30 Tips for Winning NaNoWriMo

Fellow Writers,

I’ve been participating in NaNoWriMo since 2003. From 2003-2012, I wrote with NaNo Los Angeles, where I was ML from 2010-2012. From 2013-2015, I wrote with the Corridor Writers of Maryland. During this time, I changed my Nano name from SpaceXDebris to ChrisWSears to avoid some confusion. Since 2016 I’ve been living in Central New Jersey and writing with the Princeton Writers Group.

Over the years, through reading and interacting with other writers, I’ve picked up a few tips on how to win at NaNoWriMo. This year, each day during the month of November, I will share a new tip for hitting 50,000 words.

Thank you for being here. I hope you find my tips helpful and above all, keep writing.

Want to connect on the NaNoWriMo site? You can find me here. Add me as a buddy and I will reciprocate. I love meeting new writing friends.

P. S. If you manage to scroll all the way to the bottom, you’ll get to see where a couple of my NaNo books are now.

November 30: Join a Local Writing Group

They exist and joining one will make you write (and revise, dun dun dun…) throughout the year.

If one doesn’t exist, form one! Talk about it with like-minded writers at your local Thank Gosh Its Over party.

All Year Writing Groups can go a number of different ways,. Some groups just meet once per week and motivate each other to keep writing, kind of like the write-ins we had during November. Other groups do workshops or critiques, so find a group that works for you.

Words so far: 50,010

November 29: Get Contact Info

Come December 1, there will be tumbleweeds blowing through the NaNo forums.

Yes, nearly on a dime, it will be dead. Sad panda.

If you’ve made some friends through the forums and and you want to stay in touch, then make sure to trade contact info before the month ends.

Trust me, you are going to want some writer friends during the rest of the year too. You can cheer each other on  and then you’ll have someone to reach out to when you’re looking to trade drafts. And rest assured, they will not be checking their NaNo Mail.

At a minimum, hey you found me. So reach out and maybe we can work together in the new year.

Words so far: 48,466

November 28: Finish the First Draft

So you hit 50k by Nov 30, but you haven’t hit THE END.

I know that you’re tired and there are just so many things going on in December, but please please please keep writing until you finish your first draft. 

If you don’t keep up the momentum, you will probably never get back to it. You worked hard on this story so far and it deserves a solid ending.

My advice is to set a modest goal for December and try to find a way to balance writing into your daily life. I usually set a goal for 30k words, but you should choose a number that allows you to write while also going back to all of the things you gave up in November.

NaNoWriMo is not sustainable for the whole year, but writing can be. Set a goal and stick to it. It will be harder without the huge community around you, but trust me, there are still others out there doing the same thing. And if you really want to be a writer, this is the way.

Words so far: 46,700

November 27: Rewards & Track Your Word Count

Double tip today because tomorrow we’ll be focusing on December and Beyond.

First, track your word count. When you start for the day, know how many words per day you will need to finish. For this year, your NaNo stats at the NaNoWriMo website will tell you this information. For future years, you can develop your own excel spreadsheet or find one on the NaNo forums.

Okay, now you know how many words you need per day to finish. Write that many words. To do that, offer yourself rewards, like a bubble bath once you hit your target, or a piece of chocolate every 500 words.

Repeat until you win. You can do this.

Words so far: 45,024

November 26: Remove All Distractions

We’re in the final push, so if you’re behind you will need to remove all distractions and keep writing.

For many writers, two of the biggest distractions are social media and the NaNo forums. Turn them off. Cut the Ethernet. Disable the wireless.  Write write write. In a few days this will all be over.

Words so far: 42,619

November 25: Start a Friendly Rivalry

Find a writing friend who writes at about the same pace as you, and who has a word count that is close to yours and start a friendly competition. Push each other until you both cross 50k.

Words so far: 40,461

November 24: Two Click Research

Are you finding yourself lost in research instead of writing? At this point in the month, if you are behind, limit yourself to 2 click research. That’s right, when researching a topic for your novel, you are allowed two clicks (or two search results). Then, put in some placeholders and keep moving.

Those small details may not be critical to the first draft and you can always fill it in or fix it during revision.

Words so far: 38,193

November 23: Written Kitten

Check out Written Kitten

Words so far: 36,432

November 22: Encourage your Writing Buddies

Take a moment today, even if you’re behind, and encourage some of the writing friends you’ve made this month.

