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I’m not sure there are any official studies on this, but I’d wager a bet that a vast majority of creative types or literary lovers have dreamed of writing the next great novel at least once in their lives. 

But it’s a lot easier dreamed than done. 

That’s where NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, comes in. Read on to learn all about this annual event, how to participate in NaNoWriMo 2021, and some extra tips for turning your novel-writing visions into a reality.

What is NaNoWriMo?

NaNoWriMo is an acronym for National Novel Writing Month and, as is hopefully somewhat evident, it’s a month-long event that challenges people to write a novel. Specifically, the goal is to write at least 50,000 words of a novel draft in just 30 days, which amounts to churning out about 1,667 words per day. Along the way, you’ll have a community of fellow “Wrimos” (the term for participants of the challenge) to encourage you and help keep you accountable to your goal.

NaNoWriMo Month

NaNoWriMo takes place in November. Just like every other year, National Novel Writing Month 2021 will start at midnight local time on November 1 and run through the end of the day on November 30. Rumor has it, this month was chosen to take advantage of cozy fall weather. (And maybe to give you a convenient excuse to take some quiet time away from your family during the holidays? “Please—nobody bother me for the next few hours, I have to work on my NaNoWriMo submission!”)

NaNoWriMo History

NaNoWriMo was founded by Chris Baty in 1999, and the first event actually happened in July. Baty and 20 of his friends from the San Francisco Bay Area had always wanted to write novels and decided to create a challenge so they’d put the pedal to the metal and actually do it. The 50,000 word goal was set by Baty, who based it on the shortest novel on his bookshelf (Brave New World by Aldous Huxley). 

Since then, NaNoWriMo has grown to an international event with hundreds of thousands of participants each year writing billions of words: For instance, in the organization’s 2018 annual report, NaNoWriMo reported 295,396 participants writing 2,921,032,466 words. Each year, anywhere from 12-19% of participants finish the challenge, resulting in tens of thousands of new novels drafted every November.

And these aren’t all just personal projects, either, so if you’re looking to be the next great literary voice, this could be your chance. Several notable novels got their starts as drafts during NaNoWriMo, including:

NaNoWriMo Organization

In 2006, NaNoWriMo grew from just an event to become a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. 

Not only has this shift helped the NaNoWriMo team continue to hold the annual writing event for free, with the help of generous donors and corporate sponsors, it’s allowed them to expand their offerings of “tools, structure, community, and encouragement to help people find their voices, achieve creative goals, and build new worlds—on and off the page.” 

For instance, in 2011, the organization launched Camp NaNoWriMo, a virtual writing retreat that happens every April and July. This is sort of like a mini NaNoWriMo with a similar community element but more flexibility to set your own writing goal—like choosing a different word count or working on a different type of writing project outside of the novel. 

Their Come Write In program helps individuals set up local writing groups and events at libraries, bookstores, and other neighborhood spaces.

They’ve also started a Young Writers Program to offer resources and curriculum for K-12 teachers along with an online space where teens can participate in NaNoWriMo with their peers.

How to Do NaNoWriMo

Okay, enough with the background info: Let’s talk about how to participate in NaNoWriMo so you can get your novel out there in the world! 

Really, all you have to do is start writing (and keep writing—a lot—throughout the month of November). 

You’ll write in your own word processor (in other words, nobody else actually has to see what you’ve written!), and then share your word count progress with the community on NaNoWriMo’s website.

NaNoWriMo Rules

There aren’t a lot of rules for NaNoWriMo—as long as you’re working toward that 50,000 word mark, you can pretty much do what you want. Your project can be exploratory or focused on a defined idea; it can be a really rough braindump or something more polished. You can pace it out into an exact 1,667 words per day or do the bulk of your writing on the weekends. Your novel doesn’t even have to be cohesive or finished by the end of the month, so long as you’ve written 50,000 words toward it. 

But, per a moderator of the NaNoWriMo forum, there are a few more guidelines you’ll want to follow to be a “traditional” winner: 

  • Write at least 50,000 words between November 1 and November 30. While historically, you had to start a new novel to participate in NaNoWriMo, you’re now allowed to continue existing works.
  • Write a novel. The organization defines a novel as a lengthy work of fiction. If you consider the book you’re writing a novel, they consider it a novel too!
  • Only count words written during November. Even if you’re working on something you’ve already started, you can’t count words you wrote before November 1 towards your NaNoWriMo word count. 
  • Want to prep ahead of time? It’s totally fine to use outlines, character sketches, and research, and citations from other works that you’ve compiled before November to support your writing.
  • Be the sole author of your novel, apart from any citations you may choose to use.

All that said, there are plenty of “NaNo rebels” who opt to do things differently, such as to write something other than a traditional novel or work on multiple pieces throughout the month. You’ll find plenty of others like you in the forum and be warmly welcomed by the NaNo community at large. 

If you hit 50K and want to be celebrated for the work you did in November, you can validate to become a winner—nobody at the organization is policing whether you’re doing things precisely by the book.

That’s because, per the NaNoWriMo forum: “This is a self-challenge. The REAL prize of NaNoWriMo is the accomplishment, and the big new manuscript you have at the end. Everything beyond that is icing on the cake.”

