Six Tips For Surviving NaNoWriMo

It’s October, so that means one thing. Hallo–



Not doing that again, sorry.

But October means it’s only one month away from NaNoWriMo, an exercise in capitalisation.

NaNoWriMo stands for ‘National No What Do You Mean It’s Only 230 words? I’ve Been Writing For Two Hours! Month’

Between the 1st and 30th of November people from all over the world will be trying to write a 50,000-word novel. There are all kinds of reasons why. Some people have never written a novel before and use NaNoWriMo (or Nano for short) as an excuse to get started. Other people, like some idiot, use it as an excuse to get a head start on a particular project.

Not everybody writes novels either. Some people write as many short stories as they possibly can, others write poems or songs. There are no rules aside from the main one, getting to 50,000 words by the end of the month (or whatever the poem or song equivalent is). And even that rule isn’t ironclad, not everybody makes it to the 50,000-word mark and that’s okay. Being branded a failure doesn’t hurt, all you need is a little cold water after we’re all done with the branding iron.

Are you curious about giving it a go? Let’s be honest, it was the mention of the branding iron, wasn’t it? Well, good for you. It costs nothing to sign up and it’s a really inspiring process that I enjoyed immensely last year.

You could have an idea for a novel in mind already, or nothing at all, but if you’re unsure about how to start preparing – you’ve randomly clicked on the right idiot’s blog post.

Here are six tips for NaNoWriMo that I found useful last year and who knows, you may find them useful too.

1) Outlines Don’t Have To Be Complicated

I’m a big believer in just writing until what you want to say comes out on its own, and I used to shy away from writing with a detailed outline, I like to discover the story as I write it and always felt like an outline would limit me. Other times I recognised that an outline would be useful, but I didn’t know how my story was going to end or how the characters would interact with each other, so making an outline seemed like too complex a job.

But just because you’ve written an outline doesn’t mean you have to stick with it religiously. Stories evolve as you’re writing them and the job of writing an outline can be as complex or as simple as you want.

These days I actually enjoy outlining the book before I start writing it. Because unlike when you’re writing the actual book, you don’t have to worry about your outline ever being read by another human being (unless you’re me and your finished books don’t get read by many human beings either). Nobody has to see your outline but you, you’re allowed to sprawl out, dumping page after page of exposition that nobody will ever see, or if you know you need a farmer for a specific scene but you don’t know his name yet you can just call him “Farmerguy” until you can figure out a name.

In fact, these days my outline read like a breathless Alyson Hannigan describing her time at band camp only with more brackets: “And then one guy he’s like a crime boss, but he’s really sensitive about respect and he hates it when anybody takes the piss out of him but the main character he steals the till from one of the shops in the crime boss’s protection racket and the crime boss guy dedicates all his resources to catching the main character and doing a horrible thing to him (research medieval torture techniques)”

In the outline, you don’t need to worry about specific dialogue, description, or the mood of the scene. You can just focus entirely on putting the story together. You may not know every little detail about the book you’re writing yet, and that’s okay, you discover those things as you go. The outline is really more of a road map to where you’re trying to get to.

Of course, if you get into the book and you realise that the roads aren’t going where you’d like, you can always choose to off-road it. Because like this metaphor, the outline isn’t set in stone and nobody else has read it, so you can change or alter whatever you like as you go.

For example: in last year’s Nano piece I knew my main character was going to end up in prison. I didn’t know what crime he committed to get there, but I did know that sending him to prison was the best way for him to meet the motley assortment of rogues and n’eer do wells who move the plot along in the latter part of the story. I had reams of backstory and details about these characters and what impact they’d have on the story, but I didn’t know their names or even what some of them looked like yet.

When the time came and I was writing the actual book, I found I was writing in multiple bullies and rivalries for my main character as I went, all the while pushing my normally meek and timid main character’s sanity further. This naturally leads to him being in the perfect position to snap and murder one of his bullies in front of town guards. Thus sending him to prison and continuing my plot.

