How to win at NaNoWriMo

winning, professional advancement



What exactly is NaNoWriMo?

During November many people have only one thing on their mind – winning NaNoWriMo and ending the month having written a novel. Becoming a fully fledged novelist.

The name is short for National Novel Writing Month but it really should be International Novel Writing Month. It’s huge. Thousands of people from all over the world take part each year. Participants set themselves a goal to finally get their novel written, and to ‘win’ NaNo you have to write 50,000 words in a month, or 1,677 words a day, which if you’re a writer will know is no mean feat.

lots of words on paper

I know. I’ve done it. I won once, lost abysmally once and ended up with the beginnings of three novels, all of which bombed spectacularly when I got to the midway point. It’s not easy.


If you take on NaNoWriMo I have good news and bad news for you. If you’re a NaNo veteran you’ll probably know this. The good news is you’ll have your novel written. The bad news is it’ll be nowhere near finished. But there’s also more good news … whether you win the challenge or not, you will have the bones of a book that you can flesh out at your leisure. And as long as you don’t give up, you may well end up with a novel that just might sell.


Why your book won’t be ready when you’ve finished NaNoWriMo


For a start November is manic. You write and you write. You drink lots of coffee, forget to do the things most normal humans do (like eat, sleep, take the bins out, feed the cat …) and writing pretty much fills up your world. But at the end, if you’re lucky, you have a ‘knock it out on the keyboard until your fingers bleed’ novel. Some of it may barely make sense, your protagonist might change his appearance more times than is healthy and there may be amazing feats of ingenuity to get the story going.

You’re going to have spelling mistakes, continuity errors, sections that need adding and some that need remorselessly ripping out. There will be bits that make sense, bits that don’t, clunky dialogue and some bits that will just have you scratching your head. Those sections you write at 3am after a bottle of red wine and three packets of ciggies won’t necessarily be your best work. We’re not all Ernest Hemmingway.

And even when you have that warm glow of winning the challenge the word count is more novella size than novel. Novellas are fine, but if you want to write a novel you will have to up your word count to more like 80,000–85,000 words.


Don’t despair, you can win this!


That was the bad news. The good news is that even if you don’t ‘win’ in November you can take what you have and progress it further. Carry on writing until you’ve finished, even if it takes you through into the new year.

All it takes is time, patience and determination. Use the resources available to you and you can win this.


How to win at NaNoWriMo (even if you don’t win NaNoWriMo)

winner's trophy

So you have your book, things have calmed down … now what?

Don’t do what I did.

That ‘novel’ I wrote, the one that I had to get out of my system, it’s been languishing in a file on my computer for years. I couldn’t bear to look at it. So, even as I worked on other people’s novels, mine was mouldering, hidden away from view. I even managed to complete the OU’s Creative Writing courses without peeking at it once.

I researched the hell out of my subject, I got historical facts right and felt I had a good story. But I knew that there were flaws, a saggy middle and probably some very cringeworthy writing. What a waste!

bag of rubbish

Don’t leave your novel to rot away in the dark recesses of your hard drive.

How to win at NaNo? Once you’ve settled back into your normal routine it’s surprisingly easy, but it’s time consuming and you have to commit completely. And I really do mean commit. It’s what writers everywhere do if they want half a chance at publication.

My way isn’t the only way, but it’ll give you a framework to work towards.


The 5 steps to polishing your NaNoWriMo novel



What I have here is a five-step guide to making your 50,000 word novel as good as it can be. Now not everyone is a writer. Some of you might just find that perhaps writing really isn’t your thing after all, no matter how hard you try. That’s ok, I’m not a mathematician or a physicist. But you’ll never know unless you try.

So, once November is over and you have your file of scribblings here’s what to do:


1. Leave it

Seriously. Leave it. Really.

Take some time away from this piece of writing. You need to distance yourself from it for a little while so you can go back into it with a fresh pair of eyes (yeugh! You know what I mean).

Give yourself time to recover, have that bath you’ve put off for a month, eat real food and remind yourself that there is life away from the keyboard.

You need to forget what you’ve written.


2. Take a notebook and read it through

Now’s the time. You’ve got distance so you’re ready to dive in.

Grab yourself a notebook (or, if you really must, open up a new document on your computer) and read the novel through slowly. Read it as a reader. You’re going to note down the most obvious things that jump out at you.

Forget spelling mistakes, you’ll fix those next. For now, just note down your immediate thoughts as a reader:

Does the story make sense?

Would it read better if areas were moved around?

