The Newbie’s Guide to NaNoWriMo

I first heard about NaNoWriMo about a decade ago through friends’ Facebook posts. It took me a while to understand they were all talking about, and when I did, I wondered why on earth they’d try writing a complete novel during one of the shortest months of the year.

Oh, how times have changed. Now every year during November, I’m striving for 1,667 words a day like thousands of other writers around the world. And you can, too!

What is NaNoWriMo?

NaNoWriMo is short for National Novel Writing Month. It started among a group of friends in San Francisco in 1999 and has grown ever since. The goal is to complete the first draft of a 50,000-word novel in a month.

When is NaNoWriMo?

November. Why the organizers picked one of the shorter months of year, plus one when many of us have enormous cooking and social obligations, I have no idea. Maybe they were all young and not required to cook, and looked at the four-day Thanksgiving weekend as an opportunity for extra time to ignore people and write.

Is there an official sign up?

Yes, though you don’t have to sign up. I did NaNoWriMo for a few years without even knowing there was an official website. I thought it was just something you told people you were doing via the #nanowrimo Twitter hashtag. But no, there’s actually an organization behind this whole thing.

Sign up here.

What are the rules for NaNoWriMo?

  • Start your novel from scratch in November.
  • Write at least 50,000 words.

Note: does not make it easy to find these rules.  You have to go hunting for them, to finally find them buried deep in the history section.

What do you get if you win?

You get the first draft of a novel! If you keep track of your word count on the website and turn in a copy of your rough draft, you can also get a badge to display on your blog and a printable certificate to hang on your wall.

NaNoWriMo 2016 winner's badge
NaNoWriMo 2016 winner’s badge

You mean, there’s no money or glory?

No money unless you sell your novel, and only the glory of having achieved your goal. NaNoWriMo is not a competition against other writers. It’s a challenge to yourself and a great motivation for writers who thrive under deadlines.

How the heck am I supposed to write 50,000 words in one month?

The approach that works for me is to write something every day. I always aim to write 1,667 words, but the day’s count may be more or less depending on what else is going on in my life. If a day is super busy, I’m hit by a migraine, or I’m running out of spoons, I write what I can. Maybe it’s zero words. Maybe it’s twenty. Maybe it’s 400.

A lot of people will advise you not to edit as you go. Just write and write, and no matter what garbage comes out, keep moving forward. I can’t do that. Editing as I go helps me move forward. But during NaNoWriMo, I stay away from massive revisions or deleting entire paragraphs of text. If I want to delete something, I strikethrough instead, like this. That way, I can still put it toward my word count.

Remember, the goal is not 50,000 perfect words. It’s 50,000 words. Period.

Some people carve out days for binge writing. I know people who take one day a week for themselves and write 10,000 words on each of those days, then write sporadically on other days. This can work for people who don’t have chronic health problems or other issues that tend to interfere with tight schedules.

If you are a slow typist, writing your novel by hand or using a dictation program like Dragon Dictate might help you  achieve your goal.

A lot of people find it helpful to meet with others at specific times to write. In fact, NaNoWriMo started as a social writing project, with a bunch of friends who thought, “Hey, what if when we got together this month, we wrote novels instead of watching TV or playing music?” For many participants, the social aspect continues to be an essential part of NaNoWriMo. NaNoWriMo chapters all across the United States and many other parts of the world meet regularly in coffeehouses and other public places for group write-ins. You can look for local groups in the Regions section of the NaNoWriMo website.

Can’t find a local group? Check out the NaNoWriMo Forums for moral support, or look to social media. There are dozens of NaNoWriMo social and support groups on Facebook alone. You can also connect with other writers through the #nanowrimo and #nanowrimo2017 tags on Twitter.

Okay. But I have  some questions about the rules.

Don’t we all?

Does “start your novel from scratch” mean I can’t outline ahead of time?

I don’t know what the original organizers intended, but most people I know outline their novel ahead of time, either in their head or on paper. There’s even a section for trading outline advice on the NaNoWriMo website (you have to sign in for access).

Can I continue with a novel I’ve started, as long as I add at least 50,000 words?

