NaNoWriMo Survival Guide (+ NaNoWriMo Survival Kit)
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Every word-lover knows that November means National Novel Writing Month—or, NaNoWriMo. This is the month when writers from all over the world write 50,000 words in 30 days. Sounds ridiculous? Maybe it is. But thousands of writers do it every year, and thousands win. (And a few hundred have gotten their NaNoWriMo novels published!)
But in 2018, only 29% of writers who started their novels actually won and wrote 50,000 words.
There are some people who start knowing they won’t hit 50K. But they do it for the fun, for the community, and for the thrill. That’s fine. But for all of the writers who have the goal of hitting 50,000 words by midnight on November 30th, that statistic isn’t the most encouraging.
So how do you make sure you win NaNoWriMo?
That’s where my NaNoWriMo Survival Guide (with a NaNoWriMo Survival Kit) comes in. I originally wrote this 6 years ago. But my naive, adorable, 16-year-old self didn’t know what she was doing. What I thought was an extensive guide at the time was really just a few tips and tricks.
So I give to you the NaNoWriMo Survival Guide—REVAMPED. It now consists of four parts instead of two, with many added NaNoWriMo tips, resources, tools, and hacks.
What Does this NaNoWriMo Survival Guide Include?
This is your ULTIMATE NaNoWriMo Survival Guide (and kit!). You’ll learn everything about how to win NaNoWriMo, from outlining your novel to writing tips to hanging out in the NaNoWriMo community.
Part 1: Preparing for NaNoWriMo
There’s a lot of planning that can (and should) go into your novel. Plenty of NaNoers take the entire month of October (and some even take September as well) to create characters profiles, world build, and outline their story. We’ll go into all of that plus more below.
If you want to truly dive into writing a great novel, but you’re not sure where to start, I’d recommend taking an online writing course. You can check out my favorite writing courses right here.
Creating Your Characters
Characters are the most important part of your story.
Don’t believe me? Think about it: Is your favorite book about a story that happens to a character, or a character that happens to a story? A story’s plot is defined by a character’s motivations, decisions, and actions. Writing a story about stuff that happens to your characters isn’t good. You need to have stuff happen to your characters because they caused it.
So make sure you develop your characters. And be prepared to watch all of your hard work go to waste. I’ve had soft, compassionate characters turn into fiesty beasts the second a word came out of their mouth. And you know what? It was better that way.
Watch “Your book’s plot DOESN’T MATTER!!” (and the series that goes along with it) for more of an explanation.
Develop Your Characters
. . . More than just eye color. In fact, their eye color isn’t important. Readers want personality. Quirks. Something to love. Not eyes.
Find Your Character’s Motivation - While the inciting incident of a story often pushes the character in one direction, that doesn’t mean they don’t have their own opinions, wants, and motivators. If you got pushed into a quest you didn’t want to go on, what would you do about it? Or, switch that around: you desperately want something you can’t have. You wouldn’t stand around moping and doing nothing, so neither would your character. Therefore, you need to define your character’s motivators.
The five basic motivators are:
Safety + Security
Love + Belonging
Accomplishments + Self-Esteem
Develop Your Character’s Voice - Your character’s voice determines their external expression (language, dialect, body language, tone of voice, how they interact with others) and their internal narrative (how they talk to themselves/think).
Learn how your characters talk, especially if you have more than one POV. Do you really want Character A to think and talk the same way as Character B? I didn’t think so. These questions will help you figure out how your character should talk/think.
Give Your Characters an Arc
In a sense, this should define your entire novel. As I said earlier, your character’s decisions will make your entire plot. And their arc is how they learn from their mistakes (sort of).
Figure out which type of arc you’d like. This post goes through three different arc options: the Growth Arc (character vs. inner opposition), the Fall (character turned villain, basically), or the Flat Arc (the character stays the same, instead helping others change). If you’re looking for a more in-depth article on how to write a character arc, this post should give you everything you need.
Outlining Your Novel
First, you need to figure out where your story is going. Not sure where to start? Check out these articles + resources:
No Plot? No Problem. - Keep these three things in mind while brainstorming for your plot: Ideas are unstable + plentiful, you need to document everything, and sometimes you’ll need a helper.
Write a Bestselling Novel in 15 Steps - If you want to craft the PERFECT outline for your novel, I’d recommend taking this writing course. It helped me a lot!
