What is NaNoWriMo, Anyway?

How to prepare to write 50,000 words in one month

Whether you call it NaNoWriMo or NaNo, National Novel Writing Month is a literary event in which writers pen a 50,000-word novel during the month of November—and it can be one of the most exciting challenges a writer can undertake. Sure, meeting NaNoWriMo’s November 30, 11:59:59 pm deadline sounds daunting. But if you’re up for the challenge, read on to see how one author made it work for her.

photo of Rachael Herron, instructor

Rachael Herron, a bestselling author who received her M.F.A. in writing from Mills College, teaches Fast-Draft Your Novel the NaNoWriMo Way: Your Guide to National Novel Writing Month. Herron’s first published novel, "How to Knit a Love Song," came as a result of the commitment she made to National Novel Writing Month. She now has several novels, a series, and her memoir, "A Life in Stitches," under her belt—all while working full-time as a 911 fire/medical dispatcher for a Bay Area fire department. With a life that busy, how does someone get prepped for 30 straight days of serious writing? We asked Herron for her tips on preparing for—and surviving—the intensity of NaNoWriMo.

 
Just having the motivation to write—every day—taught me a lesson I needed to learn: Discipline is almost all that matters.

For National Novel Writing Month, writers take on the challenge to draft a 50,000-word novel right as end-of-the-year holidays kick in. How does someone prepare for that feat when everyday life can get in the way?
Life always gets in the way of writing, and never more so than in November. That’s what makes it a great month to do the challenge! It’s great to use October as a house-clearing month, making sure things get done (binge all the TV that needs to be binged, stock the freezer with frozen dinners) so they don’t get in the way during November. That said, I’ve been hurled huge life challenges during NaNoWriMo, yet there’s something magical that happens when you know you’re in the weeds with a lot of other people—almost half a million, around the world. You rise to the occasion and you write your fingers to the bone. (Not really. No bandages will be required.)

 

Tell me about your first attempt at completing NaNoWriMo? Was it a "success"? And how would you define "success"?
No joke, winning NaNoWriMo—that is, by getting 50,000 words written—was honestly one of the best moments of my life, a total success. And that’s before I even revised my work. I’d spent seven years after getting my M.F.A. in writing trying to write the "Great American Novel" and failing miserably. I tried NaNoWriMo on a lark; I wrote fast and hard and badly—Quantity! Not quality!—and discovered to my total surprise that when I wrote the words "The End," I’d actually finished a whole novel for the first time ever. Just having the motivation to write—every day—taught me a lesson I needed to learn: Discipline is almost all that matters. After revision, that book got me my agent and it was my first published novel, sold to HarperCollins in a three-book deal at auction. Getting out of my own inner editor’s way and just writing allowed me to draft pages that were revisable and, eventually, good.

 
The very best thing about NaNoWriMo is that you learn that if you write every day, you get a book.

This September you are teaching Fast-Draft Your Novel the NaNoWriMo Way: Your Guide to National Novel Writing Month. The course meets all through November and ends on December 1. What tips do you have for your students to stay motivated to write their novels while attending your classes at the same time?
It’s a 10-week course, and we’ll spend the first five weeks gearing up with plotting exercises, character work, and general, raucous writerly mayhem. During November itself, we’ll be WRITING, as well as having a no-holds-barred, down-and-dirty Word War with Chris Baty, National Novel Writing Month’s founder, who happens to be teaching a NaNoWriMo class during the same time period. And in class, we’ll motivate each other to get those words done. (I participate every year, too, so students will also hold my feet to the fire, word-wise.)

 

Your colleague Marissa Meyer said in her NaNoWriMo blog post that she could guarantee "that no matter the scope of your book, you will be more motivated to finish, revise and edit after this month-long writing extravaganza if you’ve reached some kind of closure by midnight on November 30." What tips do you have for someone to stay with their novel after November ends, especially those who might be burnt out from the 30-day intensity or who don’t feel like they have the story they wanted and still "need help"?
The very best thing about NaNoWriMo is that you learn that if you write every day, you get a book. This truth continues to aid in revision and editing—a gift students will take away with them. The second best thing about NaNoWriMo (and this class) is that it comes with its own community built right in. After November, that community will continue. We’ll have our own private Facebook group for talking about writing, revision and publication. If students wish to find critique partners or friendly motivators for the rest of the year, this class and the NaNoWriMo forums are great places to find them. During the course of the class, we’ll also have published NaNoWriMo writers dropping in via Skype to chat about things like revision and motivation. And throughout it all, I’ll be available for any and all questions about all parts of the writing business.

 

And something else to help motivate them to polish their work: At the end of class, all of the students are invited to participate in an official reading at Diesel Books in Oakland. The reading will be on December 1 at 7 pm, and their family and friends can come and cheer them on! It is a free event and the public is also welcome to come hear what these amazing authors have written. Getting to "The End" is a feat worthy of celebration.