A Quick Note on NaNoWriMo

Today is November 1st, which means the beginning of National Novel Writing Month, in which newer writers are encouraged to write a novel in the space of the month. To my mind the challenge is not to write a good novel, or even a salable novel, but just a novel — a story of sufficient length to be called a novel (NaNoWriMo uses 50,000 words as a marker, which is actually slightly short for modern novels — 60k is usually the lower bound — but even so). “Good” and “salable” come later. The real advantage to NaNoWriMo, at least in my mind, is to get folks who are intimidated by the length of a novel to realize that it’s not actually an intimidating number of words if you just plug away at it, every day. That’s in fact how writing gets done.

I don’t have a lot of handy information on how to tackle NaNoWriMo — if you’re a new writer and you want some help on that score, Scott Westerfeld and Justine Larbelestier have a whole stack of NaNoWriMo advice columns here, which I can heartily recommend — but I do want to offer some encouragement to folks who are wondering if the “just power through a novel in a month” idea is a good, useful or even sane idea. So, lean in, people, and hear my secret:

Lock In? My novel that was released this year? Totally a NaNoWriMo novel.

Which is to say that the vast majority of it — roughly 90% of its 80k length — was written last November. I had written a previous version of the book that did not work at all and had to chuck nearly all of it, create a new main character and substantially revise the storyline to accommodate the new character. And I was looking at a December 1 deadline.

So what did I do? Well, I sat down in front of the keyboard every single day in November and wrote at least 2,500 words. And piled up the pages. And at the end of the month, I had my novel. It was done. And then I sent it in. And then I slept for a week.

I did it that way because at that point I had to, deadline-wise. But the fact of the matter is that it was possible to do it that way because every day I wasn’t writing 80,000 words, I was writing 2,500. That’s ten pages, double-spaced. Totally doable.

And how did it turn out? Well, in my case, pretty well. Lock In’s got some of the best reviews of my career, was a best seller on several lists including the New York Times hardcover list, and it’s been optioned for a television series. Bear in mind I’m a professional novelist and this is what I do and that I wrote ten novels before this, so obviously my personal experience as a writer comes into play here. But none of those things would have been possible if I didn’t first just sit down and write the thing. Writing the novel — getting it done — is the key to anything and everything else that can happen to a novel.

So yes: Writing a novel in a month can happen. And that novel you’ve written in a month can perhaps go on from there. But first, sit down and write it. Put it into words and don’t worry about anything other than getting it down on the page. A couple thousand words a day and you’re on your way. You can revise and shape later, worry about whether it is good and whether you can sell it later. For now, just get it down. It’s not rocket science, it’s just work. And you can do it. I know because I did the same thing, last year.

Good luck.

46 thoughts on “A Quick Note on NaNoWriMo

  1. What might be instructive about your experience, John, is that you had done a first draft before hand; notwithstanding the irony of using this metaphor with “Lock In,” but it was as if you had selected furniture for the room and needed to move things around a bit (and chuck that ugly sofa, apparently). That may be the hardest part of meeting the challenge of writing a novel, of just figuring out how to “furnish” the novel. But if doing that was easy, a lot more people would have finished their novels by now.

  2. I’ve been doing NaNoWriMo for a good while now – it took me a few years of attempts to reach the “win” (50k words), and after that I could punch out a “winner” every time. I’ve even let a few people read some of what I’ve done. They say “good”, but they’re not publishers or agents, they’re my friends and they give me friendly reviews (and you know that’s kind but not really useful). As you say, “good” and “salable” come later. For me, apparently, much later!

    But still – I now look forward to Novembers for other reasons than food, and that’s a good thing. This year’s NaNoWriMo is going to be dedicated to a heavy rewrite of my last year’s product, and so I was very encouraged by this post of yours, Mr. Scalzi. Thank you!

  3. Hear, hear! I tend to write all of my novels on the NaNo model, even if not actually in November. Although, this year I’m TOTALLY nanoing, because I also have a deadline.

    The camaraderie is nice, too.

    My first NaNo novel was a mess, but I learned a ton from doing it. And my second one? That one we sold.

