Writing a Novel Takes More Than a Month: Beyond NaNoWriMo

Writing a Novel takes more than a month. It just does.

NaNoWriMo fever is upon the world.

If you’re a writer, you’ve probably experienced the phenomenon of working like a maniac for thirty days, trying to pound out 50,000 words. Then, heading into the holidays exhausted and completely burned out.

Forget writing a novel, you don’t even want to read another book for months.

And your 50,000 words just sit there on your hard drive. Right next to all your other NaNo wins.

Or, worse, you throw on a homemade cover and proudly publish your story on Amazon.

What if you used the energy and excitement of NaNoWriMo to kick off a whole year of novel writing?

Here’s an outline of how you can spend the other eleven months of the writer’s year (you know, December to November.)

Set a More Sustainable Goal

Go ahead and spend November shoving writing into every crack and crevice of your day, but the rest of the year? Develop a sustainable daily writing habit by slowing down.

Commit to writing for at least ten minutes every day from December first until next Halloween.

I know, I know, ten minutes? What kind of goal is that?

It’s a goal you’ll keep. It’s so small that it’s psychologically harder to skip it than it is to stick with it. You can capitalize on that head game by getting a calendar and giving yourself a gold star every day that you keep your goal. Who wants a gap in their stars?

(I came up with this printable goal chart and writing log that I call FRED — Folder for Reaching the End of your Draft. You can download your own FRED here. I swear, it works like magic.)

Write for at least ten minutes every day for the eleven months between NaNoWriMos. See what happens.

Evaluate Your Story

What I love about NaNoWriMo is that it facilitates the move from wanting to write a book to actually writing one.

That’s huge.

Once you’ve won NaNoWriMo, though, what you’re left with on December first is a 50,000-word draft that you’ve written with an eye more toward speed than quality.

Let’s be honest. Your book probably isn’t very good in its current form. What it does have, though, is potential.

Before you do anything else, take some time to evaluate your story.

The best way I know to do that is with a plot board. I like analog, so I use a physical plot board. You can also use a digital system, like Scrivner’s cork board.

Read your draft. Don’t worry about editing or the quality of the writing right now. Pay attention to the story. Take a note of each scene and plug it into your plot board.

You’ll be able to see if your story is balanced. You’ll easily be able to see where you have too much or too little. And you’ll have a visual outline of your story that you can play around with before you start working on your actual edit.

Learn Your Craft

I’d like to challenge you to spend the next year learning your craft. Pick eleven writing craft books and read one a month. Don’t skim, either. Really read and implement what you learn.

Here are my favorites to get you started:

On Writing by Stephen King

Steering the Craft by Urula K. Le Guinn

Just Write by Walter Dean Myers

The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg

The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne

It isn’t enough to just read these books. Do the exercises. Use what you’re learning to improve your writing. Try keeping a notebook throughout the year to take notes in. Treat this like an intensive course in creative writing.

Find a Writing Community

Make a concerted effort in the year before your next NaNoWriMo to find a writing community and become a part of it.

If you can’t find a writing group meeting in person near you, turn to the Internet. I’m partial to Ninja Writers, which is a group on Facebook that I founded after NaNoWriMo 2015. (I’d love to have you join us!)

Try finding a national or international organization for writers in your genre. Romance Writers of America and the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators are two that I belong to. They both have online chapters.

Connecting with other writers is a good way to keep yourself motivated to continue your writing journey beyond November. It’s a good way to find a critique partner or beta reader who you can trade feedback with. And it’s just way less lonely than writing all alone.

Become a Solid Self-Editor

I have one more book I want to recommend. If you decide you only want to read one craft book, make it this one. Self-editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King teaches a single editing principle, then walks you through implementing it in your manuscript.

Learning to polish your own work is important on a couple of fronts. First, it will help you learn how to create a cleaner draft the next time. Trust me, once you’ve replaced 743 weak verbs with stronger verbs, you’ll just use the stronger one in the first place next time.

If you plan to try to publish traditionally, you need to be able to be able to prepare a professional-level manuscript to send to agents and publishers.

If you plan an indie career, being able to competently self-edit will save you a lot of money. You don’t want to pay someone to fix things for you that you could have fixed yourself.

Save Your Pennies for Professionals

The slush pile used to live in the editor’s office. Now it lives on Amazon.

Don’t be part of the slush pile.

If you’re an indie author, you’re a publisher. That means it’s your job to make sure your book is professionally edited and designed.

If Penguin wouldn’t publish your book with your best friend’s edits and your homemade cover, then you shouldn’t either.

If your friend isn’t someone you’d pay good money to for edits, they aren’t someone you should use for free. If no one would pay you for your design skills, you aren’t good enough to make your own cover.

If indie publishing is in your future, spend the next eleven months saving up. Resign yourself to the fact that publishing a novel is not a free enterprise. Your book needs to look and read like a traditionally published novel. It deserves that.

