11 Things I Wish I Knew Before Doing NaNoWriMo

Like all my posts about NaNoWriMo, this one also applies to Camp NaNo as well. My first NaNoWriMo session was 2010; I had stumbled across it being mentioned on some social media site at the time in October, about two weeks before November. Needless to say I didn’t have a lot of time to prepare anything – my plot, my characters, my sanity.

My novel was about something I had always wanted to write about: low-Earth orbit space colonies. I had taken a space exploration class in college and learned all about how these things could theoretically be built. Of course, it was all juncture. But for a writer like me, “theoretically” is enough of an invitation. I had my setting.

And that was it! I think I found out about my character (a girl from the colonies) and the beginning of a plot (sneaks onto a missionary trip to nuclear-wasted Earth to give the humans living underground aid) two days before November. Maybe a love interest in one of the cave humans on Halloween night. I strung together scenes and flew by the seat of my pants. It was exciting to not know what would happen each day (or, in my case, night) I sat down at the computer. That first year was magical.

Since then, I’ve participated through 2014. Consider this post (and The Elephant Technique) as the start of many NaNo posts coming from my experiences. Since today is the start of Camp NaNoWriMo, I thought I’d kick off the month with a quick list. The internet likes lists, right?

11 Things I Wish I Knew Before Doing NaNoWriMo

1. If you want/can write more than 1,667 (or whatever your WC goal is) words in a day, do it.

This comes from a common piece of writing advice that says to limit your words when you hit a certain cap. I think during any other month it would be an okay thing to do – makes you impatient to get started the next day, wouldn’t it? But for November (or April, or July) I recommend doing as much as you can in one sitting. Speaking from experience, there are rarely days when your WC naturally comes to a stopping point at your daily goal; some days you’ll go over, but most days you’ll be under. For those days, it’s best to pump up a good writing day with as many words as you can manage.

2. Some days you won’t want to write.

And that’s okay. Gosh, I wish someone told me that when I first started writing! I used to beat myself up over not having that desire to write (and I still do) even though I knew I had to. You hear people who started exercising at the beginning of the near year saying the same thing. They know they have to go to the gym, and they can still remember the exciting first few trips, but damn it if they don’t feel like going today. You’re allowed to not want to write some days, as long as you do it anyway.

3. Some days you can’t write.

These are days that are simply out of your control. You got stuck in traffic, it’s someone’s birthday, it’s Thanksgiving, it’s Independence Day, it’s your birthday. Maybe the worst happened and you’re in the hospital for a few days. That’s okay, too. Sometimes we can’t control what happens to us, and tomorrow is always another day.

4. Word wars are your friends.

Also, you’ll make a lot of writing friends doing them! What are word wars, a.k.a. Wordsprints? The Wikiwrimo calls it “a short timed challenge in which Wrimos write as much as they can in a short period”. They happen on the forums, in chat rooms, on twitter, or even in person if you go to a write-in. You can also do one all by yourself, with a timer and the honor system.

Word wars wrote my story (along with this); I remember during the 2013 session, two or three days until the end of the month, I sat down at a Barnes and Noble and did war after war, sprint after sprint, and ended up writing 15k that day. That’s a lot for me. Don’t take them lightly, but also make sure you have fun with them. The chat room I found happened to assign teams that day, and it was team vs. team for virtual cupcakes. Sounds contrived, but it worked for us! We all wrote more than what we had at the beginning of the day, and we also made some great friends to commiserate with.

5. Get used to writing at weird times.

In weird places, with weird materials. What most writers find out when they participate in NaNoWriMo is that one of these combinations will be their “sweet spot” – your special combination of when, what, where that will make you write the most. For me, it was on my desktop, from evening-early morning. To this day, my writer brain is trained to do the most writing with this magic combination; and I never would have found it if I didn’t experiment during NaNo.

6. You’ll want to compare your progress to someone else’s.

While light competition can be healthy (and the NaNo website does a great job at showing this point), keep in mind that just sitting down to write is the victory, not that number by your name.

The more writers you meet, the more you realize how differently everyone’s methods are. I knew of a woman who had a 2 million word goal, with a daily WC of about 65,000. My friend gives himself a goal of 100 pages on his Word document for November, with 3 or more pages written every day. These are two very different ends of the spectrum, but the point is, both are writing every day. So whatever your goal is, whatever your pace is, it doesn’t matter – as long as you write.

7. This is the time to take risks.

Take risks with POVs, tenses, structure, and characters. Nothing is off limits. Curious about how you would write a sex scene? Write it – canon or not. Always wanted to write about your teacher as a character? Put her in. Wondering about what that minor character is doing while your MC is fighting the dragon? Find out. This isn’t the final draft, where you have to slash and burn; this is NaNo, where you can write anything and be whatever type of writer you want.

