NaNoWriMo: How to NaNo

How do you write a novel in thirty days?

Damned if I know.

For me, the annual attempt at completing National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo, or sometimes NaNo for short) is simultaneously a grand adventure and also an exercise in frustration. And yet, I keep trying, because I enjoy the challenge.

One of the great benefits of a challenge like NaNoWriMo is that it can push someone out of their comfort zone in completely controllable (because they’re the only one calling the shots) but also completely unanticipated ways…if that makes any sense. I mean that as someone participating in NaNoWriMo you learn things about yourself as an author, whether you think about yourself as “an author” or not. And you very well might not! You may have never done NaNo before. But if you’re participating this year, then congratulations, you’re an author now.

I’ve been participating in NaNo since 2012, and I’ve come up with some rules of thumb. This is, I hasten to say, how I work in November. It does not have to be how you work or how anyone else works in November or at any other time. It’s not the most convenient process in the world but it’s mine, and it took me the better part of seven years to figure out that learning how to write regularly is recognizing my own process and how it works, and what my highs and lows are.

Rule #1: Never stop thinking about your plot.

Plots—that is, the problem that the characters are facing—are hard for me. So I’m thinking about them constantly: How does Action A lead to Reaction B, and how does that influence the far-off Consequence Z several thousand words from now? I do this to some extent the rest of the year as well, but giving myself the permission to just think about a single narrative nonstop for thirty days, and immerse myself in it, is amazingly freeing.

Rule #2: Drink with your characters.

Picture yourself and your character in a situation where they’re comfortable, maybe more at ease than normal, and start imagining a conversation between the two of you. This is a technique I like to use when I find myself blocked on a particular character. For me, knowing how a character will believably react in a given scene depends upon knowing the character as a person, on knowing both the big details and the little details.

So get them talking. You might be surprised at what you uncover.

Rule #3: Convince your significant other that writing is more important than they are (temporarily).

Writing is largely a solitary process. The writer needs to concentrate and brainstorm and that’s hard to do when there’s a relationship to tend to as well. It’s only a month; your partner can do without 80 percent of your attentions for a month. (I leave it to actual parents to advise how to do NaNo with children in the mix.)

Rule #4: Write in inappropriate places.

Inspiration strikes at the most awkward of times. In bed. In the shower. On the toilet. Keep a little notebook and a stub of pencil in your pocket or a note-taking app on your phone, and when you get an idea, write it down.

Rule #5: Learn at what word count you’re most likely to run out of steam, and plan accordingly.

Example: I’ve trained myself to bang out scenes of about 500–600 words in the scraps of time I can find on a work day. But that won’t get me very far in thirty days, so I have to write my usual daily words, refuel my brain with caffeine, and then do it again. By the end of the month, my draft is a little incoherent, but it’s met the recommended word count and that’s my goal.

Rule #6: Listen to the voices in your head—no, not those, the other ones.

Your characters will tell you lots of things, about themselves, about the story, about their world. You don’t have to use everything they tell you, but listen to all of it. Do not listen to the voices that tell you to just give up because it’s too hard and your writing sucks and no one’s ever going to want to read this anyway. Of course it sucks; it’s a first draft, that’s its job. Your job is to get that story told.

Rule #7: Remember to hydrate.

And eat. And sleep. And shower. And go outside occasionally. Writers cannot live on words alone.

Rule #8: Sort the bodies out later.

Refer to Rule #6. You’re going to have plot holes and dangling threads and limp dialogue and scenes that go nowhere. Let them. November is for writing, for getting the story out, hopefully from start to finish. Some other month is for going back and stopping all the leaks.

Did you find this list helpful? Did you at least get an idea of what you can do to make your NaNoWriMo experience a little easier? Fantastic! Go write!

Did you think this was a load of horse crap? Fantastic! Go write! And then come back and tell me how you made NaNo work for you!

A. F. Linley

A. F. Linley was born in Connecticut and raised in New York's Capital District. She is a long-time government copy editor and a casual writer of various types of fiction (including government copy). She wrote her first story when she was nine and decided to pursue writing as a career when some well-meaning but foolish elementary school teacher assured her that she could make a living at this. She lives with her partner near Saratoga and is frequently mistaken for a competent adult. You can find more of her writing at or or