NaNoWriMo: How To Complete Your Novel In 30 Days

Updated July 26, 2021 by Iulian Ionescu | Read Time min.

I signed up for NaNoWriMo for the first time in 2011, but I didn’t participate. I felt unfit for it, not ready, or otherwise scared of the project’s magnitude. In 2012, one of my writer’s group members asked if anyone else was doing the NaNoWriMo, so I said yes. I didn’t think about it, and I just said yes. If I had thought about it, I would’ve probably bailed again.

What is NaNoWriMo?

Here I am in December, two weeks after completing my first NaNoWriMo. I am still not over the joy of this minor success, so much so that I decided to write a blog post and describe how I did it and how you should not look at this as a scary project but a challenge and a way to improve your writing skills.

If you are not aware of what NaNoWriMo is, it’s a writing challenge where participants must complete a novel of 50,000 words or more, in 30 days, during November. There are many other similar contests, but this particular one is trendy and well organized. In 2011 there were 250,000+ participants, and that’s pretty impressive if you think about it. To learn more about the contest, head to their main page and read the about section:

The NaNoWriMo Challenge

So, let’s recap: 50,000 words in 30 days. That’s about 200 pages (double-spaced, standard margins, 12 pt. font). Mathematically, that is not more than a mere 1,667 words per day or about 6 to 7 pages. That translates into about 1 to 2 hours per day of typing. A piece of cake, right?

Well, as we all know, writing a novel is not about math unless you are writing some algebra textbook. It’s a lot more than that, and most of it has to do with what’s in your head. Let’s look at the real challenges:

  1. Mental Challenge
    • You can’t wrap your mind around the fact that it is just too much in too little time.
  2. Creative Challenge
    • You don’t have an idea for a novel right now.
    • You will never be able to produce a sellable manuscript in 30 days.
  3. Physical Challenge
    • You are afraid that you cannot type so much, so fast.
    • It seems like there’s not enough room in your schedule for the time dedicated to writing.
    • You are a master outliner, and you can’t bear not outlining your novel properly.

Now let’s tear each of these into pieces and find real-life methods to get over them.

“The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.” Terry Pratchett

Mental Challenge

Writer's Mental ChallengeThis is probably one of the biggest hurdles in the path of any achievement: self-doubt, lack of confidence, fear of failure, procrastination. All of these live in your head. You don’t think of yourself as good enough to do it, you are afraid of what others will think about you if you fail, and there’s nobody around you to give you a push. Guess what? Neither one of those is real.

Every single person that ever created or invented anything started from scratch. And if they would’ve stopped because they were afraid of failure, the world would not be where it is today. Instead, they replaced fear with hope. And hope drove their desire to succeed. And even when they failed, they didn’t stop. “If I find 10,000 ways something won’t work,” Thomas Edison said about working on the lightbulb, “I haven’t failed. I am not discouraged because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.”

You Can Do It If You Decide You Can Do It

And guess what? You have a considerable advantage over those pioneers when it comes to writing. You have books that teach you how to write, seminars and conferences, books written by others that can inspire you, and a community of writers to support you.

Once you come to terms with being a writer, you can jump over this hurdle. You go every day to your work and perform your tasks—accounting, sales, what have you. If anyone doubts you can do those, you will get offended, right? Well, then it’s time that you decide you are a writer and stop being afraid of actually acting like a writer. That is—write.

If you haven’t done this already, pick up a piece of paper and write in big letters: “I Am A Writer.” Glue it in your home in front of your eyes, so you never forget.

So, write. Push through the fear and do it anyway. Recognize that nothing that brings glory and satisfaction is ever accomplished without some degree of fear. Just don’t think about it. Try your best to reject every thought that pops in your head and tells you that you can’t make it.

DECIDE that you CAN make it.

That’s your first and hardest step.

“You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.” Jodi Picoult

Creative Challenge

Writer's Creative ChallengeThe second hurdle comes after you decide to do it. Now the question is: what am I going to write about? Some people sit on a good idea for years and NEVER get the chance to turn it into words. If you are one of those lucky ones, you won’t have a problem. Take that idea and run with it. But most likely, you will be like the vast majority — you don’t have an idea yet. That’s a scary thought, a thought that fuels those fears you dealt with above. So, what do you do?

Simple: re-frame the way you think about the challenge, and don’t let the lack of a readily available novel idea be the thought that drives your process.

To understand that, let’s take a step back first and look at what is this challenge going to help you accomplish:

1) Publish a novel
2) Improve your writing skills (style, grammar, structure)
3) Expand your writing spectrum (genres)
4) Get better at putting words on paper

This particular contest will not result in a publishable manuscript. Read that again, and again, and again. At the end of the thirty days, unless your name is Faulkner, you will probably not be able to publish the manuscript. You will be able to turn it into a publishable manuscript later on, as you will see, but it will initially be just a rough draft. That is a crucial point!

