For many of us, every month is a novel-writing month, but there’s just something special about participating in National Novel Writing Month, also known as NaNoWriMo. If you, too, would like to reach fifty thousand words written this November, read this guide to winning NaNoWriMo for the best tips and tricks that help you succeed at NaNoWriMo in 2023.
What is NaNoWriMo?
NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month, and despite the name, it is actually an international phenomenon. I would know since I’m writing this in Finland!
The month in question Is November and your goal is to write fifty thousand words during the 30 days. You may have heard me say a few times in this blog that you shouldn’t write a book fast, and that still stands. You are NOT writing a book during NaNoWriMo, you only need to write 50K words. What you do with those words is completely up to you and they definitely could be a part of your first draft, but you shouldn’t think about it as writing a book in one month.
NaNoWriMo has an official website where you can create an account and track your word count, but doing that is not mandatory. You can just say “hey I’m doing Nano this year” and that’s it. If you’d like to find some friends who are doing the same, you can check out #nanowrimo, #nationalnovelwritingmonth and #nanowrimo2023 on Instagram.
How do you win NaNoWriMo? What happens when you win?
All you need to do is write 50 000 words between November 1st and 30th. Easy, right?
If you’ve got an account on the official National Novel Writing Month website, you get a badge and some other goodies when you update your word count after you’ve reached your goal. There isn’t an actual prize, however, and nobody is going to check whether you’ve actually written 50 000 words or not!
What is Camp NaNoWriMo?
I’ve never participated in Camp Nano myself, but I’ve seen it around Instagram so I thought I should include it here.
Camp NaNoWriMo takes place in April and July and you’re encouraged to set your own word count and work on any type of writing you want, whether that’s a novel or not. It’s a fun way to connect with the NaNo Community and get some writing done.
If you’d like to practise your writing but not yet write a novel, you could get my 30-Day Writing Challenge and do a different writing exercise every day for the month when you participate in Camp NaNo. This type of activity totally counts AND it helps you write better during actual Nano.
What should your NaNoWriMo daily word count be?
How many words a day you should write for NaNoWriMo depends on how you want to divide the word count goal of 50K words. If you think you can write the same number of words every day, you can divide the 50K by 30. That comes to about 1 667 words per day, though you could round it up to 1 700 words.
If you’d like to keep your weekends free, you need to write 2 273 words per day on weekdays, or round that up to 2 300. Alternatively, you might have more time to write during the weekends and you could have a goal of writing 3 000 words every Saturday and Sunday and 1 200 words every weekday. Make that 2 950 words on Saturdays and Sundays if you want to strive for EXACTLY 50K words but I don’t think staring at the word count too closely is helpful.
Instead of daily goals, you could also have weekly goals. You could attempt to write 12 500 words every week and then you’d have two extra days to catch up before the 30 days are over. Whatever goal you decide to go for, I absolutely recommend breaking it into smaller pieces so you don’t feel overwhelmed.
Can I start NaNoWriMo late?
Because NaNoWriMo isn’t any kind of an official competition, you’re more than welcome to start late for whatever reason. Heck, you could even start early as long as it’s your goal to get those 50k words written in November.
If you want to reach your goal while it’s still November and you start late, just divide your word count goal by the remaining days to see what your daily word count should be.
Planning for NaNoWriMo is more important than you might think
I’m a huge fan of outlining and I love to teach all my methods to other writers. NaNoWriMo is great for showing you how useful a good outline can be because you can’t afford to waste time wondering what should happen next in your story. Even though I don’t believe in writing fast, I do believe in writing efficiently.
When you know your story and your characters well, it’s much harder to get lost and end up at a dead end. If you’ve never outlined a novel before, participating in NaNoWriMo can help you figure out what kind of outline works or doesn’t work for you. That alone is a pretty good reason for participating, I’d say.
Use story structure to outline for NaNoWriMo
I write about story structure a lot and you can use it to plan and outline your NaNo project even if November was just around the corner. You should read my simple explanation of story structure and then answer these story structure questions, and you’ll have a rough outline in no time.
The best thing about story structure is that it gives you the general directions for where your story should go and how much tension your story should have at any point. That’s really helpful if you’re writing without a clear idea of every single plot event in your story.
