How to Survive NaNoWriMo Without Losing Your Mind

Every November, right after Halloween, a bizarre change comes over homes and cafés the world over. Hundreds of thousands of writers — some of them established pros, others first-timers — hunch, crab-like, over their keyboards, typing away like maniacs. Some wear fedoras or viking helmets. Many ingest dangerous quantities of caffeine. Friends and love ones are ignored, and DVRs fill to capacity as favorite TV series are neglected. And for thirty days the words pour forth. By the thousands. By the millions.

This is National Novel Writing Month, better known as NaNoWriMo. The goal: write a 50,000-word novel in just 30 days. The challenge is simple, tantalizing, and devilishly difficult. But it can be done, and getting there can be one of the most creatively thrilling and rewarding experiences of your life. Just ask any of the thousands of people who come back year after year.

I first got into NaNoWriMo in 2009, when a coworker wouldn’t stop talking about it. I hadn’t written a word of fiction in 20 years, but her enthusiasm hooked me. I signed up on October 30, came up with a rough idea on Halloween, and started writing the next day. By the end of the month, I had the (very) rough draft of what turned out to be a pretty decent story. I kept at it, eventually self-publishing the novel. More importantly, I discovered a love of writing that has become a permanent part of who I am.

But let’s be honest: NaNoWriMo is kind of terrifying. I get it. This November will be my sixth go-round, and I still get scared out of my wits sometimes. If you’re thinking of getting on the bandwagon, or you’ve already signed up and don’t know how you’re ever going to get through it, here are eight tips that will carry you through.

1. Take it one day at a time

Don’t worry about the big picture. Don’t worry about the direction of your story or how long it’s taking to get to the next plot point. Don’t worry about 50,000 words, or even the 1,667 words per day it takes to get there. Just relax and write.

You may hit some days when you produce very little, and others when you find a groove and crank out 4,000 words before you know it. This ebb and flow is normal. Stay loose, enjoying the good days and shrugging off the bad ones. You’ll get there.

2. Grant yourself time and space to write

This is huge. If you’re going to write, you have to find the time to do it, create a comfortable space, and remove distractions so you can focus on the task. Here’s an article that shows you how: “10 Ways to Boost Your Writing Productivity.”

Once you’ve found your perfect writing space, you need to claim it and defend it. This is your writing space, so keep it sacred. Make the mental transition to writing mode easier by adding a physical element: get yourself a writing hat or a totem (a special object) that only comes out when you are writing. I like to put a little green dragon next to my keyboard; seeing him there reminds me to focus on the words and stay away from Facebook.

3. Take breaks to build creative energy

The flip side of focus is the need to step away from time to time. Yes, the clock is ticking, but studies have shown that giving the brain downtime enhances creativity, makes us more productive, and prevents mental burnout. Go for a walk, take a shower, or watch a movie. Spend quality time outside with your loved ones. They’ll thank you, and so will your brain. Staying fresh means you’ll probably end up with a better novel, too.

4. Keep your senses open and a notebook handy

While you’re taking those long walks, chances are you’ll come up with more ideas for your novel. Those might be concepts for new scenes or big plot twists, but they’re more likely to be little details. Open your eyes and ears to the world around you, and everything can become inspiration for your story: the sounds of traffic or birds, a snippet of overheard conversation, aromas from a restaurant, the feeling of the wind in your face, or the childish fun of kicking a pile of fallen leaves. Always have a notebook and pencil (or your phone) on hand to capture those ideas before you forget them.

5. Give your inner editor a vacation

You will be tempted over the 30 days of NaNoWriMo, especially around the middle of the month. A little voice inside your head will tell you the chapters you’ve written are crap. “But I can fix it,” the voice will say. “Let’s go back and change them right now, then we can get back to writing. It won’t take long.”

Do not listen. This is just your insecurity trying to derail you. Don’t get me wrong: your draft probably is pretty bad at this point. But it’s allowed to be bad! First drafts are almost always bad. That’s why they’re called first drafts, after all. So ignore that voice. There is a time and a place to edit, and this is not it. You can edit in December. For now, give yourself permission to write crap.

6. Stay out of your characters’ way

Here’s a funny truth about your story: it actually has two authors — your conscious and subconscious mind. And the thing about the subconscious is that it throws ideas at you when you least expect them. Maybe your plot outline says the characters should turn right (marching on the castle, let’s say), but they keep trying to turn left (into a weird, dark swamp that doesn’t show up anywhere in your outline). What do you do in this case?

Let them go into the swamp. NaNoWriMo is no time to stop your own momentum. When you say, “Hey, my characters won’t do what I want them to do,” what you’re really saying is “I’ve thought of a new story direction but I’m afraid of the unknown.” Don’t be afraid — this is a good thing! Your characters are taking on a life of their own, so embrace that and enjoy the ride. It’s their story, after all. Let them tell it their way.

7. Lean on the NaNoWriMo community

This is one of the best things about NaNoWriMo: you are not alone. There are hundreds of thousands of people taking the journey with you. If you’re getting stuck or losing your mojo, now is the time to call on those people for support.

If you have a team of personal writing buddies, reach out to them. If not, don’t fret. There are literally thousands of people online at the NaNoWriMo forums at any time of the day or night, all month long. Go hang out, meet some people, and get some fresh inspiration. Read one of the many great pep talks on the NaNo website. Or jump-start your word count at a local write-in or by diving into a writing sprint.

8. Have fun

This is the most important advice of all: Remember why you’re doing it. It’s not to write the Great American Novel (or even a good novel). It’s not to achieve fame and glory. And it certainly isn’t about publishing or magically becoming a professional author in 30 days. It’s about challenging yourself, letting your creative side run wild for a month, and having a blast. It’s about stretching your mind, meeting new people, and enjoying the thrill of creating something that wouldn’t otherwise exist.

So let go of your inhibitions. Let go of your fears. Let go of your self-criticism and doubt. Did you write today? Congratulations, you’re a winner. Keep it up, and get that 50K.