//some novel advice from a nano veteran


NaNoWriMo. JuNoWriMo. Camp NaNo. If you’re a writer with wi-fi you’ve probably participated in at least one of these events at some point, or this upcoming NaNo might be your first stab at the idea. Well, it’s your lucky day, because veteran Mirriam is here to help you. (This is my tenth time. I can officially call myself a veteran without laughing.)

Whether this is your first time or your seventh, it’s still fun to read about how other people ‘do’ NaNo. (Coincidentally, Jenny wrote up a post about this subject today and covered some excellent ground! Check it out HERE .) So to celebrate the coming month of nonstop keyboard-pounding (or pen-scratching, or both) I’ve decided to share some of what I’ve learned + how I’ve prepped this year.


I kid you not. I got the idea that sparked this novel in 2012. I let it sit, since I wasn’t nearly ready to write it, and it’s a good thing I let it sit. Attempting to write something prematurely can be the death of a novel – it hasn’t percolated enough, you’re not as informed on the subject as you should be, etc. Sometimes they need to sit, and that’s okay. Because it’s been waiting so long, I feel inordinately prepared to write it in a month.


Last night I spent an hour going in-depth about what my villain has been up to. Fortunately for me, I have a work-wife who’s always willing to help me out with these things – she asked the right questions, I came up with answers. Now I have a villain with a plan, and I know (kind of) what he’s doing now. The last piece is in place! (Except the FMC’s name. I’ll get there.)

(Between letting things sit for years and doing them last-minute, I am obviously an expert.)

  • I READ. A LOT.

I usually don’t need to do a ton of research before my NaNo novels. I pick the easiest, lightest idea I have floating around and write that. Not this year. This year I’m tackling psychopathy, and not in an average Hollywood pop-culture kind of way. I’m getting down to the nitty-gritty and finally sinking my teeth into a subject that has fascinated me for years, which means my prep reading list has been:

Without Conscience by Robert Hare, PhD (Robert Hare developed the Psychopathy Checklist, or the PCL, used globally to clinically assess psychopaths)

The Psychopath Whisperer by Keith Kiehl, PhD (a protégé of Robert Hare, known for his extensive work with psychopathic brains + MRIs)

The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout, PhD

Confessions of a Sociopath by M. E. Thomas (the autobiography of a ‘functioning’ sociopath)

The Wisdom of Psychopaths by Kevin Dutton, PhD (low on science, high on anecdotes)

Flipnosis: The Art of Split-Second Persuasion, also by Kevin Dutton, PhD

It’s the kind of reading list that has made my librarians give me the side-eye and watch me closely on my way out of the library, but it’s a fascinating subject, as interesting to read as it is informative. Plus, I’m writing a book about it. I want to get it right.


I realized a few years into my NaNo endeavors that if I write everything down beforehand – character bios, extra scenes, etc. – I lose a lot of enthusiasm. Why? Because I’ve dug into dessert first. I’ve used up so many of the fun bits that I don’t have much to explore going in. Don’t get bogged down in the details before you’ve even started.

These things are specific to this year – I don’t do these things every year, although there are annual habits I’ve gotten myself into that help me succeed. To this date I’ve only failed one NaNo by writing only 20k, and I had zero plot. Which leads me to the first very important point…


Chris Baty, the founder of NaNoWriMo, would tell you otherwise. In fact, he wrote a whole book about it called No Plot, No Problem – which is a hilarious, entertaining read, but which helped cause the downfall of my aforementioned failed NaNo. You do need a plot. You don’t need the whole thing – you only need the bare bones, the basic idea, a skeleton crew. But you do need that crew, or your ship will flounder and sink at the first sign of bad weather. You have to prepare for NaNo in order to write 50,000 good words by the end. (Of course if you’re not interested in writing good words and only wish to write words then I guess no plot really is no problem – and for some people, this is actually what they want and occasionally what they need to get the juices flowing.)