Outlining for NaNoWriMo can be done in four simple steps
If learning about story structure feels a little too involved at this point, you can create a simpler outline by summarising these four sections of your story:
- Life is normal until something big changes everything
- Your protagonist is reacting to the change and trying to get back on their feet until another thing (an event or new information) changes everything again
- Things get even more difficult and after multiple struggles everything seems to be lost because your protagonist’s problems and flaws are catching up to them
- Finally, after a final push that might involve some kind of a sacrifice, the big problem gets solved and things return to a new normal
In case you didn’t guess it yet, I also have a nifty little printable for this method of outlining. If you’d like to try it, you can find my quick outline grid on Etsy. You can also learn more about this easy outlining method in this blog post.
Know your characters well
If you approach your characters like they’re actors on stage without a script, you’re going to have a bad time. It’s going to be incredibly difficult to find action and movement in your story if you don’t know your characters well enough to know how they would act in any given situation.
Truly knowing your characters has nothing to do with knowing their eye colour or star sign. If those things help you make them more lifelike to you, great, but those details don’t move the story forwards. You need to know what your characters want and what they need, you need to know what’s important to them and how they’re likely to act in stressful situations, just to name a few things.
Create a Nanowrimo moodboard
A moodboard is kind of like a collage that conveys the mood of your story or whatever project you’re creating it for. You could create a moodboard for any kind of a creative project, like for decorating your room or rebranding your Etsy shop. It’s a really cool tool for showing at a glance what your story feels like.
I have a whole blog post about creating a moodboard for your story. In short, you choose pictures that fit the atmosphere and feel of your story, though you could have pictures of actual locations and people too if that fits. That way you can easily get in the mood of your story and remember what it’s supposed to be like, and on top of that, it’s fun to share your moodboard with others.
What is Preptober?
“Preptober” is the name given to the month of October when you should be prepping your NaNo project.
There is no right or wrong way to do Preptober, though I’d recommend you apply the planning tips you can find in this post. There are different checklists you can use, but if you’re already used to planning stories, you can use whatever methods you’d like.
I would recommend you start prepping on the 1st of October even if you think it won’t take you the whole month to prepare your writing project. You never know what kind of new ideas you get at the end of the month that you need to jot down before you start writing on November 1st.
Where can you find a Preptober checklist?
As I’m updating this blog post in May, I don’t have a specific Preptober checklist available in my collection of NaNoWriMo printables, but I DO have the 30-day outlining challenge. Outline Your Novel in 30 Days gives you the steps and the schedule to planning your story in just a month and you also get useful resources to learn more about story structure and planning your characters. Even if you’ve taken part in NaNoWriMo before, you’re going to learn so much about planning and writing your story.
Learn from my NaNoWriMo mistakes
I took part in NaNo in 2022 and in the beginning I was surprised how easy it was for me to write nearly 2 000 words in one sitting. I worked on a story idea that had been living in my brain rent-free for quite some time and all I wanted was to write a crappy first draft to figure out if I really wanted to work on that idea despite having huge issues with, like, 50% of the plot.
Doing that was not the mistake. In fact, that’s great use of your NaNo participation.
But because I didn’t have that much beyond an exciting story idea and I had previously struggled with figuring out what should happen in the middle of my story, my outline was flimsy at best. In the beginning I was surprised how easy it was for me to write nearly 2 000 words in one sitting. Why hadn’t I done this every year when it only took me 90 minutes of writing to reach my daily goal?
Then I reached the parts of my story that hadn’t been planned out so well, and let me tell you, that didn’t go so well. Trying to write a scene without a clue what should happen was painful and it was extremely difficult to reach my daily writing goal. If you’ve ever tried taking part in NaNoWriMo before and you’ve been unable to “win”,
Protect your writing time when you participate in NaNoWriMo
Many people say that taking part in National Novel Writing Month isn’t as much about reaching your goal as much as about learning to write every day, and I feel inclined to agree.
Making the commitment to work towards your writing goals and learning to protect your writing time from distractions and family members are valuable skills if you want to become an author. If you live with other people, you shouldn’t be shy about your writing. Make it known that you’re going to be writing now and you shall not be disturbed.
