woman writing in a notebook

How I Finally ‘Won’ NaNoWriMo After Years of Feeling Too Overwhelmed to Start

I’ve wanted to be a fiction writer since I was old enough to hold a pencil. And while I have created tons of content over the years in the form of blog posts, sales copy, and non-fiction ebooks, I have yet to publish a novel.

Image AI-generated using Dalle-E 3

I’d wanted to do National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) for years, but every time November rolled around, I always decided I was too busy and bailed at the last minute. But this year — with a milestone birthday looming in 2024 — I realized that I would always be “too busy” and that if it were ever going to happen, I would have to find a way to do it anyway.

So I did. I’m pleased to report that I not only hit the NaNoWriMo target of 50k but also reached 65k words and the end of my manuscript. And I did it without using AI to write a single word. This is worth noting because if you are familiar with my work, you’ll know I am a huge proponent of using AI for blogging and commercial content. However, I draw the line at using AI to write fiction. (The reason why is another article for another time, perhaps!)

Screenshot taken by author: My NaNoWriMo stats for November 2023
Screenshot taken by author: My NaNoWriMo stats for November 2023

As someone who has tried and failed at writing a novel so many times, I can’t tell you what a good feeling it is to have finally finished the first draft. If you have dreamed of winning NaNoWriMo or writing your own novel but can’t seem to make it happen, here is what to do differently next time that will make all the difference.

Find a way to make the commitment real

Every other time I contemplated writing a novel or participating in NaNoWriMo, I was very secretive about it. I never told anyone. Why? Because then I could bail at the last minute without fulfilling that dreaded stereotype of the writer who sits in Starbucks with their laptop all day and produces nothing more than the words “Chapter 1” and a credit card bill teaming with cappuccino charges.

When you keep the commitment a secret, you’re not really committing at all; you’re dreaming. So, make it a real commitment by making it more difficult to back out.

Announce it to your friends and family. Declare it on Twitter. Heck, I started an entire YouTube channel dedicated to my NaNoWriMo journey and announced I would be hosting weekly live writing sprints in an effort to hold myself accountable.

Not only that, but I booked time slots for when I would do my writing each day. (5 pm Monday through Friday, Noon on Saturday and Sunday.)

As a result, I went into November 1st not wondering if I would sit down and write — I went in knowing I would because I had genuinely planned for it.

Be a planner, not a pantser

Speaking of planning, having an outline for my novel was the most crucial component of my success. Some people swear by pantsing, and I respect and am in awe of those people. However, if you’re struggling to make it more than a few thousand words in a draft before getting hammered with writer’s block, you will benefit immensely from converting to Team Planner.

I tried to pants a novel many times, but I would always write myself into a corner by the time I reached 10,000 words. When I got serious about NaNoWriMo this year, I created a detailed outline to eradicate any chance of not knowing where to go next with the plot.

How you plan your novel is up to you, but I used a tool called Plottr, which lets you organize plots and subplots using cards and timelines.

In the months leading up to November, I would open up my outline once a week for an hour or two and ponder the plot. I started by figuring out where I wanted the story to end up and then worked on the plot points that would take me from point A to point B. Sometimes, it would take up to an hour to figure out what needed to happen in one chapter to get to the next.

But this was a crucial step because as you plot through your novel, things start changing, and you realize that some chapters need to be something completely different than what you originally intended. But the beauty of realizing this during the outlining phase is that making these changes is as simple as updating a few bullet points.

The best thing about the outline is that it’s not written in stone — you can still pants a little! My first draft ended up being quite different from what I had planned in the outline because as I wrote the story, I got to know it and the characters better, and it evolved naturally.

But the outline served as the North Star that kept me from getting lost in the messy labyrinth of my first draft.

Sense your scenes

I used to struggle with hitting word count targets when writing fiction — my stories always felt too concise and lacking in detail. If this problem sounds familiar, chances are you are not spending enough time describing what’s going on.

Part of writing an immersive novel is putting the reader in the middle of it. They aren’t just reading about what’s happening to these characters; they are there with them, seeing, hearing, feeling, and even smelling or tasting their environments.