Forget Everything About Perfection

Your manuscript doesn’t have to be perfect! It simply doesn’t have to be perfect. As a matter of fact, the longer your first 30-day draft, the less perfect it will be. There’s an inverse relationship between the writing quality and the writing quantity in a limited period. This contest asks you to finish 50,000 words, not 50,000 PERFECT words. That’s a big relief. So, for now, strike number 1). Things are getting more manageable—no pressure to hand the manuscript on November 30 to anyone to read.

In my opinion, improving your writing skills is by far the number one goal for this contest. It’s one of those elusive apparent things that are right there, in your face, but you don’t see them. In your head, the prestige of finishing is excellent, being able to tell your friends and family is fantastic, and publishing your work is grand. But at the end of the day, this challenge will help you become a better writer.

The advice you get from every writing evangelist is this: write, write, and write. Don’t look back, don’t you dare… Kill your inner perfectionist. Just keep writing through the end. Then, take a break, take a breath, look back, and start fixing. But the process of pushing forward and putting words on paper will eventually drive your continuous improvement as a writer.

Write Fast And Write A Lot

The more words you can put on the paper, the better you can establish a proper work ethic, and the better that process goes, the more confidence you will get. The more self-confidence you acquire, the faster and better you will write. It’s a growing spiral of improvement. You will start taking chances, getting outside your comfort zone, exploring, experimenting, and testing. This type of challenge will bring you the most, and it’s a priceless gift.

So, don’t be afraid if your novel idea is not the next New York Bestseller. You have time for that. Now write about anything that makes you feel comfortable. Many sites help you brainstorm, and I also wrote a blog post on writer’s block. Don’t let the lack of a great idea be a deterrent to your goal of learning how to impose your writing schedule and improving your writing style. Finally, you can use the same methods explained in the Morning Pages routine and swap the writing to your NaNoWriMo while keeping the same strategy.

“Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.” Louis L’Amour

Physical Challenge

So, above, we dealt with the ‘why’ you should and can do this, and then the ‘what’ should you writeWriter's physical challenge about. Now let’s move to the ‘how.’ The answer to this will depend significantly on your writing style. Are you an outliner who likes to plan every move of your novel, or are you a seat-of-your-pants kind of writer, where you write with no plan in mind and let your imagination guide each step?

The non-outlining writers will feel more confident about this project since they can just start writing. The outliners will feel a bit scared by the idea that they won’t be able to spend their weeks and weeks planning and outlining.

Personally, I am a big outliner. I like to take my story from the one-line blurb to a complete scene list, character bibles, maps, and world-building. To get over this, I decided to sacrifice one day and one day only for outlining.

Here’s how I did it.

I figured that an average scene is about 800-1000 words, based on prior experience. I felt that a chapter should be roughly 10-15 pages. So, I decided my outline would contain 16 chapters, each with four scenes of about 800 words. I used good-old Excel to start a table with the following headers: Scene number, Scene Description, Number of Words, chapter, Total Words.

Create a Simple Bird’s Eye View

Next was the overall story structure. Again, we don’t have much time here, so I decided to go with the well-known, established, and loved-by-many three-act structure. So, I assumed that my first act would be about 25%, the second act about 50%, and the third act the remaining 25%. I color-coded my excel sheet to see the clear separation, and at the bottom, below the table, I made three rows with formulas to keep track of the actual size of each act.

Now I had a pretty decent skeleton for a good start. If you want to look at the Excel sheet and use it in your project, grab this writing quota Excel tracking sheet that I prepared for you. Use it freely as you wish. In addition, I’ve also made available for free my quick novel outlining template.

Now, the minimum average number of words you must write every day is 1,667, but you don’t want to be there. You want to be at least 50% higher so you can slowly get yourself a nice safety cushion. I set my personal goal to be 2,500 words per day. That’s about three scenes or almost one entire chapter.

Ok, now, with a quick skeleton and the plan for each day, there was one more thing I had to do: decide how this novel would end. Why is this important?

The fun of writing a novel is in the process of creation. You are the God of your characters; you are building the world, giving them life, and making them interact. That’s great, but you are not writing for your characters; you are writing for a reader, and readers, usually, like to finish a book and enjoy its ending. So, as much as the fun lies in your second act, your last act is the one that will leave the final mark on your reader. Equally important, the first act is the one that will grab your reader and make him read the entire book.

So, the minimal preparation here should be this: how do I start? Keywords: attention-grabbing, exciting action, character introduction. And how do I end? Keywords: emotional connection, closing the circle, tying all the plot lines.

If you want to make the road from the first few pages until the last few pages to be a fun one for you, at least decide from the beginning what will be on those few pages. And again, you don’t have to be perfect here as we are still planning. But have a general idea of your ending. Is it a dark ending? Will the protagonist die or lose someone dear? Is there a happy ending where the boy gets the girl? Or maybe a bittersweet ending where the boy saves the girl but still loses her? Either way, if you decide this from the start, you will have a far easier time filling the gap between your beginning and end.

