The Essential NaNoWriMo Survival Guide

It's that time of year again, writers... The seasons are changing, Christmas decorations are popping up inappropriately in shops, and NATIONAL NOVEL WRITING MONTH is nearly upon us!

November 1st marks the beginning of NaNoWriMo: a month-long project that challenges participants to write an entire novel (50,000 words) before December arrives.

If you're thinking of taking part in the challenge, you might be feeling a little overwhelmed as November looms ever closer. Writing a novel in just one month is a pretty daunting prospect, but it can be done! Just ask these published WriMos – past NaNoWriMo participants who went on to publish the novel they drafted during the challenge.

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It's not all about publication, though. At its heart, NaNoWriMo is all about fostering creativity, encouraging emerging writers, and above all, motivating you to complete that novel you've always dreamed of writing.

To help you out in your NaNoWriMo journey, we've put together a comprehensive Survival Guide: a collection of tips and advice to guide participants through every step of this mammoth challenge.

Read on to discover how to stay cool, calm and collected throughout NaNoWriMo – and how to make the absolute most of your month of writing.

NaNoWriMo

Are you ready to write a novel in a month? Prepare yourself with our Survival Guide.

Planning and preparing

As with any challenge, the first thing you'll need to do is plan and prepare thoroughly for the task ahead. The following will help you get everything in order so that when November arrives, all you have to worry about is writing.




Deciding what you want to achieve

Before embarking on NaNoWriMo, it's important to ask yourself exactly what you want to get out of it. Have you had a story idea in the back of your mind that you're ready to get down on paper? Do you want to let your creativity flourish, writing freely throughout the month and seeing what comes out of it?

Whatever it is you want to achieve, ensure your goal is clear in your mind before you start.

If you want to hit the suggested target of 50,000 words, work towards that and don't worry if you're mid-story when you hit it. If all you want is to write a complete first draft of your story, put the word count aside and focus on that instead.

No matter what your goal may be, in order to achieve it, there are a few things you'll need to do to get ready.

Planning and outlining your novel

Most WriMos enter the challenge with a preconceived novel idea in their mind, and with good reason: it's going to be pretty difficult to write 50,000 words in a month if you don't know what it is you're writing about.

You don't want to start NaNoWriMo without a sense of clarity or something to guide you – a lack of preparation is a recipe for failure. But that's where planning and outlining come in!

Once you've clarified the core idea or concept of your novel, you're ready to do some prep work in the form of planning and/or outlining your novel. This will mainly involve jotting down as much as possible of what you already know about the story.

Basically, you'll be creating a rough plan or collection of details about the main elements of your novel: characters, setting and plot.

The notes, structures and timelines you create here will serve as your principal guide and reference throughout NaNoWriMo. Remember, you want to spend the month writing, not planning, so get all this out of the way before November 1st, if possible.

We've got some great posts that can help you with this step, such as a thorough guide to planning your novel and an 11-step process for outlining your novel. Which brings us to our next point...

NaNoWriMo

Planning and preparation are the keys to NaNoWriMo success. Image via Kaboompics

Collating resources

It's a great idea to collect a bunch of resources to keep on hand while you're writing. You never know when you might need a little advice or extra inspiration, so collating some references in advance is an excellent way to prepare.

Your resource collection might include any or all of the following:

  • Pre-downloaded articles, or a Favourites list of links to the same
  • Advice/tips sheets
  • Reference books such as dictionaries and style guides
  • Books in your genre/by your favourite authors, to use for inspiration

Our Advice for Writers section contains a large and varied collection of articles you might find useful: guides to world-building and dialogue writing, advice on making characters more memorable and achieving the perfect ending... Even a guide to using myths, legends and fairy-tales in your fiction!

The NaNoWriMo blog also offers some informative and encouraging posts, and the official Forums are a great place to find resources too.

Signing up with NaNoWriMo

Finally, before November 1st rolls around, you'll want to sign up to the NaNoWriMo website. Creating an account gives you access to the tools and advice available on the site, and you'll be able to connect with like-minded WriMos through forums and official events in your local area.

There's one other key advantage to officially signing up to NaNoWriMo: it holds you accountable to completing the challenge! Signing up will give you far more incentive and motivation than you'd have if your commitment wasn't officially recorded.

NaNoWriMo

Collating resources and inspiration before NaNoWriMo is a great way to get prepared. Image credit: Mikhail Pavstyuk via StockSnap Creative Commons.

Establishing a workspace and routine

After you've done all the essential planning for the writing itself, you'll need to start thinking about wherewhen and how you're going to write.

This involves two main considerations: a dedicated space where you'll complete most of your work, and an established routine that will help you stick to and achieve your goals.

Your NaNoWriMo workspace

Setting up a dedicated workspace for NaNoWriMo is an excellent idea. You want a space you can retreat to without fear of interruption or distraction; a space that will inspire you and facilitate your creativity; a space just for you and your novel.

