NaNoWriMo Writing Process

Writing a novel in a month: 10 tips for plotters and pantsers

Streamlining your writing process is useful. Whether you’re gearing up for a novel-writing challenge such as NaNoWriMo, or simply have a personal deadline. Here are 10 tips for writing a novel in a month:

Streamlining your writing process is useful. Whether you’re gearing up for a novel-writing challenge such as NaNoWriMo, or simply have a personal deadline. Here are 10 tips for writing a novel in a month:

1. Make preparations, even if you’re a pantser

Aspiring authors often describe themselves as either ‘plotters’ or ‘pantsers’. Pantsing (writing ‘by the seat of your pants’) without an outline has pros and cons. On the one hand, you have the freedom to follow your story down any surprising avenue without a rigid outline limiting options.

On the other hand, the advantage of plotting is that you have a guide to help you if you get stuck. You can make it as rigid or as flexible as you like, and keep it like a map in your back pocket, one that shows you through the densest thickets of your story.

Types of preparation you can make if you’re a pantser:

  • Character profiles and interviews: Brainstorm details about your characters. Interview them as though they were public figures or celebrities. What memorable anecdotes do they have? What were the most formative experiences in their lives?
  • A good writing schedule: The only way to finishing writing a novel in a month is to have a regular writing regimen. Divide the word count you need by the days available. NaNoWriMo recommends participants aim for 50, 000 words in a month. In a 30-day month like November, that’s roughly 1667 words per day. Block out, in a a calendar, when you will find this time.
  • A synopsis of your central idea: Even if you don’t have a complete outline, a synopsis of the central idea generating your novel will help you to keep in mind the most important details of your plot. [Use the prompts in Now Novel’s Idea Finder to brainstorm your own central idea now]
  • A list of characters and the relationships between them: As a pantser, you might only discover some of your characters along the way, as you take your starting cast into new territories and situations. Yet list the characters you know you want to write about already

The NaNoWriMo rules stress that you cannot use any previously written material towards your NaNoWriMo target word count (NaNoWriMo’s recommended 50, 000 words). You are allowed some preparation and outlining, however, so here are some more tips:

2. Write a general synopsis: Know where your novel is headed

The problem of not outlining is that it’s easy to work yourself into a corner, plot-wise. If you’ll be writing a novel in a month, you’ll need to have a clear concept of the general arc and purpose of your story from the outset.

To start preparing, write a synopsis of your story idea in two to three lines. Include the ideas you have so far for major objectives for your central character(s) and any primary conflicts. It doesn’t have to be perfect.

For example, for Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, we could write a synopsis that reads something like this:

‘In Long Island, New York in the 1920s, war veteran Nick Carraway rents the house next door to a mysterious millionaire, Jay Gatsby. Carraway enters Gatsby’s social circle, eventually learning scandalous secrets that culminate in tragedy.’

3. Summarize ideas for each scene’s purpose when you write

Writing 1667 words or more per day is an ambitious target. You need to use every bit of writing time productively.

Avoid having to backtrack a lot to make scenes more purposeful and link them to your story’s main themes later. Instead, try summarizing each scene’s purpose before you start writing it.

This will help because instead of just launching in blindly, you’ll create direction before each writing session. On a blank page, write a header ‘Scene Summary’. Underneath it, note what you intend to happen in the coming scene. For example:

‘Party arrives at the ancient forest and must pass through to continue their quest, yet they discover an eerie, grim truth at its heart. Death of [Character X], yet party can’t stop to grieve as they must reach [Location Y] within the next two days.’

This will ensure your story has a sense of continuity and that each scene drives towards an important goal that furthers the overarching story arc.

Although pantsing means not having an extensive plot outline, avoid stumbling in total darkness. Shine a torch a little ahead of you as you go using scene summaries. This will help you find your way to the 50,000 word mark.

This approach is also useful if you do have a more extensive chapter outline, and you can refer back to your outline as you go to make sure you remember broader continuity, and not only internal scene consistency.

4. Divide your book into structured parts

A pitfall of writing a novel within a month is that you likely won’t have much time for structuring or re-structuring the narrative. You could, for example, end up with a 15,000 -word beginning and middle, leaving 35,000 words for the closing chapters of your book. This could leave your story feeling end-heavy.

During the preparatory phase, consider target word counts for each part of your book. If you plan on using three act structure, then you’ll write roughly 17, 000 words each for the start, middle and end of your novel.

Keep a tally of your total word count. As you write, take note of where you are in relation to your 17,000, 34,000 and 50 to 51,000 word count targets. This way you’ll know when you need to bring more complications into the narrative arc or amplify the buildup to your story’s resolution.

Infographic - NaNoWriMo - writing a novel in a month | Now Novel

5. Do preparatory journal-writing

If you are preparing to write a book in a month, in spare moments write in a journal about your story idea, the themes that interest you, and any ideas for crucial scenes. Note things such as:

  • Why you want to tell this story in particular
  • What you think the hardest part of writing 50,000 words in a month will be (staying motivated? Creating story structure?)
  • Ideas for how you will overcome these challenges
  • Any places or subjects you need to research generally for the book

Keeping a journal is a great writing habit to form in general, since you’ll have a centralized source for snatches of ideas and inspirations you can dip into whenever you feel stuck.

