A NaNoWriMo survival guide (how you can make it through the wilderness of literary abandon alive)

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National novel writing month survival guide

National Novel Writing Month aka NaNoWriMo is nearly upon us and you know what that means? A whole month of literary abandon where your challenge is to write the end on a 50,000 word manuscript. Sounds impossible but it’s doable—I promise!

As someone who has come through the month and lived to tell the tale—twice in fact—I thought I’d put together these essential tips for survival through the three stages of NaNoWriMo. Game on! 

Stage one – first things first, you have to prepare

As the saying goes I probably couldn’t organise my way out of a paper bag but the trick to surviving NaNo is to get over yourself and do a bit of prep work. Before the month begins make sure you complete the following—it’ll make it easier on you in the long run:

  • Sign up officially on the National (or as I like to think of it, international!) Novel Writing Month website. As the lovely peeps from NaNoWriMo put it; ‘We provide the support, encouragement, and good old-fashioned kick in the pants you need to write the rough draft of your novel in November.’ They also give you tools to help plan your novel and provide you access to other writers who’ve gotten themselves into the same pickle—just make sure you don’t spend too much time on their forums and forget to write!
  • Clear your schedule for November! I can’t stress how important this is. To hit your word count you’re going to need to write for a few hours a day (on average you need to complete approximately 1,700 words before hitting the hay each night). Just missing one deadline can get you out of your groove so you end up needing to write nearly 12,000 words in a weekend and that’s not fun (I speak from experience). Channel Victor Hugo who, when writing The Hunchback of Notre Dame put himself under house arrest, locking away his clothes to avoid the temptation to go outside… OK, so maybe you don’t have to go to that extreme but at least warn your friends and family you’ll be unavailable, skip after work drinks and block your writing times as if they’re as important as an audience with the Queen (which of course, they are).
Block writing times as if they're as important as an audience with the Queen-which they are Click To Tweet

SEE ALSO: Weird habits of famous writers that make you feel normal… well almost

  • Shout it from the rooftops. You should tell everyone about what you’re trying to achieve, not just because you can’t see them for a month but so they can keep you accountable. Another way to really motivate yourself is to get sponsorship. You can raise funds for NaNoWriMo programs or pick one of your favourite charities and set up an online fundraising page (I’ve used Everyday Hero to do this in the past). If that won’t keep you typing then nothing will.
  • Stock up on food. My worst nightmare is missing a meal so when November comes around I make sure my pantry and freezer are stocked. Reality is, if you’re working full time, you’ll probably be eating in front of your computer every night. When I cook, I make a few extra meals worth—I just have to get over my hate of eating the same thing for dinner twice! Make sure you have endless supplies of coffee (or in my case earl grey tea)—with all the late nights you’re going to need it.
  • Set up your writing space. Clear your desk, clean up your desktop and declutter your NaNoWriMo space. That way when you sit down you can plunge right into your story rather than finding distractions.

SEE ALSO: How to conquer your clutter & become a better writer (it’s easier than conquering a dragon)

Stage two – it’s November 1st and we’re off

November 1st is going to roll around quickly—in three days to be exact. So now you’ve got all your pre-prep done it’s time to fall headfirst into your story. But how do you stay motivated? Here’s a few ways you can keep yourself writing to the finish line:

  • Freewrite. By forcing yourself to ‘just write’ you allow your stream of consciousness to spill out onto the page therefore tapping into your creative subconscious. It does help if you have a bit of an idea for a story or know something about your characters, but it’s not the end of the world if you have no clue at all! NaNoNaWriMo creator and head cheerleader Chris Baty has admitted numerous times he has no idea what he’s doing, in fact his book, No Plot No Problem is about just that. As with all freewriting don’t read back over what you’ve written, pretend the delete key doesn’t exist and power on—it’s the only way you’ll reach your word count by the end of the month. If you get stuck ask yourself what if and move forward with the story. It’s a technique that worked for bestselling author Erin Morgenstern. When she got bored with her characters during NaNo she sent them to the circus and you can guess what happened next—she discovered the premise for her best selling novel, The Night Circus.
Freewriting allows you to tap into your creative subconscious. Click To Tweet

