How to do NaNoWrimo when you don’t have the time

I didn't have the time but I was a NaNoWriMo winner last year

Er well….NaNoWriMo. A 50,000 word novel in 30 days? Are we ready, confident, rearing to go? Or are we standing on the edge of a bungee jump saying ‘why did I sign up for this? I really can’t do this and it’s not just the fear of it, it’s actually a physcial impossibility, I don’t have the time.’

None of us do, no really. I have four young kids including a toddler, extended family commitments, my husband runs his own business. I’m building a writing career to (hopefully) include paid gigs. You may be similar, have a full time job or jobs, have a job and a part time college course, be involved in the community, coaching, volunteering, doing all the worthwhile things that make us human.

You’ve got to write, you do it whenever you can. But this Nano thing. I mean 50,000 words in one month, you’re lucky if you do a thousand in a week, let alone in a day.

I did Nano for the first time last year and I made it to the finish line and now have a completed novel to show for it. One of the key things I discovered is that it’s possible to write 1667 words even on the craziest, busiest, pain in the neck kind of days. Here are some ideas of how to expidite and create a decent first draft in 30 days.

Prepare the structure in advance

You have an idea, right? You have themes, so you know what it’s about. But what’s going to happen in your novel? I’m a panster (a seat of the pants writer rather than a meticulous planner) but I still need to know the main thrust of the journey so I can set out on a path to somewhere. The snowflaking model is highly popular and has the beauty of going from the very high level overview (a one line summary) down to what the characterst like to eat for breakfast. You may want to save the breakfast details as an expose in your novel but an overall ‘scaffolding’ will save you time in those frantic nano days. You can place yourself in an overall picture to which you add fine detail later. What I have found personally useful is jotting down the titles of ‘episodes’ that occur to me as I think about the story. These titles alone will serve as triggers and help ensure that I can get writing straight away. Ideally I would have 30 or so of these episodes so it would be like a flash  fiction and a bit, each day. This is less daunting and will guard against the paralysis of panic/block.

Get in character

There are probably going to be people in your novel, right? Do you know who they are? Are there enough of them? Why are they together, how do they know each other, what do they really think of each other? What do they like for breakfast or are they just pretending. Who do they look like? The woman who works at your corner shop? The bus driver? The striking self-possessed girl walking down the main street? While there is time left, while you travel to work, bring the kids to school, go to the football match or the  nursing home, take notice of those around you, the little quirks of behaviour that interest you, the blast of white hairy eyebrows, the way the businessman examines his shoes. Think about the past and future of your characters. Knowing your characters gives you more to go on.

Schedule in a swim in the subconscious

We’re worried about not having time to complete 50,000 words in the available time and now I’m going to ask you to schedule time out of Nano, perhaps a whole day off along the way, or a day when you write just 500 words instead of 1667. There comes a time later in the month when you slip behind, so you need to be aiming for the 1800 mark in the early stages just to give you a breather later on. Musing on your story and characters before you begin is creating a well of associations and references on which you can draw whi le writing. This will help save time because the details and relationships between place, object and people will come thick and fast when you go to write, you won’t have to spend time making things up, you will be tapping in to associations already made. Later in the month though the well will begin to run dry, you will begin to burn out. So you need to make space for the subconscious to beaver away again whether its a day out walking or a cultural event, you need to take a relaxed swim in the subconscious and refill with further associations you can draw on.

Don’t be afraid of mushrooms

Getting to the practical aspect of writing; getting the required words down each day, you need, in my opinion, to leave your hang ups about chronology and linearity behind. You can always keep an overall structure scribbled or printed in front of you and you will surely have big decisions to make about chronology and reveal when you go to revise. But Nano isn’t about that, its  about getting it down as quickly as possible. So you take one of your core scene ideas, explore and write out all the details you associate with it, how the characters are involved. Lke accessing memory, it will trigger connections with objects people, time or space. So a story element or idea emerges out of the subconcious, like a mushroom out of the dark. Let these mushrooms emerge, singularly or in clusters and when you’ve delved all you can in that area, move onto another. There may be gaps between scenes or the chronology may be all over the place but those connecting details will emerge later. Don’t waste times on trying to fill the gaps, just concentrate on the mushrooms.

