“I won NaNoWriMo last year… but I didn’t actually finish the book.”
Alas, this is the refrain repeated every October in NaNoWriMo chatrooms, forums, and writing groups the world over. And it’s all because of a little secret that no one wants to tell you about NaNoWriMo:
Of all the people who ‘win’ NaNoWriMo every year (i.e., write 50,000 words of the same story in November) only a small fraction of them actually finish the story they are telling.
Seriously. There are plethoras of unfinished manuscripts virtually rotting on laptops and flash drives that will never see the light of day ever again.
Is there a way to ensure that your beloved story avoids this fate? You bet.
A Disclaimer for NaNoWriMo first-timers
If this is your first year attempting NaNoWriMo, I suggest ignoring the below advice and simply undertaking the original challenge and writing 50,000 words in a month. That’s because for you more than anyone else, NaNoWriMo is a learning experience. It will show you that it’s possible to write 50,000 words in just 30 days, and that YOU specifically are capable of this feat. During this time you will learn organically about structure, character development, and most importantly, the skill of writing when you really don’t feel like it. This is incredibly empowering, and to do what I am suggesting below will undercut that.
Not to mention that if you fall off the bandwagon, you might be put off NaNoWriMo forever and I’ll be responsible. Don’t put that kind of metaphorical blood on my hands, please.
Why Are Most NaNoWriMo Novels Unfinished?
Most NaNoWriMo novels aren’t finished because the writer “spends” too many words in each scene. This makes sense when the goal is to write as many words as possible. Starting new scenes is hard and scary, so of course it’s tempting to let your characters blather on about unnecessary things after the scene’s main purpose has been completed. In a sense, this is good, because it adds words to our word count.
The problem with this is that it doesn’t move the plot along. I’ll use myself as an example. Technically, I won my first year of NaNoWriMo… but my ‘novel’ was really nothing more than a bloated 50,000-word first act. My characters spent a whole lot of time getting to places where nothing definitive happened. And, boy, were they ever talkative.
I don’t regret writing it, because it introduced me to the world and some of the characters I’m writing about now. But that draft will never see the light of day again.
How to Finish Your NaNoWriMo Novel
The method is to figure out how many words on average are in each scene – and then when you’re writing, to stick to that number. If you plot diligently enough and stick to it, this basically ensures that as long as you reach 50,000 words, you will have finished your story. Pretty cool, huh?
To figure out how many words are in each scene, there are two questions you must answer:
- How Many words do I want my finished Novel to be?
- How many scenes do I want in my novel?
How many words do I want my finished novel to be?
Don’t get me wrong, 50,000 is a lot of words. However, it is not a novel. A work of 50,000 words would technically be considered a novella (and there’s nothing wrong with writing a novella – in fact, there’s a growing demand for them in the ebook market). Most novels are considerably longer, 60,000-80,000 words for YA and 70,000-90,000 words for Adult Fiction, depending on your genre and the particular story you’re telling.
If you want more guidance on genre and word count, I suggest reading the article Word Count for Books Explained from Writer’s Digest.
How many scenes do I want in my novel?
Generally, most full-length novels will have 60-90 scenes depending on genre, how much meat your plot has, and how many subplots there are.
But let’s be honest – a better way to look at this question is how many scenes do I KNOW my novel will have? If you only know of a few scenes, this method probably won’t work for you unless you do some serious plotting. Uncertainty about what happens next plot-wise is why many Wrimos drag scenes out thousands of words longer than they needed to be.
I suggest checking out Blake Snyder’s book Save the Cat! Technically, it’s a screenwriting book, but there is a section on filling in scenes that’s great for first-time plotters. You might also check out Plot Bones: Make a Plot Skeleton to Write Your Story On, and 4-Act Story Structure.
If you can’t stand the idea of plotting each scene in advance, then skip down to the ‘pantsers’ section. (Also check out How to ‘Pants’ Like a Plotter, which may further assist you on your NaNoWriMo journey.)
If you’re still with me, I suggest listing every scene you know will be in the story. To make our plan work, you’ll need at least 30-40 scenes – though 60 is best, because it can be divided equally by 30, the number of days in November.
Ok. I know you came here to write, not do math, but this does require a little elementary division.
Total Target word count / target number of scenes = words per scene
Let’s say you’re keeping your story to the classic 50,000, and you have 60 scenes.
50,000 / 60 = 834 words per scene.
Now, to make sure you finish your novel within that 50,000 words, you need to limit each scene to about 834 words (let’s say 1000, to give you a little wiggle room). Keep your eyes on the prize while writing – what needs to happen in each scene? Are you working toward a tangible scene goal? (For some review on the components of an effective scene, see these articles on Scene and Sequel.) End the scene as soon as the goal has been definitively accomplished or failed.
This approach requires a stinginess with words that clashes with the classic NaNoWriMo philosophy of quantity over quality- but do you want to finish the thing or not?
If you want your draft to be more than 50,000 words but cringe at the idea of writing more than 1,667 words a day, NaNoFiMo might be a good solution for you. NaNoFiMo is a small off-shoot of NaNoWriMo dedicated to finishing your NaNoWriMo draft in December.
So the question is, are you going to try to finish your entire story in November – whether it’s a 50,000 word novella or a 100,000 word Sci-Fi tome – or are you going to simply aim to write the 50,000 words in November and finish the rest during NaNoFiMo?
Even if you’re a pantser, you can still benefit from this method by being cognizant of how long your scenes are running. If you’re approaching that 900 (or whatever you calculated your scene total to be above) word mark, it might be time to end the scene.