NaNoWriMo: What it is, What it isn’t, and Why you should do it 2


Hey, so you know what’s a week away as of this posting? That’s right—Halloween! Time to choose a costume and buy some candy for the kids if you haven’t already. I, for one, have managed to grow out just enough facial hair to maybe dress up as the Dread Pirate Roberts. Still working on the poison resistance, though.

But as you nurse the hangover from all those Halloween parties that you apparently attended on a Tuesday night, it’ll be the first day of November, and that means NaNoWriMo.

I’ve written before about my experience with NaNoWriMo, but I realized a lot of that was theoretical advice I hadn’t actually attempted but I had either read about or thought could work. Well, I’m a two-time winner now and a much better writer than I was then, so I’m going to go ahead and hook you up with some helpful stuff that I’ve put into practice.

What is NaNoWriMo?

National Novel Writing Month is a yearly event that runs every November. The goal is to write 50,000 words in thirty days. Simple as that. Just write an average of 1,667 words a day and you’ll have it in the bag.

What, that sounds difficult? Yeah, I won’t lie, it is. It wouldn’t be a worthy challenge if it were easy.

What NaNoWriMo is Not

The most important thing to realize about NaNoWriMo is that it’s not a competition. Sure, it includes some competitive language, like “winning,” but there is no losing. It’s a personal challenge in the end. As long as you get to 50k, you’ve won. Even if you don’t, hopefully you’ve learned something about yourself as a writer.

That’s not to say you can’t make it a competition. Get your buddies together and cheer them on. Brag about how much you wrote in a weekend to encourage them to try and beat your high score. Then you can try and beat theirs.

The last time I won NaNoWriMo in 2015, I made a friend. We were both behind on our word counts and we got a group together to all write 5,000 words in a single day. Then we would check back in on the forum to announce that we’d done it. There was a certain camaraderie in this, knowing we had other people writing alongside us (at least in spirit) and seeing other people show it was possible only made it that much easier to accomplish such a daunting task ourselves.

Why NaNoWriMo?

I argue that every writer should aim to win NaNoWriMo at least once, and for good reason.

There are two things that gave me the confidence to drop the “aspiring” from “aspiring writer” and call myself what I am: a writer.

One was last year, when I didn’t do NaNoWriMo but I did manage to write every day for four months straight. I finished a novel I’d left incomplete for a while and then drafted a whole new novel and edited that into a second draft. It was a pretty prolific time for my writing, and I really recommend you also try out the #WriteChain challenge at some point.

But before that, I won NaNoWriMo in 2014 and 2015. I ended up with two complete novels, the latter of which was good. (I often forget to include the other one when I tally up how many manuscripts I’ve written because of how bad it was.)

Not only did I gain a lot of confidence in my writing, I learned a lot about the processes that work for me, as well as those that don’t. I’ve found I’m what they call a tweener, in that I’m halfway between a plotter and a pantser—as in “one who writes by the seat of their pants” not “one who pantses people.”

Some people only need an initial idea and they can run with it until they have a finished manuscript. Others need a scene-by-scene outline. I’m somewhere in the middle.

It might have taken me a lot longer to figure that out if I hadn’t done NaNoWriMo. And in fact, last year, when I didn’t do NaNoWriMo, that’s not to say I didn’t try. I had planned a novel, but my ideas for it were much too rigid and I hadn’t developed the characters or important scenes well enough. Suffice it to say, that story ended up dead in the water (but I still plan to write it in the future). Either way, I learned something valuable.

What if I don’t have any ideas?

Well, it’s a week away, so if you’re one of those folks who only needs a setting, character, and situation to get started, you’re probably fine. If you’re everyone else, then good news, you’ve got a whole week to prepare.

Normally I would point people to my resources for writers page, but it’s probably a bit late to read a bunch of books right now. Although, if you’re going to read any, I recommend Chris Baty’s, No Plot? No Problem! It’s by the founder of NaNoWriMo himself, and it’s full of great insight regarding his own experiences and those of others. Plus, it’s short. A week is more than long enough to get through it even if you’re busy.

However, an even quicker resource is Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method. He explains the whole process on his page, but I’ll give the brief highlights here.

The idea is to start with a single sentence for the story, then expand that to a five sentence paragraph (which hits on every point of the three-act structure). You then take that paragraph and expand it to five paragraphs. You can do the same for each major character and their own personal story arc, and combine that with your five-paragraph summary to come up with a long synopsis. Mine usually come out to about five to seven pages, but yours can be shorter or longer, depending on how many details you like to include.

But I haven’t even told you where to find ideas. For that, I think I might have to reveal what my story is about this year and how I got the idea for it.

I was playing a game available for Android and iOS called Data Wing. It’s a short little game where you play as a computer program whose primary function is to transfer data within a phone’s computer system. There are some secrets in the game which open up texts between the phone’s user and other people she has been talking to. At a certain point, the user gets a text from her dad saying her mother has been in a car crash, but she appears to get no further information after that.

A lightbulb went off in the weirdest way. I had a what-if scenario pop into my head suddenly, and I immediately began writing notes for a new story. Only in mine, the girl is being tricked by her parents, and it’s all a ploy to get her to understand the importance of family.

In other words, you might find inspiration when you’re not looking for it, and in the strangest of places. When you read a book or watch a TV show, consider situations that arise and think of how things could have gone differently—or worse. A friend of mine is using a situation from her own real life to come up with her novel.

The trick, if there is a trick, is to not think too hard about it.

Some Encouragement

If writing 1,667 words a day seems difficult, then you’re right. While we writers might have highly productive days from time to time, doing so every day is not easy.

Here’s where one of my old NaNo posts is actually still relevant. In my post on how I won NaNoWriMo 2014, I pointed out that if you miss a day of writing, you’ve really only set yourself up to have to write another 50-100 words a day to finish on time. Just scroll down to the Visual Aids section to see what I mean.

Also, I’ll be competing alongside you, and I need the encouragement as much as anyone else. It sucks to have to write alone, and writing is such lonely work already. The Word Wars/Word Sprints I referred to in that last link are still just as invaluable to me now as they ever were, so maybe I’ll see you there.

Either way, go ahead and add me as a writing buddy if you like. You’ll have to make an account to see my profile and add me, but as always, you’ll find me listed as DavidTShank.


Are you doing NaNoWriMo this year? Leave a link to your profile for others to find you if you are. We’re all in this together.

Photo by Tim Bogdanov on Unsplash


About David Shank

David T. Shank is a writer, runner, and musician, in that order. His blog is hopefully an oasis among the vast ocean of negativity that is the Internet. He lives in Cleveland studying how to write good.


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2 thoughts on “NaNoWriMo: What it is, What it isn’t, and Why you should do it

  • A.S. Akkalon

    I’ve always wanted to do NaNo, but I’ve never been in the right place in my drafting to do it in November. I plan to fast draft the sequel to my current book, but not until my current one is with beta readers, and we’re not there yet. Maybe next year…

    • David Shank Post author

      I find myself on the fence every year. Truth is, the years I haven’t tried, I regretted it. I’ve never regretted following through with it, even those years that I didn’t win.

      I know what you mean, though. If you’re in the middle of a big project and you have a good head of steam on it, it would be difficult to switch gears. The second year I won was a rewrite of an older manuscript, after I had done a post-mortem on the original draft and realized what it needed. I wasn’t going to write the whole thing again from scratch, until I decided to do it for NaNoWriMo, and I’m glad I did. This year, I just got lucky getting a good idea at the right time.

      I guess it’s a good sign of how much you write if NaNoWriMo never lines up with when you would naturally begin a new project.