Sometimes it’s a lone writer who’s been putting off a story idea for too long, and decides it’s now or never. Sometimes it’s a pair or a group determined to find out what they can achieve by sharing self-imposed deadlines and strong pots of coffee. Sometimes it’s peer pressure or curiosity about National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo.org), that challenge that rallies ever-increasing numbers of writers around the globe every November to band together in pursuit of a 50,000-word “win.”
This article is by Jessica Strawser, editor of Writer's Digest. For more great writing advice, follow her on Twitter @JessicaStrawser.
Book-in-a-month challenges take all forms, fueled by all stripes of writers with all manner of motivations—make the most of that time alone in a borrowed cabin, hunker down for the winter, stop procrastinating, have something ready to pitch at that conference, prove to yourself you can do it, prove to someone else you can do it, get a fresh start—and in this hyperconnected age of 24-hour fingertip resources and networks, of tiny portable keyboards and glow-in-the-dark screens, they’re more popular than ever.
What do writers really glean from these write-a-thons? What have those who’ve set out to achieve the seemingly impossible learned, good or bad, and what advice would they share with others thinking of setting out with that same single-minded focus? We asked the WD writing community, and responses came in waves—with refreshing honesty, admitted mistakes, tales of redemption, palpable pride, self-deprecating humor and, above all, contagious enthusiasm. We’ve collected an array of the best insights here—one for every day of the month—along with a roundup of resources offering more help along the way. Because who knows? It’s so crazy, it just might work.
1. Embrace a new mindset.
After working five years on perfecting a novel, I sent out a round of queries, received some requests for the full manuscript, but ultimately was rejected every time. I’m not one to give up, but I also knew my novel still wasn’t right. I decided to shelve the manuscript and start a new book. That date was Oct. 30, 2010.
For years friends had been trying to get me to participate in NaNoWriMo. I didn’t want to spend five years writing my next novel, so I decided this time I’d give NaNoWriMo a shot, but without putting pressure on myself—either I’d complete 50,000 words in 30 days or I wouldn’t. That November was crazy busy: I was chairing a big awards banquet, raising two boys and juggling a host of other responsibilities that I couldn’t set aside. But writing is my dream. So, on Nov. 1, I set out to write 1,667 words a day.
The results were amazing. I forced myself to write with a new mindset (no editing, not even for misspellings), and the more I just let the words pour forth, the better my story became. It was easier to keep track of plot and I was able to delve deeper into my characters because I was spending time with them daily. I ended that first 30 days surpassing 50,000 words, and, despite hosting two major family holidays among other commitments, I used that momentum to complete the first draft of my 90,000-word thriller by early January. That novel has since been revised numerous times and is currently being read by four literary agents at top agencies considering it for representation.
I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo every year since, and now share what I’ve learned from writing quick first drafts. I teach a “How to Write a Novel in 30 Days” seminar at The Carnegie Center, Joseph-Beth Booksellers and Kentucky libraries. Also, I’ve helped establish a new event—the Overnight Write-In—which I’ll host for the second year at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Lexington this November for local NaNoWriMo participants.
I had no idea in 2010 that so much would happen just because I embraced a challenge to write 50,000 words in 30 days. My life has improved, as has my writing. What do you need to do to pursue your dream? Give yourself a 30-day gift, and as the folks at NaNoWriMo proclaim, “write with literary abandon.”
Jennifer Hester Mattox, Paris, Ky.
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2. Answer yes.
Before you jump in, think about it long and hard. Do you want to spend hours sitting in front of your computer? Do you want to have characters and plot twists swirling around in your head at every turn? Do you want the daunting task of placing the perfect words in each and every sentence? Do you, at times, want to smash your head against your keyboard? If your answer is yes, and not a mousy yes, but a standing-on-the-couch-Tom-Cruise yes, then maybe you’re just crazy enough to write a novel in a month.
Jocelyn Frentz, Calgary, Alberta, Canada
3. Do the math.
Daily or weekly word count goals help you track your progress toward your end-of-month goal, regardless of whether you average the same number of words every day. For instance, NaNoWriMo challenges participants to write a 50,000-word novel, and provides word count trackers to help you log and measure your progress as you go—but it’s worth noting that in most genres, 50,000 words doesn’t constitute a commercial book-length manuscript. So no matter when your write-a-thon takes place, know what you’re setting out to accomplish. A rough draft of a draft? A full-length manuscript? Then do the math. For an 80,000-word novel, for instance, that’s 2,666 words/day for 30 days—or, if you prefer weekly goals, 20,000/week for four weeks.