It’s easy to forget obligations during NaNo – pesky things like chores, meetings, appointments, etc. I have a week-by-week calendar that keeps me on track. It sits on my desk where I’ll actually see it while writing. You can even write down the number of words you’d like to have written by the end of said week, as an extra nudge.


This is for beginners. If you’ve done NaNo more than three times, chances are good that your loved ones already know what to expect and will behave accordingly. This is a trying time for everyone involved – for the writer staring at the computer until her eyes glaze over to the person tentatively inquiring, ‘How’s it going?’ and ducking when said writer throws a pencil at them. I am happy to say that for me, novel writing months are much less stressful now – in fact, they don’t differ much from other months, except I’m more solely focused on completing one task and I divide my time less. But remember to be kind to those around you, and realize they aren’t inside your brain. They can’t see it crying 24/7.


It’s easy to write half a page, crack your knuckles, and go ‘Wow, I should take a break now.’ No. Don’t do that. If you’ve been struggling to write half a page and you finally complete it, the ball has only just started rolling. If you leave now, chances are good you’ll get stuck again the second you return. Push on, keep writing, complete your next goal, and then take a break.  Have some coffee. Buy a bag of organic jelly beans. That’s what I do.


It will have to be, if you’re serious about it. If it’s just a side thing, obviously this rule is not for you – but if this is something you really want to focus on and complete, then you have to put aside other things you enjoy doing. You might have to skip the new episode of a drama because your writing is on a roll, or it throws you out of the mood for your novel. You might need to skip out on a movie, or wait to finish reading a certain book until December. You might need to cancel a plan. You have to give and take. Obviously your entire month can’t just be 100% you hunched in front of your laptop writing, you have to stand up and stretch from time to time. But you have to make your novel a big priority if you want it to work.


I know, it can be very fun to get lost in the NaNo forums for hours, reading witty lines and gathering obscure ideas for that noir romance novel you might write twelve years in the future. It can be fun to participate in word-wars six hours a day or read ‘How to Write’ books. Accessories are shiny and fun, but they can detract and distract from the actual novel at hand. Don’t let that happen to you.


I don’t do ‘first drafts.’ But Mirriam, a first draft is inevitable. You write the first draft and then you revise and edit, but you have to write a first draft or you don’t write anything. Yes and no. Yes, you have to start somewhere. But I don’t buy the idea that your first draft should be allowed to look like a sloppy mess because ‘it’s just a first draft.’ I’ve spoken with writers who have told me grammar doesn’t matter, because it’s ‘just a first draft.’ Consistency and quality don’t matter because it’s ‘just a first draft.’ If NaNo is a side project just for fun, this rule does not apply. But if you actually want to write an authentic, maybe-one-day-publishable book, you must write the first draft with the utmost care. You have to attempt to write the first draft like it’s the last draft. Otherwise, it can be such a mess at the end that you will never do anything with it. You’ll have grand plans for 18 revisions and massive overhauls + edits, and they will never happen because you’ve given yourself such a complicated mess to work with. Don’t do that to yourself – you and your novel deserve better.


I know I’ve just given a bunch of my personal do’s and don’ts for NaNo, but having fun really is an important step. It’s a book. It’s your book. Writing a book is a challenge. Writing a book in a month is a huge challenge. It takes determination, dedication, and lots of hard work – but let’s face it. It’s a blast. It’s unpredictable, no matter how much you plan, and sometimes you have to break the rules. Even I do. Sometimes you have to watch that show episode anyway, or go out with a friend anyway. Sometimes you have to lighten up and loosen up and take a walk or spend a day doing nothing but word-warring. I have my own rules, and sometimes you just have to break them because NaNo is supposed to be fun.

Just please, please, please, never mention plot bunnies in my presence. Ever. I will cut you.

Are you participating in NaNo and if so, have you done it before? What are you writing about? Do you have any personal NaNo rules? Let me know!


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