NaNoWriMo Survival Guide: How I Write 50k(-ish) Every Month
I do NaNoWriMo roughly every month. That probably sounds like a humblebrag, and maybe it is, though you’ll note I’ve said nothing about the quality of my writing and am only noting its quantity — but I write anywhere from 40,000 to 60,000 words every month. Is this how everyone should do it? No. Is this how I do it? Yep. I’m a full time writer and I get to do this pantsless, coffee-soaked, and in a shed specifically designed to house my dubious word count. As such, I’d damn well better dance for my motherfucking dinner.
I figured it might be helpful to outline for you, then, how I manage to survive this pace.
So what follows are a mighty smattering of tips and tricks. You may find them useful. You may find them distasteful. Feel free to take a nibble and see how they taste. Taste yucky? Spit it out.
Here we go.
1. I write from an outline. You don’t have to do this, but it helps me. My outlines generally cover big tentpole stuff, but not always the nitty-gritty details.
2. I give the appropriate quantity of fucks. Meaning, I do not overfuck, but I do not underfuck, either. I do not care so much that I feel all the weight and pressure of the world pinning me between the shoulders, but I care enough to actually, y’know, do the work to the best of my ability.
3. I do not edit as I go.
4. I do one reading pass of the previous day’s work — and here I’ll allow myself minor tweaks.
5. When I’m not writing, I’m thinking a whole fucking lot about the story. I take specific moments out of my day to do this. Showering. Walking the dog. Mowing the lawn. I roll the story around my mouth like a pebble. I’m like a human stone polisher over here. It helps me stay focused and concentrate on what I did today and what I have to do tomorrow.
6. When I end one day of writing, I write a few notes — a few words to a few sentences — that give me a clue as to what I need to write tomorrow. So, I open the file and there are some vague stage directions to get me going. THE CHIMPANZEE DETECTS TREACHERY. Or EWOK JEDI FLORGIN RAT-BEAR CHASES ANCIENT SITHLORD THROUGH A PEORIA WAL-MART. Whatever. Something to grab hold of when I start the next day.
7. I shut off THE SHRIEKING GESTICULATING ATTENTIONFEST THAT IS THE INTERNET using a wonderful piece of software called Freedom (avail for Mac and Windows, I think).
8. I do about 45 minutes of writing, then 15 minutes of dicking around.
9. I get up and move my ass. Like, not literally that — I don’t merely stand up in my chair and shake my booty for a few minutes. (And here I quietly hope no one hacks my webcam to provide proof that I do exactly that.) But sitting down for so long is an act of indolence and torpidity and it’s like I can feel my blood thickening to corn syrup. The blood needs to get to my brain, not pool in my heels. So, I walk, I move, I run, I dance (sometimes Flashdance, sometimes Footloose, sometimes I’m Jennifer Grey in Dirty Dancing).
10. I do not listen to music because music distracts me.
11. I try not to eat shitty garbage-food during the day. Carbs make me boggy unless I’m running, so I try to keep this slugabed machine moving with nuts and cheese and stuff like that. I also don’t drink while I’m writing. I mean, I drink and eat shitty garbage-food sometimes, but I do it properly, which is to say, at midnight in the dark while weeping and aggressively touching myself.
12. I let the characters lead the way. When I doubt, I ask what do they want in this scene, what do they want overall, and what is most important? I let them run with it. And this usually runs them into other characters who are either competing for the same thing or who want opposing things. Characters have problems. They use the fiction to confront those problems (often poorly). This is the engine of storytelling. Seize it, let it guide you. Do not let “plot” dominate this core character-driven component.
13. I also like to let characters just talk. I’d say about half the time I keep it. And the other half of the time, just letting them talk still lets me know something about the characters.
14. I make sure I’m having fun when I’m writing. If I’m not enjoying a scene or worse, I’m bored writing it, something is wrong. If I’m bored, you’ll be bored. If I’m having fun, I hope you will, too. I like to think each of my stories is you buying a ticket and taking a ride. I never want you to regret getting buckled into my NARRATIVE LOG-FLUME SPACE MOUNTAIN FUCKSTRAVAGANZA. When I’m writing a scene or a chapter I also think very hard about if I’m giving you a reason to drop out. If I am, I try to reverse that trend and course correct then and there.
15. When in doubt, seek danger. Er, not for you, but for the story. Seek danger that’s physical, but also that’s emotional, spiritual, emotional, social. Fiction is often an act of taking your plane and flying it right at the ground. Sometimes you pull up at the last minute. Sometimes you crash the thing and the story becomes what happens after the crash. But it’s never about a few safe stunts. It’s about the conflict found in the world around us, but more importantly, in the human heart.
16. I try to always second-guess the reader. Every scene I try to guess where you think I’d go, then I try to do differently. Or, in rare cases, do the same just to keep you on your widdle toes.
17. I write in the morning. In the morning I have all my IEP — Intellectual Energy Points. I have not yet spent them on things like answering emails or making dinner or dealing with the daily ennui of HUMAN EXISTENCE. Which means I give the writing high priority. When I used to have a day job, that meant getting up before the day job and banging out 1000 words.