4. Plan to make sense.
My advice is simple: Plan ahead and outline. It’s possible to write 50,000 words in 30 days, but what is really difficult is having a finished product that really makes any sense. When you’re in the heat of the moment trying to crank out thousands of words every day it is very easy to get off track. That’s where your planning and your outline can save you.
Andrew Setters, Cincinnati
5. Just start—and keep going.
NaNoWriMo? It looked like a text message. What the heck was it? I discovered the challenge just two days before Nov. 1, opening day. I had no idea what I would write about, but I was determined to do it, just to see if I could.
This was 2009, and my first time writing any length novel in any length of time, let alone 50,000 words in one month. Up to then, I’d written a few magazine articles, a how-to book, a children’s book and untold numbers of unpublished short stories. And now for something entirely different.
I did finish that year, and went on to finish every year since. You never know what you can accomplish until you try. Everyone tackles the job in a different way, some with a meticulous plan or a detailed outline—but not me. Here’s my advice: If you have an idea in mind, it helps. Otherwise, pick it out of the air and start writing. The key is to keep writing and let everything else fall by the wayside. Turn off your phone. Disconnect the TV. Buy paper plates; send out for pizza or stock frozen tacos, whatever—just don’t take time to cook. Or clean. Or shop.
Get those words onto your page and count them each day. And kick that persnickety editor out of your head. To hell with spelling, punctuation, the precise word, the perfect reference (and I’m a copy editor by profession!). What you need right now is the story and nothing but the story, no matter how outlandish or unorganized.
I wrote a lot of junk, and stuff that had possibilities. What was in 2011 a 51,000-word story-in-the-rough has grown to a 71,000-word novel that will be on its way to an agent soon. But even if you don’t get that far, there is satisfaction in meeting the challenge and finding that you can do it.
Jenny Garden, Seattle
6. Go all in.
Passion will get you started, but discipline will see you through. The only way to succeed is to set a schedule, write like mad and never stop, even if you despair. Get your first draft finished before you pay attention to your feelings, because—in the early stages—most of your feelings will steer you off a cliff like a GPS for lemmings. The first words will rarely be your best, and the fear of bad writing often keeps writers from the initial click on the keys. But writing is like jumping into a cold lake: You squirm less once you’re all in.
Rev. Dr. David McDonald, Jackson, Mich.
7. End a writing session only when you know what’s next.
During my first two Novembers of novel writing, most of my time was spent cajoling characters instead of penning the daily words. But sometime between my second and third year, I discovered words of wisdom from author Scott O’Dell that changed everything: At the end of a writing stint, stop before the ideas run out. Write a sentence or two about what happens next. Next time your fingers meet the keyboard, you already know where the story is headed.
S.B. Roberts, Orlando, Fla.
8-9. Do what it takes to make it feel real. Fill the sandbox, then make castles.
I worship at the altar of NaNoWriMo. Anytime someone says, “I’ve always wanted to write a book,” I tell them about it.
So often this writing stuff can just feel pretend. It exists in solitude. Some of it exists only in my head. The only thing I have to show for years of work is a huge Word document. Sometimes when I do try to share it with people I feel crazy. So one gift of NaNoWriMo is its tangibility. It’s a concrete, external goal. There are pep talks. You watch your word count widget grow. You share the experience with others. There are rewards. I have a NaNoWriMo poster hanging in the stairwell of my house. It says things like, “The world needs your novel.” NaNoWriMo helps it feel real. NaNoWriMo helps ideas become things.
NaNoWriMo also reminds me of this superpower I keep forgetting I possess. One year I committed potential NaNoWriMo suicide and on Day 8 started over with a new idea. I wrote 10,084 words in one day. It made me feel like I could do anything. I managed to win that year, too.
While being reminded of your superpower is important, I think the biggest takeaway is remembering that you’re not done when you hit 50,000 words. Bask in the glory of victory. But don’t leave it alone forever. Rewrite. Edit. Fix it. Finish it. NaNoWriMo helps you fill the sandbox. It’s up to you to build castles.