Register for NaNoWriMo

You can register for NaNoWriMo on the organization’s website. Of course, you could complete the challenge on your own without registering, but signing up gives you access to a slew of tools to help you along the way.

For one, you’ll get your very own custom dashboard to track your progress throughout the month and help you see how much further you have to go.

nanowrimo website
Source: NaNoWriMo
NaNoWriMo dashboard ready to start tracking for 2021.

Perhaps more importantly, you’ll get access to a community of other writers who are completing the same challenge so you can support each other throughout the month. You can add friends for accountability, create or join writing groups, or connect with other writers in your city. There’s also an extensive forum where you’re invited to share your successes or struggles with the wider community, get tips from other writers for actually completing the challenge, and more.

Finally, you’ll get access to discounts on writing software and other tools to help you along the way. 

NaNoWriMo Badges

Working toward a big goal like 50,000 words can feel pretty intimidating, so the NaNoWriMo website helps you celebrate mini wins along the way via badges on your profile. You’ll earn these for events like hitting certain word counts, having streaks of updating your word count multiple days in a row, hitting the daily par of 1,667 words, and even simply updating your word count for the first time. 

As you keep sharing your progress on the website, you’ll automatically be awarded the badges you’ve earned, and they’ll show up on your profile so others can see your achievements.

writing badges
Source: NaNoWriMo
Writing badges on the dashboard, waiting to be achieved. 

There are also “personal achievement badges” you can give yourself for accomplishments you want to celebrate outside of your word count progress. For instance, you can identify yourself as a planner, pantser, or plantser (more on these odd terms in a minute) to find more Wrimos like you. You can celebrate “eureka” moments, writing in strange places, or even taking care of your mental health while you hustle on your novel. Hover over any of these badges to learn more about them, and then click on one to award it to yourself. 

nanowrimo badges
Source: NaNoWriMo
Personal achievement badges on the NaNoWriMo profile.

NaNoWriMo Social Banners

Want your friends to see just how impressive you are? Each year, NaNoWriMo creates graphics you can use to share that you’re participating across your social channels, website, email footer—wherever you want to spread the message loud and proud. Not only is this a great way to have a little bragging moment, it’s also useful for identifying other Wrimos around the web. You can download the 2021 banners here!

nanowrimo banner
Source: Nanowrimo
National Novel Writing Month 2021 Facebook banner.  

NaNoWriMo Writing Groups

One of the best ways to succeed at NaNoWriMo is to have some accountability and community, which is where writing groups come in. 

Writing groups provide an opportunity to share your work and get feedback, get advice on any challenges you’re having, or sit and write with other people so that you can’t talk yourself out of doing your pages for the day. There are so many writing groups in the Wrimo community that you can browse around until you find your people—you’ll find groups based on location, age, experience level, genre, identity, and so much more. 

You can find and join writing groups on the community tab of the NaNoWriMo website or in the forum. 

  • Online NaNoWriMo writing groups: Online writing groups typically have some sort of messaging feature along with regular virtual meetings over video conference or Discord.
  • Local NaNoWriMo writing groups: In the past, there have been local, in-person writing groups that you could find on the forum or by joining your home region on the community tab. But due to Covid-19, there won’t be any official in-person groups this year. Depending on your local regulations, you may be able to find some unofficial groups, or could even start your own with folks in your pod, however NaNoWriMo doesn’t sanction these.

NaNoWriMo Cost 

I know: It all sounds too good to be affordable. But, unlike most elite writers’ retreats and workshops, NaNoWriMo is completely free (and, according to the organization, will remain so forever). 

As a nonprofit, NaNoWriMo’s work is funded through corporate sponsorships and individual donations. If you want to give the team a little something to thank them for the support in getting your novel going, you can make an optional tax-deductible donation on the website. They’ve also got lots of fun NaNoWriMo swag you can buy, including several books written by the founders to help you on your writing journey. 

nanowrimo shirt
Source: Nanowrimo
Official National Novel Writing Month 2021 shirt. 

How to Win NaNoWriMo

All you have to do to win at NaNoWriMo is update your word count on the official website to 50,000 words or more by midnight local time on November 30. 

In the past, there was a way to upload your manuscript to validate the word count, but that tool is no longer available. Instead, there’s an honor system policy—if you say you hit the 50,000 word goal, you get access to all the winner’s goodies. 

What is the prize for NaNoWriMo? After completing the challenge, you’ll be directed to a winner’s page where you’ll see a celebratory video from the NaNoWriMo staff, a fancy winners certificate and badges you can use to share your accomplishment far and wide, and access to special winner’s goodies, like discounts on different writing tools and products. 

nanowrimo winner certificate
Source: Wikiwrimo
Winner’s certificate from NaNoWriMo 2020.

But perhaps most importantly, you’ll get an immense feeling of accomplishment and a novel well on its way to being finished! Crossing this writing finish line is no small feat—historically, only 12-19% of participants actually complete the challenge. But know that even if you don’t make it to the 50K word mark, you deserve to celebrate any and all writing you did. 

