Are You NaNo’ing This Year?

A colleague at work approached me several years ago about “doing NaNo.” I looked at her as if she was out of her mind. “What’s NaNo?” I said. She explained it was the National Novel Writing Month and the goal was to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days, beginning on November 1. A look of terror came across my face. I thought, “Now that’s really crazy.” At the time, I had two awful starter novels in the drawer and was struggling with a 120,000-word opus that would become my first published novel. I knew what it took to write a novel. I couldn’t wrap my mind around producing 50,000 words of fiction in just 30 days. Thirty months maybe, but 30 days? No way. Undaunted, she said, “You should try it sometime.”

Though it seemed an impossible feat, the idea of cranking out a 50,000-word novel in 30 days intrigued me. It was the ultimate challenge. The idea of a confirmed “pantser” like me attempting a feat that required writerly attributes like planning, outlining, character development and the like, was farfetched, but if I could pull it off, it would prove I possessed the discipline to meet a daily word count.

I didn’t “do NaNo” that year, or for the next three years, but last year I decided to give it a try. The deciding factor was a full-blown idea for a novel that had been rattling around in my head for 10 years. I never could sit and write it. My trepidation was that the story was in a different genre (murder/mystery) than I usually write. It was a huge leap for me, but the story was terrific. It had all the elements of great fiction: suspense, conflict, romance, murder, and, baseball—one of my passions in life. So I climbed the steps to that high diving board and leaped headfirst.

I learned a number of things. The most important lesson was that coming up with 1,667 words a day, even armed with a fully fleshed out story, is really hard. Another big lesson was to expect the unexpected. On October 28, 2011, the northeastern United States was hit with a freak snow storm and the region lost power for nine days. That’s right. No electricity. No laptop. So I adapted. I used pen and paper to write the initial chapters by candlelight. I hunkered in coffee shops with my laptop. We traveled to Vermont to stay with relatives for a weekend and I increased my word count from 3,000 to 11,000. The biggest lesson, though, was the value of discipline and determination.

On November 29, 2012—one day ahead of the deadline—I finished my 53,000-word first draft of Bonus Baby. What was then a first draft is now my work-in-progress.

Here are some lessons for writers thinking about doing NaNo:

  • Plan out your story ahead of time. If you have a premise and major characters, write an outline a month or so ahead of time. Don’t wait until October 31 to work out your story arc. Having a complete story outline was the difference for me. Even then, I found myself wondering if I could meet the word count and I ended up making a major plot change mid-course, which brings me to my next point.
  • Be open to unplanned changes to your story. For many writers (myself included) the first draft is a period of discovery. The major story elements are there, but those moments of intense creative brainstorming often produce magical surprises that enhance the story.
  • Perfect is the enemy of the good. Don’t spend a lot of time trying to come up with the perfect sentence, paragraph or scene. Just write and keep moving forward.
  • Carve out time every day to write. Tell your loved ones and friends you may not see them for a month and ask for their support. If you are married tell (beg) your spouse to take on more of the household chores during the month.
  • Take time off. I took some time off from work around Thanksgiving just in case I fell behind and needed to catch up. It made a difference for me as those days produced strong word counts.
  • Become part of the support group in your region. When you register on the NaNo website ( you will see a link for the regional online forum in your region. Each region as a leader called the Municipal Liaison (ML), who organizes in-person meetings, writing sessions, and orientations for newbies. We are blessed in my region with an energetic and committed ML who organizes meetings, including the legendary “Night of Writing Dangerously,” an all-night writing marathon.
  • Take advantage of the resources on the NaNo website, which include inspirational essays and online forums where you can get answers to just about any question you pose (including how to poison someone, which was the question I posted last year).

If you have done NaNo, what tips do you have to offer to newbies? If you have not done NaNo, what is holding you back?


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21 responses to “Are You NaNo’ing This Year?

  1. I was successful in 2008 with completing my first NanoWriMo attempt. (Still in first draft form though). Then, fizzled in 2009. Going to give it another try this year. I’d planned to outline all October and fell far short due to a huge mental block. Yesterday, on a five hour drive to see my brother, I broke through the block and came up with the basic outline and plot as well a few god character sketches. Not as much as I’d hoped for, but I am excited again about November 1st getting here and the few more days I have to prep for it. 50,000 words? Bring it on!!! Good luck to you as well!

    • Amy,
      Thanks for your comment. It helps to have a good outline. I know from experience. Best wishes on success this year. The way I look at it, even if you get to 40,000 words, that’s 40,000 more words than you had a month ago. Good luck!

  2. The first time I heard of NaNo, it must have been in the second or third year of the challenge. One friend encouraged me to try. The next couple years saw a few more mentions, that I ignored. Finally, I jumped in impulsively, three days late, no ideas or planning, and had hit the 50,000 wordcount 17 days later. When the challenege ended, I’d racked up 82,000 total.