Do you like the protagonist?

Do you need to like them?

Does the story roll along nicely and have a satisfying ending?

Anything that comes to mind, jot it down as a base for your amendments. You’re being your first beta reader.


get help with your writing

3. Do a quick tidy up

Now you’re reacquainted with your writing it’s time for a quick tidy.

Use spell check and make sure your writing has structure. Give your chapters headings, set everything to one good font (such as Times New Roman or Calibri) and make your book easy to read. You’re making it look like a novel now, not 30 days of mad scribbling. Create a style sheet to make things easier as you go along. You don’t want to distract yourself with bad spelling and difficult to read text.


Woman Reading a Diary --- Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis


4. Dissect your book

Now you’re ready for a deep dive.

Start a new page in your notebook (or document) and start a heading for each chapter.

As you read through this time, keeping in mind your first thoughts, note down what happens in each section or chapter. Each one should move the story forward in some way. Write a short summary under each heading and ask yourself:

Are there any gaps in the action?

Does the timing work?

Are the characters fully rounded and consistent?

Is the dialogue natural and easy to read?

Are there any bits that don’t make sense?

Are there any bits that are difficult to read?

Does the story move forward and have a beginning, middle and end?

Can anything be omitted or added to make the story better?

Are there peaks, troughs, tension and a three-act structure (setup, confrontation, resolution)?

character from a book

Also, make notes for each character – this is great for consistency and will help you make sure that your characters don’t suddenly change their name, eye colour, height or preferences halfway through the book.

If you fancy you can go further and create a timeline, map and detailed information on the places in the story. A timeline is especially good to see where everyone is at a given time and if someone suddenly jumps to another time or place without the real means to get there.

just write

5. Edit your book

Now it’s time to start the edit.

Use your notes as a guide as you start your rewrite. You’ll probably have lots of notes, so just start at the beginning. Don’t get overwhelmed. You’re starting the process of polishing your book. You’re moving your book through to the next level.

If you find it overwhelming step back for a while. There are tons of books out there too that will help you. Editing your story is not easy. You don’t even need to start at the beginning.

If you find a chapter where nothing much is happening ask yourself if something should be happening or if it just needs chopping. Does that great long piece of dialogue add anything to the story? Does the reader really need to know that the character had two eggs, three rashers and ten sausages for breakfast or were you just adding to the word count? There will be a LOT of that in your book, especially around the halfway mark.

Take your time. Revise and refine until you’re happy.

Then … start again at step one.


reading a book

When you’re completely happy (and this can take a few months or so of rewriting) find some beta readers. There are readers all around, from local writing groups to Facebook and Goodreads groups. Don’t give your book to friends or family if you can help it, you need a neutral reader who will give it to you straight. You can even get a professional editor, such as me, to give your manuscript an assessment.

Once you have their thoughts you can go back and revise, taking into account their feedback. This is a good thing!


So, what next?

editing proofreading publishing
(c) Nic McPhee Flikr

Only once you’ve rewritten, edited and reacted to readers’ thoughts can you move forward into the end phase of hiring a professional editor and put that final polish on your novel. And if you can’t afford a professional edit, a professional beta read or manuscript assessment will give you a professional opinion on where improvements can be made. There are loads of books and other resources out there that can help you, but nothing can substitute for a trained eye.

And finally, once you’ve edited, a proofread will make sure that your book is as good as it can be. Then it’s time to think about self-publishing or submitting to agents and publishers.



You can win at NaNoWriMo

bookshelves full of books

So you see, that month of madness need not finish with a 50,000 word half-finished manuscript. If you peek at the NaNoWriMo site you’ll see a list of published authors whose books started out as an idea one November.

All it takes is perseverance, a month of having no life, and a bucket of self-belief.

Good luck!



I’m offering a 10% discount on a mini manuscript assessment for all NaNoWriMo winners (that’s £135 instead of £150 for a critique of your first 10,000 words).

Just mention the special NaNo discount when you contact me.

2 Comments on “How to win at NaNoWriMo

  1. Fab post Sara-Jayne! Although I don’t do NaNo myself (I’d never manage over 1k words daily!), the process isn’t that dissimilar to what I’ve been doing with my own novel – over a much longer time period. I’m probably at about stage 4/5 just now – one step forward/two steps back most days. When the word count isn’t rising, my motivation really starts to flag! x

    • Time to step back then? You’ve also got to be wary of adding to the word count for the sake of it.
      I’m sure you’ll get there 😊

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: