I’m not officially doing NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) this month, but I will be writing 50,000 words on a manuscript, so I thought I would share what I do to approach the task (with the caveat that all brains are different).
If you’re using NaNo as an aspiring writer rather than as a personal challenge, the most important thing to remember about it is that NaNo is no different than any other writing apart from scale. Like any exercise, it’s important to use good form even with small weights, or you won’t see good results when you scale up, or you might actually hurt yourself.
There’s no point using bad habits just to up word count.
So let’s talk how I plan to hit 50k (and I know that I will).
Pre-work is essential for me. I don’t consider myself a plotter, and I despise outlines, but I need to have a plan. First step of the plan is answering some basic questions.
Most important: Why am I writing this?
Subquestion to that: why this, and nothing else?
I need to be excited before I begin or I’m never going to make it.
Next question: what do I want to make people feel?
Subquestion: what do I want people to feel when they’ve closed the book?
This set of questions is important because it helps me shortcut the outlining process. I don’t have to know the end necessarily, but I need to know what KIND of end I’m hoping for. The more fully I can picture how a reader feels upon closing the book, the better I can aim.
Question: Do I have a ticking clock in mind?
Subquestion: do I need to strengthen my external plot to justify my internal/ character journey?
It’s much easier to write a novel if you know you’re headed for the Big Race, the Curse’s End, the Pageant, the Judgment, etc.
The more concrete my external structure is in my mind, the more free I’ll feel to fart about with my character arcs and descriptive playgrounds. This pre-work is essential. I use it then to write an outline of sorts. Not an outline. A plan. Let’s call it a plan still.
Because my goal is to just give myself a tool that keeps me on track. I want some sort of plan jotted to contain all the information that is important to me that I know. I’ll write an outline with plot beats, images, character reveals. “Outline.” In air quotes. It might be skeletal. It might be lengthy. It depends on the book, it depends on how much I know about the project, it depends on the project’s complexity, it depends on how much I think I need before I leap in.
Often, I put it on sticky notes.
That way I can move them around and add more information and subtract scenes and moments as I change my mind. It also keeps it casual. It’s nothing to move a sticky note. Rewrite it. Tear it up. Cross it out. I can think about it every time I walk by my file cabinet where I’ve stuck them up.
It’s difficult to make the abstract concrete. I’m just giving myself as many tools as I can to externalize. Once it stops being useful, I give it up. It’s scaffolding. The only thing that matters is that the building stands when you pull it away.
Ok, now, the hard part.
The most important part of being a working writer, of hitting deadlines, is time management. Time management isn’t just about discipline, though. It’s about honesty, kindness, realism, and diligence.
I get out a calendar. I get out a calculator. I do the math.
Writing deadlines often fail because the writer in question has set themselves an impossible deadline.
Let’s run some numbers. You want to do NaNo. 50k words in a month. That’s the rules of NaNo. Let’s say you only have Saturdays to spare. Math: 12,500 words a day.
Oof. But you know what, don’t flinch from the number. It won’t do any good to pretend that’s not the math. Ask yourself if you’ve ever managed that feat — writing 12,500 words in a day. Under what conditions? Could you do it four times, without having time to revise what you’ve done before?
Now ask yourself if you can add, I don’t know, maybe add Wednesdays. Not all of Wednesday. Just two hours of Weds. Two hours of Saturday. What does that look like now? Two days, 6-8 pm. That’s now 6250 words a session. Can you do that? Can you even type that fast?
Be honest. Be realistic. Do not set yourself up for failure before you’ve even begun.
Ask yourself: how many words can you truly do in a sitting?
I know this number for myself because I’ve written for a decade. I know it even more accurately because of a short story challenge I’ve been doing with a friend: we write as complete a story as possible in 90 minutes once a week.
2k words in 90 minutes. If I know what I’m doing.
But I still can’t use this number for this math. I can do 2k in 90 words, but they won’t be pretty words, so if I want to use them to build MORE words in a later chapter, I’ll need time to look back over them. Otherwise I know myself: I will write myself into a corner or otherwise run out of steam. I can’t just pile raw words upon raw words; it’s diminishing returns. I need some time to reinstate the big picture in my head rather than just looking at sentence upon sentence upon sentence.
Which means I need more time than 90 minutes for 2,000 words.
Again, I’m being realistic. Honest. And kind. Why burn yourself out on an idea you love for NaNo? You don’t have to hate it and feel exhausted by the end. So let’s do new math.
Instead I’ll ask myself how many words I need to get done a week (12,500), how many I can write in 90 minutes (2k), round up because I won’t always be on fire to 2 hours, and then see how many sessions a week I need to accomplish that.
Okay. 6. Let’s say 6 two-hour sessions a week. Once a day. And I’ll need to be able to edit those words in order to be smart and clever for the next session, so I’m going to give myself another hour session in the evening of each of those days to edit and reread and plan for the next day.
Which means a reasonable schedule for me would be two hours of straight up drafting in the morning, and then an hour in the evening to look back over and make my reasonable plan for the next day. That’s not bad. Not bad at all.
AND LOOK I GET A DAY OFF EACH WEEK TOO.
Could I grandly say, oh, I am going to do it all on Saturdays? The spirit of NaNo compels me! Yes. Could I maybe actually pull it off? Yes — I mean, I’ve written a lot of words, I know how to make words on a page. Will I be doing good words, will I enjoy the process? No.
The important thing for me when setting up a project with a definitive word count is identifying how much time I need, setting those hours firmly, and not letting other commitments or distractions bleed into those hours. That short story challenge I mentioned? I don’t do anything else during it. I can’t answer a phone, glance at e-mails, pet a dog, pace around to think. I write. I only write. Otherwise I don’t make it. I know this already.
This is how NaNo works too. Remember, all writing is the same. It’s just about scale.
Now, finally, before I get to work, I’ll write some scratch words.
These won’t count for my wordcount, because they won’t end up in the manuscript, but you can use them toward your NaNo count if you like, if you do this step too.
In these scratch words (probably 2,000-10,000 words), I’m trying out my characters’ voices, my prose, my shape, my setting. I’m not looking for perfection. I’m looking for flies in the ointment. I’m looking for surprising voices I enjoy using. I’m looking to see if I’m starting the project in a place I find fun.
I’m also taking taking the moment to double check my characters, to reduce them back to studs once more.
I take them down in my mind to tropes, paperdolls, stick figures. The driven one, the sad one, the comic relief. Do I have 2 characters acting out the same role? Time to combine or cut. Do I need a foil for one of my tropes? Time to add. It’s easier before I get deep in the ms.
Then I open my document, I play around with fonts for, like, 90 minutes, and I go, go, go.
That’s how I’ve been setting myself up for this next project, more or less, greatly simplified, and like I said — it’s not a “will 50k happen?” It will. You can do it too. GODSPEED.
(and if you want to hear me talk about writing more — like, 8 hours more? that’s a lot — my video writing seminar is currently 25 bucks in honor of NaNo.)