Or go to the NaNo forums, find a stranger, and root them on.

This kind of positive energy is what makes this month special.

Words so far: 34,561

November 21: Writing on Thanksgiving

Yes, it is possible to write on Thanksgiving. Here are some ideas:

Attending, but not hosting? Wake up early and hit your word count goal in the morning before you go.

Hosting and spending all morning in the kitchen? Kudos to you for taking on this massive task in addition to your novel. Reward yourself with some writing time after dinner, when all of the guests are passed out in food coma. Tag some guests to help with clean up, because you’ve already worked so hard today and you deserve some writing time. Plus, your family already knows how important your novel is to you, right? :)

Your family is crazy and hates books: As a last resort, fake sickness, and then hide out in the bathroom with your laptop. (Kidding.. or am I?). If it’s your house, you can also pretend you are going to “take a nap,” then go hide away and write some stuff.

Do what you must, but get your words in on Thanksgiving and you’ll be going into the weekend with great momentum.

Words so far: 33,531

November 20: Try/Fail Cycles

Stretch your word count and make it really hard for your character to get what they want. Add some Try/Fail cycles. I got this one from the podcast Writing Excuses, so you can hear more from them on the topic here, or you can have one of the casters, author Brandon Sanderson teach you about Try/Fail here.

Or as a variation on this theme, let them succeed, but then add an unexpected complication and make things worse for them anyway. On writing excuses, they called this one “Yes, but…”

Do they get the treasure? Yes, but it is cursed.

Words so far: 31,335

November 19: Roll with the Punches

Confession time. Something is probably going to go wrong this month, something that is out of your control. Don’t fret the zero day. Don’t let it become a downward spiral. What matters is how you respond to it and that you come back stronger tomorrow.

Bonus tip: Back up your novel.

Words so far: 28,028

November 18: Look to Dares for Inspiration

I dare you to go to this thread on the NaNoWriMo forums and, click a random number at the bottom and include the first dare in your next chapter.

Bonus Points if you include it during your next word sprint.

Double Bonus Points if you can use this as foreshadowing for your climax.

Yes, dares are a NaNoWriMo tradition. You can get them from the NaNoWriMo forums main thread, or sometimes the genre lounges, or you can ask your writing friends at your next write-in (you have been going to write-ins, right?).

I find that including 2-3 dares in a long sprint really creates some exciting chaos in my plot and keeps things interesting.

Words so far: 26,893

November 17: Use Excessive Description

Okay, now that we’ve got plans for a big day, we’re back to tips on stretching scenes for all they’re worth. Here’s the next one: Describe Everything.

Most commonly, we’ll rely on Sight to describe things, but don’t forget about its friendly cousins Sound and Smell. Pile on the description. You can always cut it down in draft 2. Adding excessive description now gives you more options later. Not sure which metaphor to use? Use all three! You can always pick the right one later or get rid of the whole thing. Right now, it’s all words.

Words so far: 23,002

November 16: Plan a Big Writing Day

Plan to have at least one big writing day during November. To me, a big writing day is 5k and 4-6 hours.

4-6 HOURS?!?!? Sounds like a lot, right? It’s not if you break it up into a few sessions throughout the day with breaks and fresh air. You could do:

  • An early morning session before the day starts
  • An hour or two after lunch, or maybe an afternoon write-in.
  • Another session after dinner, or an evening write-in, or even fly solo at a local cafe.
  • A session before bed in your jammies.

Between sessions, I suggest getting outside and walking around. Leave the screen so that you can come back recharged.

In addition to more time and a ridiculous amount of words, you’ll be diving deep and getting real intimate with your novel. You’ll be thinking about it all day. The plot bunnies will be going crazy.

Words so far: 22,380

November 15: Action, Thought, Dialogue, Description

Now that we’re in Week 3, the next few tips are focused on stretching so that we can get as many words as possible per scene.

Here’s the first tip for scene stretching: Action, Thought, Dialogue, Description. I got this tip from Conflict and Suspense by James Scott Bell and found that it works in almost any genre.

Do you find that your scenes are just action action action action? Or dialogue dialogue dialogue dialogue? Mix it up. Try writing a scene where you cycle through the list. You can hit the items in any order, but you must write a sentence for each of the four items before clearing and starting again.

