Chip MacGregor

October 28, 2015

Craft and Process Lessons from NaNoWriMo


brick green no smile b:wIf the title of today’s post sounds like gibberish to you, you must not hang out with very many writers. NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, is a month-long writing challenge performed by any author who wants to participate during the month of November. The concept is simple: write 50,000 words of fiction between November 1st and November 30th. What started as an exercise for a small group of writers has grown into a yearly marathon for hundreds of thousands of authors, during which they neglect sleep, work, children, spouses, and friends for a month and get a really short, messy novel to show for it.

I’m definitely not knocking NaNoWriMo; I’ve known dozens of writers who love their crazy November and the community created around pursuing such an ambitious goal in a month. Now, as an agent, I’m not exactly crazy about the influx of short, messy novels I get in January after people “polish” their NaNoWriMo projects and immediately hunt up the closest available agent’s email address, but I do think there can be some valuable takeaway for authors who participate in terms of craft and self-awareness as an artist. Whether you’re planning to officially participate in NaNoWriMo or not, the process of writing a big hunk of text in a comparatively short time can be one that leaves you a better writer at the end of it if you approach it correctly!

Adjust Your Expectations

If you go into NaNoWriMo expecting to have a finished, salable manuscript when it’s over, you are going to be disappointed. Let me say that again: If you go into NaNoWriMo expecting to have a finished, salable manuscript when it’s over, you are going to be disappointed. While the event may be called “National Novel Writing Month,” what it actually is is “National First Draft/Extended Outline Writing Month,” but “NaFirDrafExOuWriMo” has been slow to catch on. Really; unless you’re writing middle-grade fiction, 50,000 words aren’t even going to make it in the door at most publishers, and while you may be able to write more than that in your month, you still won’t have a polished, edited, revised manuscript at the end of the month. This is not a surprise to anyone reading this– any sane person (though you could argue that those who participate in NaNoWriMo aren’t completely sane) knows that the end product of that kind of pressure-cooker isn’t going to be unadulterated genius.

BUT! More than just knowing what NOT to expect from the month of intensive writing, you should go into the project with some expectations for what you WILL get out of the process– do you want really well-developed characters you can work with in more detail at a later date? Do you want to get your plot really well fleshed out and your timeline really clearly established? Do you want to work on writing stories using more dialogue, or more description? Consider creating a vision statement of sorts for your NaNoWriMo project to give yourself a clear goal or two to have in mind as you start and to help focus your writing efforts every day.

Examine Your Methods

If you don’t habitually churn out 50,000 words per month, chances are you’ll be making some adjustments to your lifestyle and schedule in order to meet that goal during November. And while some of those adjustments aren’t realistic for the long-term, you may stumble across some new methods/strategies for writing that could improve your writing life going forward. The most common complaint I hear from writers is that they can never find the time to write, much less to edit or read in their genre. Look at all the places you squeeze writing time from during NaNoWriMo and ask yourself what it would look like if you implemented those changes on small scale the rest of the year. For example, if you gain an hour of writing time each night by eating cereal for dinner every night in November instead of cooking, you could think about giving up one cooking night per week the rest of the year– four extra writing hours per month. If you beg a friend to babysit for you one Saturday afternoon so you can have five uninterrupted writing hours, consider making a monthly babysitter part of your budget the rest of the year (or trading babysitting with a friend)– five extra writing hours per month, etc.

Pay attention, too, to the ways you’re writing differently during NaNoWriMo– maybe you usually write in long blocks of time, but the tight deadline has you typing away in 15-minute sprints throughout the day, at the end of lunch breaks or before the kids get home from school. Maybe this on-and-off approach to writing keeps you immersed in your story and story universe more fully than when you only write twice a week and have to spend the first hour of your block of writing time getting back into the rhythm of the story and the world of the book. You might notice that it’s easier to ignore your inner editor/judge during the fast pace of NaNoWriMo, and that you second-guess yourself far less for the very simple reason that you just don’t have enough time– this could be a huge turning point for those perfectionists out there who can’t seem to get beyond a certain point in their manuscript or who can never stop messing with it once it’s “done.” If you can tune out the judge during NaNoWriMo and let the pressure of meeting a certain word quota push you past what otherwise might have been periods of “writer’s block” or indecision, you can learn to apply that same focus/ride that same momentum even when the clock’s not ticking.

Remember, the freedom of knowing that you definitely aren’t going to have a perfect manuscript at the end of NaNoWriMo gives you permission to take shortcuts that you can always go back and fix/flesh out later– guess what? You aren’t going to have a perfect manuscript at the end of ANY period of writing, no matter how long, so why not give yourself that same permission to settle for “good enough” in a tough moment in favor of moving ahead/getting words on paper, and then know that you can go back and hone and refine to your heart’s content?

Enjoy the Community

One of the major benefits/draws to participating in NaNoWriMo is the fact that something like 200,000 other people are participating in the process with you. There are dozens of NaNoWriMo groups and support pages online that all exist for the purpose of connecting NaNoWriMo authors with others going through the same process and giving them the means to share their progress, encourage one another, and hold each other accountable. Take advantage of this incredible opportunity to connect with many other practitioners of a normally isolated art form and see how being a part of that community changes how you write– are you motivated by the idea of being able to tell your group that you met your word quota that day? By the idea that several people are immediately going to read the new chapters you completed? Does reading other people’s work inspire you/help you to better understand your own? These are all qualities that can be replicated in some form after NaNoWriMo is over and done with– if you respond well to an accountability group/partner, find one! If you’re motivated by others reading your work right away, enlist a beta reader team. If you’re inspired by reading other authors’ work, ask to stay in contact with some of the writers whose work has been the most helpful/influential and offer to beta read for them when NaNoWriMo is over.


By putting a little thought into what you want to get out of it beforehand, and paying attention to your writing process and your successes/failures during the process, you can emerge from NaNoWriMo poorly rested and malnourished but with a stronger sense of your writing process and more self-awareness about your strengths and weaknesses. (And, of course, with a short, messy novel.)

Are you planning to participate in NaNoWriMo this year? How will you make the process more intentional in terms of improving your craft or process? What are you looking forward to the most? What challenge seems most daunting to you? Chime in in the comments! Thanks for reading.

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  • Kristen Joy Wilks says:

    This is my second year too, Preslaysa! I wrote the 50,000 words with ACFW Novel Track for accountability and loved it. Very encouraging. And yes, I did write a middle grade novel so it was wonderful to finish the month with a very messy but finished rough draft. I’m on my 7th revision of that story and plotting out the second book so I can write it next month (and then probably spend 7 more revisions on it…who knows this stuff does take time, even when you are going quickly). I’ve spent most of October plotting. I have 15 plot points that I like and some kind of direction to go for each of 34 chapters. We’ll see what happens!

  • Another great post, Erin! I’m doing Nanowrimo this year. It’ll be my second year Nano-ing. I’m looking forward to immersing myself in a new story, and focusing on the writing rather than the editing. My challenge will be getting up earlier so I can get in my word count. But I figured out a new work process this month which I’m going to try my hand at starting in November 🙂

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