NaNoWriMo, Or How I Cheated My Way to Finishing My Novel

In 2001—yes 14 years ago—a friend of mine said, “I heard about this writing challenge where you try and write a novel in a month. It takes place in November and you need to write 50,000 words.”

“That’s freakin’ crazy!” I said. And then a moment later, “I’m in.”

So what that I was working at a 70-hour-a-week job? So what that I was planning my wedding? So what that I was hosting Thanksgiving? So what that I actually had to finish it at least a few days before November 30, as I was going to be shipped off to work an overnight shift in my company’s warehouse for the holidays? Damn it, I was going to write 50,000 words in the month of November!

NaNoWriMoAnd I did. It was the third year of NaNoWriMo, and I was one of about 700 people to complete the challenge (by comparison, in 2013, over 400,000 participated). And I did it again for almost all those years in between. No, I don’t have 14 novels. Because you know what? I’m a big fat cheater. I cheat on NaNoWriMo. As it clearly stated in the 2002 FAQ:

Can I use an outline or notes?
Outlines are encouraged. Notes are encouraged. Partially written chapters are punishable by death.

I should be punished by death. Because in fact, I started MODERN GIRLS as a NaNoWriMo novel. And when November was over, I put it aside. Until the following November. When I continued MODERN GIRLS. I may or may not have used a third NaNoWriMo to edit the novel. Which would be completely out of bounds.

You know what? I can totally live with myself.

For those of you who are now on Day 3 of NaNoWriMo, I offer these tips. And for those who have yet to start, you are 3,333 words behind (not including today) and you can catch up! My advice:

  • Be verbose. For example: similar vs. not dissimilar. Same idea, twice the words! Contractions? A thing of the past!
  • Ignore your family. Your family will forgive you when you show them the beauty of your 50,000 words. They will be so in awe of your accomplishment that they will encourage you to continue ignoring them and keep writing.
  • When you have to write 1,667 words a day, every word and every writing moment counts. Sneak in a paragraph on your lunch break. Jot notes while you’re waiting for your kid’s soccer game to finish. Use voice recorder to get down that brilliant idea you have at 2 a.m. Does it not seem so brilliant at 10 a.m.? Doesn’t matter. Add it anyway. You need all the words you can get.
  • Edit NOTHING! Seriously. Do not go back at all unless you are planning on inserting more words. You have the next December to October to edit; this is about getting the words on the page so you have something to edit later.
  • You will fall behind. You are only human. But every now and then, a good caffeine- (or bourbon-) fueled late night can push you through. Close your door, put on some inspiring music, and just start typing.
  • When I really had trouble thinking about what to write, I’d ask for words. On my blog, I offered anyone who wanted to give me a word. I worked those words into my scenes, choosing one word to focus on a day. I had a heck of a time in the early years working “kippers” into a scene that took place on a Florida film set, but by gosh, I did it, and it actually stayed in the novel! The runaway turtle, however, eventually was cut. (Follow @NaNoWordSprints on Twitter. It not only provides you with timed word sprints [as in “Write solidly for the next 15 minutes”], it also gives you prompts to include in your writing.)
  • Use the forums. Ask for help. Get suggestions. Meet up with your local NaNoWriMo writing cohort. Every region has one, and it’s a great way to meet writing buddies who will potentially be beta readers or future writing group members. They will commiserate with you when you fall behind and celebrate with you when you achieve your goals.
  • PencilDelete NOTHING. At some point you will hate your novel. It’s simply a fact. You will hate your novel, you will hate your main character, you will hate what is surely a cliched and tedious story line. Perhaps you’ll notice your narrator disappeared 8,000 words ago. Perhaps you’ll realize that you’ve used the word “shrug” at least three times on every page. Perhaps you’ll decide that your protagonist made a wrong decision in chapter three, but you’re currently on chapter 26. Do nothing about this! Just move on! On December 1, you’ll fix things. But just proceed, writing new chapters. Don’t delete anything. This, above else, is the cardinal rule of NaNoWriMo.
  • Yes, the motto is “no plot no problem,” but you’re better than that. You’re going to be writing brilliantly, with insightful characters, humorous situations, and just the wittiest dialogue this side of Dorothy Parker. Um, we all think that. None of us do that. Just keep writing.

You might read this and think, “Why is she advising me to write crap?” Because when you write that first draft, it’s always going to be crap. Even if you take six months and edit every day as you go. But this way, the crap gets on the page quickly, and once you have something there, you have something to work with. I know this, because I’ve done it. And I’m doing it again. I’m using November to get the rough draft of my next novel down. Am I following all the rules? Nope. I already have a few chapters written; I’m not starting from scratch. Do I like my novel? Nope, I hate it. I hate everything about this new novel. Every day I think, “I should scrap this and do something new,” but I won’t because (you know this one!) I will delete nothing. I know at the end there will be nuggets of brilliance among the heaps of crap, and those are what I will mine to make a beautiful next novel. Even as I hate it now. Even as I complain to my family every night. Even as I declare, “I need more bourbon because this thing sucks!”

But I’ll be writing. Every day. To quote the great Mork from Ork, “Na-nu Na-nu.” Which I’m pretty sure translates to, “Go write yourself some crap!”

(Thinking about jumping in but feeling hesitant? Feel free to buddy up with me on the NaNoWriMo site. My user name is jbrown.)

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Jennifer S. Brown is the author of MODERN GIRLS (NAL/Penguin). The novel, set in 1935 in the Lower East Side of New York, is about a Russian-born Jewish mother and her American-born unmarried daughter. Each discovers that she is expecting, although the pregnancies are unplanned and unwanted, in this story about women’s roles, standards, and choices, set against the backdrop of the impending war. Learn more at www.jennifersbrown.com.

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This article has 6 Comments

  1. I’m fascinated by the different paths, backstories, and habits that get people to publication. It’s like weight loss– there’s a lot of options; something for everyone. Good luck on this years NaNo sprint!! I’ll be your cheerleader 🙂

  2. This made me laugh! I’ve done NaNo twice (and am sort of doing it, unofficially, this year, but I’m already behind and I don’t care) — the first time I had an outline but nothing else, and I wrote a novel that required many many months of revisions b/c PLOT HOLES. Last year I completed my half-finished novel, which is book 2 and will hit shelves June 28, and I’ve decided I’m much better finishing during NaNo vs starting. So I break the rules, too, and I’m just fine with that. Good luck with book 2!

    1. June 28! That’s fabulous!! Congrats. I’m currently on NaNo schedule, but within moments I vacillate between, “Hey this isn’t so bad” and “OMG, I need to quit being a writer.” But I will plug away. Because it’s what we do. 🙂

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