SEE ALSO: How you can free yourself with freewriting and create a creative compost heap

  • Social media is a great place to meet other NaNoers and get motivated by following the #NaNoWriMo and #amwriting hashtags. Twitter helps you feel less alone when you’re still typing away past Cinderella’s curfew or when you’ve woken up at 4am to try and finish your word count before heading to the office. If you’re going to procrastinate (which chances are you will) then the NaNoWriMo website is where it’s at. There you’ll be able to access your profile and novel pages, forums on everything writerly, widgets and badges to share on your social media platforms and inspirational blogs from successful authors who’ve done exactly what you’re doing now.
  • Join a NaNo write in. No doubt there is one near you but if there isn’t then make your own! Connecting with people on social media is one thing but the atmosphere of other writers being around you, their fingers clicking away on the keyboard is another phenomenon entirely.
  • Break the rules. Sure it’s a novel writing month but that doesn’t mean you can’t write something else! Feel free to pen non-fiction, a memoir, a self help book, a script, 50,000 words worth of blog posts, songs or poetry—the possibilities are endless! And while it’s meant to be about starting something new, I say, if you’re already 15,000 words into a piece then don’t feel like you have to start something else—just keep going and add an extra 50,000 words to your total! Speaking of word quotas, when it comes to hitting them I’m all about creative deception (i.e. cheating) so chapter titles, quotes and ridiculous character names and places all add up. I mean why call a character Dumbledore when you could name him Professor Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore, Headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Supreme Mugwump of the International Confederation of Wizards and Chief Warlock of the Wizengamot? You can always change it later.
  • Treat yourself. Bribery keeps me motivated (I blame my mother for this as she always coaxed me to do things with the promise of a food reward like I was a puppy). Your reward could be something as simple as buying a coffee the morning after you make it through your word count or buying a new book at the end of each week—to read when the month is over of course! Remind yourself too that the real treat will be finishing 50,000 words of your novel.
  • Don’t get discouraged if you fall behind. I know, I know I’m being hypocritical, telling you in one point not to fall behind and then in another that’s it’s alright to. But really, it is! Yes it’s going to be more work to catch up to your word quota—but it’s doable. And if you find it’s not, just remember that it’s better to finish 30,000 words of your novel than being stuck with a blank page. Don’t give up because you’re busy or because you work full time—the whole point is to get past all that and learn to write fast and furiously!
If you don't make it to 50,000 words in #NaNoWriMO you're still better off than when you started Click To Tweet

SEE ALSO: The time to write is now & why ‘I’m too busy’ isn’t an excuse

Stage three – the month is over and you’re still alive albeit presenting symptoms of zombification

A huge congratulations is in order because you my friend have actually written a novel. A NOVEL LIKE A REAL NOVELIST! *raucous cheering and applause*

So what next?

  • Celebrate. Crack open the bubbly or if you’re like me a block of chocolate (incidentally chocolate is the cure for all zombie related illness). Get out and see all those people you’ve been avoiding… or don’t. I won’t judge if all you want to do is lounge about in your P.J.s reading—it’s what I’ll probably be doing!
  • Don’t send your manuscript out yet! This is just your first draft and it’s going to be the next phase, the editing phase which will make your writing good. Richard Flanagan said it best after winning the 2014 Man Booker Prize for The Narrow Road to the Deep North‘I don’t think I’m much of a writer but I’m a better re-writer.’ Take the time to polish your work. Get other people to read it and give you feedback. Learn to love criticism and join a writing group. That way when you hand your finished product to the world you’ll know it’s the best it can be.
As Richard Flanagan said 'I don't think I'm much of a writer but I'm a better re-writer' Click To Tweet

SEE ALSO: How many drafts does it take to write a novel? And why it’s like cooking a baby (in a non cannibalistic way)

  • Most importantly – keep writing! Perhaps not on the same scale as during NaNo, but keep writing most days at least. They say it takes 30 days to create a new habit so don’t throw all your hard work away!

Are you signing up for NaNoWriMo this year? Have you made it through a month of literary abandon alive? What survival tips would you add to the list? Let me know in the comments.

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