NaNoWriMo is famous among aspiring writers as an opportunity to struggle along with hundreds of thousands of other writers around the world to write a 50,000+ word novel in a single month — November. Camp NaNoWriMo is a more freewheeling project where you choose your own goal for the month. It doesn’t have to be a novel. It doesn’t even have to be fiction. Have a screenplay idea? Want to put together a collection of poetry? Want to publish a blog article every day for a month? Whatever your goal, Camp NaNoWriMo can accommodate it, and provide you with a group of like-minded souls to commiserate with and cheer on. You pick your goal. It doesn’t have to come with a word count goal, though you may find that having one makes it easier to measure your progress through the month.
I’ve participated in several of the NaNoWriMo November novel write-athons, but have only begun to try my hand at the Camp NaNoWriMo projects in April and July during the past couple years. I’d like to share a few of my strategies that have worked, and why I think they made the difference between meeting my goals for the month and falling by the wayside during the first week or so.
Next month, my goal is to complete what I hope will be my final revision of the first NaNoWriMo project I wrote, a novel titled The Gideon Effect. It’s past time to get ‘er done.
Without further ado, here are the strategies I’ve used in the past and will use again in April:
Do some planning
I don’t plan out the entire month’s worth of work, but I do like to plan enough to give me a good leaping off place for my first week’s worth of effort. When writing a novel, this means doing some research on my settings, writing up some rough character sketches, and thinking about the first few scenes, and where I may take things from there. For an editing project, this means starting a scene list spreadsheet of my work in progress. The list identifies areas I think need massive rework, and also pinpoints additions I want to make in order to backfill and fill plot holes.
This blog article by Monica M. Clarke describes how to create and use scene lists and also has a free template you can download. I have never used a scene list spreadsheet to start a novel, though I may try that with my next one. Picking through a work in progress to create a scene list for editing purposes gives a great visual overview of the story and how it flows.
For research on your settings, the internet provides an amazing array of tools that can help you visualize a setting you’ve never visited. Google Earth, Google Maps, real estate websites like Zillow and Redfin, Wikipedia and the millions of local history websites developed and curated by people who know their regions well can give you a rich appreciation for your setting, even if you have lived there, yourself. Local history websites can also help you develop your characters’ backstories in unexpected ways. One of my characters in what is currently an extremely rough draft was directly inspired by a historical essay about a woman who ran a hotel of ill repute on the Vermont/Canada border during Prohibition. I read the essay to learn more about one of the story’s settings, and came away with some great ideas for my main character’s grandmother.
If you plan to write a story with a completely made-up setting, then your worldbuilding isn’t tied to real places your readers might be familiar with, but the research and planning – from continents to nations to cities to customs to languages to religions – may all need fleshing out before you can start your project.
Set intermediate goals
Set a daily word count or scene count goal. Set a goal for your first week. Set a mid-month goal. I like to make my word count goals a little aggressive. If I need to write 1667 words every day in order to hit 50,000 words in a month, then I set a goal of 1800 or 2000 words. I plan to finish 3 to 5 days ahead of the one-month deadline so that when things come up, as they inevitably do, I have a built-in cushion. Keep track of your actual versus your planned word count and make adjustments as needed.
Write Every Day
If you can, sit down and pour some words into your document every day, even if you can’t always meet your goal. Figure out when you are at your most creative and productive, and take advantage of those times. If you can’t meet your goals in one writing session, plan on two or more sessions every day.
Try Word Sprints
A sprint is a timed period where you write as fast as you can. Sprints help you silence your inner editor, and are a great way to catch up when you feel like you’re falling behind. You can schedule your own sprints, or take advantage of sprints that other NaNo participants schedule. Sometimes, just knowing other people are pounding the keys while you are helps the writing go faster. The NaNoLand Facebook group shedules multiple sprints per day, and other writing groups on social media also run sprints. Check them out!
Write in Different Places
No matter how well-set-up your home writing area, it can feel stale after a few days. Take your laptop or tablet to the library, coffee shop, or brew pub. Or attend a write-in. Spend some time getting to know the other attendees, but don’t forget the reason for write-ins is to write.
My biggest distraction is the internet. I turn off the sound and shut down my browsers when I’m writing unless I’m in research-mode. Some people use apps to prevent internet access when it’s writing time. Some turn off the router. Some go to coffee shops and other locations that don’t have free wifi.
Always Carry a Notepad
You never know when a brainstorm will happen. A cloudy motivation made clear, a senseless interaction suddenly made sensible, an idea for a scene — any of these can strike when you’re far away from your manuscript or computer. Jot them down! The number of story ideas I’ve had at inconvenient times and didn’t remember later is staggering.
Get Away and Think
My most productive writing days have always involved time away from both my writing and my usual haunts and schedule. Walking on a hilltop or beach, hiking through a woods or garden, taking in sunshine and fresh air will often free up my mind to work on the next scene or two. I come back to my laptop refreshed and full of writing energy. This is one of the reasons that multiple writing sessions work well for me.
When You Have No Answer to “What Happens Next?”
When your writing goes past your vague roadmap and you and your characters are lost in a vast wilderness, it can feel like you’ll never write your way back to civilization. My advice is not to worry about being lost. Explore the wilderness. In real terms, what do I mean? Have one of your characters start an argument with another. Or put them in a car or a bed and have them talk to each other. Send them on a road trip, day spa, or have them visit a distant relative or unfamiliar city. Get descriptive. Your characters will take it from there.
Or skip ahead to a later part of the story you have well developed ideas for. There’s no rule that requires you to write your scenes in sequential order.
Writing is work, and it’s sometimes feels like a long, dismal plod to the finish line. But, it’s not. Wear a silly hat when you write. Reward yourself for meeting your intermediate goals. Share your progress with other writers on social media and in real life. And plan a celebration for the end of the month. Whether you reach your ultimate goal for the month or not, you’ll have considerably more written than you would if you skipped Camp NaNo. Celebrate, take a break, reflect on what the month taught you about your story and yourself. And then write onward. Good luck!
What are some of your strategies for NaNo season or for writing in general?