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NaNoWriMo Newbie Guide: Updated For 2019

What is it, How do I participate, and should I be nervous? No, you shouldn’t be nervous, but it’s understandable if you are. I know I was the first year. Don’t worry, I’m gonna tell you everything you need to know before you start. Here we go…

What is it?

NaNoWriMo (NaNo for short) stands for National Novel Writing Month. It started in 1999 as a simple challenge: write 50,000 words in the 30 days of November. It’s grown into a multi-national yearly event, where hundreds of thousands of writers gather online, and in local coffee shops, to write and support each other through the creative process. 

If the scale of that seems overwhelming, don’t worry. The experience can be as cozy for you as, just you and your keyboard or notebook. If you like to socialize, there’s writing buddies, local write-ins, forums and more. You control how you participate and when. 

If the number of words seems overwhelming, you’re not alone. Every year I stare at that number and think, “How will I finish?” The way you do is simple, one word at a time. Break it down into manageable, less scary chunks. Maybe 1,667 words a day sounds better. Maybe 7 hours of writing a week is more your speed. 

If you do reach 50,000 words you don’t win any money or cars, but you get a pretty cool digital certificate, congratulations video, and can wear your winner t-shirt with pride. Not to mention the fact that you’ll have a shiny new novel of your very own.

Even if you don’t “win”, you’ll still end with more words than you started with. Your WIP will be that much closer to done. Just by participating you will also receive the following, including, but not limited to: new friends, resources for current or future writing projects, good times, good memories, and fun experiences. While none of these things will bring about world peace or let you retire to your own private island, they should not be undervalued.

To Prep, or not to Prep?

People often ask if they need to prepare for Nano. That’s completely up to you. The first time I participated was in 2015. I only had a rough idea of what I wanted to write, and one scene that I didn’t know where it would fit. I finished on November 30th with slightly over the 50,000 goal. In 2016 I tried to do the same and failed miserably, only achieving 35K. Of course, that’s an accomplishment in itself, I just expected to win since I had the year before. The next year I went all in with a pretty well-developed outline and Just squeaked in under the buzzer with 50,021. 

Basically, you can start with a work already in progress or no idea what you’re going to write. It’s your choice.

I recommend, if it’s your first year, and you’re stressing meeting the goal, that you have an outline or at least an idea what you’ll write about. That way at least one thing is decided, and it may help alleviate some of the anxiety. In reality though, this contest is not about stress or worry. It’s about helping you get the words to flow. It supposed to be fun and productive so don’t stress it.

How do I get started?

Getting started is really easy. Go to and sign up before November 1st. Fill out your profile. If you don’t have a title or synopsis for your story yet, don’t sweat it. You can just make something temporary up and change it later. That’s it. You’re officially a Wrimo (I personally like the name Nanite better, but whatever ?)

In either case, now you just wait for the 1st to start writing.

So, what happens on November 1st?

Some people stay up until midnight and make it a party, counting down the seconds. That sounds like fun to me, until I remember I’m older now and don’t do well with all-nighters. I have gone to a write-in the day before or day after, and those are fun too. (More on write-ins later)

Writing doesn’t happen on the site. You use whatever method you usually do: Word doc, Scrivener, handwritten, whatever works. At the end of the day you log into the site and log your word count. If you forget, you can go back and edit, but it’s easier to just input it that day. 

Since I’m writing this in October, I can’t see how they set up the input feature yet. Once Nano starts, I’m sure it will pop up, similar to years before. The way it used to work was: At the top you’ll find a little bar where you can manually type in your day’s total word count. Microsoft Word is awesome at calculating this but I’m guessing any writing software can tell you what it is. The site will then tell you how many words left to write, how many to average each day to finish on time and other stats.

It’s November 30th, now what?

Sometime before midnight, copy and paste all your words into their counter. They may have a way to upload the whole document, but I’m not sure. Don’t worry, they don’t keep the document. If there’s 50,000 words or more, congratulations! You win! If not, it’s no biggie. You can always try again next year, and no one can take away all the fun and friends you met while trying.

Tips and suggestions for making the most of Nano:

Sign up in your region 

This will give you all the news and events in your local area. It’s also how you can find out about and join a write-in nearby. A “write-in” is a cool little writing party at your local coffee shop, bookstore, or restaurant. Your regional moderator will organize it. There you’ll meet other NaNo participants in your area, do writing games like Word Sprints, get motivation and support to keep on writing, and generally have fun. They may even have a kick-off party of sorts on the 1st and usually have another on the last day of the month. 

To find your region and sign up, after you log in: use the drop-down menu bar at the top. It should look like this:

Use the forums. 

It’ll be a great resource for you. You’ll find advice on everything from what to call your main character’s home town, to how to fix that impossibly big plot hole. There’s also threads for what to do after Nano, and off-topic posts. 

They can also be found under the “conversation” drop down. There you’ll get help on everything from plotting and character development, to naming your fictional town and much more. I recommend you stroll through them before NaNo starts to see how they’re structured and learn your way around. You may even post and will definitely see others posting before the official start date, as this has become a year round hangout for some.

Keep an eye out for writing badges

They’re not really vital, but they are a cool little way to celebrate your milestones and motivate you to keep going. And motivation is vital. There are some you get automatically for things like reaching a word count goal (like 5,000 words) and donating to their non-profit. Others you can give yourself like for attending a local write-in or backing up your novel. 

Which reminds me…

Note to self: BACK UP YOUR NOVEL!

Sorry, but every year some poor soul falls victim to the anger of the word gods. They work so hard and think it will all be there the next day. Eventually they lose some of their book, or worse yet, the entire book. Please, don’t let it be you.


Don’t get discouraged

Most people start out great and fall behind later. Others can’t seem to start for days. Everyone writes differently. Just keep trying, no matter what. Remember, the point is to write your novel. Each and every word done in November gets you closer to that goal. 

Here’s the stats from my first year, when I won.

Daily word count graph of winning Nano

And here’s my stats from the very next year, when I suffered a horribly tragic defeat 😉

daily word count graph of failing Nano

As you can see, neither year did I keep to the average word schedule, although I did a much better job of it the first year. That year I got to spend the last week of the month at our family’s cabin. While my hubby went out and hunted, I settled into the loft and wrote like a mad woman to catch up. Apparently, the pressure of failing works for me… if I’m not too far behind.

Anyway, there’s my experience with Nano and how to get started. There’s so much more on the site I didn’t mention, so go explore, have fun with it.

Have you participated in Nano before? Have you done other writing contests? Do you agree we should start a petition to have participants be called “Nanites” officially? 😉

Feel free to leave a comment below and let me know if you’re going to try Nano this year. Maybe we could be writing buddies.

Happy writing 🙂

Let's chat! :) Let me know what you think.