Attack in short bursts and forget grammar

Today, for example has been a madly busy day and I’ve been writing this post in tiny increments whenever I had the chance. When doing Nano it’s probably better if  you don’t set yourself up for a 1667 stint in one go. Try doing 15-30mins three or four times a day and really going for it. It’s possible to write (at a very fast pace) 500 words in 15 mins, so if you are really stuck for time you could have your wordcount wrapped in 1 hour throughout the day. If you have to go that fast you can’t think about spelling or grammar but you have plenty of revising time when Nano is over. And you know what will help you if you really need to fly? – your scene headings, you can even think about a scene while you make the dinner or walk to the office, record your thought or phrases and type them out later.

Get up early, stay up late,  be prepared

Of course there are plenty of practical things you can do now, make stacks of pre-cooked meals for the freezer, enthuse family and friends about this challenge that is, after all, only for 30days. And it does have an impact on your nearest and dearest, so if possible get up early and do an hour of writing before the day begins or night owls get cracking when it’s quiet. You don’t want to be guilty and frantic but you want to give yourself the best chance possible to nail this remarkable achievement. Good luck!

Update: This post is from last year. I subsequently went on to ‘win’ Nanowrimo again in 2010, completing the 50,000 words. I am currently working on last years Nanowrimo novel. It’s not easy but it’s a major achievement and a fantastic learning experience. I have an idea for this year and if I have come to a satisfactory stage in my current WIP I will jump in to Nanowrimo again this time. Is this your first time or have you done Nanowrimo before? If you are a veteran, what are your experiences?

Related: NaNoWriMo Feel the fear and do it anyway

44 thoughts on “How to do NaNoWrimo when you don’t have the time

  1. Yes, the time is almost near and here we both are again facing a challenge that we know we can achieve but we also know will drain us.
    While most of us are chewing our nails and wondering what it will feel like mid-November, you are sharing your knowledge and experience in a wonderful way. Well done you. Bring on 1st November!!

  2. What an incredibly helpful post! From an expert too, as you are under a huge amount of pressure, not least of which is 4 children – Hats off to you & Rebecca!

    I’m really looking forward to Nano – it’s actually my husband rather than me who’s worried about time & pressure. I love the tip about doing 15 mins at a time – that may well make the difference between me finishing and not.

    Thanks Alison!

  3. What fab advice, Alison. I am totally panicking here – can I do it? Should I even try? – and this has given me the metaphorical slap I needed to calm down.
    Bring on November!

  4. laradunning

    What a well thought-out and insightful post. Great tips for NaNoWriMo. I forsee me attempting this sometime in the future.

  5. mb

    Here’s my problem (not my 3 kids, disabled husband, full time job). No, my prob is if I begin a new novel without revising, editing last year’s masterpiece, I fear I am being unfaithful to those brilliant (yet unfinished characters). My desire for perfection keeps me from completion and beginning again.

  6. This is really good advice, especially thinking of it as 30 or so episides of flash fiction and writing in 30 minute bursts. It has really taken something that felt terrifying and made it feel manageable. Thank you SO much for that. 🙂

  7. I just found the link to this article from BubbleCow, and you give some great advice in great order. I would like to share another tool that might help some writers out. I just launched a new site called Typetrigger, and we are getting some traction in the NaNoWriMo community. We basically issue prompts every six hours, and writers have 300 words or less to respond in whatever way they like. Like you mention in your article, it can really help to just get small pieces out, and those constraints sometimes really help refine the story. We would love to have more writers in our community–Typetrigger is also a great way to connect with other writers and readers. Paul Constant of Seattle’s weekly The Stranger just did a great article on us and

    I’d love to see you and your readers join us!

  8. This is almost exactly how I did NaNoWriMo last year, and it worked really well for me! It worked so well that I now apply it to every short story I write. (I’d say “novel,” but I haven’t started anything new since last November.)

    The only thing I do differently is setting aside an hour or so each day — during November, because if I did it year-round, I’d probably actually be published by now — and hitting that 2,000 word goal. Usually I go over, but there are times when I don’t quite make it. Luckily, I seem to get a really good flow going during the first couple of weeks. Last year, I was at the halfway point about a week and a half into it. I do try to squeeze in the writing when I can, but I’ve found it works best for me when I do it all in one shot. I guess I’m an all or nothing kind of girl. (Also? A huge procrastinator.)

    I used the Snowflake Method three years ago, and it worked well for me, but I created my own little method last year, and it’s what I’m sticking to for now. I have to say, though, that if I hadn’t discovered and used the Snowflake Method, I wouldn’t have my own!