With the outline in place, I knew what I wanted to build towards and could manufacture plot points earlier in the story to save myself the pain of redrafting later.

Of course, there’s something to be said for going in the complete opposite direction. You don’t need an outline at all, you could just start on November 1st and make it up as you go along.

Just be aware that the technical term for a writer who writes without an outline is a ‘Pantser’ which is a really funny word. Come to think of it, it’s a word that very much sounds like a crime that could get you sent to prison for a long time.

2) Character Focused Arcs

Character arcs are like handstands: you can recognise one when you see it, but it can be really difficult to pull off yourself.

It sounds so simple. Just make it so the characters don’t end the story in the same place they start. But like getting out of bed with a hangover, it’s a lot trickier than it seems once you actually get around to it.

But there is a way to easily write a character arc and you can do this during your outline or during the actual writing process itself.

All you have to do is take an element of that character from the start of the story and think of what that exact opposite would be.

For example; say your main character starts out poor, they could end the story rich. Or if they start out with a fear of public speaking, the end of the story they could be a professional toastmaster. A character who starts out as a cannibal could end the story as a world-renowned vegan chef.

If a starting trait isn’t so obvious right away, mine deeper into your character. Every character you write has something about them you can identify as a starting point.

It doesn’t even need to be so emotional. A character could remain the same person, but you could move them through the world. For instance; your character could start out in a small town and end up living in a huge city, or they could be living on Earth but wind up settling down on the Moon, your character could start out on their own but end up acquiring a huge surrogate family made up of new friends.

Once you have the start and the end point, the stuff in between is the story. How do they get from point A to point B? You’ll often find whole stories will present themselves just by doing this simple exercise. The more outlandish and strange the point B, the more interesting the story.

For example, I really, really want to write that cannibal story now.

This worked for me really well last year. My main character started out as a friendly and slightly timid thief, I thought the most drastic change for this character would be turning him into a hardened, amoral criminal. I tried to think of reasons why anybody would change themselves like this and I settled on survival, hence why I wanted to send him to prison. Timid types don’t last well in prison so I had my character completely reinvent himself to meet and overcome the challenges he faces.

Depending on the type of story you’re writing, you could also keep the character exactly the same but have the audience learn more about them as they go. For instance, we could learn that a character we think is a good person is secretly a serial killer, or a character we pity could be the secret identity of a superhero, or what you thought was a sensible politician was actually swarm of sentient wasps in a skinsuit.

This technique works really well for side characters and antagonists. I used this a lot for the side characters in last year’s NaNo piece, particularly for the people my MC meets in the prison. They start out seeming like scary, hardened criminals but all of them have a sympathetic backstory and a reason for why they turned to crime. For instance, the toughest man in the prison, a character who terrifies everyone around him, is actually a pacifist, a combat veteran who has seen too much bloodshed and deserted from the army mid-battle.

Just like getting out of bed with a hangover you will feel a lot better once this is done.

3) Word Sprints

So you’ve got your story and your characters all ready to go. But 1,600 words a day seems like a lot. How do you even attempt that?

It can seem daunting, especially on the first day. But there’s a good trick to coming up with a lot of words in a short time. And that trick is known as a word sprint.

No, that doesn’t mean running as fast as you can from your computer, although there will be days when you’re tempted to do just that.

To do a word sprint, all you have to do is set a timer, could be five minutes, could be fifteen, could be an hour – whatever you’re comfortable with. However long you choose, spend the entire time writing as many words as you can, as fast as you can. Don’t worry so much about quality, for now, that’s a second draft problem, just focus on getting as many words down on the page as possible.

Look at me for example, I never worry about quality. That’s why Im the goodest writing evar.

The first time you do a word sprint it might seem like the time you ate bad Mexican food, it makes your stomach feel bad and the stuff that comes out will hurt and be terrible. But unlike that time you ate bad Mexican food, you can sculpt what comes out into something you’ll eventually be proud of.

At least I hope that wasn’t like the time you ate bad Mexican food.