Do You Have a Plot? - “Plot is a premise plus a major complication that tests the protagonist.”
There are just as many ways to outline a story as there are writers. Everyone does it a bit differently. My personal method is to use the Snowflake Method (more on that below) until I feel like any more planning would kill me. Then I write until I don’t know what comes next. Then I plan. Then I write. Then I—you get the idea. If you were to put me in a category — plotter, planner, or plantser, I’d be a plantser.
PRO TIP: Create your outline, character profiles, scene cards, etc. in one place with Scrivener. It’s an affordable writing program that’ll keep you organized throughout NaNoWriMo.
My Top 3 Methods for Outlining a Story
You can do your own research on how to outline your novel, but these are my favorite three methods:
The Snowflake Method - The Snowflake Method is my go-to method for outlining a novel, although I usually pair it with one of the other two options below. You start off with a one-sentence description of your novel, and then a paragraph. Then you create a one-page profile of each of your major characters (including their storyline and epiphany). The process keeps getting more and more refined until bam! You have a super-developed story outline.
Three Act Structure - One of the most popular methods for structuring a novel. The Three Act Structure is a simple but potent way to outline your NaNoWriMo novel.
First Act: The first 15-25% of your book. This is where you hook the reader’s interest and keep them turning page after page. You introduce your character + their normal life and then disturb it somehow (called the inciting incident).
Second Act: The second act is the largest chunk of your novel. This is where the conflict happens. Your character’s decisions make their current situation even worse—yet somehow they don’t give up.
Third Act: The third is the smallest section of your story. This is where your character’s darkest moment, the climax, and the book’s resolution are found. So. Intense.
The Hero’s Journey - There are 12 different steps in the Hero’s Journey, and for the sake of space, I won’t list them here. This post goes in-depth about each section and what they mean for your story. This is great for sci-fi/fantasy stories (but can work with any genre).
Tools for Researching Your Novel
We all hate it when we read a book full of anachronisms and un-researched content. So do yourself a favor and do your research. Do yourself another favor and be careful when you’re on these sites. They’re time sinks. It’s easy to get distracted, so remember to stay on track.
Atlas - You’re looking for a chart? This place has it. What country has the highest number of millennials? How many monthly active users does Facebook have? This site will tell you.
Weather Underground - For historical fiction writers, this is a dream come true. Give the site a date and a place, and you’ll get the weather from that day. Unfortunately, it only goes back to 1945, but it’s something. You’ll get temperature, wind speeds, precipitation, day length, sunrise, sunset, and so much more.
Infoplease - Similar to Atlas, this site has info on . . . everything. From a Modern Fashion Timeline to “500 Songs that Shaped Rock,” this site has you covered.
Refdesk - Yet another site with a plethora of knowledge. They give you a Fact of the Day, This Day in History, Article of the Day, and more.
Snopes - Not sure if something is true? Look into it on Snopes, a fact-checking website.
Google Scholar - This is great for looking into academic articles/essays that could help you research whatever topic you’re writing about.
Create a NaNoWriMo Book Cover
This is really just for the fun of it. NaNoWriMo gives you the option to upload a book cover for your novel. I recommend doing it because it can be used as a motivator to keep going. Mid-November, you can look at your cover and say to yourself, “That cover deserves a book to go with it.”
Plus it’s just really, really fun. You can check out my post on how to create a book cover in Canva to get yourself started. NaNoWriMo suggests dimensions of 230 x 300 pixels for uploading the book cover onto their site.
Structure Your Time This November
NaNoWriMo is a race against the clock. 50K words in 30 days isn’t easy for most people, so you’re going to need to protect your time. In October, figure out when you’re wasting time. Then, in November, plan to write during those times. You don’t need to binge Netflix on the weekends. You need to write! (Although you definitely do need to give yourself time to recharge.)
It’s best to schedule this out so you make an actual commitment. That way, when friends want to hang out, you can plan it around your writing time. If you can’t plan out a few hours each day to write, consider this: write your novel 15 minutes at a time. After you’ve eaten breakfast, write for 15 minutes. Before you sit down to browse social media, write for 15 minutes. Take part of your lunch break and write for 15 minutes. I’ve seen people win NaNoWriMo this way.
Part 2: Write!
November 1st rolls around, and you’re ready to go. You’ve got your outline, your characters, and a hopeful spirit.
