The Study

The (Honest-to-Goodness) Secret to Winning NaNoWriMo

As a four-time participant, three-time winner of National Novel Writing Month, I feel like I'm basically a grizzled old pro who's seen a lot of death and victory in the field. If you catch me between chomps on my cigar and swigs from my rusty cup, I might be able to give you a piece of advice or two on how to tackle this monster of a month. I'm basically the Snake Plissken of NaNoWriMo.

So I thought I'd take this opportunity to strap on my eyepatch and share with you the biggest, most important, most bestest suggestion I have on how to write 50,000 words of a novel in one month. It's a difficult challenge, and it's not for the faint of heart. But if you want to win, the best way to do it is this:

Stop self-editing.

The biggest obstacle to achieving 50,000 words is our own inner editor brains. We write a line, and we're not happy with it. We throw in a plot twist that we later regret. We introduce a character, and then we think, "Oh, now I'm stuck, I shouldn't have brought a time traveling snake charmer into this story, what was I thinking?" And it tugs at us, it gnaws at us, until we break down, dive back into Chapter One, and rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.

It's a powerful urge, the need to self-edit. But if you want to win NaNo, you've got to conquer it. 

Do not move backward. Only move forward.

"But wait!" you might cry. "Aren't you just setting us up for failure? Or difficult work in the second draft?" The answers to your questions are no and yes, respectively. By plowing ahead no matter what you've written in the past, you're not setting yourself up for failure. It may not feel like it, but you're setting yourself up for bright, blazing success. The more words you push out onto the page, the closer you get to 50,000, the more you think, "Holy cats, I'm doing it, I'm writing a novel in a month!" and the more drive you have to keep going and succeed. When you go back and rewrite, you dam up that process. You write and you write and you write, but your word count flounders, because you're just replacing words that you used to have, and then you're diving into different parts of your story, trying to pick up the thread you snipped and tie it back into a story that you still haven't finished. It's a huge time suck of a mess, and it doesn't take long for you to realize that you're doing all this work and you're still behind the daily word count goal, and oh, why are you even trying this in the first place, you're just losing, losing, losing.

That's a sad way to go out, and it happens all the time.

As for the second part of the question that I assume you asked, yes, it does make for a tough second draft process. But guess what! Your second draft should always be a challenge, because no one writes a perfect novel in the first try, and you should expect your first draft to be a bit of a mess. For many of us, writing a hurried, blustery, messy first draft is the only way we can accomplish that first draft. If I went back in and self-edited everything, I'd never make it past the halfway mark.

Just how dedicated should you be to plowing ahead?

100% dedicated. And I mean it. 100%. Let me give you a personal example.

In November 2011, I wrote the first 50,000 words of a novel called Apocalypticon. If you've read the book, then you know there's a part in the story where the main characters wander upon a survivor's settlement called Fort Doom. In the first draft, the NaNo draft, things got really weird at Fort Doom. Like, uncomfortably weird. I wrote myself into such a bizarre plot hole that there was no way to dig myself out without completely stripping out three chapters of work and rewriting them from scratch. But I was on the clock, and I knew I couldn't self-edit if I wanted to accomplish my goal. So instead of rewriting it, I inserted a page break and typed, in all caps,




And then I wrote the rest of the story with total disregard for the dozens of pages I'd spent a week working on.

And you know what? I wrote 80,000 words that year. And then I finished the novel a little ways down the road. And then I published it, and now you can buy it and read it and love it or hate it or have mediocre feelings about it at best. But I finished it.

Yes, I had a hell of a time editing the Fort Doom scenes. Yes, my first draft was a complete disaster. But I firmly believe that without the "push forward" mentality, I would never have won that NaNoWriMo, and I wouldn't have had the boost I needed to keep going and finish the work.

I honestly don't think I'd have had a novel to publish if I'd stopped to self-edit.

So that's my advice. Power on. Even if your story makes zero sense because of something you wrote in Chapter Three, keep going. Make yourself a note to fix it later, then plow ahead. 

You have 50,000 words in you. Get them all on paper, then let the second draft version of you sort it all out.


Clayton SmithComment