You also need to be firm with yourself and not let yourself get distracted. Put away your phone, stop daydreaming about Tom Hiddleston and have instrumental music (or whatever writing playlist works for you) in the background. Learning new routines is difficult, and most of us are routinely checking our phones every chance we get but teaching yourself to work differently is worth it.
Personally I’ve noticed that it’s best to try and reach my word count goal in one sitting. If you’re going for the 1700-ish words per day, this is fairly doable for most writers as long as they just keep writing and don’t look back. If you need to divide your daily goal into separate writing sessions, make sure you’re actually going to stick to them. It’s all too easy to say “oh, I’m too tired to write now, I’ll do some extra tomorrow.” Stay firm with yourself whenever possible.
Ask for advice and share experiences with other writers
We’re all different so it’s worth it asking around how other writers have achieved their NaNoWriMo goals. Maybe they’ve got tips that you haven’t even considered and they can definitely help cheer you on. Maybe you do need to try writing upside down while hanging from a pull-up bar.
You could go on Reddit or you could peruse the #nanowrimo hashtag on Instagram, for example. As well as learning from NaNoWriMo pros, you could connect with other writers who are still figuring out how they could succeed in their writing goals. And hey, who doesn’t love to complain when characters refuse to do as they’re told?
Don’t edit as you go when you write for NaNoWriMo
I never recommend editing your writing as you go but remembering not to do that is especially important during NaNoWriMo.
If you want to make progress, you have to keep writing and never look back. Winning NaNoWriMo has nothing to do with good writing, you only need to reach your goal. In fact, your first draft never needs to be good, it only needs to exist, and Nano is a great time to practise that.
It can feel tempting to fix a few things here or there while you write, and maybe you just wrote something so cringy that you have to delete it straight away. Resist the urge! The time for editing comes later and that needs to be after November. Don’t let yourself lose momentum.
If you’ve never written a full novel from start to finish, you might not know how important it truly is to just get those initial words on paper. NaNoWriMo is the perfect opportunity to practise just writing.
You can’t fail at NaNoWriMo
What if November turns into December and it’s time to crack open your advent calendar but you haven’t written the 50K words? Here’s what: it’s not a big deal.
Fifty thousand words is almost as long as a full novel (most are around 60K words) and finishing your entire first draft in just one month isn’t a realistic goal for everyone. If I started planning well ahead of time and could focus solely on my writing in November, I probably could do it. But the reality is different, and that’s okay.
What is more important: getting a specific number of words written in a specific timeframe OR learning how to write consistently and continuing to do it well beyond November? I think you know the answer. Even if you didn’t win NaNoWriMo, you can still decide to keep writing and stay committed to your journey.
What to do after NaNoWriMo
What you do after Nano completely depends on your goals for your story.
If you’ve just wanted to write for the fun of it, you don’t necessarily need to do anything. But if you’re planning to share your story with the world, it’s time to start editing it. You can read here how the editing process works. If your story feels like a big old mess, you should use story structure to put all your plot events in the right places and then fill in any gaps you find before you start editing.
Maybe you don’t have a full story in your hands quite yet, and that’s okay! You can continue writing in December and any month after it, and because you’ve already got momentum, it will be a lot easier to keep writing than before. Of course, if you’re feeling burned out after all the writing, it might be a good idea to take a little break and then continue writing with a different goal or schedule.
How to win NaNoWriMo next year
Whether you achieved your writing goals or not, you can still evaluate what worked and what didn’t work during NaNoWriMo.
Different writing projects might require different things from us, so even if you’ve written stories before, you can still learn new things about the way you work. If you struggled with something or something else didn’t work at all, you have 11 months to make adjustments. You could even try a similar writing challenge some other month and see how your adjustments work then.
Here’s how you can start writing a novel
Whether you’re preparing for NaNoWriMo or you want to write an actual novel, I’ve created something that gets you started on the right foot.
My free writing a novel course has you begin your novel in less than a week, so even if NaNoWriMo was just around the corner, you’d be well equipped to start writing and actually win. Join us today so that you can finally stop googling for answers and actually start your story.