5 tips for winning NaNoWriMo with your head intact – Anna Spargo-Ryan

5 tips for winning NaNoWriMo with your head intact

5 tips for winning NaNoWriMo with your head intact

I have written about winning NaNoWriMo before. But on the off chance that you’re looking for some actual tips, and not just line after line of my whining, here is this post.

For those of you not in the know — and I expect that’s probably no one, given you are currently here for tips — NaNoWriMo (henceforth Nano) is when a bunch of people around the place spend 30 days trying to find the laxative that will send a novel careening from their writer intestine. More specifically, it is when people who hate themselves and each other write 50,000 words in the month of November.

Because of logic, you can learn about Nano on its website.

When you get to the end of the month and you have 50,000 words (or more) and your family is still speaking to you, it’s called winning. I’ve only won twice, so I am no expert. If you like non-expert tips about an endeavour that might put you in an asylum, read on.

(In case it’s unclear, yes, I will be doing Nano again this year.)

1. Write early in the day

The very worst feeling in all of Nano is getting to 10pm and realising you still have 1,667 words to write. And that you didn’t write at all yesterday, so actually you have 3,334 words to write. And you have to get up for work at 4am and get on the ice fishing boat and be whipped by a giant named Agvald.

The best way to avoid this is to do at least some of your writing in the morning. Sometimes, once you’ve eaten your tuna sandwich and shouted at your kids and done some photocopying, the evening can feel like a separate day all together. And that means you turn on your computer at 10pm and you only have to write 700 words instead, which means you can do that and still watch the Jimmy Fallon catch-up on ABC2.

2. Bite off little bits

One of the most obvious things people will tell you about writing is that it’s just one word after another. I struggle to understand what these people think we think writing is, like maybe it’s a thing you find in a Kinder Surprise. But when you’re writing 1,667 words a day, every day, for a period of what seems like the rest of your godforsaken life, taking it one piece at a time is really important.

You can break up your writing space as well. Do a bit on an envelope. Do a bit in the dirt on your car. Do a bit on the inside of your foot. Write by hand. Write on the computer. Dictate it to a monkey. Every time you change your writing position, you will get a free burst of energy. If you’re me, this lasts for one word. But you probably eat better and exercise more often than I do.

It’s not a race. I mean, it is a race, when you get to the heart of it, but you don’t have to treat it like a race. Just write a bit, and then a bit more, and a bit more after that. If you write 150 words every hour (and you should be able to do this even if you’re carving the words out of marble), you will meet your daily target.

3. Pace yourself

A mistake I made while I was Nanoing last year was to sit in the library from 10am (when it opened) until 7pm (when it closed). What I mostly did was stick nails into the wall and then slam my face into them. I was consumed by writing my 1,667 words. And because I allowed myself the entire day to do it, that’s how long I spent. Some days I did more writing than others, but I crawled out of that library every evening wanting to drive my car into a tree.

Missing a day: what you really want to do is not miss a day. Catching up is really hard, if you’re the kind of person who finds it difficult to commit to things and mostly wants to jump on a trampoline and eat a bagel instead of writing. It’s a short-term pay-off. It’s like when you eat the whole box of chocolates and your life is amazing for the next 20 minutes and then you are consumed by self-loathing for the rest of the week. I mean, in theory. I have no personal experience in this area*.

But you can decide not to write the whole amount every day. Work to your strengths. I am bad at writing on weekends, so I try to write a bit more each day during the week. Then I don’t have to pull the rope so taut on Saturday afternoon, which is my River Cottage time.

4. Stop before you run out of words

I think Hemingway said this first, which was an irritating thing he liked to do. If you leave off the night before in the middle of a scene, you will have a starting point for tomorrow. One of the hardest things about Nano is starting new every day. The dread of coming up with 1,667 more words, when you used all the ones you had for yesterday’s words. I have spent literally more than one hour sitting in front of a blank screen, waiting for inspiration to strike. And the thing about Nano is, you don’t have time to wait for inspiration. You have to press your inspiration button every day and just force yourself to push on.

If you keep some of yesterday’s scene in store, the button is already half in. By the time you write a few finisher sentences from yesterday, you should have some traction for today.