Here’s a calendar of action steps for the months until NaNoWriMo ‘17:

December: Read a craft book. Look for a writing community. Let your NaNo book rest for a few weeks and spend your ten minutes a day working on a palette cleanser. Maybe write a short story or work on whatever project you abandoned for NaNoWriMo.

January: Read a craft book. Make a commitment to yourself to join a writing community and participate in it (even if you’re an introvert.) Set up your plot board. Use your ten minutes a day to start to read through your NaNo book. Write each scene on a sticky note and place it where it belongs on your board, or do the equivalent in whatever program you’re using.

February: Read a craft book. Keep participating in your writing community. Finish your plot board and when it’s completely filled out, evaluate it.

March: Read a craft book. Keep participating in your writing community. Pick up a copy of Self-editing for Fiction Writers. Read the first chapter and spend your ten minutes a day implementing what you learn in your manuscript.

April through October: Repeat March.

(A version of this story was first published at Observer.com.)

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3 Ways to Win Nanowrimo Your Own Way

If you’re reading this, you probably already know what it means to win Nanowrimo.

Just in case, though: Nanowrimo is National Novel Writing Month. Every November gozillions of writers all buckle down and try to write 50,000 words in 30 days. If you’re involved in any sort of writing community, you’ll notice the general excitement and mayhem that falls on writers everywhere in November.


Here’s my Nanowrimo story:

I finished my first first draft in November 2004. I was very pregnant (Ruby was born on December 8) and miserable and I needed something to help me get through the longest month there has ever been. I was pretty certain that December was never going to arrive and having something to occupy myself with in November helped.

I’d also wanted to be a writer since I was ten years old and I wanted to know if I could actually write a book-length story.

I could, and that changed everything. It didn’t even matter that the draft I finished sucked. Badly. Once I knew that I had it in me, I realized that the rest was just mechanics. I dug in to learn them. I’m still learning them.

But Nanowrimo gave me the kick in the pants I needed to get through that first terrible first draft. And that first terrible draft was what made me a writer.

Here’s what Nanowrimo is really, really good for: Getting you over the hump between wanting to write and actually writing. But, sometimes it doesn’t work out the way you might hope.

Sometimes, someone starts Nanowrimo and doesn’t win. They don’t get to 50,000 words.

Sometimes, that person feels so bummed out that they stop writing until next November.

Sometimes, someone wins Nanowrimo over and over again.

Sometimes, that person ends up with files full of 50,000 word first drafts that aren’t really finished and definitely are not polished.

You get the picture. Sure sometimes someone writes a first draft during Nanowrimo, polishes that sucker until it shines, and because a world-wide best-selling phenomenon. And sometimes–not so much.

I personally believe that it takes more than 30 days of speed writing to write a novel that is worth publishing. I’m a big advocate for slowing down and learning to write well; spending time on your craft. But, I also think that if you’re willing to look outside the box, there is real merit in Nanowrimo.

Here are three ways to do that.

Set your own goal

Here’s a secret, Ninja Writer: The 50,000 word Nanowrimo official goal is totally arbitrary.

Use the month of November to get a good start on a daily writing habit–but set your own goal. Maybe it’s writing 500 (or 200 or 2000) words a day. Maybe it’s writing Act I of your new story. Maybe it’s working your way through plotting your next book.

Pick a goal that will push you, that you know you can finish, and that will move your writing career forward. Those are your new rules. It’s entirely fine if your goal isn’t writing 50,000 words in 30 days.

Think of November 30 as the start, not the finish

I know several writers who have a whole collection of 50,000 word Nanowrimo manuscripts that they finished on November 30 and never looked at again.

That’s so not the point.

Whatever you do in November should be the start of something awesome. Even if you do finish a first draft in that month, it’s just a first draft. If it’s 50,000 words long, chances are good that it’s not long enough to actually be a novel. And if you don’t keep working on it, it’s just a fancy placeholder on your hard drive anyway.

Use Nanowrimo to get a good start, and then KEEP GOING. Finish the draft. Use it to learn how to edit. Polish that baby. And then send it out into the world where it belongs.

Use Nanowrimo as an opportunity to build community

The very best part of Nanowrimo is the part where gozllions of writers are coming together for a common purpose.

There isn’t a better time, all year long, to reach out and become involved in a writing community.

There are local Nanowrimo groups and literally any writing community online will be full of people buzzing about their work in November. You can visit the Nanowrimo website to get involved. You can come on over and join Ninja Writers on Facebook to hang out with us. Send out a Tweet to your friends and the chances are that someone is planning on doing Nanowrimo this year and would love to hook up with you for sympathy and motivation.

Writing is such solitary work and it tends to attract introverts. But you now what they say: no writer is an island. Or something like that.

I really do hope you’ll join us on Facebook. Ninja Writers is the most amazing writing community I’ve ever been part of, and a bunch of us are jumping into Nano in November–our own way. You’ll get support and encouragement from the Ninjas as you spend a month building a writing habit that will help you build a writing career.

If you want to go into Nanowrimo with a plan–maybe that’s thinking-outside-the-Nano-box step one. The Plotting Workshop will help.

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