This workstation would typically be located in a home office-type space: a separate room with a desk and, ideally, a door you can close. It will need to be as free as possible from any distractions, in a quiet location with lots of room to work.

If all of this isn't possible for you, don't worry – it's not a one-size-fits-all thing! Think about how you work as a writer, and consider what sort of space will allow you to be at your most productive and creative.

By the way: we're not saying you have to write exclusively in your dedicated workspace for the duration of NaNoWriMo. It might not be possible to work here every day, and besides, a change of scenery is always a good refresher.

However, it is essential for you to have a special writing space to retreat to whenever you need it.

Bonus tip: You may wish to decorate your NaNoWriMo space with a writer's vision board or mood board. Pick up a cheap corkboard and adorn it with things that reflect what you want to write about in your novel, or things that inspire you: images, quotes, even your own notes for easy reference. Think of it as a physical Pinterest for your personal writing inspiration.

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Create a workspace that fosters inspiration and productivity for NaNoWriMo. Image credit: Kyle Meck via StockSnap Creative Commons

Your NaNoWriMo routine

Developing a writing routine can be the difference between succeeding at NaNoWriMo and giving up halfway through. If you stick to an established routine, you're more likely to practice the discipline and commitment necessary to complete this challenging task.

To work out your routine, consider your overall goal and estimate how long it will take you to achieve that goal. For example, if your goal is to hit the 50,000-word mark, you're going to need to write at least 12,500 words per week, and you'll need to decide on a routine that will help you make that target.

Your routine can start with something as simple as an agreement with yourself on how many hours you'll put in each day: 'Six days a week, I'll aim to write for at least two hours.'

With this agreement in mind, tailor your routine to whatever works best for you. For example, in the case of the aforementioned two-hour-per-day goal, you may like to complete these daily hours in one regularly scheduled chunk, OR through one hour in the morning and one at night.

If a daily target makes you uncomfortable, you might like to set a weekly target number of writing hours instead, which you can then divide as you see fit throughout the week.

Alternatively, if you prefer to work to word counts rather than time limits, try setting yourself a word goal for each day or week instead.

Once again: go with what works best for you. If you thrive on an exact, predetermined daily writing period, use that to your advantage; if not, create a routine that suits your needs and working style.

NaNoWriMo

Develop a NaNoWriMo schedule or routine that works for you. Image via Kaboompics

Speaking of working...

Balancing work, life and writing

The majority of people embarking on NaNoWriMo won't have the luxury of dedicating their entire month to writing. Most WriMos will have their regular full-time, part-time or freelance work to contend with as well, not to mention family commitments, other engagements, and life in general...

So, is it possible to successfully juggle work, life and NaNoWriMo (without actually losing your mind in the process)? The short answer is yes, but it is going to be challenging – there's no getting around that.

Luckily, we've got some handy tips and advice to help you find that balance between your writing and everything else in your life throughout November.

Allowing yourself to be flexible

Remember that writing routine we spoke about above? And that 'ultimate goal' that dictates what you're setting out to achieve during NaNoWriMo?

Guess what? Those things don't have to be set in stone.

We know, we know – what's the use of having a goal or a routine if you're not going to stick to it? And that's all well and good to say, but when it comes to actually pulling this off, you'll see what we mean.

Things happen. Increasing workloads. Disruptions, mishaps. Fluctuating bouts of inspiration and discouragement. Bad days. And when these things happen, WriMos have to realise that it's OK to let them affect you, because it's nearly impossible not to.

Just to be clear, we don't mean that you should throw your laptop into the ocean at the first roadblock you come across. We're not talking about giving up; we're talking about responding, readjusting, and moving on.

For example: if you've set yourself the standard NaNoWriMo goal of 50,000 words, but halfway through the month your boss lays a big responsibility on you, or your freelance clients build up out of nowhere – you have to realise that it's OK to reconsider your goal in light of these developments.

Perhaps you'll simply lessen your intended word-count by 5 or 10,000 words. Or you may scrap your word goal altogether and concentrate instead on writing for a certain amount of hours each week, without focusing on how many words you end up with.

Similarly, if you've committed to writing six days per week and you miss a day here or there, don't beat yourself up over it. Nobody is perfect, especially throughout NaNoWriMo!

The bottom line is that, to make it through the month as productively (and healthily) as possible, you HAVE to allow yourself some flexibility when you need it.

And at the end of the challenge, if you've honestly done the best you can, it really doesn't matter if you fell short of 50,000 words. You've already done a hell of a lot more than you would have if you hadn't taken part in NaNoWriMo.

NaNoWriMo

Allow yourself to be flexible and adjust your routine or goals as necessary. Image via Kaboompics

Mentally preparing yourself

As a full-time or even a part-time/freelance worker, you're going to have to learn how to make the switch between work brain and writing brain during NaNoWriMo.