  9. I have been looking forward to my first NaNoWriMo. My home and lifestyle has been organised for this challenge. DH has now thrown a spanner in the works. His spine has fused and I am now in charge of chores etc.
    I was happily thinking November was mine, now I am like many writing friends. I have other commitments. Now the challenge has become a real challenge and not a daily planned writing project.
    Your advice is most welcome, Alison. Thank you.

    1. alisonwells

      Thanks so much for your great comments and suggestions everyone. It seems that there are many real world challenges before even starting but we have to realise that even beginning is an act of optimism and a testiment to our desire to and love of writing and if we end up, despite our best efforts with just 20000 words or even 10000, its still 10000 more than we started with. Lately even getting a short flash written has given me a lift. Anything we do is positive. I forgot to say that I am RandomOptimism on Nano. If we buddy each other perhaps we can cheerlead each other.

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  11. Brillaint post. I’m worrying about the time aspects so much and it has been putting me off. But I’m now almost defnitely going to do it. I praticulalrly like the mushroom idea as one of the problems I’m having is the links.

    1. alisonwells

      Thanks for your comments girls. I am really delighted if any of you gained hope from this post as I am just as dubious, its a big undertaking. Perhaps if we share our thoughts during the time it will also help. Best of luck, everyone.

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  14. Excellent post.

    This year will be my eighth NaNoWriMo. I failed to make it the first time because I did not do any of the pre-prep you suggest. Not knowing where I was going was something of an adventure, true, but it put me on the spot each time I sat down to write. What’s happened so far? What’s next? Does this make any sense… the works.

    What finally worked for me was to do an outline ahead of November 1st, which gave me a road map, and a clear idea of what to do each day.

    Something else that helped was a free software package written by Simon Haynes (a writer who has published four novels using it himself), called yWriter. I can’t recommend it enough, if for nothing else than it keeps track of characters, locales and items so no strings go untied at the end. Powerful stuff. You can find this free package at

    Good luck with NaNoWriMo. Personally, I can’t wait. I’ve got my novel just about half outlined now, and expect to have the full outline by 11/1.

    Go NaNo!

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  18. This has been fantastic encouragement for the nov. challenge. I write short stories BUT a novel, wow, out of my comfort zone totally, Im a lazy writer honestly. But I’ll give it a go and where do I sign up please ?

  19. RB Lindberg

    Outlining is definitely a good way to set up the “red thread” that will guide you through November. It also helps you to avoid “writer’s block” as you do know what’s going to happen.
    What I did last year, and what I am planning to do as of tomorrow morning, is to get up every workday half an hour earlier than normal and leave for work earlier. On a regular day I’m (because of my train schedule) almost half an hour early in the office. With this additional half hour I will get almost a full hour of un-interrupted writing time (since the office is emply at that un-godly hour!)! And that’s in addition to the time I use while commuting!
    I can definitely recommend public transport: I gain 3 hours like that every day, dedicated to writing. And with my mp3-player on, I can easiy block my fellow passengers out quite easily!

    1. alisonwells

      Yes, that is a really excellent point. There is no point waiting for the ideal time and enviroment, you have to turn your mind to writing and use those spaces that occur.

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  21. I will get round to reading all the comments later, but this post has pushed me closer to the edge where the bungee rope awaits! If I can do it without sacrificing work on my degree, I might just give it a go.
    As you say -it’s only 30 days! Four week before Christmas, two jobs, two children, one husband and one house – pah! Small numbers! How hard can it be? 😉

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  26. Great post with tons of useful tips. This is my first NaNoWriMo… Ever! I am going to the NaNo kick off party in Bensalem, PA tomorrow (Sunday). I am so stoked. I do have two jobs, a bratty 16 year old daughter and lack a butler and maid.
    Up early, up late. 🙂

    Best of luck to all!


    1. alisonwells

      Brilliant Darlene, the best of luck and however you get on you will still learn a lot! Let me know how you get on or buddy me! (RandomOptimism)

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  28. Helloooooo (echo from the bottom of the laundry pile, sorry I have disappeared recently — all hospitals and no Twitter…). Good post — am almost suffering from NaNo envy but have decided to do it once every two years. This Nov I am kickstarting the NaNo “thing” I produced last year… it’s haunting me… like a giant word-slug coming to eat my brain…

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