Emily Echols, Fort Polk, La.
10–11. Find your rhythm. Learn as you go.
I’ve always wanted to be a writer. One day, I’d actually do it—write a complete story. I just hadn’t done it yet. I had plenty of ideas, and many starts, but no completion. Then one day my 10-year-old daughter was given an assignment to write a 15,000-word novel for NaNoWriMo. I was encouraging her, letting her know that she could accomplish anything if she set her mind to it, when I thought I should put my word count where my mouth is and join her. If she could write a book in one month, then why couldn’t I, a grown woman who has aspired to be a published author my whole life?
I had a lot of theoretical time on my hands as a stay-at-home mom, but let’s just say some things suffered. There was no from-scratch pasta sauce that month. November is also the month of my daughter’s birthday, and of course Thanksgiving is an unfortunate timing issue. But I plodded ahead. I was surprised to find that my biggest challenge was finding my writing rhythm. I didn’t have that much creative gasoline when everyone was awake, but after they went to bed I could accomplish anything, and I did. I didn’t, however, sleep much, and one of the things that keeps me awake and engaged is eating and drinking while I write. I put on 10 pounds that month, but I wrote the story—all the way through to that ever-elusive ending. (Sadly, there is no one-month path to publishing … NaNoPuMo, anyone?)
After that first year, I convinced a friend to join me, so I would have a partner to meet and write with in the daylight hours, far from food temptations. I plan to be successful at this writing gig, and I don’t want my jacket photo to look like Jabba the Hutt.
If I can do it, so can you! It helps to have a general idea of your story and characters before you begin, but once the clock starts, get cracking! Don’t fret over word choice or character names. Don’t reread and edit. If you decide to change your protagonist’s nationality 1,000 words in, just do it and move ahead. You can fix it when you sit down with a smile to read your completed draft a month later, red pen in one hand and giant latte in the other (nonfat, of course).
Angela C. Lebovic, North Barrington, Ill.
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12. Don your painter’s smock.
My first finished book is thanks to NaNoWriMo. The experience was a whirlwind of creativity, as I was forced to put aside my Inner Critic and Grammar Nazi (a rowdy bunch that like the last word). By the end of the 30 days, I had a manuscript of which I realized I could only keep less than half, but that was OK. I’d learned a lot about story building. I knew exactly how I wanted to edit my manuscript—and I did, over the next couple months. Forcing yourself to write 50,000 words in 30 days is a bit like putting paint into a shotgun and pointing at a blank canvas. Something will stick, but there’ll be a lot of clean-up.
Himani Shah, Scottsdale, Ariz.
13. Claim every spare minute.
I’d been thinking about this fantasy/thriller trilogy idea for about a year, but hadn’t written anything, not even notes. One day, though, I just felt the overwhelming need to start writing. I didn’t set a deadline of a month, but that’s how it played out.
If you’re like me and work full time, you might be hard-pressed to find time to write. What I did was write at every opportunity. I wrote during breaks at work, on the train in the morning and evening, and—just between us—occasionally at my desk when my manager wasn’t looking.
In the past, I’d spent too long overthinking chapters, characters and plots, to the point of making my stories convoluted. My month-long power session produced far better work, and was the best thing I ever did with my writing.
Gregory Paul Burdon, Melbourne, Victoria, Canada
15–20. Build Your Bookshelf (Resources for Writing a Book in a Month Include …)
15. Book in a Month: The Fool-Proof System for Writing a Novel in 30 Days by Victoria Lynn Schmidt, Ph.D. (WD Books): This book takes an interactive approach to help you complete your
write-a-thon step by step, with expert instruction accompanied by spreadsheets to track your progress.
16. Fast Fiction: A Guide to Outlining and Writing a First Draft Novel in Thirty Days by Denise Jaden (New World Library): Jaden’s books Losing Faith and Never Enough began with NaNoWriMo, and in Fast Fiction, she shares what she’s learned to help you speed-complete a rough draft you can revise into publishable shape.
17. First Draft in 30 Days: A Novel Writer’s System for Building a Complete and Cohesive Manuscript by Karen S. Wiesner (WD Books): Award-winning author Wiesner is a big believer in detailed outlines—and she’ll show you how to create one that will keep you on track for a month and beyond. Includes worksheets, day-by-day planners and brainstorming exercises.