  4. I have a freelance gig right now where I’m ghostwriting roughly a novel a month. I get handed an outline, and I spend a day or so at the beginning of the month fleshing out the outline, and then…yeah. I sit down, and write at least 2600 words a day to meet my deadlines.

    I wrote a NaNo novel in 2002, and it was awful. But years of revision turned it into something that I self published last year, and that is now going to be edited yet again, and then released by Penner Publishing.

    The two big differences between now and then are that I stopped telling myself that I had to write a novel and started telling myself I had to write a scene, and I stopped telling myself that I didn’t know how to do it. Chemical assistance was necessary with that second one, to be fair.

  5. I have :won” NaNoWriMo a few times. One effort, “Scorpion”, actually saw print. If want to write a novel but your brain gets in the way, NanoWriMo will help you focus.

  6. George:

    I think saying that I had written a first draft in this case might be over-generous. I wrote several chapters which were not usable and of which only a few thousand words were salvageable. The basic concept was down, of course, but pretty much all the novel had to built from the ground up, and I’m the sort of writer who doesn’t outline; I write to find out where the novel is going.

    That said, it’s certainly true that prior to sitting down to write, I had done a lot of thinking about the world I wanted to create; the idea had been rolling around in my head for a while. But at the end of the day ideas are just ideas; you have to write them out to make them real.

  7. I’ve done NaNo nine times so far, and won 5, of which 3 have turned into workable novels. I’m still debating about this year. I have as story in mind, but it’s not fleshed out in any real way, and the timing absolutely sucks. So I waffle back and forth as to whether to take a stab at it, and simply not care if the quality sucks, or to ignore that it’s NaNo, and just work at my usual (very slow) pace.

  8. Sounds like a variant on that Sesame Street “Sing a Song” song I remember from my youth —
    Write a book.
    Thirty days —
    That’s all it took!
    It don’t matter if it’s not good enough
    For anyone else to read.
    Just wriiiiiiiite.
    Write a book!

  9. Both my kids are doing NaNo this year (there is a Jr. site as well) with word goals of 50,000 and 40,000 words respectively. They are 10 and 12. They asked me to join them – so I am. However being a full time university student I may not “win” this time. But I did the first time I tried it – so at least I know what I’m looking at.

    It will be interesting to see if the kids kick my butt at this. :-)

  10. Thank you so much. When I got up this morning, I’d decided to give it a miss this year. I’ve been trying for years now and never gotten more than 10,000 words. I always give up because I’m too busy or it’s not good enough or I don’t know where it’s going — or all three. So why bother? You just reminded my why to bother: because I still want to be able to tell stories, and the only way to do that is to write.

    Also, Chris Bohn, thanks for the earworm. ^_^

  11. Well, ‘somebody’s got to play the trombone.’ Good luck to writers: I’ll read your stuff when you are finished!

  12. I’m not doing Nano this year, because I’ve got actually work on editing on my next release with Carina. But my first novel was TOTALLY a Nano novel. Next year, maybe, I might be able to do it again. :)

    Something I will add to John’s advice is that when I did Nano in 2003 and got Faerie Blood out of my brain, I started by having an outline beforehand. I took a lot of notes about what I thought would probably happen, and then just started writing to that outline. That got me through to about halfway through the month. Then I took notes on the rest of the outline, kept going, and squeaked over the line at the end of November. By then I had enough momentum that I was able to keep going and finish the book the following January.

    So if new writers out there haven’t tried that, you all might see if having an outline to work from works for you.

    Good luck to all Nano writers this year!

  13. But I would think your initial false start on Lock-In helped you know what not to write the second time around.

    The best priority I’ve been able to give my own writing is to regard it as my fourth job, after the paycheck-job, caregiving, and sleeping (so I can do the first two jobs). For a fourth job, I don’t do too badly, about 4000-5000 words a month. I’ve decided to try to up that to 10,000 if I can in November; I guess that’s my own particular version of Nanowrimo.

  14. But I would think your initial false start on Lock-In helped you know what not to write the second time around.

    Is there a reason why people are nitpicking at JS’s example?