    I’ve done it every year since, and found my soulmate of a music community through the site, as well. NaNo has been very very good to me, even though I was a rebel for the last two years!

    If you’re just coming into it, I’d say, use the community and site there for all it’s worth. If you don’t enjoy the people in one forum, check out another. There is something for everyone, support for every genre.

    • Mary,
      Thanks for your comment and the great advice. The resources on the NaNo website are fantastic. You are not alone in this endeavor and everyone who is going through it is so helpful. Our regional group meets on a regular basis and we help each other out. Thanks again and good luck this year.

  3. Hi CG– I’ve seen your responses on WU and am glad to visit your blog– thanks for stopping by and commenting on mine. This is a great post, NaNo participation or not, to keep in mind when starting a novel.

    Some year I may give NaNo a try, but it feels too much like a straight jacket to me. Plus, don’t tell anyone, but I’m a bit of a rebel when it comes to jumping on the bandwagon and doing what everyone else is doing. Thanks for the tips. I may have to tweet this post. 😉

    • Julie,
      Thanks for the kind words. I meant to tell you that I enjoy your blog and as well as your thoughtful comments in Writer Unboxed. WU is my favorite blog. The posts are highly informative and it’s a great online community.

      NaNo is definitely a huge commitment. I was skeptical for a number of years, but when I decided to give it a try, I found it very rewarding. We have an awesome community in my region, which makes it even more worthwhile.

      Good luck with your work-in-progress and if you ever need a pro bono critique, please feel free to email your work to me at

      • That is a very generous and perhaps foolhardy offer. I may take you up on that, with trembling fear. I love WU too and find it among the most informative. Thank you. I have added myself as a follower of your blog now, so I’ll be lurking or commenting!

  4. Julie,
    Thanks for following my blog. I appreciate the support.

  5. *waving at you from Texas in my travels . . .* great post as usual, friend!

  6. Irv

    Ya know I’ve heard about NaNo but I’ve never had the interest to go for it. Still, I’m fascinated about it and I’ve got a comment and a question.

    The comment first.

    Isn’t creating the structure of the story and the character development part of the writing process? Because if it is, then according to your suggestions, the writing starts before the gun goes off for the start.

    The question:

    How are people policed and stopped from from cheating ALL the writing? Can’t one pre-write and then release pages day by day as if it were spontaneous work?

    Just wondering… Now it’s obvious I know nothing about this contest!


    • Irv,
      Thanks for your comment and questions. According to the rules, outlining is permissible but writing before November 1 is not. You make a good point about outlining and creating a story structure being part of the writing process, but in this case, it is allowed. With regard to policing, people are on the honor system. The people I have met in my region take it seriously and abide by the rules because the whole point is to challenge yourself to produce a 50,000-word piece of fiction in 30 days. I found it to be a good way to produce a first draft (and that’s really what we’re talking about here, not a finished work) quickly and to demonstrate the discipline to write every day. Thanks for stopping by. Good to hear from you. I hadn’t heard from you in awhile. Hope you are well and your writing projects are moving along.

      • Irv

        I finally got around the marketing thing – the biggest procrastination of my life! But I did start it and it’s paying off. So I wrote a blog post about it and I got many responses and shares on where I first published it. I think you’ll find it beneficial if you haven’t already address the review process. Here’s the link to my own site and article.


      • Irv,
        Thanks for the link. Your article is a very comprehensive and thoughtful treatment of the subject of book marketing for self-published authors. This is one of the biggest challenges for those of us who self-publish their work. Marketing is almost a fulltime job. I wish you all the best and thanks for sharing the link.

  7. Perfect is the enemy of good – that will be my motto this month. Thanks for the reminder – I am going to have to tattoo that on my hand! 😎 Good luck to you this year.

  8. I have to second Ellen’s comment here, and say that I think I’m going to print out that phrase “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” That sums it up so well. Thank you!

    I’m not doing NaNo this year, precisely, but so much of what you’ve said applies to me anyway. Perhaps I could also be considered a rebel – and probably am on some level – but I also really respect the idea of planning out the book first, and that was the stage I’d reached with my next trilogy when Nov 1st hit. NaNo is proving great for that too though! It’s really providing a tremendous goal of producing over a thousand words of thinking and planning the details (while still being open to the fact that things WILL change when the rubber of the story hits the road).

    Great post, thank you!

    • Megan,
      Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. I’m glad you found the post helpful. I’m now at 4,000 words on day three and I keep reminding myself not to labor over a sentence or a scene. We’re hard-wired to want our prose to be perfect, but NaNo doesn’t work that way. Good luck on your work in progress.

  9. Roger

    I’m at 47,291 on day 22. Those who started with me talked about being perfectionists. Your comment about perfect is a good predictor about who will finish.

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