18. Comfort actually matters. The myth that art is born out of hunger and discomfort is as pervasive as it is toxic. Have a keyboard you like. Sit in as nice a chair as you can afford. Avoid eyestrain. Be fed. Have water. Make sure your giant bunny costume is washed and deodorized and that the assless window gives proper access to your botto… *checks notes* Okay that last part is for a different post. So. Uhhh. Just be comfortable.
19. I know that community is a big part of NaNoWriMo, but for me, I like writing to be as isolated an act as possible. I don’t care what you’re doing. I care what I’m doing. Comparing yourself to others is a no-no. It’ll just make you feel like you can’t measure up.
20. I endeavor to write five days a week, and then don’t write on weekends. I need that break. Every day that I do write, I write regardless of how I’m feeling — I write through illness, anxiety, life trouble. This is not saying you need to do that. (What did I tell you about comparing yourself?) You have to find your pace. Maybe you write all your weekly count on Monday at 2:15. Do what’s best for you. The good news is, for the most part, routines are valuable. Establish the routine and stick to it and after a couple weeks, you’re good. The bad news is, NaNoWriMo asks that you have that routine up and running by the time the month starts.
21. I post notes around my monitor or my desk. Little things — questions, plot points, plot holes. Things of which I want to remain mindful.
22. I also jot notes at the beginning about my characters — never more than 100 words, and sometimes enough to fit on a smattering of Post-It notes. I write the things about them that I think are most important. These are usually character traits — even writing down three significant traits (“OBSTINATE, INCONTINENT SEX MACHINE”) gives you something to keep in mind as you write that character.
23. I do not read the same type of thing that I am presently writing. It crosses too many wires, and the signal starts to bleed. Ideally, I read non-fiction. But key thing here is that while writing, I am also reading. Reading is a vital, revivifying act. Writing without reading is like running without food. Eventually, you’re running on empty.
24. I ask myself, “Is this making sense?” If not, I course correct.
25. My writing life is not a sprint but a marathon. I’m running a long con, here. This is a heist where I’m stealing the Crown Jewels, not just knocking over a liquor store. You can’t sprint to 50k in a month without shattering your tender little brain-vase. You gotta measure it out. Gotta find a workable, steady pace — then stick to it consistently and confidently.
26. The daily mantra: “I can fix this in post.”
27. CAFFEINE, MOTHERFUCKER. DO YOU SPEAK IT.
28. I type fast. This sounds a-doy durr hurr obvious but seriously, I practice typing and I type hella zippy. Also, HELLA ZIPPY is my roller derby nickname.
29. Don’t think about publishing, don’t think about finishing, don’t think about next week. Think about yesterday, today, and tomorrow, and that’s it.
30. Repeat after me: “I am my own Muse.”
31. Repeat after me: “Don’t panic.” Clutch your towel and realize this isn’t making or breaking anything. This isn’t BRAIN ROCKETRY. Again, see #2 on the list: care less.
32. PANTS ARE A TOOL OF THE OPPRESSOR
33. When in doubt, escalate.
34. Eschew shame. I find shame to be half a ladder. It feels like you’re climbing somewhere, and you are… at least until you’re not. I don’t find shame valuable in writing (or really, anywhere else).
35. Also? Fuck writing advice. I know, you’re reading this here and now, but you have to know where such advice belongs. While writing, it rarely belongs in your face. Give it minimal priority. Every writer does things differently — this post is a good example because smart money says you do things at least somewhat differently from how I do them. “Writing Rules” are rarely that, and they’re a good way to make you feel like you’re on the wrong track. Writing advice is just that — advice. It’s advice on what to order on a menu, not a mandate on how to live your creative life. I read writing advice between books. I think about writing and read what other writer’s do during down-time. It doesn’t help me in the midst of the thing. It’s too much noise. Before and after I write? Yes. During? No.
36. I try to remember how amazing it is to be a writer. Because it is. Even when it’s not.
37. I try to be aware of self-care issues. I’m practiced enough where my writing schedule remains unpunctured by anxiety or health issues, but I also remain aware that when they happen, I am excused for writing badly, or shorting my word count, or just taking a much-needed day off.
38. In fact, I’m always comfortable with writing badly. Because that’s why WRITING JESUS invented that thing called “editing.” Thank you, Writing Jesus. Thank you.
39. If I’m stuck, I babble on the page until I am unstuck. Sometimes I blow stuff up.
40. I am vigilant about protecting my time and my space for writing. This is my TERRITORIAL BUBBLE and none shall puncture it lest one be shanked by a broken coffee mug.
41. I back everything up a billion times. I back things up on an external time machine drive. I back them up via Dropbox and with reiterative file names. I email myself the drafts. I also save obsessively. Any time I stop writing for more than five seconds, I do the keyboard shortcut to save. Nothing is more dispiriting than losing what you’re working on.
42. I write for me, not for you. I am my first audience. You can come later.
And that’s the end of that.
Behold Things And Stuff
The NaNoWriMo Storybundle is live — 13 books with another 12 if you meet the $25 threshold. You will note that the bonus tier contains one of my books so go grabby-grabby.
If you’re a fan of mine, you are apparently called “Wendigos,” and hey now there’s a t-shirt by House Organa shop, so, jeez, go be stylish and rad and WENDIGO SEXY.
Now, go forth and —