. . . But what happens when writer’s block sets in? How do you stifle the constant urge to procrastinate? What happens when you have to choose between drinks with friends or writing? Don’t worry. I’ve got your back. But before we get into anything, here’s a super-important tip that YOU NEED TO FOLLOW:
Back up Your Writing
You might think this should be in the “after” section, but you’re wrong. Let’s say Thanksgiving arrives, your niece breaks into your office . . . and knocks your laptop onto the floor.
Your novel? Gone.
Methods for Writing Your NaNoWriMo Novel
Snowflake Method - As mentioned above, this is a spectacular method for novel writing. Part of it (the outlining part) should be done during October for prep, but the rest can easily be continued into November.
Write Every Day - When it comes to NaNoWriMo, it doesn’t take much to get behind. That’s why you need to set aside time to write every day.
Reverse NaNoWriMo - This is a super fun method for NaNoWriMo. Basically, you start out writing 3,364 words the first day, and then 3,216 words the second day, and then 3,101 words the third day. The number decreases as the month goes on, and on the last day you only have to write one word. This is a great way to take advantage of the excitement at the beginning of the month.
Just Write - Sometimes, that’s all it takes. Forget about the methods and the hacks and the techniques and just get your words onto paper.
S.U.R.V.I.V.A.L. - Learn how to write smart, based off a wilderness survival guide.
S - Size up the situation: assess your fears and remember your goals.
U - Use all your senses, undue haste makes waste: make sure you know your characters and that you’re writing them consistently.
R - Remember where you are: You’re among friends in an environment where failure is perfectly acceptable and you’re encouraged to learn from your experience.
V - Vanquish fear and panic: Check your fear at the door by sticking to a daily plan and goal.
I - Improvise: Don’t be afraid to abandon ideas that aren’t working to make room for new possibilities.
V - Value living: Writers need to live to be able to tell stories. Give yourself a break from writing and get inspiration from the real world.
A - Act like the natives: Writers write. So guess what you need to do? That’s right.
L - Live by your wits, but for now, learn basic skills: Write the story you want to read by entertaining your imagination, but don’t forget to learn writing skills.
Tools + Techniques for Writing Your NaNoWriMo Novel
Word Processors for Novel Writing
Scrivener - This is my FAVORITE writing tool. It’s more than just a word processor. It’s a project management tool that will let you store all the details about your story in one place. And it’s pretty darn affordable. Check it out here.
ZenWriter - A full-screen writing experience that keeps you focused and productive. Customizable background.
Google Drive - It’s free and you get to store your writing online. The downside? It’s not as complex of a word processor as, say, Word or Scrivener.
Microsoft Word - Do I even need to explain this?
Hemingway App - I love love LOVE Hemingway App. While it’s definitely for the editing process, it’s a great tool. It’ll point out weak or hard-to-read sentences, complex words, etc. Note: you can’t store your work here.
Focus Writer - A full-screen writing app that lets you customize your background. It also gives you stats and has (optional) TYPEWRITER SOUNDS!!! Free download, although there is an option for a tip.
Write or Die - This tool will be your best friend during NaNoWriMo. You open up the program, set your writing goals, and then also set your punishment (such as terrible noises or pictures of spiders) for when you stop writing, or your reward for when you keep writing. Version 2 // Version 3.
Music/Background Noise for Writers
Hipster Sound - Listen to ambient background noise (like a busy cafe) while you write.
Noisli - Add different sounds (like rain, thunder, trains, fireplace noises, and more), plus adjust their levels to create background noise tailored to your preference—or your scene. (Also has a text editor.) This is my favorite.
Focus@Will - This site claims that they can give you a 4x increase in productivity by listening to their music.
MoodFuse - Pick your genre, and then select your preferred energy, happiness, and danceability (what!) levels.
Coffitivity - This website is all about creating different coffee shop sounds. Maybe you want “scholarly sounds at a campus cafe” or “energizing ambiance from the City of Light.” It’s up to you.
Ambient Mixer - Two words: HOGWARTS SOUNDS. Gryffindor Common Room, Hogwarts Library, and more . . . plus ambient noises from other fandoms (like Loki’s Chambers, Neverland, or Sherlock’s Apartment).