You might not, of course. I mostly punch myself in the arm for trying to trick me into thinking I’m not just finishing off the thing I deliberately left hanging yesterday.

5. Don’t do the bullshit filler stuff

Drafts can be total bollocks. I have written things in drafts that my Year 9 English teacher would have literally set on fire in front of me. And part of the function of Nano is to get you to write a novel without editing as you go, or giving in to the voice that says you’re less Margaret Atwood and more Sally’s Dog From Down The Road. So, good. Do that.

But people will encourage you to do whatever it takes to get to 50,000 words. They mean: don’t use any contractions (why have one word when you can have two?), give characters double-barrelled names (not just because the awesome people have them) and describe the very chemical makeup of the colour of the eyes of the woman you met in the clouds with the legs up to here who was going on a journey to the man with the iron biceps.

You’ll just shoot yourself in the foot. If you’re serious about writing a novel — and I hope that you are, and that your novel is worse than my novel so I don’t have to hate you — then use Nano as an opportunity to write something salvageable. If you deliberately piss in its eye just to get to 50,000 words, you will have to work twice as hard afterwards. It doesn’t have to be perfect, by any means. But the beauty of Nano is ending up with 200 pages that might be something someday and that you can show to your dad. Otherwise you might as well just write “word” 50,000 times while smugly eating donuts.


50,000 words is probably not a novel, unless you’re writing MG or perhaps YA fiction. The novel I’ve written is 78,000 words, and that’s on the short side for adult fiction.

Use the forums. There are a lot of children writing strange erotica, granted, but I have been pulled out of the pits of hell on more than one occasion by the forums.

Whatever you do, have mercy on agents and publishers and choose not to send them your Nano fresh out of the gate. I sold the Nano I wrote in 2013, but not until February, when I had deloused it. Writing the words in the novel is only one part of the process of writing a complete novel. I mean, unless you hate agents and publishers. If that’s the case, send it, by all means.

  • Kirsty Rice

    September 24, 2014 at 7:21 pm Reply

    I’ve attempted Nano twice and failed DISMALLY twice. I didn’t bother last year, but this year, is my year. I’m going to be a winner. Yes. I. Am.

  • Emily

    September 24, 2014 at 9:03 pm Reply

    ‘I hope your novel is worse than my novel so I don’t have to hate you.’ BAHAHA. Best line.

  • Johanna

    September 24, 2014 at 9:07 pm Reply

    Wonderful piece … have been inspired by impassioned hope and irony. Will avoid nails on walls. You write so well – best of luck :)

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      September 24, 2014 at 9:31 pm Reply

      Thanks Johanna! It really does feel amazing when you get to the end (otherwise I wouldn’t do it). Good luck!

  • Helen K

    September 24, 2014 at 9:34 pm Reply

    I am pondering trying – I might attempt Na (25000 sound less scary for a first time and it would be far more than I could normally write) so I’m reading any tips with interest!

    Writing a bit ahead of your word limit is a good idea – kind of like stockpiling your points for a splurge if you are doing weight watchers (or, as you say, as I’ve heard). And with your point (or Hemingway’s -same thing) about finishing before a scene before it finishes, Nicole Hayes (who was running the creative writing course I took part in recently) suggested finishing each session of writing when you had commenced the START of a scene – her theory was you would be all fired up that you’d be more likely to be ready to go next time. Seemed like a good idea to me – an alternative approach to consider?

  • Vanessa Carnevale

    September 24, 2014 at 9:42 pm Reply

    I think I have signed up for Nano every year for the last three years but something odd goes on during November and it seems to be my least productive month of the year. Granted I’m already working on a new WIP things might be different this year!

  • Jane Rawson

    October 26, 2015 at 8:49 am Reply

    Great tips, Anna. I wonder whether publishers have come to fear December? One thing you can do with a 50,000-word manuscript (should that turn out to be the right number of words for your story) is enter it in Viva la Novella (once you’ve made it good, of course, and assuming VlN runs again next year). My VlN-winner ‘Formaldehyde’ came out of the first nano I ever did, in 2000: it took 15 more years to make it good.

  • Pingback:Oh (na)no, it’s November again | Jane Bryony Rawson

    October 26, 2015 at 12:54 pm Reply

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