This isn't as easy as it sounds. Even if your day job involves writing as well, it's altogether a different kind of writing to the sort you'll be doing for your novel.

There are a few things you can do to get your brain functioning freely and creatively after working all day.

First of all, consider what helps you 'switch off' and feel more relaxed after work. This could be a hot bath, a cup of herbal tea, or (many a writer's favourite) a glass of wine.

Make use of these things to get yourself into a space where you feel comfortable, creative and ready to write. But be careful: too much of a good thing and you might find yourself dozing off at your desk instead!

If you're finding that you just can't make the switch and get into the zone, try one of the following:

  • Do some exercise in between work and writing time. As well as giving your mind a short break while you focus on your body instead, it's been suggested that exercise can improve our creative thinking processes, so a jog or quick gym session might be just what you need.
  • Try some mild sensory deprivation: shutting down your senses temporarily has been shown to heighten creativity.
  • Create the perfect atmosphere by optimising your writing environment for creativity. Ambient noise levels, a comfortably warm temperature and relatively low lighting can all boost your brain's creative processes.
  • Call it a day. If you've tried everything and you still can't get into your writing, it might be best to leave things for the day and start fresh tomorrow. You might be pleasantly surprised at how refreshed you feel returning to your novel after a day away.

Using prep time effectively

We talked above about prepping and planning ahead for your writing, but it's also useful to do this with a few other aspects of your life before starting NaNoWriMo.

For instance, if you set aside an afternoon to cook up a whole bunch of food you can portion and throw in the freezer, Future You is going to be so grateful. On nights where you've only got enough time and energy for either cooking or writing, you'll have given yourself the chance to choose writing.

Similarly, if you give your house a top-to-toe clean before the 1st of November, you won't feel guilty if you neglect the housekeeping a little throughout November ('cause let's face it, you probably will). Plus, a clean house leaves less for your inner procrastinator to jump on as an excuse for avoiding writing!

In regards to your day job, you can do a little preparation by taking an advance look at what's happening with work throughout November. Identify the biggest tasks/jobs you'll have to complete and factor your writing time around them.

For example, if there's a week-long period where you know you'll be flat out at work, perhaps try to lessen your writing schedule that week and make up for it in the weeks before and after.

NaNoWriMo

Getting your house and mind in order before NaNoWriMo is essential! Image credit: Joey Sforza via StockSnap Creative Commons

Taking care of yourself

This is a really important part of the Survival Guide. It's very easy for writers to push themselves too far during NaNoWriMo; yes, it's all about challenging yourself, but the results won't be nearly as sweet if you burn yourself out to achieve them.

There are plenty of little things you can do to ensure you're taking care of yourself while completing this gruelling challenge, so we've put together some tips for staying healthy and happy throughout NaNoWriMo.

Breaks

Ensure you factor writing breaks into your NaNoWriMo hours. Don't ever feel guilty for taking a break from your work – there's plenty of evidence showing that breaks maximise productivity, and plenty of reasons (work-wise and health-wise) that we need to prioritise them.

In terms of organising your writing breaks, some writers might like to use the Pomodoro technique, which involves cycles of 25 minutes working followed by a five-minute break.

Others may prefer to judge by how they feel, taking a short refocusing break when they find their minds wandering too much, or when they feel completely stumped about where to go next with the story.

Listen to your brain and your body and decide which kind of break works best for you and your writing.

Rewards

Rewards are almost as important as writing breaks, in our opinion! It can be hard to keep morale up throughout such a gruelling challenge, so make sure you pat yourself on the back every now and then for all your hard work.

In some cases, a reward might actually take the form of a break; if you've significantly surpassed your daily word goal, for example, you might want to take the rest of that day off writing, or give yourself a 'rest day' tomorrow.

Other rewards can be as simple as snack foods – go on, give yourself a couple of squares of chocolate for every 500 words you write! – or other 'gifts' to yourself, such as a takeaway coffee or a movie ticket.

You might even like to work towards a big reward at the end of NaNoWriMo. Perhaps you could treat yourself to a weekend getaway, or even a party with friends or other writers who took part in the challenge.

Whatever the type of reward, it's great for keeping up your motivation and positivity, and for celebrating little wins and milestones throughout your NaNoWriMo journey.

NaNoWriMo

Go on, treat yourselves, WriMos... You deserve it! Image credit: Michal Kulesza via StockSnap Creative Commons

Engaging with other writers

This is a big one for NaNoWriMo participants, as well as writers in general. Immersing yourself in a literary community is one of the most important and positive things you can do for yourself as a writer.

Engaging with other writers throughout NaNoWriMo, whether they're completing the challenge themselves or not, is a great way to keep your spirits up, gain motivation and inspiration, and share advice.