When I do this, I’ve found that my scenes are more meaty. I write more description so I have a better sense of place. I know more about what my character is thinking. My character actually does something rather than just sitting around. As a bonus, these extra beats also stretch the tension. In NaNoWriMo, it’s all more words.

Words so far: 21,369

November 14: Add a Fight Scene or some Hanky Panky

I impart this next tip with a bit of caution, because it can quickly become a crutch if overused. I trust you to not put on the ring unless absolutely necessary. Here goes: two great ways to get a sudden burst of words are Fight Scenes and, ahem, “Romantic Interludes.”

Chase scenes work too, or really anything with a bit of action in it.

So if you’re falling real far behind and getting desperate, start one of these scenes and watch the words pile up. You can always cut it down or fade to black in draft 2.

Words so far: 20,554

November 13: Write With The End in Mind

We’re almost at the end of week 2! In celebration, here’s a tip: Close your eyes and picture your Knock Out ending. Meditate on it. Really think about that final shot before the credits roll.

I’ve found that it’s easy to get lost in the middle of a novel, meandering this way and that without any destination. The solution is to picture that moment that really makes you excited about your story. You might not know every stop on the yellow brick road, but you’ll know that at the end there’s going to be a wizard and some flying monkeys. And now you’ve got to write to get there.

The ending is too far away? Instead, visualize your next dramatic moment. You know, the one where everything in the story changes. Don’t have a next dramatic moment? Make one up!

Words so far: 18,929

November 12: Word Sprints

A word sprint is a timed writing activity in person or online where the goal is to write as many words as you can in the given time, say 10 or 20 minutes.

Doing this at write-ins creates this crazy zone of infectious focus. In addition to forcing me to write (and write quickly), I’ve found that word sprints also force me dive into scenes that I’ve been otherwise avoiding. I also sometimes find that word sprints trick my subconscious brain into divulging the creative gems that its been hoarding.

If you’re at home and on twitter, you can participate in word sprints by following @NaNoWordSprints

Words so far: 16423

November 11: Skip Ahead

At times, I’ll dread going back to the keyboard just because I don’t know what to write next. The characters are currently at point A. Once they get to point B, I have this killer idea that is going to be AMAZING. But for the life of me, I can’t get them from point A to point B, so I end up noodling on social media instead of writing my novel.

So here’s the trick: There is no rule saying that you have to write in order. You have full permission to write the chapters in any order you choose. One caveat: You might have trouble keeping it all straight in your head, especially if you’re a pantser, so here’s my recommendation: If you’re new to this chaos of writing out of order, then start small. Skip the troublesome scene and write the next one that you’re excited about. Go ahead, I dare you to try it. You’ll be speeding on ahead in word count in no time.

Words so far: 14017

November 10: Read Neil Gaiman’s 2007 Pep Talk.

I was going to save this one, but today is Neil Gaiman’s birthday, and the third day of Week 2, and you’re here after all, so you could probably use a pep talk from a pro.

There is an entire archive of Pep Talks from NaNoWriMo’s past. I’ve found that Neil Gaiman’s 2007 Pep Talk particularly inspiring when I need a kick in the pants. There’s also several from NaNoWriMo Founder Chris Baty. (I especially liked the series from 2011).

So go on and read some Pep Talks, curse yourself for wasting time on my website, and then get back to writing.

Words so far: 11573

November 9: Add More Conflict

My tips for Week 2 are centered around staying excited about your novel. Easiest way to do that is to keep your novel exciting. Here’s the first tip: Add More Conflict.

Here’s a few ways to inject a stimulant into your word count during this critical period:

  • Introduce a new character who disrupts the status quo.
  • Raise the stakes on an existing conflict.
  • A character’s secret is suddenly revealed.

Or the Raymond Chandler Way: A character enters the room with a gun. Writing fantasy? A character enters the room with a bloody axe. Space Opera? An enemy vessel warps into the sector. Romance? His Mom walks in with a gun. Okay, so I don’t read too much romance. Anyway, when you sit down to write tomorrow, kick it up a notch and see where it takes you.

Words so far: 11123

November 8: Do Not Give Up During Week 2

Ah, Week 2. The freshness of the novel might have worn off and maybe things aren’t working out as much as we’d hoped. Week 2 is often when doubt rears its ugly head and it is the time when most people give up.

What they don’t realize is that the truest joy of NaNoWriMo is in Week 3. Week 3 is when the everything falls into place and the novel takes off. You might not see it, but trust me. It’s there. But you have to earn it. You have to write through the pain of Week 2. You have to write even when you don’t want to.

