10 NaNoWriMo Tips for Success from Editors and Agents
Header illustration by Raúl Gil for Reedsy
NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, is right around the corner — starting annually on November 1. Though the concept of writing 50,000 words in one frenzied month sounds utterly insane, hundreds of thousands of writers attempt it every year, relying on the sense of camaraderie, accountability, and group momentum of the NaNo community. (Think “Night gathers, and now my watch begins” — but for writers who’ve been putting off starting their novels. Minus the dramatic cloaks, unfortunately.)
If you’re taking on the challenge this year, I’ve asked 10 editors and agents for their advice to help you succeed. These are professionals who offer editorial services on Reedsy, who I’d like to thank for letting me tap into their community of experienced publishing professionals!
1. Ask yourself what your character wants
To organize your thoughts into a solid story idea, Rebecca Faith Heyman — freelance editor and advisor to the Reedsy board — suggests starting with your protagonist’s fundamental wants and needs.
“All plot begins with desire. No matter your genre or audience, start by asking yourself: What does my main character want above all else? To truly lay the foundation for a compelling plot, your answer has to exist in the physical world — meaning, existential ideas like ‘happiness’ or ‘to find love’ are less effective than ‘win the election’ or ‘win back the one that got away.’
“Every chapter should mark a change in your character's relativity to desire: is the protagonist closer to or further from achieving or obtaining what they want most? Keep your eye on desire, and your plot is less likely to falter!”
2. Follow your obsessions
While it’s often advised that writers of genre fiction write with the market in mind, editor and novelist Caroline Leavitt (NYT bestseller, With or Without You) urges writers to home in on an idea that they simply can’t shake.
“Don't write for the marketplace right now — that can come later. First and foremost, write for yourself, write the book that you want to read!
“Think about what question is haunting you that your novel might answer. Is it, how do you find community when no one wants you there? Is it, can love overcome brutality? If it obsesses or haunts you, then that's where the beating heart of your writing will be.”
3. With a map in hand, you’ll be able to write in any order
“Whether you’re taking your time writing a novel or hoping to knock out a draft in thirty days, there’s a lot to be said for working out your structure first.”
This piece of advice comes from freelance editor Jodi Fodor, MFA. In a world where writers are split into ‘plotters’ (those who plan) and ‘pantsers’ (those who don’t), Jodi advises NaNoWriMo participants to make some sort of plan to keep them on track.
“What if you figure out where you’re headed—map the entire story, start to finish—before you type any narrative, before you let your characters speak? If you do this, you’re much less likely to—as my English friends might say—lose the plot.”
To illustrate her point, Jodi shared a common disaster story:
- Writer gets excited about an idea for a novel
- Writer jumps in, starts writing
- Writer gets lost, becomes bored, seethes with self-doubt
- Writer closes laptop, orders a pizza, grabs the TV remote
From her editing experience, Jodi has seen that mapping a structure delivers writers two big rewards. “One, you’ll know where you’re headed, so you won’t get lost. And yes, you’re free to revise the structure, to deviate from the original plan; and two, if you create a detailed outline, you’ll be free to write scenes out of order with a clear eye to what happened prior and what happens next. You can write freely here or there, depending on your mood or inspiration.”
Your outline doesn’t have to be too structured — even a simple outline of plots and subplots can be helpful. “I like this organization idea for all my authors but especially for NaNoWriMo types who hear a very loud clock ticking.”
4. To start well, allow your brain to do inactive work
Starting NaNoWriMo is an exciting and terrifying venture. When the month begins, many writers are quick to lose courage if they don’t hit the recommended word count for the first few days. For pantsers, starting NaNoWriMo can mean wilfully diving into an existential crisis, where the pressure to create can be overwhelming.
To alleviate the stress, Jon Darga, literary agent at Aevitas Creative Management and former editor at Penguin Random House, emphasizes the importance of recognizing and acknowledging the inactive work our brains do.
“It's a pretty well-known psychological response that a lot of the brain's best creative work is done when the brain isn't actively doing that creative work. That's why so many creators recommend taking long showers, or going for runs or walks, or why so many people snap up in the middle of the night with a genius idea that just came to them: sometimes you need to let the brain rest for it to make the necessary connections and pathways for creative work.”
Though NaNo’s focus on word count can be stressful, Jon wants writers to remember that a slow start can mean a more well-laid path later on in the creative process.
“For any writers who are afraid that they're off to a slow start or that they're not getting the work done because of the word count on the page, I'd encourage them to think of it from a different angle: there is still important work being done, on characters and plot and language and setting and structure. Even if you're not actively writing, your brain is immersed in your project and making those connections. It will, ultimately, make for a stronger book, and likely a faster and smoother drafting process later in the month. It's not about how you start, it's about how you finish, and sometimes a more restful start is what paves the way for that explosive finish.”
5. For the first draft, trust your subconscious
First drafts are where the tough work of turning abstract notions into concrete narrative elements happens. Every writer’s process is of course different, but I wanted to pick an editor’s mind and ask how consciously authors should be thinking about themes while working on a first draft.
Tim Major, freelance editor — formerly at Scholastic and Pearson — tells me that themes are much harder to identify in a first draft.