There are several ways you can engage with writers throughout the challenge. As we mentioned above, there are some official forums on the NaNoWriMo site, where you can discuss hundreds of different topics with other WriMos.

These expansive forums are organised into specific topics and sections, including 'Tips and Strategies', 'Life During NaNo', 'Resources and Writing Support', and even genre- and age-specific sections to help you connect with like-minded writers.

If you'd rather chat to some WriMos in person, head to the helpful Regions section on the NaNoWriMo site, which allows you to seek out writers and events in your local area.

Speaking of your local area – if you haven't already, you should also consider joining a writers' group before NaNoWriMo starts.

This way, you'll not only get to engage with writers in your area during the challenge, but you'll also develop a long-standing relationship with the group that will be of great benefit to your future writing endeavours.

NaNoWriMo

Engaging with a writing community is extremely beneficial during NaNoWriMo. Image via Startup Stock Photos

Your support network

We've talked about connecting with other writers for support throughout NaNoWriMo, but what about everyone else in your life?

Your non-writer family and friends will also play a super-important role throughout your writing challenge, as they'll form your core support network and be there for you if things get tough.

For this to happen, though, you'll need to let your loved ones know what you're doing in November. Don't be shy or embarrassed about taking part in the challenge; you're a writer, and you need to own that and believe 100% in what you're doing.

Your family and friends will understand how important it is to you and they'll want to do anything they can to help.

Giving your loved ones advance warning that you might go a little off the radar in November is a good idea. You don't want them to worry or to think you're ignoring or avoiding them!

Once they understand the scale of the challenge you're undertaking, they'll know not to hound you, and will most likely offer to support you in whatever way they can.

Be sure to show your gratitude after November, by the way – by that stage your partner, family and friends will appreciate getting to spend some quality time with you, so be sure to make the effort and to thank them for their support throughout NaNoWriMo.

Survival Kit

Here's one final suggestion to help you take care of yourself during the challenge. Put together a 'Survival Kit' full of everything you might need throughout the writing process, keep it on-hand, and replenish it before each writing session.

Here are some examples of things you could include in a Survival Kit:

  • Water bottles
  • Notebooks, pens and pencils
  • Spreadsheets/tables for plotting
  • Writing resources
  • Ambient/stimulating music
  • Headphones
  • Tea/coffee
  • Snacks (Healthy brain-boosting options like berries, nuts and seeds)
  • Treats (Chocolate makes for a great reward system)
  • Essential oils to help with headaches, boosting concentration etc.
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Put together a Survival Kit full of all the things you need for NaNoWriMo sessions. Image credit: Bridget Braun via StockSnap Creative Commons

Things to keep in mind while writing

We're almost at the end of our mammoth NaNoWriMo Survival Guide!

Having covered all the basics about planning, preparing, balancing commitments and taking care of yourself, we thought we'd leave you with a few final things to keep in mind while you're writing your wonderful new novel.

Write, don't edit

The whole point of NaNoWriMo is to write. Not to edit, rewrite, cull or change things! You're not expected to produce a perfectly polished novel in a month, and for good reason: that's pretty much impossible. So don't even try.

The months after NaNoWriMo are for editing, reworking and polishing your novel 'til it sparkles, so spend November simply getting everything out onto the page, no matter how rough or ill-formed you may think it is.

Don't go back and re-read what you've written (at least not too often). Immerse yourself in pure creation and let your words and ideas flow freely.

The reason you're writing

Don't do NaNoWriMo purely so you can say 'I'm doing NaNoWriMo'. Do it because you have a story you want to tell, and because there's a reason you want to tell it. Do it because you love writing, and because this is the perfect opportunity to commit to it.

NaNoWriMo is just a means to an end, a vessel to help get your words out into the open. The story is the end goal, not merely the completion of the challenge.

A sense of perspective

It's really important to keep a sense of perspective about the whole NaNoWriMo process, both before, during and after the fact.

Before you start the challenge, remember that what might seem like an unattainable goal is much less daunting when you break it down. After all, 50,000 words in a month equates to 1667 words per day – which really isn't so bad, is it?

While you're writing, keep in mind that you're doing this for one reason, and one reason only: to get that story out of your mind and onto the page. Focus first and foremost on telling the story, and everything else will fall into place.

After you finish NaNoWriMo, take a step back and appreciate the enormity of what you've achieved. You wrote a whole novel in just one month! And even if you didn't quite get there, you still demonstrated your commitment and dedication to your craft, and you're a better writer for it.

See? It's all about perspective.

NaNoWriMo

Remember to enjoy NaNoWriMo for what it is: an excuse to spend a whole month writing, writing, writing! Image via Stokpics

***

Well, writers, there's really nothing more to say besides GOOD LUCK for the challenge ahead!

We wish you all the best for National Novel Writing Month. Work hard, embrace the experience, and above all, have faith in yourself and your writing.

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