How to make NaNoWriMo easier

So: you want to write a novel?

How about writing one in 30 days?

NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month, a concept-turned-movement started by Chris Baty in 1999. The idea: to create a community of those people who want write a novel, and to challenge them to just do it, with the support that a community brings, in one month. Each year in November, thousands of people sign up, with a goal of writing 50,000 new words of a new novel, in 30 days.

Who would do such a thing? There’s no mold, but in 2013, more than 300,000 people signed up and wrote 3.5 billion words, with more than 40,000 reaching the goal.*

Note here that we’re talking first draft, will-definitely-need-more-work writing, and that the novel need not be complete in those 50,000 words. At 1,666 words per day, it will be all one can do just to get the words down. And yet: given how much time we all think it takes to write a novel, what would it do for your writing to try something this ambitious? The average word count was more than 11,000 words per person, which means that even not reaching the goal, there was a lot of writing going on.

Why do they do it? There must be thousands of reasons, but I would bet that the most popular one is simply this: to give those novel ambitions a kickstart.

Today, I’d like to give your kickstart a kickstart. Here are three tips for making your November NaNoWriMo experience easier, and much more likely to make the goal.

1. Begin with a basic story structure.

That is to say: don’t wing it. What might be the cardinal sin of NaNoWriMo (and possibly any book-writing adventure) is not knowing where you’re going.

Okay, sure, there are some writers who want to experience the story as it unfolds, with absolutely no idea where it’s going. You want to play that way, be my guest. But understand this: you will experience more days of writer’s block, and will create less usable content, than if you structure at least a little before you write.

Any time you embark on a novel, it makes great sense to have a good plan for where you’re going. This does not mean (although it can mean) a complete, excruciatingly-precise outline. Rather, it means having enough structure in place so that you know from day to day what to write next. And if this is true for any novel, it is especially true if you want to crank out 50,000 words in 30 days.

You might begin, then, by establishing this arc, which is the basic frame for almost all stories:

wants something badly…
but there are obstacles…
which are overcome, or not…
and that someone is changed, or not

If you establish that, you are already on the way to being able to write every day. But let’s go further, by building on the story frame. Try mapping it to this classic three-act structure:

The Setup (establishing the stakes)
Plot Point 1 (the story is propelled forward)
Midpoint (something important happens)
Plot Point 2 (a twist that sends the story toward its conclusion)
Resolution (how it all works out)

(Act 1 is from the opening through to Plot Point 1; Act 2 is from Plot Point 1 to Plot Point 2; Act 3 is from Plot Point 2 to the end.)

If you can get to this level of detail, it will be far easier to write each day, because you can see where your story needs to go, at least in a general sense. Want to go deeper, and make it even easier? Cue tip #3.

2. Flesh out the structure, getting as specific as you can.

If you can, write a summary of what happens in each segment. No one will ever see this (unless you become famous later and are studied in university courses), so don’t worry about how it reads: just tell the story of each segment. Capture, over what might be several pages of stream-of-consciousness writing, what has to happen in that part.

Then, if you want to go further, try and break up those narratives into chapters. They don’t have to be in the right order, and they don’t even have to be correct. They merely have to exist. Consider how simple this can be:

Chapter 1: Leslie meets a man in a bar who looks out of place. He reveals that he’s just gotten out of prison, having served 50 years for murder. The dead man, she discovers to her horror, is the grandfather of her friend, David.

Chapter 2: Leslie tells David about the meeting. Disturbed, David realizes he knows almost nothing about his grandfather’s murder, because his father has never discussed it. David is a newspaper reporter; he decides to dig into the story, using is press credentials and connections, even though he knows it will greatly upset his father.

Chapter 3: David talks to the crime reporter at the newspaper where he works. The crime reporter agrees it’s worth looking into; the murder was a sensation at the time it happened, at a time when there were so few murders in that city. But the crime  reporter warns David away from the story, and tells him to go warn his family, too, that reporters are going to be sniffing around. David now feels responsible for what his family is about to go through.

And so on.

Now consider how much easier it will be to write those chapters, knowing what approximately has to happen, than if you are looking at a blank screen with 1,666 words to write and no idea what happens next. Best of all, you can do this outlining before November 1.

3. Budget the time ahead of time.

Fifty thousand words requires, for most of us, about 90 minutes a day. Maybe you have that available to you; if you do, schedule it, and keep to it. If you don’t, then what?

If you can squeeze out a half-hour in the morning by getting up just a little early, you can write 500 words then. Give up a half-hour of television or Facebook in the evening, or stay up a half-hour later, and there’s 500 more. Give up a half-hour of something else, and there’s 500 more. If you can’t make the daily quota, plan to binge write on the weekends. If you can make 1,000 words per day during the week, then you need about 3,000 words per day Saturday and Sunday, or about three hours per day.

It’s a commitment, certainly, but just think what you’ll have done in 30 days. And remember: it doesn’t have to be good, and most certainly won’t be good. There are no one-draft writers. But if you don’t write the first draft, you can’t ever get to the final one.

If you choose to do it, have fun! You can learn more about NaNoWriMo here.