Timers for Writers
Style/Readability/Grammar Tools for Writers
Hemingway App - I know I already talked about this, but seriously. I love it. While it’s definitely something to use after NaNoWriMo is over, it’s a great tool.
Pro Writing Aid - A powerful tool that will make editing much more pleasant.
WordCounter - Tells you your reading level, reading time, speaking time, and so. much. more.
Cliche Finder - Yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like. Whaaaat!
Keep Writer’s Block at Bay
Trick Yourself into Writing - Sometimes, your brain just doesn’t want to write. When that happens, it’s time to get sneaky. Trick yourself into writing by asking yourself, “How much fun can I have writing today?”
Don’t Worry about Names - You could spend hours trying to come up with the perfect name for a character, place, or fictional business. Trust me, I’ve done it before, and it was a total waste of time. Just keep writing, and every time you need to use a name, use something like “RestaurantName” or “ScrawnyGuy” instead.
Stuck During a Scene? Change the Setting - This could really help get your creative juices flowing. How will your setting affect your characters’ emotions and actions?
Stop Editing - Seriously, this is a first draft. And contrary to what everyone is telling you, first drafts aren’t supposed to be pretty. Stop obsessing about the details and just try to get the story figured out.
Overcome Writer’s Block - Throw writer’s block out the window with this CreativeLive course!
NaNoWriMo Tips + Hacks
Reward Yourself - Hack NaNoWriMo by creating a rewards system for yourself. Once you hit certain word count goals, treat yo’ self. You deserve it, you amazing writer, you!
Create a Writing Routine - A rewards system doesn’t work for everyone. If you’re one of those people, learn how to create a writing routine to boost productivity.
For Tricky Scenes, Use Bullet Points - Take a scene and make a list of the main actions, thoughts, and dialogue. Once you have the scene “outlined,” you may find that it’s easier to write. Hmmm . . . almost like having a plan makes a difference.
Switch Where You Write - Sometimes, switching up where you work can help boost your creativity.
Take Field Notes - Increase your powers of observation by taking notes. What are the people you normally pass by doing? What little details about them stand out to you?
Try a Creativity Hack - From listening to music to writing by hand to exercising, there are tons of ways to boost your creativity for a better writing session.
Get Involved in the NaNoWriMo Community
There are a ton of ways to get involved in the NaNoWriMo Community. But just be careful—this can be a huge time sink.
NaNoWriMo Forums - ask and answer questions on writing, NaNoWriMo, or whatever you want.
NaNoWriMo Hashtags - have Instagram or Twitter? Interact with the hashtags #NaNoWriMo, #NaNoWriMo2019, and #InstaWrimo to meet writers from all over the world!
Camp Cabins - this is exclusive to Camp NaNoWriMo, which takes place in April and July. During those sessions, you get sorted into cabins (which is basically an on-site group chat) so you can interact with other writers.
Part 3: What to Do after NaNoWriMo
(Keep scrolling for your NaNoWriMo Survival Kit!)
December 1st: my least favorite day of the year. Anyone else agree with me? NaNoWriMo is done, your novel is probably somewhere around half-finished (even if you hit 50K), and you’re not ready for November to be over.
Thankfully, NaNoWriMo has you covered with their Now What? months. The lovely staff members behind NaNo are fully aware that, once November is over, a lot of us writers feel lost. Some of us finish our novels and don’t know the next steps for publishing. And most of us are left with a half-written story, unsure how to finish it, and unsure that we want to without fellow NaNoers cheering us on.
What to Do with Your Half-Written NaNoWriMo Novel
If your NaNoWriMo novel isn’t finished—even if you hit 50K words—then don’t give up hope! There are plenty of resources above on how to fight writer’s block, how to create a writing routine that suits you, and more. The key trick here is to keep writing. I find that if I take anything more than a few days off in December, I lose momentum and never pick it back up again. So here are a few tips to keep writing after NaNoWriMo:
Keep writing with NaNoWriMo Goal Trackers - NaNoWriMo has created a wonderful tool for helping you set and achieve writing (and editing) goals: Goal Trackers. If you love looking at your stats during NaNoWriMo, this is your tool for getting that same jolt of excitement when you see them. I have a tutorial on how to use goal trackers right here.
Create (or join) an accountability group - With so many places to create a community (like Slack or Discord), it’s not that hard to round up your friends from the NaNoWriMo forums and plop them into the same place! This can also be a great place for critique partners and beta readers when your novels are ready.