Having the vocabulary to describe such things is one challenge, but my biggest problem was that I didn’t have a clear idea of the environments and experiences that were taking place in my stories.

If I were to ask you to describe your bedroom, you’d have no trouble doing so, because it’s a real place and you’ve spent a lot of time there. You want to be able to do the same for every scene, character, and experience in your book.

For example, let’s say you have a scene in the villain’s study. Ask yourself what that environment looks, smells, or sounds like. For that matter, how does the villain look, sound, and smell?

Although I don’t use AI to write fiction, I did use Dall-E 3 to help me visualize people and places. I didn’t use those images in the book itself, but rather to help me better imagine what I’m describing.

Once you spend enough time with these fictional people and places, describing them becomes infinitely easier, and your first draft will be much less spartan.

Fill your head with words

Remember what I was saying about having the vocabulary to describe things? Reading is the best way to keep your lexicon fresh and ready to spring into action.

As author and literary expert Pam Allyn poetically puts it, “Reading is like breathing in, and writing is like breathing out.”

For best results, I recommend reading the books you enjoy most rather than the books you think you “should be” reading. I read mostly fun fantasy books during NaNoWriMo, and although I did squeak in a tomb of dense literary fiction, my writing sessions were more inspired and productive when reading books I couldn’t put down.

Do a minimum of 3 to 4 Pomodoros a day

Many expert writers talk about the magic of the Pomodoro Technique for productivity, but I didn’t get it for a long time. The method was developed by Francesco Crillio in the 1980s and traditionally consists of 25-minute work intervals separated by short, 5–10-minute breaks.

But I felt like it took me at least twenty-five minutes to get into a flow state and that it was stifling to put a timer on productivity.

I was so wrong.

I am never more productive than when I use the Pomodoro Technique. When I have that timer on, my inner editor goes out the window — I’m on a deadline to get as much done as possible in those 25 minutes, and the words pour out as a result.

It ties back to Parkinson’s Law, which is the theory that the more time you give to a task, the longer it takes to do it. You can get more done in less time simply by giving yourself deadlines.

When I don’t put on a timer, the time I have to reach my target word expands almost indefinitely, and as a result, it can take me half an hour to write even a few sentences. But each 25-minute writing sprint yielded 400–750 words. It’s like magic.

The NaNoWriMo target is 1667 words per day. You can quite feasibly reach that in 3–4 Pomodoros, about 75–100 minutes of active writing per day.

Let it be the worst thing you’ve ever written

I just talked about how the Pomodoro Technique allowed me to silence my inner editor. But, I needed to take it a step further to make it to the end of my first draft.

For a long time, I thought writing a first draft would get you 80% of the way there and that the second draft would just be spell-checking and fine-tuning your prose.

But the first draft will be much rougher than that. In fact, go into it expecting it to be downright terrible.

My first draft is so awful that I might die of embarrassment if anyone ever reads it.

Yes, there are some good ideas and a handful of pages that I’m proud of. There are also so many plot holes in it that it is the literary equivalent of Swiss cheese. A lot of the dialogue is cringeworthy, and there are characters and subplots I completely forgot about after the fifth chapter.

However, the essence of the story is there — a lump of clay that’s the mere suggestion of a sculpture. Now, I can start whittling it into what it’s meant to be.

I happened to see an interview segment with Neil Gaiman this morning where someone asked him how similar the first draft is to the last draft. His answer puts it perfectly:

“They tend to be very similar except for all the important things. Writing a novel, for me, tends to be almost like the process of throwing mud at a wall and seeing what shapes it makes. And then going, ‘You know, that really looks like a face over there,’ and throwing some more mud. And then the second draft is the process of going in and making it look like you knew what you were doing the whole time.”

Final thoughts

Although you don’t need to limit yourself to just 30 days to produce a first draft, giving yourself a short, fixed time frame could be just what you need to get over your hangups and bang out that essential first pass at your book.

And even though the first draft is just the very beginning of the journey to becoming a published author, it is the step that the vast majority never conquers.

Originally published on Medium.com

how to write a novel in 30 days with nanowrimo
how to write a novel in 30 days during nanowrimo

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