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Surviving the NaNoWriMo Apocalypse: Tips For Becoming A Master Word-Slayer And Staying Alive Through November

NaNoWriMo tends to get painted as this quirky, fun activity during the month of November, but whether you’re currently taking part or have in the past, you know that it’s really a battle for survival. November is a post-apocalyptic wasteland and every word is zombie you need to kill! Failure awaits round every corner and only the strongest and most organised will survive! So my word-slayers, grab your pen of doom, or The Wordbringer (your trusty laptop), and listen carefully to my words on how you’re gonna kick some NaNo butt and still be breathing come 1st December.

Adjust Your Daily Target

Zombie writer by aelurIf you’ve attempted NaNoWriMo before you’ll know what a losing battle it is if you get behind. Do not, under any circumstances, let yourself get behind! It’s as bad as getting bit by one of those aforementioned word-zombies. If it happens, take measures now and don’t let the infection spread. Don’t say you’ll catch up over the next couple of weeks and pretend nothing has happened. You’ll just get further and further behind. Instead, take action, and even if you can’t make up the shortfall in the next day, do so within the next couple of days. Yes, it’s painful but let’s face it, if this was a real zombie invasion, you’d be sawing off your own arm right now.

For that reason, whether you are currently ahead or behind, up your daily target slightly. 1800 or 2000 words a day may feel like a mountain to climb (and some days it will) but in reality, one decent description will cover the extra. Use the enthusiasm of the first week to get some decent word count under your belt, but don’t slack off; overconfidence is the guy in our zombie apocalypse whose last words are, “look, there’s nothing in here”. When it’s going well don’t just stop because you’ve reached the day’s total.

Take One Day At A Time

Whether you use any of the other tips or not, this one is key. Just as the trick to surviving a zombie apocalypse is not to rid the world of all undead but stay alive day to day, so the challenge you face is not to write 50,000 words in a month but to write at least 1,667 words today. That’s all. Sure you’ll have the same problem again tomorrow, but all you need to worry about is today’s words. If you focus on that and only that you’ll survive NaNoWriMo.

Typically 1,667 words constitute no more than a single scene. By the time you’ve added description, dialogue and action even the briefest of scenes will be approaching that sort of number. And if you focus your thoughts for the day on the description, dialogue and action that scene needs, you’ll find that when it comes to writing you should get a decent way through the day’s total before the target starts to bite.

Take A Walk

Das Tagebuch by SchnetteSometimes, every survivalist needs to venture outside for supplies. This might sound counter-productive but if the words just aren’t coming, grab your shoes, your MP3 player loaded up with the type of music you usually write to, and go walk around the block. You don’t have to go far but what you have to do is visualise the scene before you.

What’s important about this scene? Does it work towards some outcome that will drive the story along? Does the character come to some revelation? Do you even need this scene or would it be better to skip it entirely? Visualise it playing out in your head and don’t get distracted by mentally trying to assemble your dream cast to act it out for you–those sort of contract negotiations take precious time you don’t have. Instead concentrate on what needs to happen rather than what’s not currently happening.

Be sure to limit yourself. You only have the duration of your walk to resolve what you are going to do next. It may ultimately prove wrong but you can’t keep putting off writing until you’ve had another walk to think it through. Walk, think and then commit. Word-slayers are ruthless and decisive!

Work Backwards

If you’re going to survive a zombie apocalypse, sometimes you need to think outside the box and so it is with NaNoWriMo. You always want to focus on the current scene you are working on. However, instead of thinking of where you’ve written up to and then working forwards. Start at the end of today’s scene – that cool last line you’ve got saved up, or that moment of character realisation – and then work backwards.

You’ll need to write stuff down so this one needs you sat at your computer or armed with pen and paper. Ask yourself what needs to happen immediately before the end of your scene. Once you have that, ask yourself what needs to happen immediately before that, and so on.

