Preparing for NaNoWriMo

I have only hit the 50,000 word goal of NaNoWriMo one of the five times I’ve attempted it in my adult life. I still remember the intense rush of elation and giddy relief it gave me, like I’d summited a mountain. I should say that every attempt at National Novel Writing Month is worthwhile, since it gets you writing and that’s the main point of the entire endeavor, but man. Hitting that goal felt great.

It’s been four or five years since the last time I participated in NaNo, and I wanted to change that this year. I promised my agent another novel in the near future, and since I work best with deadlines, I begged her for one. I needed a hard stop: a date that would require me to place a full novel into her hands. “March 2022” is what she told me. Come hell or high water, she will get a novel that month. But wouldn’t it be amazing if I finished the first draft early? What if I did my future self a favor and laid out the entire story months in advance, so that I could have more time to polish and edit and have it beta read? 

So here I am, promising to participate and already breaking out into a cold sweat at that word count requirement. The key is to go in prepared, which was something I rarely did for myself on previous tries. Luckily, the novel I’m working on has been sitting in my head for years, with a clear beginning and a clear ending. I know the overall theme; I know how I want it to feel. Even so, the prep work is a must.

Here’s the kind of prep work I’m engaging in. If you’re participating in NaNo, I hope this gives you some ideas! Or, at the very least, a reminder that November is in five days and we are running out of time *cue nervous laughter* 

Know Your Characters

I have three main characters, and two major side characters. Do you know how many of them I have a true understanding of? Two of the five. Excellent work, Mel.

There are some writers who are able to figure their characters out as they write them, but for me, I need a better grasp of who they are in order for them to leap off the page. If I don’t, they’ll start to sound like each other, and that’ll make for a frustrating writing experience.

Here are some questions to ask yourself and some tips I’m using to help me flesh these characters out:

  • What motivates them? What is the driving force behind the decisions they’re making?
  • How are the events of this novel going to help them grow?
  • What do they want, and what do they need?
  • What do you know about them? If this is fuzzy, fill out the NaNoWriMo character questionnaire and see what illuminating information about your character jumps out at you.

If it helps, create a character mood board on Pinterest, or fill out personality quizzes for them. I’ve oftentimes in the past used astrological signs to give me a foundation to work from; I’ll pick the birthday that kind of “feels” right for that character and dive into the astrology sign to see if it helps shape who they are. You never know: Once they’re on the page, they may surprise you and tell you who they really are instead.

Identify Your Writing Time

Do you have a plan for when you’re going to write almost 1,700 words a day? I had to think hard about this one. I have a full time job, so I’m either writing before work or after work. I don’t typically set timers for writing time, although this could help you. I chunk my writing by scenes, and once I’ve finished writing a scene, I’ll check on my word count. Sometimes I’ll hit a nice writing stride and end up plowing through a few scenes in one night and blow past the daily count, and that gives me some breathing room if I have a night where the writing it just not happening, or something came up and there’s no time.

Another key aspect of finding the time to write is enlisting other people in your life to help you. People who can hold you accountable and who you can work with to make sure you get that time. Writing this furiously eats into most of your free time, especially on the weekends. If you’re honest with the people in your life about how serious this goal is for you, they’ll understand when you’re not as responsive or can’t commit to any weekend plans. This is hard, because it’s a holiday month for a lot of us. I just checked my calendar and there is something going on every weekend that I can’t get out of. I’m lucky in that I’m able to offset this with taking some time off. I’ve got a lot of unused vacation time, and I gave myself some long weekends next month with days I’m reserving for writing. I’ve enlisted my partner, too, so he knows that I need consistent writing time every day to meet this goal. The accountability and the encouragement will go a long way in keeping you on goal.

Naturally, you have the NaNo forums to lean on, and you should interact with them! Talk to other writers when you feel stuck, commiserate when you need to, and join your region’s writing sprints. 

Outline and Organize

Even if you like to see where the story takes you instead of outlining everything that will happen in your novel, having some sense of the beats of your narrative will help you keep truckin’ along. I tend to chunk my books into the classic three acts of the beginning, middle, and end, and then I allot about 8 chapters’ worth of events into each section. From there, I ask myself:

  • What needs to be set up by chapter 8? Are all of my characters and their motivations/needs established by this point? 
  • What connective tissue is essential between chapters 8 and 16? This is where the dreaded sagging middle issues can occur. Is there enough forward movement or character development to sustain the story?
  • Have I given myself enough time to wrap up the climax and the character journeys in the last 8 chapters, without everything feeling rushed?

Next, organize your novel’s outline, notes, research, and character sheets into one place, and organize your physical space so you have everything you need. I use Scrivener to keep all of my story bits in one spot for easy access while I’m writing. Right now, they’re running a pretty sweet deal by offering a free trial to NaNoWriMos from now until December 7th, and if you hit that 50k goal, the subscription is half off. Having a comfortable, organized writing space is also key. Stock yourself up on coffee, tea, cream, sugar, and honey if you work best with a cup of something warm nearby. Buy your favorite snacks to keep you motivated and keep them close. I like to keep my favorite scented candles on my desk to light while I write. Make your writing space as inviting and inspiring as you can, but don’t forget to get up and walk about every now and again! As someone who sits at a laptop all day for work, getting up every hour to stretch is essential. Your back will thank you later. 

Good luck, everyone! See you on the other side of November. 

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