  15. A) I printed this column out for an inspirational reminder and posted it near my keyboard;

    B) In sixth grade when I wanted to play sax because our family already had one and everyone thought it was cool (I felt I was ready as I had already performed in hand-bell choir), the band director would let me in the band but only if I played trombone because ‘somebody’s got to play the trombone.’ So I did it and played the trombone, and then over the next six years switched to baritone, then tuba, then choir and operatic singing, then guitar and bass, and now slide and pedal steel. Today, I have been performing music in public settings for forty years. Had I not played trombone for the good of the band, I wouldn’t be able to play jazz and write horn parts today, I wouldn’t have met Delfeayo Marsalis, Miles Davis, or many of my best friends. Playing the trombone is probably only one of three decisions in my lifetime that I actually got right. So rock on low brass and go listen to some John Phillip Sousa and then the Beatles…. Just my two cents!

  16. Yes, very much this. I don’t think I’ll be doing NaNoWriMo this year because day job, but having done it all the way through was invaluable: it’s one thing to understand, in the abstract, that the journey of a thousand pages begins with a single word, etc etc, and another thing to actually raise your head from your keyboard on December 1 and actually see concrete proof of it.

    Also, the NaNoWriMo community is awesome.

  17. Where NaNo paid off for me the first time I did it (and the only time I did it successfully) is that the tight deadline forced me to shut down the inner editor to an extent I could never do before. Instead of agonizing over every word, I had to basically brain dump. It was a valuable experience for me.

  18. I’ve been doing it for awhile and I am this year. I generally aim for about 2200/2300 words a day and to finish up around the time the site verifier is turned on. That way if I have to take a sick or away day I have the word count padding. My first attempts were pretty bad but at least I proved I can get to the 50k. I did a character and plot outline for this year.

  19. I used to scoff at NaNoWriMo, then I did it myself because I’d already been writing 2500 words a day on something, so why not? I wish I’d done it years earlier because I learned a lot about how I write that are, quite likely, the reasons my productivity has dramatically increased over the past few years. Locking up my inner editor was a big help, but I think more important lessons (for a wannabe professional author, anyway), that most people seem to overlook were that I learned that I could find time to write more days than not, that I could write even when not inspired, and, most importantly, that sometimes even when what you end up with is utter dreck, if you learned from the experience of writing it, it wasn’t wasted time.

  20. The Scott Westerfield site included a (kinda disparaging) quote parodying 1950s science fiction, from a letter by Raymond Chandler. Might be fun to collaborate with Chandler by writing the rest of his fast-paced story…Maybe not the author’s original intent, however :-) :

    “I checked out with K19 on Abadabaran III, and stepped out through the crummaliote hatch on my 22 Model Sirus Hardtop. I cocked the timejector in secondary and waded through the bright blue manda grass. My breath froze into pink pretzels. I flicked on the heat bars and the Bryllis ran swiftly on five legs using their other two to send out crylon vibrations. The pressure was almost unbearable, but I caught the range on my wrist computer through the transparent cysicites. I pressed the trigger. The thin violet glow was icecold against the rust-colored mountains. The Bryllis shrank to half an inch long and I worked fast stepping on them with the poltex. But it wasn’t enough. The sudden brightness swung me around and the Fourth Moon had already risen. I had exactly four seconds to hot up the disintegrator and Google had told me it wasn’t enough. He was right.” – Raymond Chandler, letter to H.N. Swanson, Mar. 14, 1953.

    From http://scottwesterfeld.com/blog/2009/11/1889/

  21. Hey John, is Lock In s Turkish Rights still available? Can you pass me to your agent for foreign rights?


  22. I know I could manage NaNoWriMo and I’ll probably do it some year, but at this point in time I think work I’m better off focusing on the novel I’ve already been writing. I suppose I should aim to RE-write a qualifying length during the month, though.

  23. One NaNo I finished a novel I had started three years before. I simply added 50,000 words to what I had written. It was a lot of fun.

    No NaNo this year for me because between the new job and family issues I haven’t been able to find time to sleep, never mind write,. But next year? Oh yes!

  24. This is my fifth attempt at NaNo and I have yet to come close to winning. (For some reason distracting crises seem to pop up in November.) But I perceiver.

