Planning A Successful NaNoWriMo Project

Oct 2, 2023 | Editing

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Every November, writers across the world embark on a phenomenon known as National Novel Writing Month. You may have heard of the project, affectionately known as NaNoWriMo. The challenge put forth is simple: between the first and last days of the month of November, participants complete a novel manuscript of fifty-thousand words.

I’ll do the math. That means you’re writing 1,667 words every day for thirty days.  

The thirty-day writing project started in 1999 with an intrepid San Francisco writer named Chris Baty. The now wildly popular idea took off almost immediately, eventually leading to an organization that was officially formalized in 2006. Baty is popular for capturing NaNoWriMo’s energy by saying: 

“Write first! Ask questions later!”

Although an accurate number of participants is difficult to come up with (many register their participation through the site, while others do not) the organization’s site claims that over a half a million writers jumped into the challenge in 2021. The number of writers that have tried has almost certainly increased by large numbers since then. As the website boasts, people enter the month as school teachers, mechanics and stay-at-home Moms, and come out the other side as novelists.  

The appeal of NaNoWriMo is many fold and not just for the legions of wannabe authors out there. Writers who have never written a novel also look at the month-long challenge as an opportunity to jump right into the deep end of the creative process. Once you commit there comes a welcome sense that the pressure of how to write is off, providing a sort of no holds barred approach to completing what, for many, is a lifelong dream. Experienced writers also join in the project as there is a lot more to NaNoWriMo than just the start and end dates with the accompanying world length parameters. There is a built in sense of community and accountability groups as well. 

The magic of NaNoWriMo comes from the sense that, however hard the challenge of writing an entire novel might become, you are not alone when doing it. You’re part of a larger family that knows your pain. They offer support if you slip up and act as a cheerleader when you meet (and hopefully exceed) that daily goal. When writing a book, whoever you are, these can be very helpful.

With November 2023 just around the corner, and having made the personal choice to participate for the first time this year, I am putting together a series of blogs to get you ready for the challenge. In this first one, I’m going to look at getting your NaNoWriMo project together with an eye on successfully finishing a publishable manuscript. 

Planning Your NaNoWriMo project

NaNoWriMo comes with the devil-may-care spirit of unfettered creativity. For some writers, that unshackled feeling passionately expressed in Baty’s proclamation is what they need to start writing. With a defined starting point, focused end goal, and a daily target designed to get you there, comes the essence of the project’s appeal. 

Others, the more meticulous plot focused writers, will want to take some time in advance to plan out their NaNoWriMo project. Count me among them. For quite a long time, I thought I was an impetuous exploratory writer. In truth, however, I find I am a committed plotter. When I look at the challenge of fifty-thousand words in thirty calendar days, I see an opportunity to try something new, the parameters in which to accomplish something exciting and energetic. 

But more than anything, I want it to work out. What does “work out” mean though? Every writer defines success differently. For some it’s merely finishing. For me, I want to come out in December with a book I can, with some targeted rewrites, publish. 

Planning your NaNoWriMo project should not be unlike planning any other novel. In order to complete a book, a writer needs to have a sense of their core story concept, ideas for their characters, and basic plot elements to bring that whole home.   

Here is a bit of a crash course on what that could look like.

plotting your NaNoWriMo project

The Nuts And Bolts Of Putting Your NaNoWriMo Book Together 

Back to that age-old debate between plotting and pantsing. If you’re unfamiliar, the two warring sides generally break down into two camps. One asserts that it is better to plot your book in advance. They’re invested in knowing who your characters are and what they’re going to do, before writing. Others believe it is more advantageous to just go for it, writing freely, not inhibiting yourself, at least in the first draft, with those potentially burdensome questions.

No side is right or wrong. What works for you, as a writer, works for you.

As I suggested before, I am a committed plotter. I love the practice of thinking through who my main characters are and specifically, what’s going to happen to them in the course of my story. I get the same feeling of spontaneous joy from plotting a story as I do from just freewriting. 

