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NaNoWriMo: Some helpful hints and tools
by Steven Sande
This morning, I noticed a tweet from @rvbelzen that said, “As a NaNoWriMo veteran, do you have any tips for this NaNoWriMo newbie, maybe an article you wrote about it?” Most of the posts that I’ve done about National Novel Writing Month for TUAW have focused on the tools, not on the technique. Based on the tweet, I thought I’d give you some hints from a three-time NaNoWriMo winner (that means you wrote a 50,000-word novel in the month of November) about how to prepare for the writing marathon.
Helpful Hints For Writing Your NaNoWriMo Novel
1) Make sure you have a broad outline of your plot and characters in your mind or on paper. This was the hardest part for me the first two years I did NaNoWriMo, as I had a story in my head but didn’t spend the time to think of characters or how the story was going to evolve. As a result, those first two novels were only about halfway through the total plot line when I got to 50,000 words. What I suggest is sitting down with your favorite writing tool — whether that’s TextEdit, Word, Storyist, Story Mill, Scrivener, or another other writing tool, and just write a quick outline of how the story is going to unfold. Come up with character names and a rough description, locations, etc., and write them down as well.
2) At some point on November 1st, sit down for an uninterrupted spell of writing. In order to write 50,000 words in a month, you’ll need to average 1,667 words a day. I find that setting aside time to write in a place where I’m not going to be interrupted by talk, TV, or tweets is essential. If you’re enthusiastic about your story, that 1,667 words is going to flow out of you, and you’ll find that some days you’re writing 2,500 words. Go for it on those days, because you’ll have other days when you need to take a break. My favorite place to write NaNoWriMo novels? The kitchen table. The chair is uncomfortable, so I need to write quickly so I can get out of it ASAP.
3) It’s all about words, not about tools. I’ve noticed over the last few days that I see more and more tweets about “which tool should I use?” There are debates going on about the merits of Storyist versus Scrivener, or using one of the many minimalist writing tools. Here’s my take on the writing tools: don’t go out of your way to buy a new app that has lots of bells and whistles, because they’ll get in the way of writing your novel. Many of the novel-writing apps have ways to write outlines, build character cards, etc. I found these tools to be so incredibly distracting that I finally just started using minimalist tools. You can easily write a NaNoWriMo novel in Pages or Word — you don’t need an “author’s tool” unless you really think it will help you. My second NaNoWriMo novel was actually written in TextEdit.
4) Have fun writing. If NaNoWriMo turns into a chore, you’re not going to make it. For me, writing fiction ends up being so much different from blogging and writing tech books that it’s an absolute joy. I love thinking up characters, putting them in odd situations, and then trying to get them out of those situations while moving the plot forward. Are they well-written novels? Probably not. But it’s been a blast writing them. To make writing fun, think about something that either excites you or makes you laugh, and then use that as a key launching point for your novel. This year, I’m resurrecting a character from last year. He’s a private detective in the near future (about 10 years from now) who gets involved in some rather bizarre situations like a locked-room murder on a space station and (this year) being injected with nano-particles that cause him to grow.
5) Start fast. Seriously, try to beat your 1,667-word goal every day for the first 10 days. That way, you might be halfway done with the novel by the time November 10th rolls around. What does that mean? You can take a break from writing if you absolutely feel like it, or take more time focusing on a key point of the plot. My wife was a NaNoWriMo winner last year and she totally amazed me by writing almost half of her novel in the first five days of November. I like to start fast and finish at a comfortable pace.
6) Don’t focus on spelling or grammar. Once again, this is all about word count. It doesn’t have to be perfect. You just want to get the story out of your system and onto the screen (or paper, if you so desire). When you’re done at the end of the month, you have a working rough draft that you can then spend time cleaning up. So turn off the spell and grammar check, or ignore the red underlines that mean you misspelled something. Chances are very good that you’re not going to publish your book anyway, so who cares if it is filled with misspellings and lousy sentence structure? As long as you’re happy with it, that’s what counts.
