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Perennial Favorites: Seasoned Authors Share Their NaNoWriMo Secrets

Five novelists talk about writing, blogging, and NaNoWriMo.

Cropped, flipped image by Kate Ter Haar (CC BY 2.0)

Last year, we asked five veteran NaNo authors for their advice on how to approach this event: they had each leveraged their NaNoWriMo project into a published novel (some more than once!), and they all also happen to be active WordPress.com bloggers. For those of you participating this year, we’re republishing this roundtable again.

November 1st marked the start of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). The annual fiction extravaganza brings together tens of thousands of writers every year, first-timers and pros alike, each committed to hammer out 50,000 words of sparkling fiction over the course of the month.

Here with tricks of the trade, advice, and words of encouragement are five novelists who’ve successfully participated in NaNoWriMo before. Let’s meet our panel of seasoned storytellers:

Let’s start at the beginning: why did you decide to participate in NaNoWriMo?

Jennifer: I first heard about NaNoWriMo when I was in high school, but I never thought I’d ever have time to do it.

In 2009, I decided that I’d never have time unless I made the time, and participated for my first year. Out came The Last Death of Tev Chrisini, the first time I’d ever produced a full-length novel.  I’ve taken part every year since then.

Kristi: Back in 2004, I was moderator of the Pencils! Writing Workshop critique and support group, and one of our members, Nanette, recommended it. Five or six of us did it, and we had a blast!

I had 70,000 words in no time — and I was surprised to discover that writing was so much more fun when I just let everything go, inhabited the world, and left all the hard work of revisions and rewriting for later. NaNo literally changed my creative life, and probably the course of my career.

John: Several years ago, I stumbled upon NaNoWriMo while searching for a writer’s group. I loved the idea and the concept. It seemed like it’d be obtainable with some focus. I thought it’d give me a great excuse to tune out the rest of life’s responsibilities for a short period each day, and become super-productive. It worked for me.

Harry: In 2008, I hadn’t written anything in a few months, and I felt I needed something to spark my creativity. A friend of mine told me about NaNoWriMo, and I was intrigued. Could I write 50,000 words in a month while holding down a day job and being a father?

I decided that I needed to participate and see what would happen. I’ve participated every year since, for a total of five times.

Keris: The first time I participated was 2004. I’d just had a baby, we’d just moved into a new house, and (unsurprisingly!) I was struggling to get back into writing. The novel I wrote for NaNo that year was the first one I ever finished, and so I was hooked.

Expert advice from Jennifer Bresnick:

“You should really try to get other people involved, too, whether they’re writing alongside you, just cheering you on, or taking the kids outside every now and then.”

Any words of wisdom to offer those who might still be on the fence, thinking it’s too hard?

John: Look: just take the pressure off yourself and have fun.

A lot of people are bound and determined to hit a specific division of words each day (1,667, I think) so that they can make 50,000 by the end. That’s great, but one of the great lessons I’ve learned about writing is to write to a scene or a chapter instead of a specific number of words.

And you know what? If you only capture a certain number of words? That’s perfectly fine. You’re going to win just for getting in and having fun. Stir up the creative juices. Enjoy it.

Keris: If you are on the fence, I’d say just give it a go. I know some people worry that it’s too much pressure and they’ll feel bad if they ‘fail,’ but even if you only do a few days, that’s still a few thousand words you didn’t have otherwise.

The best thing about NaNo for me is how, when you push yourself past the point at which you would naturally stop (for me, that’s 1000 words or so), something magical seems to happen, almost as if the book is writing itself.

Kristi: NaNo is all about writing something you want to write just for you, without worrying about others sitting in judgment; there really isn’t a way to fail!

I have met the goal four times, and I have not finished twice. But all six times, I got something new and amazing out of it.  There is nothing but positive that can come out of NaNo—whether or not you meet your stated goal.

Harry: I’d say if you are on the fence, just give it a try. What’s the worst that could happen?

I know 50,000 words seems inconceivable if you’ve never done it, but whether you succeed or fail, I guarantee you that you’ll have more done than if you didn’t make the attempt. My first year I only completed 8,000 words, but I still had the start of a novel.