6. Plan how you will stay motivated and focused

Motivation and focus are two crucial components of writing a novel. There are various strategies you can try to keep yourself fired up to write. For example:

  • Create target-specific rewards: For example, for every 1000 words take a brief walk somewhere scenic or relaxing, or do something you enjoy that isn’t too time-consuming for 15 minutes (do yoga, watch a stand-up comedy clip – anything that will give the problem-solving portion of your mind a rest)
  • Partner up with a writing buddy or writing coach: External motivation and accountability are effective. Find someone who will encourage you and gently remind you of your shared objective.
  • Chunk writing sessions more: 1667 words in a single sitting might seem daunting, but if you find a few ten-minute sessions per day you can divide your word count into smaller, manageable units.
  • Make a checklist of milestones you can tick off: Creating a visual reminder of how far you’ve come as you go will fortify the psychological sense of reward as you progress to your goal

7. Decide what type of outline you’ll use if outlining

If you don’t intend to ‘pants’ your way through your book but will outline instead, decide what type of outline you’ll use. Options include:

  • Chapter by chapter summaries: Write just a paragraph or even a few sentences for each. Limit detail to essential features of character, location and event
  • Single-page synopses: A one-page synopsis of the whole story is typically something you’ll write at the end of completing your first three chapters at least, but attempting one at the start is a useful exercise for seeing which parts of the story are clear in your mind already and which will need more work
  • Three-act structure: Dividing your story into three acts like a play can help you balance your beginning, middle and end so that one does not drag on

Read this post on outlining for further ideas, but remember to keep the outlining phase brief and take shortcuts – you’ll want to spend the bulk of your month on the draft itself.

8. Maximize your writing productivity

Whether you’re participating in National Novel Writing Month or rushing to meet a contest deadline, take steps to ensure you stay productive. We often think we’re ‘quickly checking social media’ but small time-sinks in the day add up. To make sure you keep writing, consider measures such as:

  • Setting a timer for your writing sessions: Don’t get up until your session is up
  • Work out your most productive writing times: Do you get the most done when your household is still asleep, for example? Consider small lifestyle changes (such as waking up half an hour earlier) if they’ll help you meet your goals. Make a list of these changes and paste it somewhere prominent to remind yourself to stick to your regimen

There’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to becoming a productive writer. Yet these additional suggestions could kickstart your writing process.

9. Limit distractions

We often think ‘I’ll just quickly check social media’ or discount other small tasks as fleeting and speedy. Yet the minutes you spend on social media or on other non-essential tasks during the day do add up. Here are ideas for ways to limit distractions when you’re writing a novel in a month:

  • Install social media blocking apps in your internet browser: You can get browser extensions that enforce you to limit your time browsing through status updates and albums
  • Find a space with minimum interruptions: That family WhatsApp or IM group constantly distracting you with cute videos? It can probably wait. Take an hour to write in a quiet part of your local public library with your phone switched off.
  • Don’t allow shiny, new ideas to tempt you: Some of us are brilliant at starting and not as brilliant at following through. New ideas are the procrastinating perfectionist’s best friend. Yet resolve to focus on this one idea only, for now

10. Allow yourself to be ‘bad’

If you’re writing under time constraints, there is a good chance your work won’t be perfect. If you’re doing NaNoWriMo for you, or entering your first manuscript publishing competition, accept a rushed first (or final) draft could have some major flaws. Treat this as a step towards your next rewrite (or even your next novel, your ‘debut proper’). Letting go of expectations will free you to focus on the most crucial tasks: Exploring, creating, and getting the writing done.

Join Now Novel to find writing friends for mutual critique and encouragement. Or partner with a writing coach, one-on-one, to get your novel done.

By Bridget McNulty

Bridget McNulty is a published author, content strategist, writer, editor and speaker. She is the co-founder of two non-profits: Sweet Life Diabetes Community, South Africa's largest online diabetes community, and the Diabetes Alliance, a coalition of all the organisations working in diabetes in South Africa. She is also the co-founder of Now Novel: an online novel-writing course where she coaches aspiring writers to start - and finish! - their novels. Bridget believes in the power of storytelling to create meaningful change.

16 replies on “Writing a novel in a month: 10 tips for plotters and pantsers”

It’s a pleasure, Conrad! All speed with your NaNo novel. Break it up into smaller chunks, 10 X 167 words is a lot easier than 1666.

That’s a great attitude to have, I’d say. I think using it as a springboard to commit to your story and get stuck in is the best way to go about it.

Do it! As Christine said below, the worst case scenario is you’ll have more of your book written than before.

I’ve been writing this novel for a few years now, and I’m down to my last two chapters. My biggest issue now is finding a editor and someone to give me major feedback.

Congratulations on getting this far, Memphis. That’s fantastic. Feel free to submit extracts in the members area of the site for critique. We do also offer editing services, otherwise you could find a beta reader through a writing forum. I hope you enjoy the final stretch!

What a great post! National Novel Writing Month, also known as NaNoWriMo, is one of the most unique novel writing contests.

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