18. No Plot? No Problem! A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days by Chris Baty (Chronicle Books): The new revised edition of NaNoWriMo founder Chris Baty’s guide is stacked with how-tos, week-by-week checkups and trademark motivation to help you cross the finish line on schedule.
19. Write-a-Thon: Write Your Book in 26 Days (and Live to Tell About It) by Rochelle Melander (WD Books): Melander teaches the muscle mechanics of writing at a marathoner’s pace. Chock full of brain-stretching exercises, this book will have you running to keep up.
20. Write Your Novel in a Month: How to Complete a First Draft in 30 Days and What to Do Next by Jeff Gerke (WD Books): This comprehensive guide embraces the process start to finish, from shaping your preliminary ideas to exploring next steps for your completed draft.
Kenneth McNulty, Writer's Digest Intern
20. Tap into a network.
When I started getting serious about writing, one of the first things I did was seek out like-minded individuals. That’s how I discovered NaNoWriMo, in 2009. I love the idea of banding together with others poised for the same goal. Our competitive streaks help us shine. I’ve met some of my best friends and most trusted literary advisors as a result of participating, and can promise you my writing success (with the publication of my NaNo books Modified Flight Plan, the true story of a triple amputee pilot, and Walk Me Home, about the last execution in Nebraska) is in a large part because of the discipline I learned by undertaking the book-in-a-month challenge.
Lisa Kovanda, Lincoln, Neb.
21. Work ahead.
The trick is getting extra words in the bank early. Things always pop up as the month goes on. You will also be more burnt out by the end of the month, meaning that both the quality and quantity of your writing may suffer.
Michael Young, Eagle Mountain, Utah
22. Silence your editor.
NaNoWriMo is a marvelous tool for the über-editor. Normally I edit my words in my head before the poor things can even get on my computer screen, so it was very freeing to just get it all out because of a deadline.
Tricia Pimental, Zambujal, Portugal
23. Gain insight into your past—and future—writing process.
The first year I participated in NaNoWriMo, I learned:
1) My usual slow pace didn’t make my writing more thoughtful or grammatically correct. I whipped out 25,000 words in a month, and darned if they weren’t just as good as the 27,000 words I’d previously spent a year and a half on.
2) I should know more about science if I’m going to set my story on another planet.
3) Although I didn’t make the 50,000-word goal, 25,000 still made me happy.
The second year I participated, I learned:
1) Having an outline helped.
2) Setting my story in the here and now eliminated the need for research (which consumes precious writing time).
3) Apparently 25,000 words/month is the fastest I can go!
Marie Millard, Rohnert Park, Calif.
That’s ridiculous, I thought. One month to create a story that had been brewing in my mind for years. But what kind of a writer am I if I didn’t accept a challenge?
And it was a challenge. Forcing myself to write when I wasn’t feeling “inspired” was my biggest obstacle. I would berate myself every second I stared at that blinking cursor. It would be a half hour, an hour, as my eyes darted back and forth between the screen and the glow of the TV.
But I soon discovered that just typing away was the key. The more I typed out my grocery list, my “I hate myself, I’m not a real writer” notes, and quirky-things-I-could-be-tweeting-right-now tangents, the more the words just came. And out of the nonsense came a thoughtful sentence, and then another, and another. I had to sift through a lot of garbage to find a few treasures. But I found them.
You know how they say you need to unplug? Well, they’re annoyingly right. Turn off the TV, the iPhone, the Internet, all of it. If I needed a break I picked up a book. Every time I read, I got an idea for what to write next.
Write anything, write everything. Read what you love. And in the end know that you are a real writer. You always had a story to tell. And it may take longer than a month. But you can do it!
Pamela Delupio, Lakewood, Calif.
My co-author Erin McRae and I wrote our first novel (a 70,000-word gay romance) in a month. We didn’t do it as part of NaNoWriMo, and in fact told no one about it.
Having each other as an audience kept us going, and wanting to be able to share it with others kept us going fast. We did the next two drafts in a month each as well, and then submitted. Our book was published by Torquere Press in September, and the publisher has bought its sequel.
My advice: Find someone to work with as a first audience even if you aren’t collaborating, and don’t tell anyone but your partner about it until that draft is done. Sharing it with others is your reward for the work.