    Thanks for the encouragement.

  25. This will be my third NaNo (one loss, one win). I did get 50K last year but didn’t get all the way through the storyline to a completed novel.

    I read back over my last year’s work and I still like the characters, the plot, and a lot of the execution. So this year I’m hoping to add 50K more words, get to “the end”, and then in the following months, edit it and submit it to a publisher. It’s a slim chance, but without a completed manuscript I’d have no chance at all!

  26. If you’re not already overwhelmed with resources and advice, you might also want to check out the blog of my pal Alexandra Sokoloff: http://www.screenwritingtricks.com/

    She comes at plotting, etc, from the perspective of a former screenwriter, and some (including myself) find it quite useful.

    Not doing NaNo myself due to some pressing family health concerns, but good luck to all who are! The most valuable thing about it, in my experience, is learning to silence your inner censor. Just let go. Just write, get the words on the page, and fix the inevitable mistakes and missteps in the subsequent drafts.

  27. Huh – after reading through here, I think I will tackle NaNo this year, after all. Not because I think I’ll get the book I have in mind written, per se. But because I think putting down 50,000 words is likely to tell me what I want to write, and what the book is about much more than maundering about it, or even jotting some notes. I don’t do plot outlines, every time I’ve tried my muse up and quit, but my most successful NaNo to date was a rewrite of a previous completed NaNo that had nonetheless failed to turn into a coherent novel. The second time around I knew what I wanted to write, and what the book needed. So this year, 50,000 words. Next year, coherent novel!

  28. .
    It would be unbearable agony to reduce my fiction output to 50,000 or 60,000 words per month. One place that Mr. Scalzi leads me is MONETIZING that, and getting wide TV/film distribution.

  29. Thanks, it looks really encouraging! For my last book I have actually written more than that every day, but it wasn’t fiction, so a beast of a different kind, and (to me) less intimidating…Doing NaNoWriMo this year for the first time. Let’s see how it goes.

  30. I started writing fanfiction 6 months ago, and it has been fascinating to see how my brain works. And how much better the stuff is that I write now than the stuff I wrote six months ago. My writing buddy is doing NaNoWriMo, and I will be kicking her ass to get it done, whereas I have no inclination to do it myself. Go get ’em, tiger!

    I agree with every word JS says; for some values of ‘agree’. LOL

  31. This is my fifth year of NaNoWriMo. I’ve only won in the first year I did it, but I like a lot of what I managed in the next two years. Last year’s attempt was a complete mess with nothing salvageable, and shall never be spoken of again.

  32. I wrote a novel in November – It took one month to write 18 chapters, and two months to write the last two chapters, because there was no feeling of urgency anymore.

    Selling it – not exactly.

    This year I have half a novel written – it took half a year.
    I hope to finish it this november, and I hope to sell it ;)

  33. Okay – you’ve convinced me and I’ll give it a shot. Given that I’ve never written anything outside of school, except my an attempt at a blog, this will be quite a dare. But, I’ve always wanted to write and I have this idea that I’m dying to try out.

    I’ll take the advice you gave to new writes earlier and accept that it will most likely suck because I’ve never done this before. But it will be mine and you can’t take that from me.
    So far I’ve only written one paragraph and then I had to look up a name for my dear protagonist. So done and she now shares initials with you. Consider this your punishment for getting me into writing this: sharing initials with the protagonist of a probably terrible first attempt at a novel. Ha! That should teach you! Aren’t you mortified?

    Thank you for the resource links, JS – I’ll most likely need them sorely at some point.

    Now – back to the other JS and her doings in – ehm – TownName. No worries – I’ll not bother you with any more details than that. :-)

    *Wanders off to look up town names*

  34. I agree 100%. I did NaNoWriMo in 2003 while I was unemployed. It helped to motivate me to do something besides job searching during one of the many low points of my life. I made it to about 51,000 words, with a story that was finished, if not polished.

    I still have the novel I wrote. It’s not great, and I’ve written better things, but it was a lot of fun. It also helped that I did it as a friendly “competition” with a friend, to see which one of us could submit a 50K-word story first. For the record, I “won,” beating her by a couple of hours. She was self-employed at the time, and therefore had distractions that I did not. ;)

  35. First: I am an amateur writer. Like I am an amateur cook. I’m quite fanatic about both enterprises but I have a real time job and only friends get to read and eat the stuff I produce. They do tend to enjoy what I serve up.

