How to Speed Write for National Novel Writing Month

November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo for short).


Nearly 500,000 people participate in NaNoWriMo every year. Many are first time novelists who have decided to take the plunge, which means a lot of people are about to realize just how many hours there are in a day.

Here are some ideas to help you churn out a story as fast as possible.

Fortify Your Writing Space

The first thing you’ll to want to do is make sure that your bunker is stocked with nonperishable food items, water purification pellets, and enough Neosporin to cover a month’s worth of paper cuts. This way you can avoid the marauders that will be plundering your home in the wake of the election. Oh and once you’re several stories underground make sure your short wave radio is nowhere near the room where you’ll be writing. All those panic wrought police officers will break your concentration.

Now if you’re one of the poor souls stuck aboveground you’ll need a playlist to drown out all the screams.

I work to dark atmospheric soundtracks. This year I’ve been writing to the scores for Stranger Things, Mr. Robot, and Before the Flood (pretty much anything by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross will get you in the right mood to write horror).

Scores for TV shows are perfect for writing because the composer has left space for dialogue, there’s room to hear yourself think, they’re usually slower than film scores, and there’s no lyrics to steal your attention.

Minimize Your Prep Work

I have 15 questions before I start writing:

  1. Who’s the hero?
  2. What’s her drive when she’s introduced?
  3. What’s her routine?
  4. What goal comes as a result in the break in her routine, and how does it conflict with her drive?
  5. What’s the situation she’s in: the time, the region, and the rules of her world?
  6. What’s the conflict that’s preventing her from achieving her goal?
  7. What lessons will this conflict teach her?
  8. When is she beyond the point of no return?
  9. Do her alliances shift along the way?
  10. What’s her lowest possible moment?
  11. Does she realize that her goal is wrong?
  12. Do the lesson’s she’s learned along the way change her?
  13. Does she get a new goal that’s more aligned with who she is now?
  14. Does she approach the climax as a new person?
  15. What statement does the ending leave the audience with? What’s the thesis? What’s the theme?

My answers for these questions change as better ideas come along.


Write a Story that Demands Urgency

One way to guarantee fast paced writing is to tell a fast paced story, one with a clock counting down to the climax.

In action driven fiction it’s easy to come up with an urgent situation. Setup a ticking time bomb, a doomsday satellite coming over the horizon, or inject your hero with nano-machines programmed to attack their immune system if they fail to complete their mission in time.

None of those scenarios are subtle, but even dramatic character driven stories can benefit from ticking clocks.

Give your hero three days to convince his ex that marrying that clod will be the greatest mistake of her life. Have your hero’s oncologist tell her she only has six months to live, or just say your hero is in town for a week and he can’t reschedule his flight without incurring exorbitant fees.

Just come up with a reason to keep the clock moving. Maybe your hero spent a year polishing his a treatment, sold it to a publisher, and now he has just one month to throw a manuscript together.

Outline as You Go

Use the Comments function, in Microsoft Word, to list all you want a chapter to accomplish. You can insert a comment by pressing Ctrl+Alt+M on a PC or Command+Option+A on a Mac.

Ask yourself how does this chapter:

  • Further the plot (that ticking clock)
  • Add larger stakes
  • Setup the next chapter
  • Plant details for later (especially important if there’s a twist coming)
  • Create conflict.
  • Reveal character
  • Teach the hero something that will contribute to their ultimate change
  • And above all: How will this chapter entertain readers?

Check off each of these bullet points in your comment field as you include them in the chapter.

Be Economical With Time

Enter every scene late: Your characters needn’t bother hanging up their coats or appraising every room they enter. If your characters’ garments and setting don’t reveal essential details don’t describe them.

Teleport your characters: Transition scenes that bring your characters from location to location should only be there if something relevant happens in them, otherwise just skip ahead until your hero’s plane touches down.

Leave every scene early: Wrap up conversations once the relevant information has been dispensed, not after everyone has had a chance to hug goodbye and walk off set.

There’s a Reason for Every Conversation

Narrative dialogue is nothing like a conversation in real life. Real conversations are clogged with filler words, like like, um, and uh. Speakers take detours into abstract territory, lose the topic, and repeat themselves. Narrative dialogue does an impression of the loose tone of conversational dialogue, but it smuggles information to the audience.

Enter the scene knowing what you want the dialogue to do. The best dialogue is between characters whose passionate desires are incompatible with one another. Think back to those bullet points for what every chapter should accomplish: reveal character, create conflict, raise the stakes, and further the plot.

Also, consider how open your characters are with one another about the subject they’re discussing. If one character harbors a crush on another they’re going to find every way they can to say what they’re feeling without saying it. They’ll speak with double meanings, roll back their statements, and try to fish for information.

There’s the conversation your characters are hearing and then there’s the one they’re really having. Know the true theme of their exchange going in and you’ll be able to plant subtext throughout.

And again, once you’ve dispensed all the relevant information the scene is done, cut and move on.

Dash through Your Dialogue

One trick to make dialogue flow faster is to write your characters’ back and forth first and worry about the attribution, scene description, and physical blocking when you’re editing. When you go back you can convert some lines into subtle facial expressions, body language, and actions.

Race to the Finish

Novelists can learn a lot from watching movies. Think of your favorite films as crash courses in western storytelling. Think of a film you’ve seen a hundred times. Have you ever noticed how the scenes got shorter and shorter the closer the film got to the climax?

This isn’t always the case, but it is most of the time. This is a structure you should emulate as your hero races to beat that ticking clocking you’ve set into motion. Keep things urgent, and once your hero has neutralized the threat, made their ultimate change, and gotten what they truly deserved it’s time for the story to end.

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