Word sprints are the perfect antidote to the self-consciousness that plagues us writers at least once per novel. If you’re only thinking about writing fast the doubts don’t have time to keep up.

And who knows? You may even unlock something awesome from deep within your sub-conscious.

There’s actually a word sprint tool on the NaNoWriMo website that has both a timer and a word counter so you can keep track of how many words your sprinting has bought you.

Just be aware that the timer makes a horrible noise and yells “TIME’S UP!” when it’s done and if you’re not prepared for it you may end up shitting yourself whether you’ve eaten bad Mexican food or not.

4) Focus

I sometimes envy writers in the old days. All they had to worry about was the plague, Jack the Ripper, and getting mauled by the Hound of the Baskervilles.

Plus, they got paid by the word, and as the author of a 1,000+ page novel series you know I’d have basically been living like a king. A king by 19th century standards is still better off than me in 2018.

But the main reason I envy those oldies is that they didn’t have to worry about the Internet distracting them from their work. Once I’m on a roll it’s so hard not to reward myself by going on the Internet for a bit. And it’s almost impossible to log onto a source for all the world’s knowledge for ‘a bit.’ Five minutes always seems to turn into an hour of watching baby bats on YouTube, looking up dog memes, and seeing what they’re blaming Jeremy Corbyn for on Twitter today.

Fortunately, the very thing that causes the biggest distraction can actually be employed to help you stay focused.

Before starting writing you can set up a playlist of music on Spotify or YouTube, I have a playlist for every book and short story I’ve ever written; full of music carefully curated for the mood of each one. Writing to music can keep you engaged with the story and hyped up for what’s about to happen next.

But there are some times when music can be a distraction too – especially if I’m fiddling with my playlist instead of writing. Fiddling, as a general rule, is not advisable when you’re writing. Especially not in public and around school zones.

In these moments I turn to something a little stronger – Binaural sounds, sound effects and music designed to simulate certain brain waves. You can use them to help you relax, to keep you focused, or to inspire you.

Here’s examples of a few that I’ve used in my writing to keep me working:

And don’t worry, none of them will turn you into a Manchurian Candidate. I’ve already started that process here and you’ll be activated when you hear the codeword.

Don’t worry about it.

5) You’re Not Alone

Finally, like a lot of creative endeavors; writing can be a lonely, thankless job. When you’re in the thick of it, nobody can see what you’re doing and how hard you’re working. It can feel like nobody appreciates the effort you’re putting in.

One way of getting over the loneliness is to sign up at the NaNoWriMo website. It costs nothing and it is full of useful tools and most importantly of all, other writers who are working towards the same goal as you.

Well, you’d hope they’d be writing different books than you, but you know what I mean.

You also get messages of encouragement every few days, sometimes from well-known authors who’ve all shared the same journey as you. Last year, for example, I was so excited to get a message from Dean Koontz of all people. This did get sent to every other writer on NaNoWriMo, but I like to think he decided to send a message out specifically because he knew I’d be taking part and he knew how big of a deal I am.

There are also some really good YouTubers who talk exclusively about the writing process. You can pick up some useful tips and ideas from them, as well as fixes for problems you may not even know you were having. Here are a few of them I like:

Joining your local NaNo scene and attending a write-in can also be a huge step. I was hesitant about joining my local group at first because people. But I made some really good friends there and some great contacts at the weekly write-ins. Plus, my local group sometimes does intermittent word sprints, and there’s nothing like being surrounded by dozens of other people clacking at their keyboards to encourage you to get back to work.

If you want to follow me on the NaNoWriMo site for some bizarre reason, you can find me here.

6) Just Get Writing, Chump

Sometimes the only advice you need is to get started, just put some words down and see where you end up. Even if you only get one word done this month, that’s still one more word than you would’ve had otherwise.

Although I wouldn’t advise you to start looking for publishers for a one-word novel. Not unless it’s a really funny word. Like collywobbles, or tinkle, or Pantser.

Good luck and happy writing!

— Matt Holland

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