learn valuable lessons from both). Read books on the art and science of writing fiction ... there are lots of fantastic books out there to teach you what you need to know.

6) Spend Time Thinking About Routine and Schedules
Once the writing sprint starts, you need to be ready to go, ready to commit, so you should have thought about routines and schedules way ahead of time. 

I write best early in the morning, and not in my house, so it's important for me to work out ways/times/opportunities to make that time work for my job and family and dogs and all of the other moving parts in my life. When writing my novels, I prefer chunks of time of 3 hours, or more if possible. Long before I start writing, I try to coordinate with my wife and son and other family and friends, so that they know what my needs/wants are, and so that I can avoid inconveniencing or disappointing them.

I was able to start writing most mornings by 6am, and be done by mid-morning (sometimes stretching until 11 or noon if I was on a roll, and the other factors in my life made this work), and then I would spend the rest of the day with family and friends and dogs ... doing everything else that makes my life work. You'll find the right balance, because you have to, just make sure to start making plans ahead of time.

7) Make Technology Work for You and Your Writing
The best technology makes writing easier, any time you spend fiddling with your tech is time that you're not putting words down on the paper or screen.

I've written my last three novels using a Chromebook and GoogleDocs. My Chromebook has an 11 hour battery life, so I can easily write my way through a long day without having to plug in or worry about the battery running down. GoogleDocs saves automatically to the cloud every time I stop typing (although just to be sure, I tend to save/email my latest version of the story to myself and/or my wife at the end of each day). GoogleDocs has recently added a speech to text feature which I haven't tried, but am intrigued by.

8) Learn About, and Understand, the NaNoWriMo Process
I didn't know almost anything about NaNoWriMo the first time I tried it ... if I had, I would have tried it sooner.

It's not just a way to squish writing a book into a month of your life ... it's a fantastic tool for letting go of fear and embracing what can be the best writing you'll ever do in your life.

NaNoWriMo forces you to push yourself to write fast, and writing at speed, although a bit scary at first, is great for lots of reasons:

  • you abandon the dream of writing a clean first draft
  • you can't afford to worry about saying everything just right
  • you can skip scenes, knowing you'll be able to add them in during later edits
  • you step away from the notion of perfection, and work at simply telling the story

Perhaps the most amazing thing about writing using the NaNoWriMo way (at least for me) is that it allows - even forces - me to uncouple from my conscious and careful thought process, and to let the story tell itself ... through me.

By the time I start my annual writing sprints, I know the characters and the setting and the conflicts pretty well, and have a general idea about how/where the story is going to go. I have found that a few minutes into each morning's writing session, that my fingers begin to paint pictures with words, and I just have to keep feeding them (and some part of my brain, one assumes) coffee and the occasional snack.

9) Give Yourself Rewards for Writing, Beyond Writing
I'm entirely in agreement with Henry Miller, writing is most certainly its own reward ... but I also find that I have an easier time finding my way back to the desk, and the requisite mental state, day after day if I build some more substantial rewards into the NaNoWriMo process.

  • ice-cold cokes and guilty-pleasure Netflix (2 episodes of Archer is standard) as reward for finishing a day of writing
  • a book or small piece of camping gear makes a nice marker for ten or twenty thousand word milestones
  • an indulgent steak dinner or fancy bottle of bourbon makes a nice treat upon finishing the first draft

10) Give Yourself a Vacation Day from NaNoWriMo
At some point during your writing sprint,  you'll wake up one morning (or come home one afternoon or evening) entirely un-psyched to work on your novel ... that's OK!

Take a day, and don't spend a minute thinking about your novel, or writing, or NaNoWriMo ... have fun, take a nap, stack wood, go for a swim, eat twinkies.

Then come back the next day, ready to write. I try to write three thousand words a day, and am OK with anything over two thousand words; writing at this level helps me come in with a finished novel of around ninety thousand words by the end of the month (I generally take a day or two off, but it's balanced by those days when I'm able to write five thousand words).

Good luck, have fun, write fast, and get in touch if you have questions, or want to share your first draft with me.

Thanks - Jamie


Peggy Jo Farr said...

Great information for writers from a writer who has successfully completed NaNoWriMo four times! Way to go Jamie! Thank you for your encouragement and support!

Sonya said...

Great advice and I love the author quotes. Thanks!