NaNoWriMo – Are You In?

by J.T. Ellison

Happy Halloween!!! I’m eschewing a spooky post for the practical today, but wanted to wish everyone a safe and scary night!


It’s that time again.

November 1 signals the start of National Novel Writing Month, a fun, work-intensive exercise for novelists. The goal is simple and straightforward: write 50,000 words in thirty days. When you break it down, that’s a mere 1,666 words a day.

I heard that groan.

I can’t write that much a day, every day. I can’t handle the pressure of writing every day. I can’t put the time and effort into sitting at my computer, forsaking that hour on Facebook, and writing. Real words. Real stories. Real work. Can’t do it.

Be honest with yourself. Is the operative word in the above sentences can’t? Or should we replace every "can’t" with "I don’t want to?"

I love the principles behind NaNoWriMo. Write every day. Let’s repeat that. Write. Every. Day. This isn’t an unknown concept for professional writers. Truth be told, every month is NaNoWriMo when you’re a professional writer. Especially for those of us who write more than one book a year.

It’s become fashionable for some established authors to look down their nose at the NaNoWriMo exercise, labeling the participants wanna-bes, denigrating the experience. I sometimes think people forget where they come from. We all need to learn what works for us. We all need to understand what it’s like working on a deadline. Be it a real one or self-imposed, if you want to succeed as a writer, you need to know how to meet your deadlines.

So if you ask my opinion on NaNoWriMo, I’m going to say do it. Write like the ever-loving wind, and be proud of yourself for sticking with it. 1,666 words a day for a month. That is SO doable. I participated in 2005 (and hit my goal of 50K in 27 days, thank you
very much.) The output from that month became the second novel in the
Taylor Jackson series, 14. Yes, in the end I changed a lot of the
story. Yes, 50,000 words is only half of a real commercial novel. (Mine
come in at 100,000.) But those 50,000 words were a big part of the
framework of the book. I got a huge jump start on the title, which
helped me meet my crazy deadlines last year. So scoff if you want, but
I think it’s valuable.

My normal output when I’m puttering along is 1,000 words a day. When I’m really into it, I’m up to 2,000 a day. I have days I don’t write and then have crazy productive 6,000 or 7,000 word days to make up for it. But I do try to write everyday. I like the discipline it instills, like the feeling of accomplishment. I stuck to that for three books, and felt very productive.

I didn’t stick to that pattern for my latest, the bane of my existence book I just turned in. God, I hated writing that book. I was uncomfortable with the subject matter (necrophilia), unhappy with the characters, bored with my writing style (I think this is something that happens when you’re doing a series, but that’s a whole different post.) In general, every word onto the page was a tooth pulled, fewer strands of hair, dark circles under the eyes, bitching at the husband and a ten pound weight gain. I was miserable writing that book.

You know why? Because looking back, no matter what excuse I come up with, I knew I wasn’t being as serious about it as I should have been. It took me months to write, actually the longest it’s ever taken me to write a book. I wasn’t following the cardinal rule of professional writing.


I was letting myself get distracted, allowing myself to be derailed, pushing the book from my mind to do anything BUT write. And when I finally typed ### at the end, I made myself a promise. Never. Again.

NaNoWriMo teaches new writers and aspiring authors the cardinal rule. It’s an invaluable lesson, both in discipline and in freedom. Because when you’re writing fast, you don’t have the luxury of introspection. Introspection, we all know, equals writer’s block. We allow ourselves to get caught up on a specific word, or phrase. We labor over the paragraphs, inch by measly inch. NaNoWriMo enables writers to discard their internal editor and just write. It’s exceptionally effective.

You can’t go in willy nilly though. You need a solid concept, an idea. Yes, you can write 50,000 words of gibberish, but that defeats the purpose. The idea is to write a novel. To tell a story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. You need characters, a true conflict, a build, a climax, and a proper denouement. It’s a practice novel for some, it’s the first half for others. Still more writers can take that 50K and distill it into a novella, or a couple of good short stories. You can play with point of view, find out where you’re comfortable writing – first or third – and experiment with genres. There are no rules except write everyday. Refreshing, eh?

