The Cheater’s Guide to Winning NaNoWriMo

Do you dream of winning NaNoWriMo?

November is just around the corner, and with it comes National Novel Writing Month: that time of the year when many people decide to write a novel, and many of them succeed.

If you’ve won NaNoWriMo in the past and are happy with your process, then this post probably isn’t for you. I want to take this time to talk to the people who haven’t won yet—the ones who have tried year after year and failed, or the ones who are just starting out and have no idea what they’re doing. Does that sound like you? Keep reading.

First things first: I called this the cheater’s guide to winning NaNoWriMo, but planning is far from cheating—in fact, it’s encouraged! It’s a good idea to have an idea of who your characters are, what they want, where their story is going, and how they get there—all before you start your official word count on November 1st.

I’ll walk you through five steps to success below, but first, a disclaimer—the process I’m suggesting here is based pretty closely off a basic three-act outline. It’s a great way to get started and get the words on the page, but be prepared to rewrite and restructure your novel into a less-forced structure later on when you’ve recovered from your post-November writing crash.

Ready to get started? Let’s go!

Five easy steps to winning NaNoWriMo

1: Know what your protagonist and antagonist each want and what they’ll do to get it.

Your protagonist is your main character—the one whose goals and choices drive this story. What are those goals? What choices are they willing to make to reach them? Your antagonist is whoever is getting in their way—it doesn’t necessarily have to be a villain. That antagonist makes goals and choices too. Know what it is they want and exactly how low they’ll go to get their way. When you know these two things, you’ll have all the tension you need to lay out your plot.

Tip: Writer’s Digest recently tweeted a picture of a worksheet that might come in handy at this step.

2: Know how your story ends and be able to write the beginning, middle, and end in a single paragraph.

One of the easiest ways to get stuck during NaNoWriMo is jumping into the writing without actually knowing where the story is going. Think about that tension you set up between what the protagonist and antagonist want—your story begins when that tension begins, and it ends when that tension is resolved by one party or the other achieving their goal. How is the conflict in your story going to be resolved? What must happen to get the characters there? Write it all down in a single paragraph from beginning to end—you now have a full story waiting to be expanded.

3: Create a three-part, thirty-chapter outline.

It’s time now to expand that beginning, middle, and end into a full outline. You can use your favorite writing software or a good old-fashioned notebook to do this; I use Scrivener. What you’re going to do is set up a three-part, thirty-chapter outline (ten chapters per part if you want to be symmetrical for easy tracking, but you’ll probably want to adjust this after the fact). Mine looks kind of like this:

Scrivener outline for NaNoWriMo

Give a brief summary of what each part is going to be about, and then go in and write one sentence describing what is going to happen in each chapter. In Scrivener, you can do that with cute little index cards. In real life, you can do the same.

scrivener cards for NaNoWriMo

You now have a precise roadmap for where your writing will go each day—you have no more reason to stare blankly at an empty screen when you sit down to write!

4: Every day of November, write one chapter of at least 1667 words.

Yes, I’m making the assumption here that you’re writing the same number of words every single day. Yes, I know that many people prefer to binge write in their free time and take certain days (Thanksgiving, perhaps?) off altogether. You don’t have to wait for November 12th to write chapter 12—go ahead and write the chapters whenever you want to, but you can always compare your current chapter number to the date to know if you’re on track.

Is it possible that you’ll make changes to the sentences you wrote earlier now that you’ve seen your characters come to life? Yes, and that’s okay. You still have a basic direction to go, but you’re already taking steps to make it better.

5: Win with the expectation of a rewrite.

When you finish, take the time to celebrate! You’ve reached a huge writing goal that takes a lot of discipline. At the same time, remember that you’ll probably have to add, cut, and/or rearrange scenes, chapters, characters, subplots, etc. Set your story aside for a while. You now have an easy-to-follow full draft to work with, and best of all, you have bragging rights—you just wrote a book.

Tell me about your novel project!

I’m not participating in NaNoWriMo this fall, but the method I described above worked great for me last year—I made it over halfway through the draft before health issues forced me to quit for the month, and I was left with a clear outline to continue filling out later. I’ve saved my Scrivener outline as a template, so leave a comment or email me if you’re interested in a copy of that template.

Will you give this method a try? Do you have another NaNoWriMo secret that works better for you? Leave me a comment or tweet at me with your thoughts and experiences—I love hearing National Novel Writing Month success stories and would love to cheer for you along the way and again when you win.


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