Also, if you do have a co-author, find one in another time zone! I was in Europe for my day job for a big chunk of our writing cycle, while Erin was in Washington, D.C. With the six-hour time difference, one of us was working on the story at almost all times.
Racheline Maltese, Brooklyn, N.Y.
26. Don’t force methods that don’t work for you.
I had fallen behind early with my word count, and then started obsessing with trying to catch up. Halfway through the month I asked, “Is this about numbers or words?” There is value in monitoring word count, if not setting word count goals. An apt comparison is running, where one may set out to run four miles a day, but some days runs may be shorter (or longer) based on how the runner feels on the trail. I’m beginning to believe it’s best to write from scratch for a set period each day, a stream of consciousness download, and then to return to works-in-progress and revise, revise, revise.
Jim Breslin, West Chester, Pa.
27. Write fearlessly.
If NanoWriMo taught me anything, it was to not be afraid to try.
Kait Heacock, Brooklyn, N.Y.
28–29. Entice your muse with whatever will make the process enjoyable. think of yourself as a conduit for your story.
In February 2014 I finished the fourth book of my Amazon bestselling series Whill of Agora. I’d been tossing around another story idea and was eager to start the project.
I wanted to try to write the book in 30 days. My plan was 2,000 words a day minimum, and February was a great month to attempt such a feat, as it can reach -20 degrees here in northern New York. I outlined my ideas (most of which never made it in—my work tends to take on a life of its own and not conform to my plans) and made myself comfortable at the kitchen table with my laptop and Bob Marley playlist.
That first week I drank 21 coffees and wrote over 26,000 words, averaging 3,800 a day. The following week I wrote another 24,000 words, averaging 3,400 a day. By now the plot was getting thick, as were my character worksheet folders. I was writing 6–10 hours a day, getting up early so I could do most of my writing while my daughter was in school. (If I work too much while family is around I feel like I’m neglecting them, even though I write full-time.) When I started to lose steam, it would keep me going to log onto the Kindle author boards’ “2,000 words a day club” to find (and offer) motivation.
I finished the book in 18 days at 70,000 words—not a heavyweight, but a good size for my genre. I self-published The Windwalker Archive, Book 1, Talon, on May 7, 2014. As I write this it is No. 4 in Amazon’s Children’s Coming of Age Fantasy Books Kindle store.
My advice: Lure your muse out with some chocolate and pinot noir, grab a hold of her, and tie her to your desk until you are done. Show up every day with your goal in mind and do not leave until you’ve surpassed it. Don’t try to create the story—listen, and let it be told through you. When you take the responsibility of creating the story out of the equation, it becomes quite easy. You are simply a conduit.
Michael James Ploof, Brushton, N.Y.
30. Know that the end of 30 days really marks the beginning.
In September 2010, the idea for a novel fell onto my lap. Knowing NaNoWriMo was six weeks away, I stockpiled mental notes, developing character profiles, plots, conflict. I’m a morning writer. Once my day job invades my head, the brainpower and willingness to work on fiction dries up. So on the evening of Oct. 31, I set my alarm for 4 a.m., excited to write a novel in a month.
Some mornings I managed at least the average number of words I needed to hit 50,000. Others, I struggled and vowed to make it up the next day. Every day, I marveled at the twists my story took from the sparse outline in my head. I typed the last word—58,313—on Nov. 29. Success!
But what I wrote wasn’t a novel. Sure, it had a beginning, middle and end, it had a theme, and yes, the main character’s story had an arc. But it was disorganized, overly ambitious, repetitive and, for some reason, full of foul language.
Four years later, Men of Sorrows is longer, structured, less repetitive, less cuss-laden. And it has a theme readers can relate to: How far will a person go to make life seem worth living?
There has been one deleterious effect of the 30-day-novel exercise: I can no longer sleep past 4 a.m. And what’s worse, I don’t even need an alarm. I spend my early mornings now writing my synopsis and elevator pitch, and researching agents to try to get Men of Sorrows published. Maybe when that happens, I can finally get up after the birds do.
Stephen D’Agostino, New York, N.Y. WD
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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer's Digest and author of the popular gift bookOh Boy, You're Having a Girl: A Dad's Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.