The general consensus I’ve found among NaNoWriMo participants is that this falls within the spirit of the month (sign-in required to read link). But some people will look at you askance if you tell them that’s what you did. Ignore them.

Does my novel have to be complete for me to win?

No. You just need to hit 50,000 words.

How does check that I wrote 50,000 words?

At the end of the month, you paste the text of your manuscript into a word-count checker on the website. (You need to sign up for a free account to do this.) If you wrote your novel by hand and don’t have enough time to transcribe it onto a computer, the rules allow you to use dummy text such as lorem ipsum to verify your word count.

Can my “novel” be a screenplay or a collection of short stories or a nonfiction project or a graphic novel or …?

Not according to the rules buried deep in the history section, which insist the work be a novel. But really, who’s going to look down on you for writing 50,000 words worth of screenplays or short stories in one month? Go give yourself a badge.

Also, there’s a whole subforum on the official NaNoWriMo website called Nano Rebels. It’s for people who are doing the month their own way. They might write a dissertation, edit instead of writing, or adapt the month to a fifteen-day schedule. So you’re in good company for doing whatever you want.

What if I have other commitments in November? Can I do NaNoWriMo some other time of year?

You won’t get the official support or the official badges, but of course! Every writer should learn to set goals and work toward them whenever they want.

In addition, the people behind NaNoWriMo also sponsor Camp NaNoWriMo every April and July. Camp NaNoWriMo is more free-form, allowing you to design your own project and goal. You can decide to write a 50,000-word novel like you would during NaNoWriMo. You could also write a short story collection, edit a book, create multimedia art, or whatever catches your fancy.

camp nanowrimo logo

I hope this post helps you get started on your NaNoWriMo adventure. Do you have questions I didn’t answer? Ask them in the comments. I’m always happy to help.

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3 thoughts on “The Newbie’s Guide to NaNoWriMo”

  1. There are a few things unique to Nanowrimo that has kept me coming back year after year. These things are usually overlooked by the pro writers that poo poo the idea of Nanowrimo. Don’t dis my peeps!
    1. The energy. I don’t know where it comes from or how it works, but something about the knowledge that I’m writing with thousands of other people all at the same time, with the same goals, is incredibly motivational for me. Until you’ve been a part of it, it’s hard to describe, and it’s certainly beyond my explanation to explain. But I’m there at midnight on Halloween night and I can feel it flowing through me like the chocolate side of the Force.
    2. Competition. I know not everyone is competitive but I am. I especially like joining a team (last year my region of writers was divided into pirates, ninjas and vikings, another year we were divided into Hogwart’s houses) and the Nanowrimo site tracked our word counts for us as we contributed to the race. Other people enjoy ‘word wars’ or ‘word sprints’ where they compete with other writers with daily word counts, overall word counts, or in the case of sprints, words written within fifteen minutes, a half hour, or an hour. I’m not a huge fan of word sprints but I love playing with a team for overall word count wins. You don’t have to meet physically to become a member of a regional group, but such meetings do happen and they often have swag, write ins, planning sessions, etc.
    3. The forums, OMG the forums! They’re one of my favorite forms of procrastination during Nanowrimo. I’ll check in to ‘help’ other writers and I’ll immediately get sucked into answering questions about LGBT issues as I perceive them, animal husbandry, farming, primitive weapons, early medicine, and anything else I might happen to know that someone needs to know in order to progress in their story. I also enjoy commiserating with people who are stuck and writing words of encouragement, or coming up with wacky ‘plot ninja’ ideas for people who need a little brainstorming power to go forward.

    • Thanks for sharing all these tips. I’ve done what I call “word sprints” before with other people, but we don’t report our counts at the end, lol. I guess that shows how little I like to compete with other people.

      I haven’t really participated in the forums, but it’s good to know that they are such a good resource. I will definitely need to check them out, as I’m looking for all kinds of arcane information for my NaNo project. Maybe there’s someone on one of the boards who has been on a film crew in Madagascar and can share some of their first-hand experience with me πŸ™‚

      It sounds like you have enough knowledge to write an article of your own!


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