Nanowrimo Boot Camp – a quick and dirty guide to surviving national novel writing month



It’s nanowrimo again – the time of the year when all common sense goes out of the window and you try to write a novel in a month. Just for kicks. Nanowrimo is great fun but it isn’t for the squeamish. If you’re serious about completing nanowrimo then you shouldn’t be reading this but, for what it’s worth, this is the method that works for me. Here are some quick tips and dirty tricks to help get you through the month.

Do the Math
50,000 words in a month. That’s only 1667 words per day – you can do that in an hour if you leave your inner editor at the door. You’re not “writing a novel”, you’re writing 50,000 words. Don’t panic at the thought of writing so much; break it down into manageable chunks. A great novel is something written by Dostoevsky. A nanowrimo novel is just 50,000 words. THAT’S ALL.

Are you a Tortoise or a Bunny?
Slow and steady wins the race, but hard and fast is also fun. Best not get hung up about this. You’re writing a novel, not having an orgasm. Aim to write 2,000 words per day as quickly as you can. If you want to polish and refine them throughout the day, knock yourself out. But once you’ve got your words done for the day, you’re clear. How you go about it and what you do afterwards is up to you.

Think Slowly, Type Quickly
Set your watch. Try to write 2,000 words in an hour without stopping. It’s the most fun you can have in an hour – short of drugs or fucking. Sit down and knock them out so fast that you don’t have time to think, edit or fuss over what you’re writing. Don’t stop until your time is up. Spend rest of the day scribbling notes and getting ready for your next session. If it takes you all day to hit 2,000 words, TYPE FASTER.

Want to Increase Your Word Count? Lower Your Standards!
If you throw enough shit against the wall some of it will stick. These are words to live by if you’re a writer, or a monkey, and you have shit. Don’t press delete until December. If you write it wrong, just write it right next time. Pile them up. ‘Don’t get it right, get it written.’ No-one has to read your novel. Not even you. Take chances. Do something random. It’s ok to be crazy, absurd and fun – but screw literature.

Lost the Plot?
Don’t get hung up on plot. You’re just making a fix-up novel out of bits and pieces. You don’t even have to write them in the right order. Grab your story by the throat. Write whatever scares or excites you the most. Any time you think, “I can’t say that”, put it in. Keep your eye on the prize. You get across a pebbled beach fast if you focus on the sea, as you run, not by worrying about your poor feet.

Take Out Your Inner Editor
Your mind will come up with a billion excuses to stop writing and seductive things you could do instead. Whatever it says, it’s full of shit. Ignore it. Write anyway. If your inner editor gets in the way, write down what it says. Turn it into a character with a high squeaky voice and pink fluffy ears. Shoot it in the head. LAUGH! Then take it out to dinner. Promise to spend December, red pen in hand, demolishing your novel.

Do Your Time Like a Good Peon
If one day in a fit of madness you write 20,000 words – that’s great, but the very next day, you go back to writing 2,000 words. No days off. If you don’t have an hour, do it in 15-minute chunks. But at the very least put in your set minimum every day. Tell yourself whatever lies are necessary to keep your butt in the chair and you writing.

Don’t Obsess About What Pen You Should Use
Use whatever writing tools are to hand. I need three things: tea, a notebook, and an Alphasmart NEO. Tea’s essential, notebooks don’t die when you spill tea on them, and the trusty NEO is where I write a shitty first draft. If you don’t know why tea is important, you’re dead to me.

You Can’t Edit A Blank Page
The notebook is your friend. Scribble your surface anxiety in the notebook, all the mad stuff crowding your head. Include ideas for future scenes, lines of dialogue, botched first attempts, anything that might belong in the novel later but is in the way of what you need to write right now. That way you’ve already overcome the blank page before you sit down to write. Use them as a starting point for your next session.

Malfunction! Need Input!
Not sure what to write? Allow random input to decide. Write down your dreams, shuffle oblique strategies cards, roll dice, or pull in people and events from the world around you. Whatever comes up – just trust it and go with it. Write in silence. It’s hard for your muse to whisper in your ear if you’ve got headphones on. Write offline. Avoid the nanowrimo forums until you’re done writing. Get your virtual hugs later.

Back Up Your Work
I know you’re smart enough to do this, but writing 50,000 words from scratch sucks, so backup to the point of paranoia and madness. I backup my NEO using Alphasync to Dropbox. Keep a separate master document – a text file of your novel – to submit to nanowrimo when you verify your wordcount. Make multiple backups. Losing your work when some smug ass has already told you to backup is less fun than rewriting.

Back Up Your Sense of Humour
Check your funny fuse. Give your novel a title that makes you laugh. I once called mine ‘Fuck You Inner Editor!’ Bludgeon to death anyone that tries to stop you writing, with your novel, but only once you’ve verified your wordcount. Nanowrimo’s meant to be fun. Who cares if the end product is a bit shitty? It’s compost. Look through it for green shoots in December. It could hold the start of something wonderful.


  1. These are quite helpful points. I’ve found that, if I want, I can skip days only if I’m above NaNoWriMo’s line on the graph. I keep writing over the limit each time, but sometimes I want to quit. I’ve noticed it’s much easier if I just don’t think about it and continue writing. Taking breaks in between also helps. It is kind of difficult to not edit as I go along, but I sort of got slightly used to it after I hit my twentieth page.

  2. I love this! I did my first nano last year and was a lot less traumatised than I’d thought I would be, but I can feel the panic rising already and it’s only August. I know I can do it, and so I shall stock up on teabags and learn to laugh at myself this time.

  3. You’ve put together an excellent set of writing tools and tips for crossing a NaNoWriMo finish line, James.

    In the 12 years I’ve participated in National Novel Writing Month (I started in 2003), I’ve found that the only real way to win is to fire one’s inner editor and just let the words flow. Even a slow writer can purge 1,000 words in an hour if one is willing to just let the words fly from one’s fingers. The time really is there. It’s just a matter of choice: Produce a novel or consume other entertainment.

    Research can come later. Substantive structuring and grammar can come later. This is just an opportunity to create a new story, which may or may not become a novel later. A NaNoWriMo novel’s charm is in its rawness, in its potential to become a polished and published novel.

    Thank you, kudos, and have a great November of frenzied writing, James!

  4. Great advice, except of course I’m reading it in the middle of my writing time. This year though I’m not really trying to “win” and just trying to get back to writing every day after months of insane change and upheaval and it’s working. One trick if you just can’t silence your inner editor–use strike through. The words are still in your count.

  5. Throw spaghetti against the wall and if it sticks it’s done…. Great piece. My theory: Day one outline and create a physical story board to add images. Day 2-28 write 3500 words a day. It doesn’t need to be great, just done.

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