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Using scenes to win a NaNoWriMo challenge

This Sunday starts a new challenge for National Novel Writing Month. Every November, untold novelists try to write 50,000 words in just 30 days. I’ve attempted this a dozen times since I started on novels in 2004. I have never written that many words in one month. However, even my failures taught me plenty.

November was always trouble for me in NaNo. For more than 15 years, November was a month we’d publish our 3000 NewsWire newsletter. Journalism on deadline doesn’t give much room for 1,700 words a day of fiction. Then there’s the holiday. Thanksgiving usually meant at least a couple of days off, and that didn’t even consider the years we’d travel to our Turkey Day meal.

NaNo can be won. Here are some things to practice and attempt.

You must consider what “winning” at NaNo means to you. A glut of 50,000 helter-skelter words is a great chunk of your work of making a novel. You can judge for yourself, but a glut of words that are, instead, aimed at an outline, chapter summaries, or even scene goals — that’s really useful during the month of December (more on that in a minute).

Advice: have a rudimentary outline or set of goals at hand. There are 30 shots at getting 50,000 words finished. Knowing where you’re headed really helps get your writing into your head. You’ll find yourself thinking about new writing even before it appears on the page. If you need a way to think about key points in a big book, look at my article Use 10 Key Scenes to Win NaNoWriMo.

Be realistic about how many days you will work, or can make the hour or two it requires on writing days. The closest I came to winning my NaNo month was in 2011. I was revising my novel Viral Times in the wake of the movie Contagion, so I had the fire to finish. I easily wrote that many words, inside of my advanced draft.

Advice: Get your calendar out and make marks for your writing days. Try to be honest about distractions. If Sundays are a wonderful jumble of family and long walks, take them off. Double up on four other days. Time away from the 1,700 words a day is useful. See that “thinking about the book before writing” advice above.

You can do your own countdown of how many words you’ve got to write. Getting support from a group of writers who you don’t know had limited benefits for me. I did better when writers I knew were keeping me accountable. Something as simple as holding myself to a schedule I dreamed up in Excel got me through the Viral Times revision.

You can use the Show Project Targets window in Scrivener to keep track of your daily writing. The window fills up a progress bar and accounts for deletions as well as any new writing. If your net is 1,700 new words a day, success is yours. Think of it as a series of winning innings, or quarters in a game. NaNo is a lot of innings, almost like a World Series’ worth of baseball wins. If you’d like a little help on using Scrivener for this, get in touch and I’ll help out. I also coach authors in making good use of Scrivener, 1:1.

Advice: Count up somewhere outside the NaNo website. Count more than words; count the days you have written. Put up a calendar with a daily update of when you’re written. This follows the Seinfeld method of developing a habit: Lots of x’s in calendar blocks will make you reluctant to break a streak. Seinfeld wrote three jokes every day for a few decades.

When the month of November is done, you’ll have a lot more finished on your book than you did on Oct. 31. What to do with all of that? December is National Novel Editing Month. I have some openings for book editing during that month, so reach out and get something booked with me. You can put down a nominal, fully refundable deposit to hold your space until you submit your pages.

In the meantime, get a special pen if you draft longhand, or use the 30 days to experiment with drafting right off the keyboard. I’m working on the back half of Sins of Liberty, my historical novel about suffrage and progress. Ask me how it’s going.