If that sounds liberating and scary at the same time to you, that’s because it is! For me, I used to always write third-person omniscient, past tense. My last NaNo, I wrote in first-person limit, present tense for the first time in my life. I am now editing the second draft of that manuscript. If I hadn’t tried it on a whim, I never would have had this novel to work on. So try the whims, take the risks.

8. Don’t delete a word.

It’ll take some time to get used to moving right along to another thought mid-sentence, but the idea isn’t to cap your flow. Deleting not only stops that momentum, but when it’s done because you reread what you wrote, you let your Inner Editor out early from their cage. Don’t do that.

9. Don’t reread.

If you’re starting new for that day, read the last sentence from your previous writing session. But rereading leads to editing; editing leads to self-doubt; self-doubt leads to lack of motivation. Leave the editing to post-nano, when you have an actual book to edit. Don’t reread.

10. It’s okay to use incentives.

Have you heard the generally-accepted rule: it takes thirty days to form a habit? Think of NaNo as those thirty days in which you’re forming a habit. You’re developing the habit of writing everyday. Not writing a book every month, but writing part of one everyday. When I first started NaNo, someone on the forums posted a thread asking what everyone’s incentives were; what were they rewarding themselves with (other than their novel written) for writing that month? Some did daily incentives; others did a monthly reward.

For me, I employed my SO to give me two pretzel M&M’s every time I met my WC goal for that day. If I won that month, I bought a winner’s t-shirt from the site, showing off my bragging rights. Others took a more constructive approach; they told their family members or coworkers what they were doing, and asked them to keep them accountable every day. “Did you meet your wordcount today, Plotberry?” can be incentive enough for some people. Bonus points if they’re allowed to pinch you if your answer is “No.”

11. Take advantage of the momentum.

You will miss the positive and creative atmosphere surrounding the marathon when it’s over. Cherish it while you can, but don’t forget another session is just around the corner!

What’s something you wished you knew before doing NaNo? Should I expand on anything about in its own post? If you’re reading this post during November or the camp sessions, good luck!


5 thoughts on “11 Things I Wish I Knew Before Doing NaNoWriMo

  1. This is such an important list to have written. My first Nanowrimo was November of 2015 and I wish I had seen some of these tips when I started. I used to loathe when I couldn’t keep the creative faucet running 24/7 and hated if J had no motivation to write but in the end I realised it was all right. I wish that I knew some of these things before I started. Some days I could only get 300 words out and that is fine.

  2. The internet definitely likes lists! lol

    This is a great post, well written and fun to read. It’s also good advice. My first NANOWRIMO was 2011. I suffer from severe M.E./CFS and Fibromyalgia to the point I’m bed-ridden so I never thought I’d be able to complete it, but an idea suddenly popped into my head almost fully formed at the beginning of October. I spent the next month prepping, trailed and bought Liquid Story Binder XE (sort of a Scrivener on steroids for Windows, sadly not updated any longer but still incredibly useful), and managed to write 75k in 21 days. I was completely blown away, but the energy of the whole thing was amazing, and having other writers in the same boat to talk to and share the experience with made me go back a few times to help write the sequels.

    I’m not sure what I wish I’d known beforehand. I took the whole thing as a learning experience, and I was so happy to have completed, let alone beat the monthly target. I definitely recommend incentives, though. I had a lollipop if I reached NANOWRIMO’s official target every day, a Guylian chocolate if I reached my personal goal of 2500 (I needed to allow room if I got too sick to write later in the month but found I was frequently writing 8-10,000 words in a day instead, which took me completely by surprise), then an extra reward for each week that I succeeded. I also bought myself something pretty big (pyjamas in subsequent years, I can’t remember what I bought that first year, though) for reaching 50k. It made a huge difference in motivation to tell myself that I couldn’t have those things if I failed; a great way to keep yourself accountable when you live alone. XD

    I didn’t do word wars the first year, but I got a friend involved in 2014 (I think) and we’d have sprints several times a week. We did it on instant chat so the immediacy just kept us going way past the time our session was supposed to end.

    I haven’t been able to write for the last couple of years because I’ve been too poorly to concentrate. I’ve started blogging which I’m hoping will get my fiction writing back on track, too. Either way, I’ve found that I just can’t beat the energy that comes from participating in NANOWRIMO. It’s great to meet another blogger who enjoys it too. 😀

    • I absolutely love the idea of rewarding yourself after the generic 1,667 goal, and then something even nicer if you exceeded it (when is chocolate ever not nice?). I think I would definitely double my wordcount on a few days if I knew a fancy chocolate was waiting for me!

      • Haha, yes! It has to be something you really want but that you can’t normally afford or justify the cost of. That’s why I picked Guylian: I don’t normally buy them because they’re a bit too expensive for regular snacking, but yeah. It really encouraged me to write more. 😀

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