Anyone who’s ever attempted to write a novel knows that it’s easy to get started, much more difficult to finish. So the most paramount goal of NaNo is to finish with work product that is usable. Yes, that makes it more challenging. The sponsors of the program encourage you to free think and free write, to pour the words on the page. While that is fun, you should keep in mind that your work product can become something real. A little forethought and planning can be a paycheck later on.

Here’s something else to think about. There is a community that exists at NaNoWriMo. The regions and the individual cities each have their own groups, who get together and have Write Ins. Yes, that sounds a little cheesy, but I can’t tell you how many emails I get from new writers who are looking for critique groups. This allows you a jump start on finding a group of like-minded individuals to work with. The usual rules apply – look out for people who criticize instead of offering constructive criticism, don’t get bullied, etcetera, etcetera.

I’d even suggest that if you do participate, you use your extensive knowledge of the publishing industry, gleaned here at Murderati and through your research, to help educate the writers around you. Knowledge, my friends, is power. The more we share our hard-won knowledge with other writers, the better our community is.

When you’re just starting out, it helps to make a public declaration of your intent to become a published author. Many millions of people say they want to be a writer. How many actually sit down and write that first sentence? And how many of those will write the second, much less finish a full-length piece of commercial fiction? Not so many. So participating in an exercise like NaNoWriMo may just be the action these aspiring writers need to push them over the edge into actual writing.

I just finished writing my 5th full-length novel. It’s still slightly surreal that come November 1, I’ll be starting my 6th. Why do I need NaNoWriMo?

Need isn’t the right term for me. I want to do it. No, I won’t be hanging around the coffee shops and write ins, but I enjoy the structure. I have a book due March 1 and another due September 1. I’m considering a non-fiction project that I’d have to sandwich in between the two fiction titles. I’d like to judge an awards category again. I want to read, expand my horizons. The research I’m doing for book 5, THE IMMORTALS, has been a blast, and I want to give myself enough leeway to adjust as needs be as I go because of new influences. I love to see the word count increase, to feel like I’m accomplishing something. Will I make it? Probably. If I don’t, it’s not the end of the world. I’ll keep plugging away regardless.

That’s the other point to take away today. If you don’t make the goal, it doesn’t mean you haven’t succeeded. Remember that. Don’t set unrealistic expectations for yourself, and don’t get down on yourself if life gets in the way. It is hard to do all this work with the holidays looming. (If you do 2,000 a day, you’ll be finished BEFORE Thanksgiving.)

Ultimately, I hope that some of the NaNoWriMo participants will see traditionally published authors in their midst and know that yes, it is possible. Maybe it will inspire them to try to hit that goal after all.

And just to make this fun, here’s a little pay it forward trick or treat for you:

Those of you who participate and win, ie: get certification from NaNoWriMo that you’ve completed the 50K in 30 days, can send me your name and proof of completion and I’ll enter you into a drawing for a critique of your first 25 pages. I’ll choose one at random and do the critique myself. How’s that sound?

So what about you? Are you going to participate? What do you do to get that daily word count in?

Wine of the Week: Vampire: The Blood of the Vine

34 thoughts on “NaNoWriMo – Are You In?

  1. Jake Nantz

    I can’t do it. Not that I can’t ever do it, I just can’t do it this month. I wish I could (hell, I’d LOVE to get a 25-page critique from a celebrated mystery author), but I’m a plotter through and through, and I JUST finished the first draft of my first novel a week ago. So I haven’t even begun to ruminate on the second, other than to flesh out the protagonist.

    I wish everyone who is going to do it the best of luck, though. I think it would be an awesome accomplishment. Maybe next year….

  2. Dana King

    JT is right in my case. I won’t say I can’t do it, but I don’t want to. It takes me about a year to get through a book (writing one, not reading one, thank you very much), and by the time I’m finished I’m getting sick of looking at the damned thing. I have a chance to finish this one by Thanksgiving, and I mean to do it.

    Good luck to everyone who cinches up their belts and gives it a shot. Anything that gets people writing is, by definition, a good thing.

  3. Jo Parker

    I’m giving it a go, and am really looking forward to it. I have been encouraged by more friends than I can count, and I know from my own procrastinating ways that the NaNo structure is pretty much the only thing that’s gonna get my backside in front of my computer for anything that isn’t surfing the web.

