10 Lessons Learned from NaNoWriMo 2013


Fiddleback requested some advice for people attempting NaNoWriMo, and I’m happy to oblige him. Without further ado, here’s what worked for me to finish 43k words in 21 days last year (and I would’ve won, too, if it hadn’t been for a week-long visit to NY to visit family for Thanksgiving). Luckily, we’ve got five weekends this year to kick some ass, so let’s do this!

Lesson #1: Coffee in the AM, Beer in the PM

I like to have something to sip on when I’m writing. In the morning, caffeine helps me feel energized and creative to attack my words. In the evening, alcohol shuts up my inner editor long enough to get enough words on the page to hit my daily wordcount goal before I have to go to bed. Energy drinks are appropriate at any time, save for the last three hours before you plan on sleeping (hah, sleep).

Lesson #2: Split up the Writing Sessions

Speaking of which, I’ve discovered that I can average 750-850 words per hour barring writer’s block, research, or other distractions. NaNo, then, translates to roughly two hours of writing per day for me. If you block it out into an hour in the morning before work and an hour before bed, it’s pretty manageable. Of course, never stop yourself early if you’re on a roll. You will always be grateful for those days when you got in an extra 500 or 1,000 words.

Lesson #3: Be Ready to Sacrifice One Thing

That said, chances are you’re not spending two hours a day doing absolutely nothing. Even if what you’re doing is not a priority, you still find a way to fill the time, even if it’s just browsing the internet. Last year I had to give up video games, otherwise it would have been a lost cause. I just beat Star Craft II: Wings of Liberty, so I’ll have to hold off on completing Heart of the Swarm until December 1st. That will be my reward. And possibly Dragon Age: Inquisition. Honestly, though, my social life will probably suffer too, and that’s just something that’s worth it to me in order to get the words out.

Lesson #4: Don’t Go in Empty-Handed…

If I don’t know some basic things about my story, such as the main character, the setting, the genre, and the basic conflict, I won’t be able to begin writing until I figure out more. My mind will wander around aimlessly and spend more time thinking, brainstorming, and worst of all, shooting down ideas, when I needed to have been writing.

Lesson #5: …but Don’t Define Everything

Part of the journey for me involves discovering my characters/story as I write. I’ve noticed that if I plot or outline too thoroughly ahead of time–and don’t leave anything to the imagination–I’m bored by the time I open up the word processor to actually write it. I’ve had much better success putting a problem in front of my protagonist to see how she tackles it. Don’t forget that problems come in many shapes and sizes, including (and especially) other characters. If that makes me a “pantser,” so be it, but I like to participate in the journey alongside my protagonist.

Lesson #6: Find a Solid Set of Writing Prompts

Some days, I’ll just have no idea what to write about. I found that if I had a steady source of writing prompts, it really helped to get me going. It didn’t matter if I was writing the story out of order–that’s what second drafts are for. Sometimes I’d even have some awesome ideas percolate during one scene that would help direct me in writing the scene before or after it. Some of my favorite sources of writing prompts include Martha Alderson’s The Plot Whisperer Book of Writing Prompts: Easy Exercises to Get You Writing and Alan Watt’s The 90-Day Novel. Otherwise, the internet is lousy with websites for writing prompts–get thee to thy local Google-ry!

Lesson #7: Recruit Friends and Coworkers

Part of the beauty of writing during NaNo is the sheer community surrounding you. It can be a really powerful thing to be accountable to others, and to help keep others accoutnable. Also, I’ve always been one for a little friendly competition. I’m that much more driven to write my words if I can be furthest along among my friends.

Lesson #8: Stickers!

Last year I ordered a tracker poster that came with stickers. My coworkers all wrote down their names and for each 5,000 words we wrote, we’d earn a sticker. It was fun to be able to visually track our progress, and everyone seemed to feel a sense of accomplishment from being able to come by and request their next sticker. It was also fun too to see my desk become something of a water cooler for talking writing during lunch and on our breaks.

Lesson #9: The Cloud is Your Friend

Not just for backups (which you absolutely need to make sure you do), but so you can write from different places or on different computers as needed.

Lesson #10: Find the Right Jam

The perfect soundtrack can make all the difference. Last year I probably listened to Mirror by Ellie Goulding at least two hundred times. I just had it on repeat and let it turn into background noise, but it absolutely conveyed the mood of many of my favorite scenes from Shihoseki, and it embodied the emotions felt by my protagonist in the most poignant moments. Take some time to make a custom playlist and let it inspire you whenever you’re feeling down about your novel.

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