So, at this point: you have decided you can do this, you more or less know what your novel will be all about, you prepared yourself a generic outline, and you have established how your book starts and ends. That’s all you need, now start writing!

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”Maya Angelou

NaNoWriMo - 30 day novel

Keeping Up The Momentum

TimerOnce you start writing and get into a routine, you will find it hard to stop, and I mean it! But there will also be days when you won’t be able to write. Maybe because of your job, illness, family functions, and so on. But you have to strive hard to keep that average going.

If you find it hard to allocate the time to write your daily quota, read my other article, Writing when Busy. It gives you some specific ideas about how to write when you are very busy.

But regardless, don’t get hung up on the daily quota too much. The daily goal is excellent, but you are looking for a weekly quota, much more than a daily one. You have to output about 12,500 words per week. Make sure you keep to that. There will be days when you write more and days when you write less. Your weekends are an excellent way to catch up, so if you missed your quota in one or two days, get back on track during the weekend. If you are over your quota, good for you, but don’t relax and rest right away. Write more; you will love it in week four when you are almost done.

Editing During NaNoWriMo

How do you edit your writing during November? The short answer is: you don’t. Given that you are writing more than 2000 words every day, chances are you don’t even need to re-read what you wrote the day before to keep your story on track. It will all be in your head. If you are in chapter 10 and can’t remember that town’s name, just put a “[?]” as a placeholder, and you will search and replace it later on.

Obviously, if you are the kind of writer who needs to read yesterday’s work to get back into the “writing mode,” do it by all means. But keep it short. Remember, your goal here is to write a lot, not to write perfectly from the start.

If you want a compromise, do this: first, write your daily quota of new words and, only if you meet it are you allowed to read your work from the day before and do some light editing. Keep it fun and challenge yourself!

Other Ways to Get Motivated

The NaNoWriMo allows the participants to join regional groups. Each group organizes various writing sessions where people get together with their laptops in a public place, like a library or a bookstore, and write. It’s an excellent motivator to be around other writers, so use them if you have trouble focusing by yourself.

The forums on NaNoWriMo are also filled with posts that help writers with advice and encouragement.

On the NaNoWriMo site, look for friendly faces or other people who write in your genres and add them as your writing buddies. You will be able to see their progress and compare it against yours.

Search the web for posts like the one you are reading right now. There’s a lot of information and many ways to get motivated. As soon as you feel like you are going stale or ready to procrastinate, turn to these resources and use them as a ‘kick in the butt.’ You will be happy later when you are done!

Last Day of NaNoWriMo – November 30

ChampagneYou did it! It’s November 30, and your 50,000 words are done! So, wait no more and submit your work. Make sure you don’t stop precisely at 50,000; by the way, push through 51,000 or so to make sure that your word processor’s word count will match their word count. Sometimes there is a slight difference, so you want to make sure you have a good cushion.

Congratulations!! Now, take a week or two away from this novel. Work on other things. Then two weeks later, come back. Start polishing your work, but even before that, decide if your book will stay at 50,000 words or if you need more. Depending on your genre and the standards, you might find yourself in need of another 25,000 words or maybe more. Now that you know the process, adding those words should be easy.

Now you have a month to do your first review and bring your word count where you want it to be. Enjoy your holidays and your new year’s, but remember: by the end of January, you should have your second round of edits done, and your novel should now be in a somewhat presentable state.

From here on, it’s all about polishing and making it better. But that’s not the subject of this article. I just wanted you to get here, and what you do from this point on is a different story. But give yourself a warm hug and treat yourself to whatever you love most. You deserve it.

You practiced writing discipline, the most challenging hurdle on your way to writing success. Also, you improved your style, and you learned how to write fast and organize the thoughts in your head. Last but not least, you learned how to keep track of your writing and stick to your quotas.

You just became a better writer.

Also, if you read this post far from November, I challenge you to make your own NaNoWriMo. Pick any month—preferably right now, and be the only participant. Push yourself to do it. Actually, let me correct that: prove that you can do it!

Now, before you go, I have…

3 Questions For You

  1. Do you participate in NaNoWriMo? If no, why not?
  2. What was the highest number of words you’ve ever written in 30 days?
  3. Do you write a few words every day or tend to write in long stretches a few days a week or month?

Please share your answers in the comments below. Sharing knowledge helps us all improve and get better!



outlining, planning, productivity, writing tips

  • so thank you sharing.
    I was very scared not knowing what you’re doing yourself and it will be like? I’m trying to do things for my future, I’m afraid not stumble and get up, I fear I’ve even changed the direction of making it, you have to know and what should I do. Thank you, you try your best.

  • Thank you so much for you very intersting article! I have registered but not participated in NaNoWriMo. I have spread youre good words in my swedish blog. Keep up youre exellent blog.  From another writelover on the other side of the world. =D

  • My first NaNoWriMo novel didn’t get completed until the following NaNoWriMo.  My life is crazy busy and notoriously hectic.  I’m hoping to do better this time and actually finish this year’s NaNovel before next year’s event.

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