If you’re going to give up, do it later. Whatever you do, do not give up during Week 2.

Words so far: 10119

November 7: 180 Before Bed

Write 180 words as the last thing before you go to bed. Write them even though you are just so tired and all you want to do is go to bed.

It’s just 180 words, barely a paragraph. That should get you started. If you get on a roll, fine, keep going, but once you hit 180 you have permission to hit the sack.

In addition to making a small dent in your 50k, you are also supercharging your subconscious by thinking about your novel right before bed. Your sleeping brain is going to be untangling plot threads all night and you might just wake up raring to get started on your morning 330.

Words so far: 9015

November 6: The Morning 330

We’re almost at the end of Week 1, so here’s a specific tip: Write 330 words first thing in the morning. And I mean this literally. Write these words as soon as you can after opening your eyes. This is when the subconscious is the closest to the surface. This is when dreams are the most real. For me, I’m so sleepy that I’m not overthinking it. I’m just writing. Some tricks on getting there: I’ll leave my laptop on overnight open to my current document. I’ll program the coffee maker so it starts automatically. I’ll starve the cats. Actually, no, I have to feed the cats or I get nothing done, but after that, it’s the express train to 330.

Words so far: 7974

November 5: Turn Off Your Inner Editor

Do not give in to the temptation to go back and edit anything that you’ve already written during November. That’s a job for December (or January). I’ve found that when I finish that first draft (and hit “The End”) that I have a better understanding of the novel I was trying to write and am in a better position to start editing. Otherwise, you could spend hours wordsmithing a scene only to find later that the scene does not belong in the novel at all.

How do you turn off the inner editor? I’ve found that a physical act helps immensely. In the NaNoWriMo Guide, No Plot No Problem, one of the pages contains a “button” that you press to turn the Inner Editor off. Sometimes I will write Inner Editor onto an index card, then fold it up, put it in a box, and close the lid. I can always let him out when the time is right.

Words so far: 6163

November 4: Find Some Writing Buddies

Find some people to write with so that you can root each other on. This is like going to the gym. Whenever you don’t want to go, your writing buddies will be there encouraging you, and you’ll be happy you went. Many of them have done this before and have some tips of their own. (And many of my tips have come from interacting with other writers).

The best way that I’ve found to meet other writers, especially during November, is to connect with your local NaNoWriMo chapter and attend some write-ins. There are many different styles of write-ins, so I recommend going to a few different ones and seeing what works for you. I’ve found that those who connect with the NaNoWriMo community and have that support system are more likely to finish.

Words so far: 3905

November 3: Tell Everyone

Tell your friends. Tell your family. Let everyone know that you are participating in NaNoWriMo this month. Shout it from the rooftops. Are you done? Good. Now you’re committed. As part of this, also share why this is important to you and why your friends and family may not see you as much this month as they usually do. I’ve found that they usually understand and might even be incredibly supportive. And they may end up nagging you about your word count, which is also a good thing. And if your significant other ends up letting you shirk your laundry duty for November, make it up to them by repaying the favor in December.

One Caveat: Probably shouldn’t tell your workplace. They might think that you are writing at work, even if you aren’t.

Words so far: 2232

P. S. Planning to make life easier on your mouse wheel tomorrow. I’ll reverse the order of the tips, so you won’t have to scroll so far for the new ones. :) Cheers, and thanks for being here.

November 2: Give Yourself Permission To Write

Repeat after me: My novel is important to me. I am allowed to spend time on it. Often, we have so many obligations throughout the day that we might feel guilty taking some time for the novel. The novel always comes second. November is just one month. For these 30 days, give yourself permission to put your novel first. (Yes, I know I know easier said than done. Tomorrow’s tip might help this along).

Words so far: 1438

November 1: Same Place/ Same Time

Mixing it up with write-ins is good for the creative spirit and epic 10,000 word days are cool, but I’ve found that the way to win consistently (even if you write slow like me), is to develop your writing habit. After a few days of same place, same time you will be training your brain to gear up just by the act of sitting in the appointed chair at the appointed time. For me, I’ve set up a desk in a quiet room and my butt is in the chair at 5:30 AM every day.

Words so far: 596

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First Draft of The Cats of Cthulhu at the Hollywood Cemetery in 2012.