“Describing the theme and the overarching message may be a reasonable answer to the question ‘What’s your novel about?’, but I suspect that few writers fully understand their theme during a first draft, and that they’re only able to answer this question accurately after a second pass.”
Instead, Tim thinks character and plot can be more fruitful to focus on while the draft is still unfolding.
“Whether you’re a planner or a pantser, I’d recommend focusing on character and plot during a first draft – then, once you take stock of what you’ve written, you may find that a theme suggests itself unbidden, and can be reinforced throughout the novel. Let your subconscious do the work initially.”
6. There is no need to edit as you write
While you’re working on your first draft, Kimberley Lim, Managing Editor at Gaudy Boy, shares an important reminder: when the editor’s voice in your mind criticizes what you’re currently writing, you can choose to make a note of that and return later, instead focusing on creating a complete draft first.
“Remember: there's always a time and place to edit your work — after it has been written, rather than during. What's important is first getting the story you wish to tell onto the page, in all its chaos and messes and uncertainties, after which you'll have the leisure of doubling back with that red pen. Sometimes, it is this act of losing yourself in the mess of an unedited draft that will yield surprises and set you off in directions you might not have considered otherwise.”
7. Use outside inspiration to avoid losing momentum
So you started your draft, made some progress, but the end of the month is still distant. How do you keep yourself going?
Sara Schonfeld, author and Associate Children's Editor at HarperCollins, suggests thinking back to the exciting way the project was conceived — or looking for inspiration outside of your own project.
“Writing a book isn’t easy, and writing an entire book in one month definitely isn’t easy! For authors losing steam, I highly recommend reconnecting with what excited you about the project in the first place. Is there a particular scene or character or line of dialogue that popped into your head? Inspiration can come from within, sometimes just by reconnecting with that passion!
“If that isn't working, try looking for outside inspiration—and keep far away from books! Engage with media that won't make you feel competitive or activate your ‘author brain.’ And, of course, remember to write what you want to write! Writing out of order can sometimes help. There’s no right or wrong way to write as long as you’re getting words on the page. First drafts just need to exist; editing is for later, and something you don’t have to do on your own!”
(Fun fact: several bestsellers started as NaNoWrimo projects!)
8. Focus your efforts on times when you can keep the world at bay
Assuming you aren’t facing any of the creative or mental blocks discussed above, there’s still the problem of fending off the distractions around you. I asked Rob MacGregor, award-winning author and ghostwriter, what works for him when he knows he’s got to produce a certain number of words in a limited time frame.
Rob’s strategy is pretty clear: try to do the bulk of your work quite early or quite late in the day, when you’re unlikely to be disturbed.
“If I'm on a roll or on a deadline, I'll get up early while it's still dark and there are no distractions, except for a cup of coffee, and I'll write for a couple of hours non-stop. I'll usually get more done in that time than the rest of the day. The same thing is true for night writing: 10-12 p.m. when there are fewer distractions. So I suggest focusing at the times of the day when you can best keep the everyday world at bay.
If you do need to get work done during normal working hours, Rob suggests setting some boundaries.
“You can let others know that you don't take phone calls or answer text messages during those particular hours, and see if that works. That leaves plenty of time during the day for dealing with mundane duties...and some days taking a nap.”
9. Remember your motivation
If all else fails and you feel like you’ve lost interest in your project, Hannah VanVels Ausbury — editor, writer, and literary agent at Belcastro Agency — advises you ask yourself some deeper questions relating to your original motivation for writing this story and for writing in general.
“When the going gets tough, remember your why. Why is this story begging to be told and why are you the one to do it? When you lose motivation or lose sight of the way forward, remember that only you can write your story—no one else! You’re bringing your unique perspectives, experiences, and identities to your story, and that’s something that no one else has. So, whether you only write a few words each day or a few thousand words each day, you are showing up for yourself—and for your story that only you can tell.”
10. Focus on your successes, not your failures
Challenges like NaNo can be incredibly helpful for the sense of community they offer, but they also tend to encourage a binary “fail” vs. “win” narrative. If the end of the month arrives and you don’t have 50,000 words, or don’t like the 50,000 words you’ve got, though, you have to remember that you are not a failure. Far from it, as Shannon Cave, freelance editor of multiple NY Times and USA Today Bestselling authors, points out:
“Rather than just focusing on the number of words you wrote or the quality of your draft, find ways to celebrate what went well! Look for ways in which you succeeded. What did you learn about yourself or your writing? What new writing habits did you create? Did you get to know your characters better? Did you figure out one sticky plot point that had been bugging you for months? Were you able to figure out a time of day or location that inspired you to write more?
“Looking for ways you succeeded this month, rather than ways you "failed" is much more beneficial in the long run. Once you start taking note of your successes, you'll find your confidence building as a writer, and find more ways to celebrate your writing successes, even when it's not November.”
If by the end of November you’ve managed to write a fraction of your first draft, or a complete first iteration of your novel, congratulations! You’ve beaten the void. Now you have something tangible to work from, and the loneliest part of the job is probably behind you. As Jay Wilburn says, we need a National Editing Month next.
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