How to Write a Novel in a Month: NaNoWriMo


Back in July I wrote a post about working in sprints in order to complete a difficult task. It described how the best way to accomplish something is to make it your sole focus for a limited period of time. In fact, that’s the technique I used for completing a marathon and an iPhone app.

But what would it mean to apply that concept to novel writing? Sounds crazy right? Who in the world would try to write an entire novel in a month!!!? Well, believe it or not, there is a whole group of *crazy people* out there who do just that. They are all apart of an event called National Novel Writing Month….And you can be too!

What is it?

The best description of the event comes from the site itself:

National Novel Writing Month is a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to novel writing. Participants begin writing November 1. The goal is to write a 175-page (50,000-word) novel by midnight, November 30.

Valuing enthusiasm and perseverance over painstaking craft, NaNoWriMo is a novel-writing program for everyone who has thought fleetingly about writing a novel but has been scared away by the time and effort involved.

What I like about this approach is it forces you to focus and gets you started. There’s no way that you can write 50,000 words in 30 days without a large amount of focus. And because there are specific dates to start and end, it prevents the endless “someday I’ll write my novel mentality”.

So, who would be crazy enough to try something like this? According to their site, 119,000 people participated in the 2008 and 21,000 actually wrote the required 50,000 words.

What about Quality?

So maybe somebody could string together 50,000 words in 30 days, but what about kind of novel would that be? The NaNoWriMo site addresses these concerns as well:

Because of the limited writing window, the ONLY thing that matters in NaNoWriMo is output. It’s all about quantity, not quality. The kamikaze approach forces you to lower your expectations, take risks, and write on the fly.

Make no mistake: You will be writing a lot of crap. And that’s a good thing. By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes. To forgo the endless tweaking and editing and just create. To build without tearing down.

At least they’re realistic – “you’ll be writing a lot of crap”. But often the hardest part is getting the words on the page in the first place. You can always edit your novel to perfection after the event is over. In fact, many authors like Neil Gaiman and Neal Stephenson write first drafts long-hand to prevent the endless editing in the beginning that often happens with word processors.

What about the Long-Suffering Artist?

Personally, I think NaNoWriMo is a fabulous idea, but it’s not without its detractors. Eric Rosenfeld wrote in Why I Hate National Novel Writing Month, and Why You Should Too:

I’m not sure why someone "scared away by the time and effort involved" in novel writing would instead want to put themselves through the wringer of doing a whole novel in a month, but the "finish line" metaphor is telling; to the NaNoWriMo people, writing a novel is like running a marathon, something difficult and strenuous that you do only so you can say you did it before you died. (Or rather, like running a marathon has become in the popular imagination; there are those who still lament the passing of the age when marathons were for serious runners only.) I shouldn’t have to say that this attitude is repugnant, and pollutes the world with volumes upon volumes of one-off novels by people who don’t really care about novel writing. I can’t help but wonder out of all those 59,000 people, how many of them will ever write another word.

His basic point is that a novel should not just be a bucket list item to be checked off and moved on from. You should want to write a novel because you’re a true artist and writer in your soul. But I would say that anyone committing to write 50,000 words in 30 days must at least be somewhat serious because that’s not an easy thing to do and takes a very real (albeit short-term) commitment.

Is there a rule that says a great novel has to take a long time to write?

What about You?

I’ve already signed up and plan to try my hand at writing a novel for the month of Nov. Will I succeed? I don’t know but to paraphrase Teddy Roosevelt, I’d much rather try and fail than not try at all. I also don’t want to just wait for the “perfect” time or idea that may never come.

As I plunge into this adventure, Rebecca Lake gives some great tips for succeeding at NaNoWriMo which I plan to follow:

  • Plan Ahead: While not a necessity it probably helps to have at least an outline or some character sketches in place to get you going.
  • Visit the Forums: The NaNoWriMo website is a welcoming community of writers struggling with same issues as you. They have active conversations on tools, inspiration and ideas. Or if you just need a place to vent, they’re there for you.
  • Set the Pace: To write 50,000 words in 30 days, you will need to maintain a pace of about 6-7 pages per day. Some people work best in a slow and steady fashion. I plan to try and write a bit every day. But others are more apt to bursts of creative energy. Figure out the pace that works for you.
  • Be Realistic: While many of the entrants will fall short of the final goal. Remember that all of this writing is still making you a better writer. And the larger focus is to simply get people writing in the first place.

Even if you don’t “win” after the 30 days are over, keep writing. The true success of a good writer is often persistence rather than one burst of creative output. The more you write, the better you get!

It took me fifteen years to discover that I had no talent for writing, but I couldn’t give it up because by that time I was too famous.

-Robert Benchley, 1889-1945