    Good Luck to everyone else that’s giving it a go, and I’ll see you when I come up for air next month!

  4. billie

    Oh, JT – you’re tempting me with that drawing!

    I did it last year to get a certain ball rolling with the nonfiction book, and it worked really well.

    This year I’m back to the desk with ergonomics in place, arms that are miraculously not numb, and my new gigantic iMac desktop that makes me feel like I’m broadcasting my document on TV when I write!

    But I’m not sure I’m in a place where I want the external pressure of a daily quota.

    I just put a quote up on my blog yesterday that embodies my latest writing intention.

    “Man reading should be man intensely alive. The book should be a ball of light in one’s hand.”

    -Ezra Pound

    So that’s what I’m doing in November. Transforming this novel into a ball of light. Then I’ll fire it northward and get going with the next one.

    I kind of like the image of myself in a long sparkly robe, handling light. 🙂

  5. Allison Brennan

    I’m participating in spirit . . . I have a book due at the end of the month that I have barely started. I have a couple chapters that are pretty crappy, but I had to put those aside to work on copy edits for another book. Now, it’s 100% time to focus and get this book done before I get the page proofs for my April book.

    I DON’T recommend this, because writing a book in four weeks is immensely stressful, BUT it can be done. And not 50,000 words . . . my books all come in between 100-110K. However, I only write one draft before I send it to my editor who acts basically like my crit partner at this point. So I always plan and factor in revision time.

    Like JT, I write every day (TRY to write every day.) I’ve written 1 page and I’ve written 57 pages. My average daily output is 12-15 pages for the first half of the book and 20-25 pages for the second half of the book. So it’s possible to get 450 pages done by the end of November . . . if I don’t have brain fart, if there’s no major crisis at home, if I write 6 days a week rather than 5 (I usually take at least one day on the weekend to do family stuff), and I don’t get stuck at the beginning of Act Two . . .

  6. Zoë Sharp

    I’m sort-of in. Does that sound too wishy-washy?

    I am currently about a quarter of the way into the new Charlie Fox book, which will run to between 100k and 110k words in finished form. I need to have it done and in by January or various people will demand my head on a plate.

    Generally speaking, I don’t do several drafts of a book. I self-edit as I go along so by the time I get to the end of the first draft, it’s more or less there. With THIRD STRIKE, I made a final pass to ruthlessly chop out any extraneous words and tighten the whole thing up.

    Therefore, if I manage to write anywhere in excess of 35,000 words in November, I’ll be a happy bunny.

    Does that count?

  7. Lee

    Last year I didn’t do it, but this year I am. It gets me started on something new, and it gives me permission to write crap…And I get the pages down.Those authors who turn their noses down at it should think twice, there has been a couple of NYT best sellers that have come out of it. Water for Elephants, I think was one of them..And its been on the list for a couple years…So one never

  8. Becky Lejeune

    Wow! That’s a pretty generous prize, JT. I’m debating about doing it unofficially – not registering but seeing how far I can get and if I can pull together something that doesn’t totally fall apart. I’m still on the fence about writing in general for me, but we’ll see.

    Love the pep talks on NaNoWriMo, though. Saw Neil Gaiman just last month and he said he read his own while he was working on his last book – he recommends reading it 3/4 through the month when you’re ready to give up.

  9. JT Ellison

    Jake, there’s always blurbs down the road… I’m plotting a little bit with this in terms of I’m going to lay out where I plan to go the night before. I’ve never done that before, so it should be interesting.

    Dana, I hear ya. I was just finishing JUDAS last year at this time and couldn’t face trying to write more during November while touring. But this year it will be better.

    Also, the founders of NaNo did alter their “rules” to allow for people who are writing commercial fiction to do 50,000 words on their current WIP to count toward the goal.

  10. Fiona

    I’M IN. I started last year, but had a health set-back. It’s hard to write in the hospital. I did get over half way there, so I’m really motivated this year.

    Thanks for the added encouragement.

  11. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Great, inspiring post, JT – and I heartily second her: this is about the best organized way to declare yourself a professional writer that exists.

    I’m in… it’s good timing because I am just starting a new one… although my first pages are going to be outline.

    Um… how many words to a page, officially? I just can’t stop thinking in pages.