JenniferJust do it!  Seriously!  Just do it.  Throw a couple of granola bars at the kids and lock yourself in your office if you have to, but just get started.  Nutritional deficiencies take more than a month to show up, right?  So don’t worry about it.

Expert advice from Keris Stainton:

“The first thing I always do is set up a word count spreadsheet to keep track. It’s so satisfying putting your word count in at the end of each day and seeing the total change.”

Tell us about a moment that made the event special for you.

Harry: On 11:46 pm, November 30, 2010, my novel, Balefire and Brimstone, crossed the 50,000 word mark. I had fourteen minutes to spare. I had started the day over 3,000 words behind (maybe more — the day was a blur) and somehow, despite working all day, I had finished.

Keris: The first time I did NaNoWriMo, in 2004, my husband did it too. I don’t remember how it happened, but he ended up being interviewed about it on Radio 4 (for a culture show presented by Mark Lawson).

The BBC actually phoned while we were driving the removal van to the new house, so we had to pull over to the side of the road so David could do the interview. Then, once the interview was done, we carried on with the move.

Jennifer: My very favorite moment was my very first.  It was ticking down to midnight on October 31, and I was panicking.  I had no idea what I was going to write about.  I had no idea how to start.  I started pulling books off my shelf, leafing through my favorite authors trying to get some inspiration.  

When I came to “Monstrous Regiment” by Terry Pratchett, one little line grabbed my eye.  “There was always a war.”  

Suddenly, this whole world popped into my head like someone turning on a TV.  It was totally unexpected, and remains one of my most treasured memories.  I sat down at the keyboard as soon as the clock struck twelve, and didn’t stop until 3 A.M.  Needless to say, I spent the next day (and many days after) in a happily sleepless fog.

Kristi: In 2007, NaNoWrimo started its first podcast. They’d invite the entire NanoWrimo community to participate by sending in sound clips, songs, reviews, tips —whatever. They asked everyone in NaNoLand to record a 15-second “why I love my novel” and submit it.

It was a thrill when the episode came out and I could not only hear myself on the air but hear about what everyone else was working on! It really was a moment in which I felt I was truly part of something bigger than myself, something special.

John: My favorite NaNoWriMo moment is the same each year: hitting the 50,000 word mark. It’s so satisfying. Each year, it ebbs and flows, and I have not made it twice, believe it or not. But when I’ve seen that counter roll over? Such a massive feeling. So awesome.

Thank you, everyone, for sharing your stories and insight with us!

Are you participating in this year’s NaNoWriMo? How has it been going so far? We’d love to hear about your project.

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  1. Loving it! Not writing fiction, so bit of a cheat I suppose. There’s a group meets near me for a write in. Alas, having three very small children and all the ties to the home that brings, I am not going to be able to make that this year. Hopefully next! In the meantime, I am just so pleased that I’m finding time to do a little something for me each day. Thanks NaNoWriMo!

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  2. This is pretty inspiring, thanks. I never intended to do a NaNoWriMo, but I seem to be doing it by accident. It just happened to coincide with me wanting to take a break between finishing and editing a novel so I’m writing something else entirely right now. Actually, I better get back to it… 🙂

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  3. Yes, i’m a mostly genealogical blogger here on wordpress and i’m taking part in Nano for thefirst time this year! I usually become aware of nano about Dec. 1, when all the excitement of finishing is being shouted around the internet! I’ve always wanted to write a novel, but just never did. Then this year i heard about it like on Oct. 26–enough time to get ready but not enough to panic too badly!LOL i’ve been writting, writing, writing– so had 28,000 words by Nov. 7! Still…can i really do 50,000?! It’s scary! Wish i could get it published, not sure about that, but we’ll see! LOL it’s a family saga– about secrets and abuse.Sad but based on truth.

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  4. Thank you for sharing this. The authors’ words are inspiring and gave me a much needed boost to carry on with my writing and not forget why i signed up for NanoWriMo in the first place – for me! 🙂

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