A Survival Guide to NaNoWriMo

James Gallagher

I know it might sound like the name of the latest hospital superbug but don’t be fooled; NaNoWriMo is much more terrifying and life-threatening than that!

For those of you who don’t know, NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month and is an online challenge that has taken place in November of each year since 2001. The aim of the challenge is simple; you have one month to write a novel. Alright, so it’s not that simple… nevertheless, the idea is to get all of those people who go around saying “oh, I’ve always wanted to write a novel but…” to sign up to a huge online community where they can help each other out and get their magnum opus off the ground. Over the last twelve years NaNoWriMo has flourished into a global phenomenon, with wannabe authors far and wide putting pen to paper and finger to keyboard in a bid to get their novel started and possibly even finished.

Now, for a NaNoWriMo virgin this probably all sounds incredibly daunting so, in order to help you survive the process, I’ve drawn up a few tips on how to survive the next month. Somerset Maugham, author of The Painted Veil, once said that “there are three rules for writing a novel but, unfortunately, no one knows what they are” but damn him, let’s have a go anyway!

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Follow these tips and soon you too could be being hobbled by a crazed fan!

1. Make a brief plan and then write every day

Writing is a full-time job. If you’re not writing, you should be thinking about writing. It always helps to have a phone, a tablet or – if you’re retro – a notepad with you so you can jot down ideas as they come to you (I’m so devoted to my writing that I have a pad next to my bed so I can log my dreams and incorporate them into my writing…). It’s essential that you take notes and plan in advance because it’s so easy to become confused by your own story. You don’t need to plan each chapter or each little plot device but it always helps to at least have a vague idea of where you want things to go. Nobody’s demanding perfection but it always helps to write something – even if it’s just a few lines of dialogue or a couple of paragraphs of exposition – just to make sure that your story stays fresh in your mind. At the end of the day, if you can’t keep up with what’s happening then how on Earth can you expect your audience to!?

2. Remember: coffee is more important than oxygen

Ahh coffee; giver of life and bringer of death. How I adore thee. All decent writers use coffee to see them through each agonising second of writer’s block. It’s a well known fact* that Shakespeare simply couldn’t function without a pot of Nescafé Gold Blend brewing away in the background. If you want to be a proper writer you’ve got to embrace the inevitability of a caffeine addiction. Don’t like coffee? Learn to like it… learn to love it. Allergic to coffee? Tough. The blotchy skin, the shortness of breath and the potential cardiac arrest will all be worth it in the end. It might also help matters if you give your coffee a bit of an Irish or French twist every so often. From experience I can tell you that I tend to find the majority of my inspiration at the bottom of a bottle of Brandy. Heck, I wrote most of this article completely half-baked!

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*Might not be 100% true…

Who knew Mike & the Mechanics would one day come in handy?

3. Tell your friends and family

Attempting to write an entire novel in one month is neither clever, easy nor pretty. After about a week or so of intense writing, there’s a high chance that you’ll lost control of your critical faculties and go just a little bit mad. Basic hygiene, social skills and a diet that consists of more than just crisps will all disappear quicker than your initial creativity and so it might be best to let those closest to know what you’re up to. Ask them to brew a pot of coffee or make you a sandwich if you haven’t left your room all day. Maybe ask them to knock on your door or give you a call just to check you haven’t thrown yourself/your computer/both out of the window in a fit of indignant rage at how awful your novel is, and perhaps ask them to forgive you in advance in case your lack of sleep causes you to go all Howard Beale on them. It might also help to bounce ideas off them now and then, just to help keep those creative juices flowing.

4. Don’t worry

You have 30 days to write an entire novel; it took JK Rowling almost 7 years to write her first book so I think you can be forgiven if your initial effort isn’t all that good. One of the best bits of advice I’ve ever been given came from a lecturer at University who said “if your first draft isn’t shit, you’re doing it all wrong”. Nobody is expecting you to write the next Crime & Punishment in the space of a month. To be quite honest, if your novel is as coherent as Green Eggs and Ham then you’ll have been more successful than most wannabe writers. The point of the challenge isn’t for you to write the next bestseller, it’s simply for you to get your ideas down. You don’t have to worry about characterisation, plotholes or consistency, you just have to focus on laying the foundations and producing something resembling a story. Put your inner editor to sleep for a month and just let the words flow. If you can manage that, you won’t go far wrong.

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5. Have fun!

This is the most important point of all. If you’re not having fun or enjoying what you’re doing then perhaps writing isn’t for you. Don’t let it stress you out, don’t let it take over your life and don’t let it get you down. It’s that simple. If you want a break, take a break. If you’re bored, go do something fun. I’m sure there’s a masterpiece inside all of you just begging to be unleashed on the World. You’ve just got to allow it to come through naturally…

About James Gallagher

James is a film addict, a bitter misanthrope and a graduate from the University of Sheffield. Raised in Birkenhead, he is like a (very) poor man's Paul O'Grady. He has lots of opinions – almost all of which are wrong – and can normally be found reading, writing and drinking whisky. @theugliestfraud