Looking Ahead to NaNoWriMo: Some Tricks to Help You Win

Claire Handscombe


Suddenly, it's about to to be August, and we've got just three months before the annual writer fest that is NaNoWriMo begins. Having done this crazy challenge of writing a 50,000-word first draft of a novel a few times myself, I've got some advice as you look ahead.

Spend October getting ready

  • Stock your freezer with ready meals you can throw in the oven in between writing sessions. It takes me 1-2 hours/day to write the 1,667 required to make it to the goal, and those 1-2 hours have to come from somewhere. And I think one thing we've all learned from 2020 is that takeout gets old (and expensive) fast.
  • Buy your pretty notebooks (but not so pretty you won't want to write in them, sometimes messily) and choose or stock up on pens. Or, if you're typing, spend some time familiarising yourself with whatever program you're going to use, and figuring out how you're going to back up each session.
  • Read NaNoWriMo's founder Chris Baty's No Plot No Problem for background on the spirit of the challenge and how to succeed
  • If you're the kind of writer who likes to plan at least a little before you start writing (and if you're not sure, I'd err on the side of caution and do this anyway), brainstorm your plot. Do character sketches. Draw up timelines. Anything you can refer to when you get stuck or confused -- which is inevitable when you're writing at breakneck pace. If you like to plan even more, your future self will thank you for 30 index cards with an idea for a scene to develop on each.

Give yourself a head start on November 1

A month can seem like a long time, and it is. It's likely you'll have more momentum on that first week than at most other points in the process, so make the most of it. Perhaps set yourself a goal of 2,000 words a day for that first week. And if you can, definitely make sure you write on November 1. There's a psychological burden to overcome if you start on November 2 already behind, and you want to start from a place of strength and momentum.

If you can, plan to travel during November

This may seem counterintuitive, since travel time cuts into what could be writing time. But not if the travel is done by train -- which is my favourite place to write. There's something so inspiring about being in a new and different place -- and Write Ins (the meetups organised via the NaNoWriMo website) are a great way to make new friends in a new place. Of course, none of us know what state the world will be in by November 2021, so store this piece of advice in your back pocket and use it another year if you need to.

Consider writing by hand

I know, it seems crazy, but hear me out: I almost always hand write my first drafts. Working on my writing is almost the only time that I use pen and paper now, so it signals to me and my body that I am in creative mode. It's also a lot easier to cart around a notebook and pen and pull it out when I have twenty spare minutes to add to my wordcount than it would be to make sure I always have a (charged!) laptop with me. I don't have to worry about anything crashing or about finding an outlet in a coffee shop. I'm always ready. And every minute counts in this game.

But speaking of counting -- if you're going to do that, count your words every day. Finishing the month of November counting 50,000 words is nobody's idea of fun -- and it will take you literally hours. And, if you're not a chronic overthinker like me, here's a better way: figure out how many words on average you write on a page, and just use that. There's no NaNoWriMo police. It's fine if it's approximate. The important thing is to write.

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Claire Handscombe is a British writer who moved to Washington, DC, in 2012, ostensibly to study for an MFA in Creative Writing, but really, let’s be honest, because of an obsession with The West Wing. She is the host of the Brit Lit Podcast, a monthly show about news and views from UK books and publishing; the author of Unscripted, a novel about a young woman with a celebrity crush and a determined plan; and the editor of Walk With Us: How The West Wing Changed Our Lives.

Washington, DC

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