    Anyway, my fastest novel ever (of the six I wrote, again, for my own amusement) so far was done in six weeks.
    I was living in Prague at the time, with enough ready cash to be able to write 16 hours a day for a few days, then party like Hell for one or two days, get back to writing, then partying…

    So yes, a month is of course doable: if you can do it like I did, you can do it much more easily with some sanity.

    PS: Forgive the (possible) typos. I am typing this on a near dying iPad in a Czech bar in the North of the country. No smoking ban here, so my contacts are like that mist machine Kate Bush was shimmering through in that Wuthering Heights song. I can barely see the letters while I am typing. Editing is not an option.

  36. This is my 4th year and my 3rd novel for NaNoWriMo (2012 and 2013 were parts 1 and 2 of the same story) and half of mine are based on existing story ideas. I use November as an excuse to get old ideas on paper so that they are written. I can then go back and hack at the garbage I spat out in 30 days, but in the end I wind up with something I love and am proud of and, god willing, will morph into something that will get my career off the ground.

    Because I adore writing and I hate my commute.

  37. I tell myself this every morning: get more words down on the page. It is the only way to climb that mountain. Some days I manage more than others, but I keep building, word by word. And, eventually? I’ve got a first draft.

    And then the real fun begins.

  38. @Amy Schaefer: Oh god, this year was my first attempt at editing a story and it should be so much easier than writing but it is SO MUCH HARDER emotionally.

    And I have December to finish my edits because my goal is to find an agent starting in January 2015 and I want it polished. Writing that damn thing (all 75,000 words of it) was so much easier :)

  39. @ShannonHaddock:

    I learned that I could find time to write more days than not, that I could write even when not inspired, and, most importantly, that sometimes even when what you end up with is utter dreck, if you learned from the experience of writing it, it wasn’t wasted time.

    Exactly! Half the battle is to stop giving yourself permission not to nail your arse down and DO THE WORK. One of my favourite stories about that is the British mystery writer P.D. James, who published her first novel at 42, while holding down a demanding full-time civil service job with two young girls. She started literally writing at the kitchen table for an hour before getting ready for work, and thanks to the help of her mother-in-law she’d get home and not have to worry about getting dinner for the children. It took her four years to finish ‘A Mind to Murder’ but she said she just didn’t want to be a wannabe writer who never wrote anything. Even if it had never been published, she managed to finish a novel.

  40. It would be cool if you blogged more about your writing process. I have searched back and I don’t see alot. However, the last time I searched it went back like 5-7 years or something like that. So you may have done this a really long time ago.

    You wrote lock in in a month, but it sounds like you spent time before that doing exploratory writing to work out the details. One interesting post would be exploratory writing time to work out ideas, then sell the idea and then do the book. A month doesn’t seem like alot of time to spend on a book.

    At that pace, I’m surprised you don’t punch out more than a book a year. I know you do other stuff but I would think most of that pays less than your books. I am not including the TV series, but you just got that recently. Or is it more ‘I only have so many ideas and I need to work them out before I write the actual book’.

  41. BTW. Mary’s post about ‘I need to get this done due to deadline’ coincides with Johns. Sounds like high school kids waiting until the last minute to get homework done. I am sure alot of people are like that.

  42. I found that NaNo made me think about writing differently. I have no desire to be A Published Author (du-du-DAH!) as a career, but I’m terrible about wanting each part of my stories to be brilliant little gems of linguistic perfection… which means, I *never* finish – too busy editing.

    Learning that words is words and there’s value in that was a hard, hard lesson. NaNo made me give up my attachment to shiny, pretty, perfectly erudite prose and realize that there’s value in gritty, fast, emotional writing. (This is tremendously amusing because I read a lot of trash. Not badly written schlock – I got enough of that in slush piles, thanks… but “fun” books with no literary value at all. “Guilty pleasure” books are my favorites. I just couldn’t let go and write.)

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