7) Keep your writing to yourself. There’s nothing worse than thinking that you’re doing a bad job when you’re writing. It will absolutely defeat you from getting your novel completed. One of the biggest mistakes you can make during NaNoWriMo is to let somebody else read what you’ve written. Why? Well, everyone’s a critic these days, and the reader will have no hesitation telling you that what you’ve written is horrible or pointing out mistakes. Wait until December 1, 2011, and let them read it then. Don’t even talk about your novel with other folks, unless you’re just telling them how much fun you’re having and how far along you are.
8) Work through writer’s block. Here’s something I had issues with the first year I did NaNoWriMo. I was about one-third of the way through the novel and just lost focus. I had thought a lot about the beginning of the book, but didn’t have a clue where I was going. Preparation (see hint #1) will help this, but realize that you’re going to have days where you just can’t get the brain to wrap around writing! What do I do on these days? Try to write anyway. If I need help, I pick up a favorite good book and read parts of it, carefully noting the way that the writer crafted certain phrases or created a twist that caught my attention. That’s usually enough to motivate me to write more. Also consider taking a walk or doing something to clear your mind. I find that walking is a great way to get my mind to focus on developing plot points or thinking about dialogue.
9) Back up your novel every single day. I’ve been lucky — I’ve never lost any of my writing. But can you imagine how depressing it would be to get two-thirds of the way through your novel and then lose the file? It would be enough to make you never want to write again! I highly recommend doing multiple backups of your novel file every day. My base document is always sitting in a folder on Dropbox, which means that it’s also downloaded to the Dropbox folder on both of my Macs. That’s three copies right there, plus I always have a Time Machine backup going. That’s four. Am I paranoid enough? Probably.
10) Keep your eye on the goal. That’s going to motivate you more than anything. Thinking about getting to that 50,000th word is a daunting thing, but you’ll be surprised just how quickly your words will add up. Take the writing one day at a time, try to stretch your daily total over the required 1,667 words, and you’ll be a winner before the end of the month. I have to admit that there’s no better feeling than wrapping up a NaNoWriMo novel, even when I know that nobody will probably read it. Having done this three times, I’m confident that I can write another novel, and I’m looking forward to that sense of accomplishment at the end of November.
Tools Of The NaNoWriMo Writer
When you’re thinking about which tool to use to write your novel, keep hint #3 in mind — it’s about writing, not about tools. I really do get irritated with the annual debates over which app is better than another, but then again I’m an antisocial curmudgeon. I’ve tried ’em all, but the two apps that I find work the best for me are TextEdit and Microsoft Word. Get a blank piece of digital paper and start writing. I haven’t tried Pages, although I’m sure it would work swimmingly in the “typewriter” Lion full-screen mode. Maybe this year?
Most of the writing tools that people spend their money on before tackling NaNoWriMo fall into two camps — the “Swiss Army Knife” apps that have all the bells and whistles, and the “Minimalist” apps that just give you a blank page and a word count. Here are some examples of both types.
“Swiss Army Knife” Writing Apps
I think I’ve tried each and every one of these apps at one point or another, and even though I’ve used them to start NaNoWriMo novels, I’ve always just transferred my text to another app within a day or two. Your mileage may vary, and you may make use of all of the many features of these apps.
I won’t go into a lot of detail about each of the apps; the developers have info for you and in many cases will let you download a trial copy:
DEVONThink ($49.99): Actually more of an outlining tool, but can be used for writing.
Minimalist Writing Apps
I’m sure there are a lot more tools available, but I’ll leave this as an exercise for TUAW readers to go out and do some research. If you find any, please let us know in the comments. Also, if you’re a NaNoWriMo winner and have some additional hints and tips, be sure to write a comment.
By the way, in case you’re wondering how long this post is, it’s 1827 words. That’s more than a person needs to write every day to be a NaNoWriMo winner. YOU CAN DO IT!