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Surviving NaNoWriMo

NaNoWriMo is a marathon for writers. With a super-stretch goal of 50,000 words, what can you do to get in shape now? These are the things that helped me win last year.

  • Prewriting: If you do any prewriting (e.g. Character sketches, exploratory scene writing, outlining), get it done before November 1st.
    • Even if you’re a total pantser, determining GMC and external conflicts now will go a long way toward ensuring you have a story idea that will sustain a novel-length work.
    • If you can outline, do it. I had a very sketchy outline last year, but it saved me when I got stuck and wasn’t sure what to start writing next.
  • Keep moving forward: Don’t go back to edit. Not only will this destroy your forward momentum, you end up wasting time fiddling with scenes that may just end up on the cutting room floor later. This more than anything is how I finished last year.
  • Create a change log: Should the first scene happen at the morgue instead of a bar? Jot down a note in the change log and keep writing as if you made the changes. (I keep such a file right in my Scrivener project for easy access).
  • Get comfortable: Are you planning to try Scrivener—or another writing program—during NaNo? Go for it! But download your free trial now and get used to it. You only need the basics to get started. You can play with all the cool features later.
    • The Scrivener trial is for 30 uses, not 30 days, so don’t close the program every day and it’ll get you through NaNo.
    • NaNo winners get a Scrivener discount coupon, so wait until you win to buy!
  • Time yourself: Use a timer to motivate you to sit in your chair (or stand at your desk) for manageable chunks of time. When it goes off you can decide if you want to keep writing or take a break. Writing is good, but breaks are important too.
  • Track your progress: I keep a log of my daily word count in Scrivener, and use the project targets to make sure I’m on track.
  • Alert friends and family: Get your family on board now. If you still have to make dinner, pick easy, quick meals for this month. Figure out what you need and ask for it now (designated quiet time, someone else to wash dishes, whatever). Make sure non-writing friends and family understand that you won't be answering the phone or checking email constantly.
  • Be antisocial: Being part of the NaNoWriMo, Twitter, Facebook, Google+ community is great, and can provide support during the long haul, but if it gets in the way of writing, turn it off. Need willpower help? Try MacFreedom or a similar program, unplug your wifi, or go somewhere that doesn’t have Internet access.
  • Reward yourself: Give yourself little rewards when you meet your goals. A bubble bath, a few pieces of chocolate, a chapter of a good book, a movie, time with your family. Pick something that works for you.

Most important of all, just try your best. Why do we torture ourselves? Because even if you don’t win, you’ll learn something about yourself. You’ll likely be amazed at what you accomplished, both in terms of total output and some of your daily totals.

I learned that my writing is better when I don't stop to censor or analyze it. I kept little sticky notes on my laptop with reminders like “write messy”, “write fast”, and “just write”.

It’s not about winning, it’s about going for it. No matter how many words you have at the end, it’ll be more than you have now.

That’s a win.

Are you a NaNoWriMo veteran? I'd love to see your tips for getting through it.

Tell your friends!


  1. Reply

    Lots of great tips here, Gwen! 🙂 Most important for me is warning the family ahead of time. Sure wish they’d get the Writing Buddies up and running on the NaNo site. I can’t do this all by myself!! LOL I’ll be looking for you!

    • Reply

      Thanks, Melissa! Having the family on board is a huge help for me too. Luckily my kids are old enough that they understand and don’t interrupt me TOO much. 😉

      Glad to know it wasn’t just me who couldn’t get Writing Buddies to work. Must be issues with the site upgrade. Good luck!

  2. Reply

    My best tip is to create a list of character names BEFORE you start. You don’t need characters to fit them or anything, just a list of names that all feel like they could fit into your book. I waste so much time trying to name characters – it might be the part of writing I’m worst at. Last year I just made a list of names that felt like they could be a part of culture A, culture B, etc, and when I had a new character pop up, pulled a name off my list. So helpful!

    • Reply

      How interesting, Kali! Definitely a good suggestion for those who struggle with names. For some reason, my characters usually come with at least first names attached, so that hasn’t been an issue, but I like the idea.


  3. Reply

    Great tips, Gwen! I use the timer a lot to get started. And Kali, I never thought of making a list of names–brilliant!

    I’m a worrier, so my best prep is to pay the bills, balance the checkbook, and buy all the birthday presents for Nov-Dec., etc. Shopping and errands kill my writing time, so I try to do as much ahead as I can. Now if only I could figure out how to make the bathrooms self-cleaning…

    • Reply

      Oh, Nicky, buying the presents early is a great idea. Really, whoever picked November didn’t think all of this through. Thanksgiving, winter holidays…

      The good news is my boys clean their own bathrooms, do their own laundry, and wash dishes. The rest of the house is still my domain though. After almost two years back at work full time, I finally hired a cleaning service and it was blissful. Two months later I quit working. The clean house is the only part I really miss. 😉

      Thanks for checking in, Nicky. Good luck this year!

  4. Reply

    Thanks for the tips, Gwen. I signed up for NaNoWriMo. Unfortunately, I fell at work and have sustained shoulder, elbow, hand, and knee injuries. I doubt I’ll have the stamina that this challenge requires, and I don’t want to cause further injury–so I’ll do my best.

    I will cheer everyone on, and join in as much as possible.

    Good luck, all!

    • Reply

      Oh no, Jolyse! I hope all of your injuries heal quickly!

      Have you ever tried any of the dictation software like Dragon Dictation? There’s even a free version for the iPhone/iPad. Anyway, maybe you can use this time to brainstorm and plan. Taking care of yourself is the most important thing.

      Get better soon!

  5. Reply

    Hi Gwen – you’re post was just what I needed to see. Last year I won NaNoWriMo and had a great time in doing it. I had planned on participating this year but for some reason, over the last month or so, had been questioning whether I should dive into the craziness once again. Thanks for the wonderful tips and the encouragement to jump back into the thick of things and just go for it.

    I have four or five story ideas “outlined” in my head (I’m a total pantser, even though I know I shouldn’t be) and haven’t yet decided which I will go for, so I guess I know what I’ll be doing over the next few days 🙂

  6. Reply

    I’m glad you’re going to go for it, Dave. Worst case, you don’t win, but you’ve written more than you would have.

    I always feel like I should be more of a plotter too, but I’m not. I do have my story very roughly outlined, but just to make me feel better. 😉 I’m sure a lot will change once I get into the story.

    Good luck!

  7. Maura


    Great tips, Gwen! I’m going for it, to. This will be my fourth NaNo. I’m looking forward to letting the fingers fly!! 🙂

  8. Reply

    Have fun! I’m prepping GH entries instead of NaNoWriMo. Again. As usual. But then I do know i can write 50K in a week so a month is pff to me.


    • Reply

      Yeah, I’m doing the opposite this year, Christine. NaNo instead of the GH. Of course, I wrote Blind Fury during NaNo last year and it worked out, but it was too stressful.

      I think it’s awesome that you can do 50K in a week! Good luck with the Golden Heart!

  9. Pingback: Day 9: Tips from the Veterans | Zan Nim - one writer, many tools, lots of advice.

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