I’m a fan of NaNoWriMo—National Novel Writing Month, in which the plan is to write 50,000 words of a novel in November. It’s about 1666 words a day, a little more if you take off for Thanksgiving, and it’s do-able to get to 50K words. But realistically, most people’s result, even if they “win” isn’t a draft of a novel. It’s usually the rambling draft of the first half or two-thirds at best. Because even if your preferred method of writing is to “pants” (As opposed to plot), getting a novel draft to actually END is perhaps the most difficult part. Even the “murky middle” is easier to draft than those concluding scenes.
But NaNoWriMo can—and has, for many people—end in an actual draft that becomes a novel. There’s something about the energy of the month and the challenge of imposing those 1666 words on days that are already full of countless things that really works for many of us. The Chicken Sisters began (after years of noodling) as a NaNoWriMo project in 2018, and plenty of other authors also attribute their first drafts to NaNo. I drafted Playing the Witch Card during November, too. The key is to make a plan and stick to it (and not abandon it if it bleeds into December, either). There’s nothing I love more than making a plan—so here are my keys to NaNoWriMo success.
First: Recognize if this is for you. For me, the combined challenge of confining the draft to a month and the ridiculousness of making it November—hello, Thanksgiving, all the things—actually makes me more determined. Tell me I can’t do a thing and watch my dust. I love the sheer ridiculousness and arbitrariness of shoehorning this in. It fits perfectly into the model of things I’ve achieved in the past. So that’s the question: when have you been successful at seeing a project through to the end? Did it look like NaNoWriMo? Or maybe it was similar, with more or less accountability. Did it have a set schedule, did you tell people about it or keep it secret? Do you thrive on self-imposed deadlines or loathe them?
If this whole game feels wrong or burdensome to you—but you still want to draft a book—then quit this right now and make your own game, but don’t let yourself off the hook. The reason most people never write a book, even if they dream of doing it, is… they never write a book, they just dream of doing it. Go ahead and reject NaNo if it’s not for you—but use this moment to find a way of getting it done that is. (You might give Sarina’s Episode 352, how to write a novel in 3 months, a listen.)
Second: It’s not cheating to know what your book is about, it’s smart. If sitting down on day one and writing it was a dark and stormy night and going on from there has worked for you, go for it. Most of us need more (and if you’ve never FINISHED a book by starting off that way, it’s safe to guess you need more). In a perfect world, you’d go through the processes we describe during summer 2023’s Idea Factory (Episodes 366-373) AND the Blueprint for a book series (Episodes 322-330).
If nothing else, you should know these three things: What’s the book about (the plot), why are you writing it/why does the world need it (the emotional arc) and where does the story start, peak and then end. Those last can be vague if you prefer—the killer traps her and her dog in a mountain cabin, she manages to escape and returns for revenge—or much more specific if you know who the killer is, or why the couple splits and then reunites. On the one hand I do better with specifics; on the other, those specifics are nearly always wrong. So go figure.
Third: You need a plan for what you will write when. Most of us noodle around wildly in the beginning of a book and then get stuck in the middle and hit that 50K without grappling with the end. I try to force myself to stick to a schedule: Week one: the beginning, Week two: the first half of the middle, Week Three, finish the middle and Week four: write to the end. If I’m not there—and I never am, it’s impossible—I “prewrite” to the next place I need to be. That means a scrawl of what needs to happen and it’s truly gibberish. Because I love y’all, and because I don’t think people often imagine writers are exaggerating when we talk about “shitty first drafts”, here’s a picture of some pre-writing/outlining from my current project.
The bar is LOW. Why why why, indeed.
Fourth, let’s say I get to 50K and the end of November—yay!—but I didn’t write The End. Keep going forward—do not revise until you’ve ended this draft somehow unless you’ve successfully finished other novels by revising before you hit the end. It doesn’t have to be the right ending. It probably isn’t the right ending. But until you write it (or at the very least pre-write it but it has to include the actual things that happen and are felt and said, not just end this somehow), you can pretend everything is going in the right direction when it probably isn’t. When we revise before we finishing, we’re almost certainly revising the wrong thing.
And if you don’t “win?” Revise that schedule, re-make the rules, take a mulligan and keep going until you do. Don’t abandon that book. Even if it’s the worst book ever. We all write the worst books ever, and sometimes we fix them and sometimes we don’t, but until you prove to yourself that you can finish a draft, you’ll never write a better one.
Finally, keep this mantra in mind. Cross-stitch it on a pillow, put it on a post-it, get a tattoo. Good writing comes last. Don’t polish that sentence until you know it belongs, don’t perfect that scene until it’s earned its place in the book.
One last word on NaNoWriMo: If you want to do it, if you wish you could do it, if you’ve always dreamed of doing it… do it. It’s 2 hours a day for 30 days. You can find them. You can make it happen. But… you’re the only one who can.
If the idea of being a book coach niggles at you every time you hear anything about our sponsor, Author Accelerator, I have good news: they’ve fully revised and updated both the fiction and non-fiction book coach certification program. With more than 100 hours of training, videos, case studies, and worksheets, Author Accelerator’s program teaches you the key editorial skills, client-management strategies, and tools needed to help writers reach their goals and to help you start a thriving book coaching business.
But maybe you’ve got no doubt it’s a great program—you’re just not sure if book coaching right for YOU, or if you can pull it off. Well, Author Accelerator wants it to be the right call for you, too. They’re offering a $99 5-day challenge all about getting your business idea out of your head and onto the page—but #AmWriting listeners get it for half off. Head to bookcoaches.com/podcast and enter the code PODCAST at checkout for 50% off. bookcoaches.com/podcast
And if you’re asking yourself—so why charge for the challenge, if they want it to be right for me too? Because if you pony up, you’ll really DO it. So if it’s time to stop dreaming and start acting, there you go.
I’ve been through this, and I can tell you that this is more than just an online course. You’ll take the skills you learn and apply them with real-life clients through three practicums designed to help you practice helping authors go from confusion to clarity with their novel idea. Yes, you work with real writers, yes it’s terribly nerve-wracking—but the author I worked with during one of my practicums just got a book deal with that project! This is real, kids—and it works.