You may find you have already few milestones – Jan walks into room, Jan and Mike argue, Mike grabs his coat and leaves. In which case, you might find yourself naturally spidering out of that, trying to link the milestones together. Don’t just concern yourself with what Jan says to make Mike leave the room, but also how the argument starts. You might change your mind but remember all you need to do is find A way to link them. Word-slayers don’t get afforded the time to choose the best weapon to slay the hordes of word-zombies in front of them, they just need to find something that will let them clear a path through.

Rise Early

Instruments of Truth by Deborah DeWitSurvivalists and word-slayers can’t afford to sleep in. You do that and before you know it, word-zombies have broken through the perimeter fence and infested your compound. Set your alarm thirty minutes or an hour early. If that means getting an earlier night then so be it (it’s OK, word-zombies tend to only come out during the day). Avoid distractions such as social media and your favourite websites, save breakfast until later, just get up and use that time to write.

You probably won’t get your day’s quota of words done in the time, but you’ll get an idea early on whether today is going to be an easy day or a hard day. If you know by breakfast rather than midnight that you still have 1200 words to do, you’ve got more time to do something about it. Remember with NaNoWriMo, the clock is always ticking!

Work Time Is Thinking Time

Surviving an apocalypse isn’t just about death and gore. Sometimes there are mundane tasks that still need to be done. But the best word-slayers use such tasks to aid them in the fight ahead.

Use mind numbing tasks at your day job as an excuse to think about your next writing session. Plan out what’s going to happen, think about what you need to describe, about any dialogue. Whilst you don’t want to develop bad habits of deliberately dragging scenes out, you don’t want to be writing things like “Jan and Mike argued until Mike grabbed his coat and left” when you could write that argument, develop character and tension, as well as increasing the all-important word count.

Even if your job doesn’t allow you much thinking time, you can still make good use of work hours. Colleagues or customers make for great visual templates for characters. How would you describe their looks? Do they have any visual or vocal tics you could incorporate into tonight’s writing? What about their clothes; could you dress a character the same? What colour would you call that dress? Are there places you pass on your way to and from work that could be used as templates for locations? How would you describe them?

Remember, just concern yourself with the next twenty-four hours’ worth or writing and push other ideas to the back of your head. You can worry about how you’re going to write that awesome fight scene in the final chapter when you come to the end of the month.

Walk away by sadik18Skip It

Sometimes during an apocalypse you have no choice but to abandon your hideout and run. Forget those left behind, there’s nothing you can do for them right now, just get away and live to fight another day. And sometimes, as a last resort, when things get really bad, you have to just abandon your scene and move on.

Are you trying to write one scene and your brain is thinking about another? Many writers (myself included) like to write linearly, writing the scenes in the order they will appear in the finished book. But NaNoWriMo is ruthless, so if your brain is thinking about another scene, go write that scene. Just be sure you’re not swapping one problem for another. Sure you might have a killer last line for that other scene in your head but do you have everything else needed to write it?

Title image by aelur.



  1. Avatar Overlord says:

    GREAT article and LOVE the title, lol 🙂

  2. Avatar KJ Braxton says:

    Really great article, i wasn’t entirely sure what nanowiro was but Ive seen a lot of people talkong about it. Makes me want to attempt it next year 🙂

  3. Avatar Tony Spencer says:

    Thanks for great tips, Adrian, I am behind, but feel more energised now. I will leave the next negative vibe scene for later and forge on.

  4. Avatar David McCready says:

    There is no way I’m gonna finish 50k words in these 30 days. It’s unfortunate but I’ve been writing every day. I have realized that attempting to write more than what is comfortable just makes the entire thing fall apart.

    I’ve written as few as 91 words, one day. And I’m fine with that. I’m not going to finish by November 30 but I’ll finish – and isn’t that half the reason to attempt NaNo? Just to finish a novel?

    Thanks to NaNo 2013, I’ve learned how to finish a novel.

    • Avatar Autumn2May says:

      I agree. The most important thing I got out of doing NaNo the first year, was that I needed to write every day. Winning is great, but getting into the habit of writing is the real reward. 🙂

  5. Avatar Konekon1nj4 says:

    Saved this. Will definitely be using it as the month goes on. Thanks!

  6. Super article, and some great advice! Thanks! 😀

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