NaNoWriMo: a cheat sheet to a better experience

It is the season. National Novel Writing Month is upon us. In about a week, the first people will be deep in despair about having driven themselves of a (figurative) cliff already. Others will have almost won (Trust me. It happens. I see people chunk out 50k on day one almost every year. They exist. I tip my hat to you, speed writer folks.) Some will be writing deliriously, some will probably get so lost in the trenches of the community and what it has to offer that they’ll count themselves lucky to resurface in time for Christmas.

The NaNoWriMo experience is about as individual as it’s participants. But while the whole thing is a glorious bout of scheduled madness, some people get overrun by it. They get discouraged, hurt, and lose their drive to write.

I’d like to give a little guidance and offer some perspective on a few things, so that everyone can make NaNoWriMo their best experience


There are two big categories as far as NaNoWriMo pitfalls go. The solely writing related and the general life related ones. Let’s start with the life related ones.

  1. Regular life goes on. Acknowledge that. Things will come up, plans will get busted. Which is why you are better off with to a schedule and regularly. Aim to write every day in order to not build up a deficit and maybe even accumulate some extra words that can buffer any unexpected events. Figure out times to fit your writing in every day ahead of time. Treat them as appointments. They are fix. Unless catastrophe strikes you cannot move them.
  2. You sill need food, the occasional shower, social interaction and fresh air. Don’t turn into a hermit. It might seem the only way to get there, but inspiration lies beyond you desk and laptop. Sitting down to write is the most important thing, but stepping away from your writing and coming back with a fresh perspective comes in a very close second.
  3. Not everyone will be supportive. You know your friends and family. You know who is going to be supportive and who won’t. Tell those who can encourage you. Keep quiet towards the others. November is a time of crazy fun, you don’t need to invite negativity into your space.
  4. Listen to your body. Pulling all nighters for a week because otherwise you don’t get your writing in is unhealthy. Sitting and typing all day when your back and wrists hurt is unhealthy. 50k is a big goal, but it can be achieved in smaller steps. Get up half an hour earlier and type. Let those episodes of your favorite show accumulate and watch them in December and write instead. Carve out time intelligently. You’ll enjoy the experience more (and write better stuff) if you are actually awake.

The bottom line for this is: you can totally pants your novel. You shouldn’t pants NaNoWriMo. Know your schedule. Figure out which days might lead to hiccups. Prepare contingency plans. The writing will provide you with enough challenges as it is, so make sure you can invest your energy where it matters.

Now, on to the writing related part. Here are a few does and a lot of don’ts. Not everything might apply to everyone because each temperament is different, but in general, they can serve as a good and solid reminder for all of us.

  1. Write every day. Do it. Sit down. Type. It creates momentum, and momentum is what you want and need.
  2. Don’t compare your output to that of others. You might be struggling to meet the 1667 words per day while others chunk out wordcounts in the high thousands every day. It doesn’t matter. Keep your eye on the goal, and the goal only.
  3. Don’t get judgemental. When others manage to produce more, we tend to tell ourselves “Oh, I am sure it’s just crap.” Or, on the other end of the spectrum: “I suck. I cannot do what she does. I should just quit.” Neither is doing you any good or helps your writing. Celebrate every tiny milestone you reach, but be gracious and celebrate with others as well. They are working differently from you. Different. Not better. Not worse.
  4. Send your inner editor on vacation. If you feel like it, go over your writing from the previous day and adjust a few things here and there. But don’t go into full on editor mode. You are not producing a novel for publication. You are producing a first draft of a novel. At least 50k, if all goes phantastically well, a whole manuscript of however many k you need. This is is your goal. November is not the time for polished prose. It’s knuckle down and work time. Shitty first drafts. But with an THE END proudly sitting beneath the last line.
  5. Know you will struggle. NaNoWriMo is not for the faint-hearted. There will be a moment (or more than one) when you feel like you basically crash landed your plot, misunderstood your protagonist, screwed up the perspective AND chose the wrong genre. Breathe. Write on. ¬†Elizabeth Gilbert once said “Done is better than good” and she’s damn right.
  6. You will encounter the same problems you do on any other novel you write. Only faster. If you, like me, are a member in the “middle? what middle?” club, once the midpoint of your novel rolls around, you’ll be struggling. If you suck at beginnings, you might not be writing until day three. Take a moment to consider which parts of novelwriting are the hardest for you. Anticipate them. BUT: not in fear. Do so gleefully. Because quite frankly, you only have 30 days for the whole stunt. You don’t have time for those suckers. Blaze past them. Write. Write badly if you must, but write.
  7. Don’t pick up books of the genre you are writing in during NaNoWriMo. November is intense. Your subconscious will be laboring away on your plot and your story all the time. Thus, it will be highly susceptible to ideas and concepts from other works in your chosen genre. It becomes easy for parts of other works to sneak into your own. Read other stuff instead. It might spark some unexpected inspiration. (This strategy also keeps you from feeling like a failure once you realise your novel will never be as good as the one you are holding in your hands. We tend to forget that shiny books come from shitty first drafts.)
  8. When you get overwhelmed, push away the end goal. Don’t talk about writing a book. Don’t talk about writing 50k in a month. Talk about what you want to accomplish today. Talk about 1667 words. Talk about a scene you want to write, a turning point you want to reach, a certain place in your setting you want your characters to get to. Reframe the whole experience in a way that excites you.
  9. Write what you want. Don’t care so much about whether or not this or that scene really should be included. You can always kick it out later, or use it some place else. November is, most of all, about writing and enjoying the ride, not about a perfect manuscript. You have 12 month to polish the manuscript until the next NaNoWriMo rolls around. Write now. Be ruthless later.
  10. Don’t spent NaNoWriMo in isolation. Connect with the community at, go to local write ins, pair up with a writer friend, whatever works. By doing so, you get someone to share all your highs and lows with, you get an accountability buddy and it’s just so much more fun when you are not going through the glorious madness of November alone.

NaNoWriMo is not a competition. It’s a test of courage, endurance and on top of that, one hell of a lot of fun. Dive in head on, grab your plot and enjoy the ride.


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