  12. Tammy Cravit

    I’m in, sort of. I’m as yet undecided whether I want to formally cast my lot in and register on the WriMo site and all that. Frankly, I’d probably use their forums as yet one more distraction tool to avoid getting any real work done.

    But my goal for the novel-in-progress has always been a finished first draft by 1 December. My target for the first draft is 75,000 words (which I expect to grow further during revisions, since that seems always to be the way for me), and I’m someplace around 29,000 at the moment. So, 50K in November seems eminently doable for me.

    What’s interesting to me is that several of the WriMo fans I know go into it with the idea that 1,667 words per day is an absolute — expecting that many every day, never settling for less but rarely doing more. That’s not how I work.

    I’ve been keeping a log for this book of how many words I’ve written on each writing day so far In October, I didn’t write every day, because I’m up against a deadline in my day job too at the moment. So, I’ve averaged about 1,900 words per writing day for the past month. But that’s only an average — on my least productive writing day, I got just 590 words onto the page. Across my most productive two days, I wrote almost 9,000 words.

    The key for me seems to be this: Set a goal (and a deadline) for the big picture. (A finished draft by 1 December). Write as much as possible, but as long as progress is being made toward the goal, don’t worry so much about the day-to-day counts. If the (in this case self-imposed) deadline is looming and you’re way behind, pick up the pace.

    That’s how I work anyway, so I’m not sure joining NaNoWriMo will help me to stay on track. But as it happens, my goal at the moment looks like “50,000 words or so in November”, so I’m at least there in spirit.

  13. JT Ellison

    Eva, that is fantastic. A whole family of writers, from you down to the kids? That’s going to be a fun month.

    Jo, congrats on getting your head around it! And for having the loving support, that, ultimately, makes all the difference. I didn’t have a deal the first time I did NaNo, and Randy was so incredibly supporting anyway. It helps. Tremendously.

    Billie – I LOVE that quote. Especially since I’m doing all my wicca research – I can certainly see the spell that was behind that. And you with a ball of light – that’s just your personality shining, dear.

    Allison, you are some sort of fluke of nature, I think. 110000 words in a month? Now that’s some serious writing. Every young writer should look to you for inspiration. You know how to budget, how to meet your deadlines, and be a mom to 5 in the meantime. That’s beyond dedication, that’s pure, undistilled FOCUS. Send some to Tennessee, wouldja?

  14. JT Ellison

    Zoe, we talked about that last night – so 35K is your goal? I think that counts. I think even more that the output, what’s important to take away from this post is the idea of setting an attainable goal and pushing yourself to meet it.

    Lee, that’s the spirit. Though you may be surprised at how the “crap” you are writing is more distilled and focused because of the exercise. And I agree, no one should demean a writer for trying. No one.

    Becky – GO FOR IT! You’ll be an amazing writer when you do your own stuff, and you already know how to budget and meet deadlines. I’m with Gaiman, too. I usually need to print out and read when I hit 60K to give myself an idea of where I am and where I need to go. I am usually discouraged at that point, and it gets me inspired.

  15. JT Ellison

    Louise – I will admit I’ll be in an automatic deficit until Wednesday. I insist on voting on election day, so I’ll lose the morning, then I MUST watch the coverage. It’s an important day.

    Fiona, many blessing on your continued good health – and ROCK this one. Good for you!

    Alex, it’s approximately 5 pages a day. My page length usually runs about 350 words (that’s normal formatting, double spaced with a .5 hanging indent and 1″ margins.) Doesn’t seem like much, when you break it down.

    Tammy, you already know what works for you – and SMARTLY recognized that you might get sidetracked instead of inspired. I admit I’ll never be seen in the forums – there’s way too much procrastinating to be done on my own without dealing with everyone else’s (um, hello, Facebook) I write the same way, bursts and then little bits. But a minimum of 1K a day for me during this.

  16. pari

    J.T!Thanks for this. I love it; Ass in Chair.

    Oh, yeah.

    And like Alex, I’m starting my new novel this week. So . . . I think I’ll take that challenge.

    Yee haw.

  17. JT Ellison

    Yeah – so many of us are starting our new books! November is going to be a good (cranky as hell) month!

    Pari, AIC is the only rule I have. If there was a way to add NI to it (no internet) I’d get a lot more done.

