A Veteran’s Guide to NaNoWriMo

It’s finally November and change is in the air. In addition to the cooler weather and falling leaves, thousands of people across the globe have begun a writing challenge of epic proportions: to write 50,000 words of a novel during the 30 days of November.  National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo, for short) began as a challenge between five friends with frustrated writing aspirations, but has become a major creative campaign for writers all over the world. Why do people subject themselves to this writing frenzy? What is the point of just churning out 50,000 words? Check out this realist writer’s guide to what NaNoWriMo can bring to your writing life.


Revitalize Your Writing

To keep on pace, participants must write 1,667 words a day. For many of us with jobs, kids, and school, this is probably more than we write creatively in an entire month. But having a formal challenge can be a great motivation to finally tell that story that’s been sitting in the back of your mind for months. Participating in NaNoWriMo is a tangible way to “write every day,” and even gamifies the process with fun infographics. Knowing that there are thousands of others undertaking this challenge with you (and reading the weekly pep talks from authors and the program staff) can help, too. This is an opportunity to write experimentally, to become Betty S. Flower’s madman and steep yourself in the primordial ooze of pure creative energy. It’s low risk and the work is yours alone—there’s no impending workshop, no prying eyes, no concern for continuity or perfection. It’s an excuse to write what you want, not what you should. What sticks might just surprise you!

Start Something Awesome

On average, the standard novel is between 60,000 – 100,000 words, give or take a few thousand. NaNoWriMo likely won’t give you a full manuscript, but that’s okay! What it does give you is a start, one you can revise, tweak, extrapolate, explode, deconstruct, and reassemble. Your NaNoWriMo project doesn’t even have to be a novel; it can be a short story collection, a memoir, or a series of linked essays. Even if you don’t make it across the 50,000-word finish line, you will have more words than you did at the beginning of the month, and that is a victory.

Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants began as a NaNoWriMo project (photo courtesy of Workman Publishing).

Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants began as a NaNoWriMo project (photo courtesy of Workman Publishing).

Quality vs. Completion

NaNoWriMo critics complain that writing 50,000 words in frenzy mode will only create bad content. The sheer amount of published books that began as NaNoWriMo projects (including Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus and Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants) have proven them wrong, but the criticism is a valid one. Some of the content you make will be filler: there will be flat characters, plot holes, and plenty of unnecessary dialogue. The good news is you have 11 months to sift through that content and decide what fits your project, what doesn’t, and what might make another, even more compelling story. For every component you find that doesn’t work, there will be one that does—but that’s not a question for NaNoWriMo.  December through October is for revising. November is for writing.

The Value of a Minute  

One of the best lessons NaNoWriMo teaches writers is just how valuable those “transition” times of the day can be. Sitting in a lecture hall waiting for class to start?  Bang out a couple hundred words while the professor sets up. Commercial break during your favorite show? Challenge yourself to see how many words you can churn out in those seven minutes. Waiting for your kids to get out of practice?  Pull up the Notes App on your phone and get to work. This anytime writing practice may just stick with you for the rest of the year.

You’re the Only One That Can Tell Your Story  

Chris Baty, NaNoWriMo founder and former program director, gives a pep talk every year in the first week of November, and one pearl of wisdom is always the same: no matter what you’re writing, the only person that can tell your story is you.  Every writer has received a critique that claims a work is “derivative,” that it’s “too close” to what already exists. Well, guess what? We all live on the same planet, and the realms of human experience are not infinite. Narratives are culturally ingrained, perhaps even tied directly to our identity as a species. But nobody is going to tell that story the way you will. Nobody will choose the language that you choose or create the characters that you create. The only person that can tell your story is you. So go out and write it.

New to National Novel Writing Month? Ready to write a novel? You can participate on your own, or by creating an account on the NaNoWriMo website, where you’ll also find forums, pep talks, a way to track your progress, and more.


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Michelle Webber has worked as a reader, an Editorial Assistant, and Social Media Editor for Stillhouse Press and currently serves as the Director of Marketing and Communications.  She is working on a collection of linked short stories and is a fiction candidate in George Mason University's Creative Writing BFA Program.