Columns > Published on November 4th, 2014

The NaNoWriMo Survival Kit

So, you've taken on the challenge of NaNo and you've nailed your first week. Great job! Let's just enjoy that accomplishment for a second.

Sigh. That was nice, right? Now, let's get you ready for the inevitable burnout with ...

Rob's Amazing NaNoWriMo Survival Kit!

There are some obvious selections for this list, like "your laptop / notebook / whatever you write with," "a story in your head," and so forth. I'll skip those and jump into the ones you may not have come to on your own.

1) A hammer

Unclear? Put your smartphone in a box, then put that in another box, then mail it to yourself, and when you get it, hit it with a hammer! There are some legitimate reasons for having a smartphone or internet connection while you write (some of which I'll mention shortly), but there are also many ways stepping away from technology can help. During your writing sessions, I strongly suggest you break your smartphone into a thousand tiny pieces. Or, you know ... turn it off.

2) Thine Holy Chalice

During your writing sessions, I strongly suggest you break your smartphone into a thousand tiny pieces. Or, you know ... turn it off.

Every writer seems to have a beverage of choice. Some want to be amped up by caffeine, others want the creative benefits of booze, and others just want to sip on something warm and caffeine-free. Whatever you drink, you will need a Holy Chalice to drink from. Mine is an Alot mug. This Chalice shall serve the dual purpose of containing your preferred beverage and acting as a ritualized entry point into your writing process. Just fill Thine Holy Chalice and you'll know that you're ready to write.

3) Brain-friendly snacks

If you like to snack while writing, you probably already have edibles within grabbing distance. Sadly, while caffeine and sugar can give you a temporary boost, they often fail to sustain you over the long run. That's why you should try to make your grabbable snacks as brain-friendly (and finger-friendly!) as possible. Consider popcorn, bananas, baby carrots, almonds, or chewing gum.

4) Chocolate

While the healthy snacks listed above are great staples, every writer will need some chocolate. With a surprising amount of brain-positive and health-positive content (like antioxidants and omega fatty acids), chocolate is a brain-friendly option—and it offers a slight mood boost and a touch of caffeine to keep you moving forward.

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5) Permission to write badly

This is important all of the time (perfectionism is evil!), but it's an absolute must for NaNo. Your job with this draft isn't to write a bestseller. Your job, as Shannon Hale so eloquently puts it, is:

... reminding myself that I'm simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.

6) An egg timer

Do you know what's intimidating? Writing 50,000 words in a month. Do you know what's tough? Writing 1,667 words in a day. Do you know what's manageable? Writing as much as you can in ten minutes.

It's great if you have a group to do these "word sprints" or "word wars" with, and many such groups can be found through the NaNo website, Twitter, and other online resources. That said, if you lack these resources or want to bypass them, you can use any old egg timer to get yourself sprinting.

7) A uniform

There is no such thing as a "universal writing uniform," but a personalized writing uniform is surprisingly valuable. Some people prefer wearing sweats, some like wearing a piece of jewelry that matches the theme of their book, some like to wear NaNo shirts or other branded gear, and—as we all know—you prefer to write in the nude.

Do whatever works for you, but try to approach your "writing uniform" with some degree of consistency. That way, as you put on your writing outfit, you'll naturally put yourself in the mindset to write.

8) A "trigger"

Some like to wear NaNo shirts or other branded gear, and—as we all know—you prefer to write in the nude.

The role of the trigger is to remind you that it's November, and that it will soon be time to write. A visual reminder (like a print-out on your bathroom mirror, on your dresser, etc.) is useful, and while you'll start ignoring these reminders eventually, they're a great solution for a one-month stint. A physical totem (like the ones from Inception) are another good choice.

My absolute favorite, however, is the "start-up" trick. I don't have time to show you how to do this right now, but here's the short version: If you put a shortcut to your NaNo piece in your Windows "startup" folder, it'll open the document automatically each time you boot up your computer. It's a great way to keep momentum from session to session.

9) Cliff-hangers

I don't necessarily mean traditional cliff-hangers in your story, although that works too. What I recommend is that you never end a writing session without knowing exactly what you'll be writing at the beginning of your next session. The best (and most infuriating) way to do this is to end your session in the middle of a paragraph, or even the middle of a sentence. Always keep yourself wanting to write more.

10) Earbuds

Many of us work best with music, and some even like to create dedicated playlists (be it for their writing sessions, for specific characters or moods, for settings, or who knows what else). However specific these playlists, those with specific music set aside will benefit from further ritualization of the writing process.

That said, others work best in silence. In either case, earbuds are beneficial, either to tap into your preferred set of sounds or to block out the distractions of the outside world.

11) A thief's mindset

I've talked about ritualizing the writing process, and it's great when you have the necessary time, space, and energy. Sadly, there are times when that simply won't work, and there are some of us who are so busy that ever developing a ritual is out of the question. Be a priest of the writing process when you can be, with Thine Holy Chalice and writing garb and hymnal selection—but multi-class into a rogue.

All time is stolen. Every word you write—on the bus, as the boiled eggs boil, between classes, or as your lover waits for round two—every word is a word you didn't have before. Everything you can steal has value. To be a successful word thief, all you need is an eye for the opportunity and a willingness to jump at it.

12) Books

You're going to need breaks. Don't worry: That's normal! During your breaks, I advise that you try not to go online. It's not that the internet can't recharge you. Rather, it's that the internet is a black hole of distractions. Books, on the other hand, have very little possibility for distraction outside of your own daydreaming. And daydreaming is, of course, NaNo-fuel. Beyond that, it's easier to keep control of your time with reading, and reading well-written books can keep you feeling inspired.

13) Permission to cheat

The friend who introduced me to NaNo had an easy response to my excuse of being a student. She told me that she simply included her papers in her story. Does this count as cheating? Well, my friend told me, she would just write a scene like this:

Razimag the sorcerer encountered a peculiar device with a glowing screen. He had never seen a computer before, so he fiddled with the buttons. All of a sudden, what looked like a ten-page research paper appeared on the screen! It read as follows ...

While it may not be official in the NaNo rules, you have my permission to cheat using this method. Include the word count of anything you write this month that exhausts your writing muscles, be it other creative projects, homework, business reports, or that elaborate love letter to your neighbor's Corvette.

(And, yes, for those curious: Razimag the Sorcerer will indeed be finding the 1400 words of this article in the course of his other adventures.)

14) A game plan for writer's block

The strategies above will help you avoid writer's block, but you may still hit a wall before the end of your 50,000-word journey. There are many ways to respond, but there's a strong body of research demonstrating that having a plan prevents anxiety and delay while increasing your odds of success. If you want some specific ideas on how to cope, I've got good news: I wrote a whole article on busting writer's block.


Writerly motivation is tough to keep up, especially with such an ambitious project. However, by preparing yourself with this NaNoWriMo Survival Kit, you can keep your spirits high and wind up as one of the elite NaNo winners this year.

About the author

Rob is a writer and educator. He is intensely ADD, obsessive about his passions, and enjoys a good gin and tonic. Check out his website for multiple web fiction projects, author interviews, and various resources for writers.

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