Nanowrimo(ish) Tips for that First Novel Draft

I love to hear writers talking about their own individual process. Especially back when I started out; I could identify what would work for me and know what wouldn’t. 

One such process that I first tried in 2013 was Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month, set every November) and, as I have said in many articles, I used this template for The Bones of It, and after three weeks had a first draft.

I was completely sold and have never written a book, or a story, any differently since.

If you are new to writing, or fancy writing a novel and are finding the idea overwhelming, let me give you some tips that have helped me.

They might help you. Who knows!

I am not going to recommend following Nanowrimo exactly, because that can make you feel a sense of disappointment that you aren’t ‘churning out’ the 1666 words a day, and 50,000 words at the end. I never follow it to the letter but have taken the lovely principles and made them fit me.

  1. Plan (September/October)

Okay, so you want to write a novel. You think you could manage an hour a day in November – you will stop watching that box set for the month and prioritise your masterpiece. 

Hopefully the idea has been floating around your head for months, maybe years. Now it’s time to pin it down and work out what your book is about:

what are the themes?

whose story it is?

which genre is it?

how would you like to structure it?

Look to similar book and ones you admire for ideas.

Before you begin, start to plan:

write notes, 

do some character development exercises, 

get the characters to write you a letter, 

whatever works for you. 

2. Outline

Nanowrimo participants talk about being Plotters or Pantsers. 

I can’t begin to talk about being a pantser because I like to have a basic structure set first, at least. 

If you plan, and it doesn’t have to be rigidly, you know you have to get to a certain point by the end of the chapter, and the end of the book. 

Have a think now whether you want lots of short chapters, or fewer longer chapters, or if you are writing a novel that picks up pace and the chapters get shorter as you progress. 

Think about your genre and the usual average word count. Look it up if you’re unsure.

Now decide how many chapters you want to have. 

At this stage you could outline what will happen in each chapter, taking into consideration your story arc, beginning, middle and end. 

Check out online articles on novel structure before you start to outline.

3. Research the big things now

It saves time later.

4. Write your synopsis (October)

So it is nearly November by this stage, although you can take any month. (Twice a year, and rarely in November, I do my own first draft challenge.) 

Now is the time to think about the book as a whole. Have a look over your chapter outline, and iron out any issues. 

Is it pacey enough? 

How is your timeline? 

Is there a plot twist you have thought of that would go in there great? 

Writers on Twitter often complain that writing a synopsis is more difficult than writing the actual novel. It really is!

October is the time to do it. Really narrow down on what the book is about. You might find that by doing this you go in and make some changes to your outline. 

Also, it wouldn’t hurt to write a tagline here. 

Can you sell your book in one sentence?

Okay, so you might not want to sell your book, but the exercise will help to bring everything together and sum up what is at the heart of your story. Keep that tagline beside you as you write your book.

If you are new to writing a synopsis, there are plenty of bloggers giving advice. Have a gander.

5. Ready? Get Set … Go!

Set yourself a reward for after you finish:

a new notebook, a trip to a retreat to tackle those edits, a stack of new books, (if the fact that you are going to have a new novel isn’t enough reward).

Find a time of day when you can fit in an hour’s writing. You might want to get up early for a month. Think about when you work best and know that you might not get to write every day – I never do – but that there are days when you might get an extra half-hour to even it out. 

If you need the support, link in with others on social media who are following nanowrimo. They do word sprints and buoy each other up. 

Word sprints (writing ‘together’ fast for around a half hour) didn’t work for me, but you might love it. 

The point is, you don’t have to do it on your own. 

Maybe you and a writing pal can try the challenge together this year. 

6. Don’t procrastinate

Back to the research. This can be a big time drain. Researching small details is interesting when you are taking a longer route to writing your first draft, but right now time is of the essence.

Unless you really don’t know something and that lack of knowledge can riddle your storyline with plot holes, then skip it.

There will be many months after to go back and fill in the details.

7. Keep Going (Mid-November)

I am midway through my own writing challenge and I know that there is a natural slump at this stage. 

In fact, I have been wanting to do a class on nanowrimo for years, and now that I am in the middle of things, it is the best time to write a blog, while things are fresh and I can see the issues clearly. 

Plus, time is on my side today. I’m not procrastinating … maybe a tiny bit. But I will get today’s chapter done too. 

(If you’re interested, I am writing a book with 40 chapters, between 1,500-2,000 words in each. It might take me into next month and that’s okay. I’m not going for the usual 50,000 words this time, only because I am well used to this process now.)

But getting back to the slump, here are some things I am doing to help: 

changing the space I write in. 

It is cold in my writing shed right now, and in the kitchen all the appliances are whizzing and bumping about, so yesterday I went and lay on top of my bed and wrote a great chapter. 

Change it up, be comfortable and get your focus back. 

Caffeine and biscuits definitely help. 

Can’t quit now!

8. Blot out the background

If you get stuck or bored on a certain part – keep it brief. 

I have been known to write, ‘they have an argument here’, which has given my first reader a laugh. 

I just didn’t have the energy to write that scene that day. But that was fine, I knew I would come back to it during editing and give it my best. 

It is hard work, writing a book, but remind yourself you are doing well. I started as a visual artist so I always liken writing and editing to painting. Blot out that background with a wash.

You can come back with the fine tipped brush for the gorgeous details later.

9. Don’t read what you have written so far

Big rule. BIG RULE!

If you need to stop, stop mid-sentence so you can pick it up the next day. It works for some writers.

I try to write a chapter and have a natural finish. 

Be prepared, you will have repeated yourself a lot.

You will write something that you have written earlier, or contradict yourself, but that is not your concern. That is for future-you to think about down the line. 

You have enough to think about right now. 

Don’t edit your spelling and typos; bleed all over the page. 

For me, someone always comes out as soemone and friend as freind when I write fast – that’s what the ‘replace’ function is for.

Allow yourself to make millions of mistakes.

10. Be flexible 

By now I hope you have forgotten all about word counts and how long you are writing for each day and are enjoying writing this book that only you can. 

It’s not about numbers. It’s about the story. 

You might find that as you write, the plot develops a mind of its own and changes, which is fine too. 

Surprise yourself. 

When you are finished, remember to go back and change your synopsis to fit.

Did you stay true to the tagline?


You’re done! 

Now to set aside your work for a week. Then give it a quick skim over, see what you need to change and take some notes. 

But don’t do anything more right now. 

Forget about it. Enjoy the holiday season knowing you have written a novel – yay! Buy yourself that reward, or better yet, get someone else to.

The new year is when you can come back at it and start the editing process with fresh eyes. 

If you do give it a go, let me know how you are getting on!