    Wait, that spells AICNI…

  18. Scott Parker

    I doing a pseudo-NaNoWriMo: I need to finish my second novel and I’ve decided to do it before my birthday (in December). Thus, November 2008 will be the month I complete my second novel. So, I’ll be there is spirit and banging away at the keyboard but I won’t be starting from scratch. But it’ll be done, nonetheless.

  19. Robin

    I am so happy to see you and other authors supporting Nano and participating as well. I joined Nanowrimo last year for the first time and it taught me a great deal. I think nanowrimo has been beneficial in jump starting people into writing. Having that goal of at least 1666 words a day has motivated me, at least. Plus, posting your numbers daily gives accountability. Thanks for your support.

    Robin of mytwoblessings

  20. JT Ellison

    Scott, that sounds great. I hope you get it done. Finishing the first is amazing, finishing the second is a bit transcendental.

    Robin, thank you. I’m rooting for you!!!

  21. Rob Gregory Browne

    I’m afraid I’ll be doing it, too, but not out of choice. I’m far enough behind on the latest book — with a December deadline — that I’m in panic mode. And I’ve gotta do OVER 50,000 words before then.

    ……………….. 🙂

  22. Leslie

    Great post JT, just the kick in the rear I needed, so I’m in too… I have signed up for NaNoWriMo before, but this is the year I complete it!

  23. spyscribbler

    I was “brought up” getting paid by the word, so I somehow got instilled with the belief that I should never waste a word, LOL.

    So my 50K is going to be an exploration of self-indulgent writing. I have no idea what I’m going to write, how many things I’m going to write, or even what genres I’m going to write. I’m hoping to discover new sides of my writing, discover something. I hope!

  24. Allison Brennan

    Rob, you and I need to trade inspiring posts to keep each other focused and working. Things like, “Stop playing video games, Rob! You have a book due!” and “Why are you reading my email when you have a deadline? Get working you lazy fart!” 🙂 Or what works for me, “Sh*t, I have bills to pay and I don’t get paid until I get my book finished . . . ”

  25. Becky Hutchison

    I signed up for NaNoWriMo last week. I joined last year too but didn’t quite make the 50,000 words…I was just about 45,000 short. Life happened and I didn’t get back to my writing that month. This year is different, (especially now, with the JT critique carrot), and my goal is more than 50,000 words.

    Allison, will you be my motivator? I need some “quit reading all those *%*$ blogs” and “we’ll know who wins the election on the 4th so get back to work, bucko” type of emails. A few “you can do it, only 1665 more words to go today” would be helpful too. ;-0

  26. Fran

    I’m tempted to unofficially join and rather than working on a new project, use the deadline to really dig into the novel that I started for the Three Day Novel Contest last year.

    We shall see. . .

  27. JT Ellison

    Fran, go for it. It might be fun!

    Becky, Allison is a HUGE inspiration, isn’t she?

    Leslie, I’m so glad to hear you’re in. I wish you all the best!

    Spy, you’re going to rock it. Have fun and write like the wind!

  28. toni mcgee causey

    Very late to post here, but I think this is one of the coolest ways to jump start a project. Or finish one, as in Rob’s and Allison’s case. (Though I think my head exploded at the idea of 110K in a month.)

    I’m in the same place as Jake, having finished one and not ready to start on another, yet. [well, then again, there’s this idea I have… hmmmmm.]

  29. M.J. Rose

    Great post JT – but one thing – do not beat yourself up over a book that doesn’t just flow. Each book is so different and some are just “torture books” I call them. I seem to have one every three books or so, no matter what I do.

    And to everyone doing Nano – I did it the first year and its great but word of warning do writs excersize every day a few times – in fact we all should be doing them all the time but esp imp during extreme writing periods.

  30. JT Ellison

    MJ, you’re absolutely right. I’d just never had it happen before and didn’t know what to do to make it better. I’m hoping I don’t ever face it again, but if I do – I know what I have to do. Sit back, outline the rest, and then write.

    And good point on the wrist exercises. After my surgery last summer, my wrist really aches after about 1,000 words. I push it to 2,000 and I have cramps. I have to stop and stretch a lot. If you have any good ones, please share!

    Toni, didn’t you do a modified NaNo last month???


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