Stick around for Camp NaNoWriMo - Camp NaNoWriMo happens twice a year, in April and July. It’s the same idea as NaNoWriMo, except you get to set your word count, and the rules aren’t quite as strict. Plus, you get stuck in a cabin with a handful of other writers, and you can interact with them over chat. It’s a good time!
What to Do with Your Finished NaNoWriMo Novel
First of all, CONGRATS. Finishing a novel takes HARD WORK. Pat yourself on the back, reward yourself with a Starbucks drink, and do a happy dance. You made it.
But what do you do now?!
If you’re looking to publish, the next steps are quite rigorous. So if you’re new to all this, I’d recommend taking a course or two on writing, and definitely learn how to self-edit. Then you can move onto the next steps (after you’ve revised your novel a few times):
Get some beta readers - These are people who will read your novel and give you feedback on what you did well and what you still need to work on. This is so important because quite often, you won’t notice your story’s issues because you’re too close to it.
Hire a professional editor - Please don’t skip this step! Grammar is a tricky subject, and having a professional go through it with a fine-tooth comb—and maybe give it a developmental edit—is a necessary step for your book’s success.
Consider self publishing vs. traditional publishing - This depends on your own personal preferences, how much control you’re willing to let go of, and how good you are at pitching yourself and your story to agents and publishing houses.
Part 4: The Extras
Now for THE FUN STUFF. I’ve created a digital NaNoWriMo Survival Kit that’s FULL of resources to help you out before, during, and after NaNoWriMo. Plus, I’ve compiled a list of physical supplies you’ll probably want to keep around. Keep scrolling to see both!
Physical Supplies for Your NaNoWriMo Survival Kit
Notebooks, pens, and pencils - Even if you’re planning on writing on a computer, switching to handwriting can boost creativity and help you get out of a slump.
A planner - Keep track of your schedule, story + scene goals, tasks, etc. The Panda Planner is great for this.
Water (and a nice reusable water bottle) - You need to stay hydrated while writing! So grab yourself a water bottle that you can easily refill (I’m currently obsessing over this one) and set reminders on your phone to drink water!
A writerly mug - If you don’t have a go-to writer mug, then you should definitely get one. Bonus points if it inspires you. Check out these awesome mugs (list continued below image):
From right to left, top to bottom: Writer’s Block Fears Me | Writer Description | Writer/Badass | Tears of Readers | #Amwriting | I’m a writer. | Writer Definition (coffee version) | Weapons of Mass Creation | New Novel Loading
A workspace - Find a place that you can turn into your writing space for October and November. Maybe it’s a desk or maybe it’s a specific table at your favorite coffee shop. Find where you’re most productive and write there!
A timer - This is a great way to keep track of your time. It’s also necessary for writing sprints! You can find a couple online timers above.
Productivity playlists - If you don’t have time to craft these yourself, you’ll get links to some great playlists if you sign up for my NaNoWriMo Survival Kit.
Healthy snacks - Usually, writing means sitting. While you can get yourself a standing desk, you’ll probably be standing still. So make sure you’re eating healthy snacks during NaNoWriMo.
Liquid inspiration - Whether it’s coffee, tea, or apple juice (or all three if you’re me), make sure you’re stocked up. And don’t forget to drink plain water as well!
Your favorite movies/TV shows - Sometimes, you need a break. Create a list of your favorite movies and TV shows to inspire you when your brain is fried.
Your brain - Please don’t forget this. You can’t write without it!
Your Digital NaNoWriMo Survival Kit
Fill out the form below to grab your very own NaNoWriMo Survival Kit, for FREEEEE! It includes:
A NaNoWriMo 2019 desktop calendar: see it at the end of the post!
Writing-themed phone wallpapers
The eBook “30 Days of Writing Prompts + Inspiration”
A list of my favorite Spotify playlists for writing
Expert writing tips in the form of author interviews during October/November of 2019. You’ll get notified by email when these come out.
Sign up to Get Your Digital NaNoWriMo Survival Kit:
Help This Guide Help Other Writers
I hope these NaNoWriMo tips helped you, and I hope you have a blast writing your novel this November. If this guide helped you, please share it on social media! There are share buttons at the top of the post, and there are images for Pinterest below. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.
Here’s what your NaNoWriMo 2019 Desktop Calendar will look like: