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2020 NaNoWriMo Challenge: Prep Work

Updated: May 14

Happy Day! NaNoWriMo is upon us, fellow writers!

For anyone not in the know, NaNoWriMo is the abbreviated name for National Novel Writing Month, also affectionately nicknamed NaNo. Taking place each November, NaNoWriMo is a free, voluntary challenge for all writers to put 50,000 words to paper in thirty days. Completing the challenge unlocks a number of prizes which are usually discounts to various writing software, masterclasses, and other NaNoWriMo paraphernalia. Yet if you ask anyone who has ever competed and completed the challenge, they will tell you the real reward is the sense of accomplishment and the 50,000-word rough draft you can add to your folio of work. The bragging rights don’t hurt either. Telling your family over the holidays that you wrote a 50,000-word novel in a month may blow their minds, although they may ask you about publishing—but that’s a whole different matter.

I have taken part in NaNoWriMo for the past four years, making this year my fifth. My record is two completed challenges and two uncompleted. You might think that writing 50,000 words in 30 days is tough for a gainfully employed person, and you would be right. It breaks down to 1667 words a day, which—if you are typing at the average 40 words per minute—will take you about 42 minutes. That, of course, means you are constantly typing and not pausing to think about what you want to actually write and that you can actually type at that speed to begin with, which isn’t a given.

The NaNoWriMo challenge does become more daunting as you consider it. Let’s say you have a concept you are quite excited about (I have been at least four times on record now). First week is easy—you find that hour each day to get your roughly 1667 words down and even get some extra words on the day. But maybe you are not writing at your top words per minute as you consider how to word sentences and structure dialogue and paragraphs. Maybe you hit stumbling blocks with creativity as you get beyond all the things you were really excited for and find yourself needing to find another 15,000 words to fill before you get to the exciting climax you’ve planned. Maybe you miss a couple days with work or family. Thanksgiving is right at the end of November and whether or not you carve out time to write along with your turkey can mean success or failure. 

The first day you miss means you need an additional 58 words. So what? That’s only two more minutes of writing, right? Two days is 119 more words per day and three days is 185 more words per day. Every missed day puts an ever-increasing burden on all your other days’ quotas, and that burden increases at an exponential rate. Now we see the true challenge of NaNoWriMo. Coming up with a story of 50,000 words is not terribly difficult. The undoing of many excited authors is consistency and time management, not the often vilified writer’s block.

So, how do I intend to reclaim a winning record and complete my third NaNoWriMo challenge in five years? Well, I’m doing a few things differently this year, and I’m all too happy to share.


“Plans are nothing, planning is everything” – Dwight D Eisenhower

First thing is to decide what you are going to write. My first suggestion is to have a few concepts you think can work together and not just one. A young man from a farm who is descended from kings who gets a magic sword to slay the dark lord. That is one concept. You are going to need more than that in all likelihood, especially if you want someone to eventually read it, because we have all read that story a dozen times. You’re a writer; you’ve had plenty of creative ideas over the years. Pick three to start and see if there is enough going on with those to make you feel like you can tell a captivating story from start to finish.

Second suggestion is to know if you are someone who needs an outline or someone who’s good with a couple mental notes and just discovery writes. Many successful authors will tell you to be one or the other, and that’s based on whichever one helped them become successful. A handful of authors will tell you the truth though: you already are one or the other or somewhere on that spectrum. Find out where you are on the spectrum and have the appropriate amount of notes and outlining ready to tackle an intense month of writing.

Third suggestion, and one that is new to my approach this year, is get some advice on writing short novels. 50,000 words may seem like a lot but the shortest Harry Potter book is over 75,000. The Hunger Games is just under 100,000, and Twilight nearly 120,000. These are titles everyone knows. For a true perspective on how small 50,000 words is in the world of writing, let's check the average word counts for some fantasy series I enjoy. The Wheel of Time average is 294,003. A Song of Ice and Fire average is 354,000. The Stormlight Archive is 423,591. NaNoWriMo’s 50,000 words is short, and if you were gearing up to write a 100,000-word novel, you may find yourself at the end of the month and the end of your word count yet the middle of your story. 

This was an issue for me, so I found some advice online. I watched a video on writing short fiction, a guest lecture given by author Mary Robinette Kowal in one of Brandon Sanderson’s classes he teaches (and posts online). Sanderson is the opposite of short fiction, so the guest lecturer for such a topic was a solid decision, and I plan on implementing a few of her tips from the lecture.


Time is what we want most, but what we use worst. – William Penn

Scheduling is also part of preparation, but it truly deserves its own place. If anything can ruin our weekend, sidetrack our goals, or end a Dungeons and Dragons campaign, it’s scheduling conflicts. As I previously mentioned, being gainfully employed will take up a large part of your day. Most full-time employees can say goodbye to half of their waking hours on a day they work, and the majority of us do not have jobs where we can work on our novels on the clock. Outside of work, we have other demands on our time like friends and family. Friends are not as big of a factor for many in 2020 with most people’s social lives taking a huge nose dive. Yet plenty of us have family. A partner will require a good portion of your time even if they understand you are on a mission, and let’s not get started on kids. Schedule a time for writing and make sure everyone is on board (or asleep).

Consistency is the other factor of time. As previously mentioned, every missed day puts a burden on what’s required for every other day. The NaNoWriMo site is lovely in that it has a word tracker to keep you on target, but you want to be ahead of target and not trying to play catch up with a 5,000-word day. Find an hour every day. If it’s a slower hour than other days and you don’t make the daily quota, that is okay. But put in the hour. Much like trying to start any good habit, consistency is what makes or breaks it. It takes more than thirty days to make a habit, but anyone who’s done something for half that long can tell you it starts to get easier.

To be continued...

There are my tips for myself and for you, fellow writers. These tips will not only serve you in NaNoWriMo but also in all your writing endeavors. Be prepared for what you are writing and take some pro-tips on how to write that style of story. Manage your time and stay committed. Perhaps they are a bit general, even obvious, but sometimes sound advice is just someone reminding us of something we already know but have forgotten. I’ve operated without it for past years, so I’m excited to see how this year goes. Check in for future posts on my NaNoWriMo progress, pitfalls, and maybe even some excerpts.

Keep writing!


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