Get ready for National Novel Writing Month

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National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is less than a month away, meaning that right now is one of my favorite times of the year. Preparing for November is half the fun of this annual writing challenge.

I’m sure most of you know about NaNoWriMo already, but for those of you who don’t, it is basically the best way for new and aspiring novelists to immerse themselves in writing discipline. Every year, thousands of people across the world commit to writing 50,000 words in 30 days, or roughly 1,667 words each day for the month of November. If you have always wanted to write a novel but have never been able to get your words on the page, this challenge is exactly what you need.

It’s not about writing the best prose or spelling every word correctly. The point is just to get words on the page. 50,000 of them, to be exact — the length of a shorter novel.

However, as with all good things in life, preparation is key. Come November 1, you don’t want to be one of those people willy nilly deciding to write a novel but running out of steam and motivation two days into it.

Instead, you need to take some time this October to getting pumped up and mentally prepared for the road ahead.

I’ve done NaNoWriMo for the last seven years. I’ve “won” some and dismally failed on others, so let me give you the rundown on the best way to prepare now for when November begins. First, I’ll share some simple, practical tips, then if you want to stick around I’ll share some highlights from my personal journey.

1. Plan to write

This might sound obvious, but don’t underestimate the need to plan how you’re actually going to get the work done. You will need to put some projects on hold, be prepared to say “no” to people asking you to do things, and plan out the hours per day you will realistically be able to sit down in a chair and write each of those 50,000 words.

One time I even quit my only job in order to succeed in NaNoWriMo. (Disclaimer: Don’t try this at home.) You don’t really need to go that far, but it is important to be serious, nonetheless.

Some good ways to calculate how much time you will be able to spend writing on a particular day of the week is take the number of minutes/hours you think you can reasonably commit and cut it by half. The reality is that we tell ourselves we’ll have more time than we actually end up having.

You will want to keep yourself accountable by announcing to friends and family on Facebook, in person, etc. that you will be writing a novel. Believe in yourself publicly, and the idea of you completing that novel will become more real in your mind.

2. Get an idea together

This is one of the fun parts. Brainstorming is less about plot or characters and more about the feeling or sentiment or aesthetic that your artistic spirit wants to unleash on the world.

Maybe you’re in a persistently adventurous mood and wish to share that feeling with others through the story of a mountain climber who visits Mongolia or a brave archeologist that uncovers Nazi secrets (OK, that idea is taken already, but you get the point). Or perhaps you’re feeling mysterious and have thought about developing a story centered around a haunted orphanage or secret passageway underneath London.

In short, write a novel you’re in the mood for, and avoid an aesthetic vibe you’re just not feeling right now.

3. Write a summary

Doesn’t have to be long, doesn’t have to be short, but some kind of summary never hurt anyone wishing to write a novel.

Also consider writing more than mere summaries. According to official NaNoWriMo rules, you can write as many notes as you want before November 1 as long as what you write is not you’re actual novel draft. Sometimes, as we’ve pointed out on this blog before, notes can help you think freely and have fun getting ready for the big day when it all begins.

If you want to go full-on thumb tacks and red string, feel free. Planning a story can be a lot of fun. Matt’s book, Start Noveling Like You Know What You’re Doing, goes into great detail on the subjects of character, structure, and plot.

4. Get new stuff

From that writing app you’ve been putting off buying to that beautiful panda bear-themed notebook that hits your compulsive shopping chord, NaNoWriMo is a great excuse to indulge in getting stuff.

Personally, this is my favorite part of the whole shebang. As a web developer and tech follower, I like to see what new tools are out there, like Scrivener updates, Ulysses, Storyist and Write or Die. There are also physical items you can purchase to get your creative juices flowing, most especially the Writer Emergency Pack.

5. Go to nanowrimo.org

This is the whole point anyway, right? Go sign up (it’s free, of course), have fun customizing your profile, exploring the forums and, the most fun part of all, planning for meet-ups in your local area.

You’ll want to get started early on networking with your group, be they virtual or in person. This way you get a voice in the planning process for get-togethers. These meetings could be anything from a Starbucks chitchat among other novel-writing enthusiasts to full blown writing sessions to increase your productivity and output.

Many local areas have what’s called a NaNoWriMo Municipal Liaison (I’m a former one myself!) who is in charge of coordinating local events. Going to the NaNoWriMo website is the best way to hook into this group if one exists in your location.

Also, be sure to visit the NaNo Prep forum, which already has some interesting threads this year on preparing for next month. And my personal favorite, the Adoption Society forum, where other Wrimos offer characters, plots, and even dying lines (just to name a few) free for the taking!

6. Design the cover of your novel

OK, this is total procrastination, but also inspiration. Besides, like I said, October is the time to get pumped up, and better to design your cover before NaNoWriMo than during. And again, it makes the commitment that much more real in your mind’s eye.

My personal experience

Now that I have given you what I hope is a practical list, I’d like to share some thoughts based on my personal experience before I let you go. (Actually, nothing is forcing you to stay here, other than your deep desire for learning and personal development.)

  • I don’t do outlines. I’m a pantser, that is, I write by the seat of my pants, rarely knowing in advance what is going to happen. Some people work on at outline through all of October, but not me. I prefer focusing on getting my stuff together, what tools I’m going to use, what hours I’m going to write, what generally I want to write about. I tend to come up with ideas in the middle of the actual writing and am therefore a little frightened of committing to decisions in the preparation stage. Some people are opposite.  I love the idea of an outline, though. So I say to each their own.
  • The most painful part of prepping in my personal experience is both not having enough ideas and having too many. I suffer from indecisiveness during the early creative stages. It’s extremely difficult for me to know which idea “has legs.” That is, which idea has enough substance for the long haul. The fact is, every idea seems simple at first, but some prove to have more steam than others when the rubber hits the road. For example, J.K. Rowling’s idea for Harry Potter started as this thought of a boy wizard at a magic school. Her mind flooded with ideas about all the situations he could get into. As is proven by the myriad of copies sold and the length of the series, that idea had a tremendous amount of steam/staying power.
  • You need to find an idea you can realistically get behind. I’ve always wanted to write a Coen Brothers-esque magnum opus where crazy things happen to fairly decent people, but you know what? I’m just not as dark as the Coen Brothers. Or complex, or whatever term you want to use. I tend toward the comedic and/or the slightly fantastical, with some YA tendencies. Don’t try to be someone you’re not.
  • Avoid hangups. It’s important to consider the mistakes you are most likely to commit and start getting ready not to commit them. We all have these hangups. I know to avoid if at all possible the theme of time travel. I mean, maybe one day I will be strong enough of a writer for this great burden, but so far when I’ve attempted to use it, my project gets tied up in a Grandfather Paradox of infinite regression. It’s just not pretty, folks, and I know that if I go there, the chances of me grinding out 1,667 words a day diminishes greatly. Another common hangup that I have personally experienced is making side characters more interesting than the main protagonist. This might work for “Seinfeld” but for many novels, it makes your hero non-heroic and two-dimensional. I could go on here, but the takeaway is that you need to consider themes/tendencies you would do better to avoid from the get-go.

NaNoWriMo is a source of great positive thinking when trying to commit to being a writer. Its focus on action and doing results in a month-long workout that comes with a great and well-earned reward at the end. I recommend NaNoWriMo to anyone who is usually too busy to write, because this challenge, though difficult, is entirely doable. And right now is the calm before the awesome storm. Have fun NaNo prepping!

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