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Plotter vs Pantser vs Plantser: Figure Out Which You Are

There are lots of approaches for how to succeed at NaNoWriMo, but the biggest terms you’ll hear thrown around in the community are plotters or planners, pantsers, and plantsers. This refers to the three different types of writers, and what sets them apart is how much they like to plan (or not). Figuring out which you are will help you properly prepare for NaNoWriMo. 

Plotters or Planners

Plotters, also sometimes called planners, believe in rigorous preparation before they actually sit down and start writing on November 1. They may fear the blank page and feel they can’t get started until all of their notes and research are done.

If you’re a plotter, you’ll likely want to walk into the month with a clear story idea and plot, some character sketches, and even a detailed outline of your entire novel mapped out. Pro plotters sometimes go so far as to schedule out their writing time and what piece of their novel they’ll be working on each day. NaNoWriMo has created an entire prep handbook that could help you get all your ducks in a row.

During the month of November, your days will mostly be spent plodding away each piece of your carefully created plan. Some people feel they’re able to complete a more polished draft in a month by planning—but, of course, it depends on what works for you!

Pantsers

Pantsers, on the other hand, prefer to fly by the seat of their pants and start the month spontaneously. They love getting into the flow and seeing where their imagination takes them when writing fiction.

As a pantser, you may not even have a story idea or genre by November 1. Without any pre-planning, you may spend your writing time during the first days or even weeks of November freewriting, following writing prompts to get the ideas flowing, doing exploratory character studies, or anything else that can help you start to suss out your story. 

While you might not reach the end of the month with a cohesive novel, all of these writing exercises can count toward your word goal so long as you write them in November!

Plantsers

Plantsers think there’s space for a happy medium between planning and spontaneity.

If this is your approach, you’ll probably do some light preparation before November begins—maybe start freewriting or narrow down your ideas to the one you want to focus on—but you won’t have every single detail mapped out. There are lots of different approaches to being a plantser, so figure out what you need to prepare to feel ready to start writing. 

During your writing time in November, you’ll be able to go with a flow and follow where your inspiration takes you, using the edges of your box to keep you focused or your pre-planning work to help you when writer’s block strikes. 

Pro Tips for Writing a Novel

Frankly, no amount of planning can prepare you for how challenging completing NaNoWriMo will be. That isn’t meant to discourage you, but rather to remind you that NaNoWriMo requires quite a bit of dedication, commitment, and effort. 

But remember that, just like running a marathon, you’re not alone in the challenge—in fact, there’s a whole forum called “NaNoWriMo ate my soul” for griping about how hard the month is—and people regularly throw TGIO (Thank God It’s Over) parties at the end of the month. 

In the meantime, use these tips from veteran Wrimos to help make writing a book easier on yourself. 

Tip #1: Create a Writing Routine or Schedule

Even if you’re not a planner, it can help to make sure you carve out time for your writing—otherwise, it can easily get pushed to the side as other priorities take over your time. Whether that means building a daily writing routine (e.g., getting up early to write first thing every morning) or blocking off writing appointments on your calendar now, make sure you’re carving out enough time to get to 50K. 

Tip #2: Use Sprints When You’re Having Trouble Moving Forward

Sometimes a little competition can help when you’re feeling stuck, and word sprints (sometimes called word wars) are a great way to get through a rough patch. These friendly competitions will sometimes be set by other writers (such as the @NaNoWordSprints Twitter account or via writers on the forum), but they can also be a tool you use on your own. 

You might choose to set a limited time (e.g., write as much as you can in the next 10 minutes), a word goal (e.g., see who can get to 1000 words the fastest), or a combination of the two (a popular one called the “fifty-headed Hydra” involves writing 500 words in just five minutes). Many Wrimos say they wouldn’t be able to complete the challenge without regularly incorporating sprints.

Tip #3: Break Up the Days by Focusing on Different Things

For instance, maybe one day you work on writing dialogue for your scenes, and then the next you look at the big picture of your story structure. Or you spend a little more time building out your characters when you’re getting sick of worldbuilding. There are so, so many pieces that go into a great novel—there’s no reason to feel stuck if one isn’t inspiring you one day.

Tip #4: Don’t Try to Edit While You Write

While some Wrimos edit while they work, most will encourage you to lean into the rough first draft in order to get to word count. (Some will go so far as to tell you to delete nothing during the month of November and instead highlight things you want to delete later in a different color.) 

Even though it’s important to master writing mechanics if you’re hoping your novel will eventually get published, trying to polish your writing at this stage could prevent you from getting anything down on the page at all. Wrimos will remind you: January is for editing (after you take a well-deserved break in December, obviously). In November, focus on putting words on the page.

Tip #5: Have Fun!

Finally—and most importantly—make sure you’re having fun while you do NaNoWriMo! Nobody is forcing you to do this, and there really are no rules that can’t be broken to make this challenge work for you. 

Get halfway through the month and suddenly hate your story? Start on a new one to keep working towards your goal! Did life get crazy and you find yourself losing sleep to work on your novel? Adjust your goal and celebrate that you’re getting any writing done at all—or put the project on hold. After all, NaNoWriMo 2022 will be here before you know it.

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