When it comes to NaNoWriMo, especially if you’re a relatively new author, I think that it’s perfectly OK to fly by the seat of your pants. If you only have an idea of your character, or are still working through the details of the world and setting, I think now is a terrific time to give it a shot. This month will go a long way to teaching you what kind of a writer you really are at heart. 

Part of what makes NaNoWriMo so popular with new writers is that it removes those pesky barriers. It gives you permission to simply write and see where the story goes. If you are going to prepare for your project though, I think it’s important to know the answer to the following three questions. 

This is by no means a comprehensive look at plotting a book. I look at it as a start of what you can do now, in the months leading up to November. .

Who Is Your Main Character?

Maybe the most important element for a writer to know. You need to be able to answer the question of who your main character is going to be. Here is what I mean. Are they a down on their luck star fleet captain, preparing for a last ditch mission across the galaxy? Or are they a pioneer mother, sensing danger in their new home in the American west?

These are just a couple of examples I thought up on the fly. Each character will form the central focus of a very different story.  By recognizing these differences, you can see how knowing who that main character is helps you zero in on what the core story might become. 

What Is Your Main NaNoWriMo Character’s Problem?

In the previous example where I discussed identifying main characters, I suggested problems they might be struggling with. Stories are, at their core, about relatable characters identifying problems. They learn how to solve their challenges and go through adversity on their way to a better world.

Characters without problems don’t exist. At least not in books that anyone wants to read.

You need to know what dangers, both small and large, that main character is facing. You also need to know what’s at stake if they fail in their mission. A great deal of your plot will spring out of knowing that problem, which leads me to…

What Is The General Plot?

Here is where you can, if you’re not careful, get bogged down. Plot’s many nuances often present themselves as a challenge for young writers and can, for some, slow them down. 

Here is something you need to remember though. The end goal of NaNoWriMo is not a completed, polished draft of a novel. You’re not going out to submit your manuscript on December 1st. 

Your goal is a first draft of 50,000 words.

If the plot is still sketchy in your imagination, and you don’t have all of the many wrinkles figured out, it’s perfectly OK to explore where the character and their problem takes you. It might help, however, to have a basic idea of how everything is going to reconcile.

Is your star fleet captain going to pilot his ship to safety? If the answer is yes, he is successful, you can start writing the story knowing where they land. If he and the rest of the fleet is doomed then, as you can see, you’re going to write another. Just like the captain, you have to point the ship somewhere. 

The same with the pioneer mother example. Knowing that she is on a collision course with imminent danger is not, on its own, enough. I think you need to know what the danger is and what the ending might look like. Armed with just that, I think you can write an effective first draft. 

setting up your writing space

Basics For Your NaNoWriMo Plan

My hope is that you complete your NaNoWriMo project this year. More than that, however, my sincere wish is that you become a writer. That these thirty days empower you to believe in your ability to do something truly outstanding.

Use this month to plant the seeds of a lifelong practice. Here are four practical writing life tips to consider before you start writing.

Have A Place

Know where you’re going to write. If you have a home office, terrific, you’re already there. If you don’t, and you struggle to carve out something for yourself, do so in advance. You don’t want to wake up on November 1st wondering where this is going to happen.

Talk To People About NaNoWriMo

Join the NaNoWriMo community. That should be a given. Beyond that though, talk to the people you love about what you’re doing. You’ll find support where you least expect it and that support will come in handy when you’re struggling.

Write Without Writing

This is the secret sauce. Writing is a lot of sitting at your desk, fingers on the keyboard, staring at a screen. But that doesn’t have to be the extent of it. Cultivate the practice of thinking about your story, your character, outside of your writing space.

Be Forgiving To Yourself

Fifty-thousand words is a lot. It takes a lot to get there. You’re not a failure if you write 49,875. You’re not going to fail if, on the 5th, you only churn out 1,400. 

Writing a novel is hard. If it wasn’t, everyone would do it. Use NaNoWriMo like an opportunity to learn about your story, the craft of writing and, most importantly, yourself.