Discipline,  Nanowrimo

The Schlemeil, Schlamazel Hassenpfeffer Incorporated Method To Nanowrimo (Or How ’80s Pop Culture Can Make You A Better Writer)

Nanowrimo is National Novel Writing Month.

For 30 days in November every year, hundreds of thousands of writers all over the world try to get 50,000 words on paper. In a perfect world, these words would be brilliant and profound. It’s far more likely that the words are a big hot mess.

But that’s the beauty of Nano. It’s not brain surgery.

The objective is to write as much as possible, not to be beautiful doing it.

It’s literary vomiting. It’s Jackson Pollock art.  It’s not about form or order or plot even, it’s just about getting that word count in.

I believe that the objective of 50K words in 30 days is doable for anyone who wants to try.

I also believe that much is to be gained from the whole exercise, even if it isn’t a coherent story. I’ve broken down the steps to writing a story for Nano into super-easy steps. If you follow them, you’ll easily make your goal. (It’s only 1,667 words a day. You can DO that!)

So here we go! (This is the ’80s version so I suggest you pop up your collar, put on your Ray-Bans and crank up the Pet Shop Boys!)

Picture 19

Step One: Start your story with Once upon a time. Is that cheating?  NO! It gets you going and now you only have 49,996 words to go.

Step Two: Pick Two Names: Almost any two will do. Hall and Oates, BJ and the Bear, let’s go with Laverne and Shirley! 

What do I do when I'm stuck on Nanowrimo?
I had to look this up. It’s a Yiddish schoolyard chant that would have been common in Wisconsin when L&S were kids. #themoreyouknow

Step Three: Describe these two characters. List their favorite things, their appearance and their relationships. They also need a job that is unrelated to the genre of the book, like say, make them fax machine salesmen! Leg warmer designers!

Step Four: Give them an antagonist: (This determines your genre). If it’s a mean girl/boy, then it’s chick lit. If it’s a tall, dark stranger who they think is a pain in the butt (at first) it’s a rom-com.If it’s a mysterious colleague with secret who may do something violent to protect it then it’s a thriller. If it’s someone who had committed a crime and he doesn’t want our couple to find out about it, it’s a mystery.  If it’s bigger than a personality, like, say, a government agency, then it’s a spy thriller. If it’s a non-human but nothing technological is involved, then it’s a fantasy. If it’s a non-human but technology IS involved it’s science fiction. Okay, so these are loose definitions, but this is Nanowrimo! There is no need to get technical.

How Do I Win Nanowrimo?
So why were we so fascinated with the 1950s during the 1980s?

Step Five: Give them a setting. Make it consistent with the antagonist. Coffee shops in NYC are more for romantic comedies than for science fiction. (And there weren’t that many Starbucks around in the ’80s!)  But you know what, it’s NANOWRIMO! Go ahead, break the rules, and while Laverne and Shirley are waiting for the baddie to show up, they can order twenty-seven things on the menu because that will pad you with a lot of words!

This is where you sign up for NANO!

Step Six: Give them an objective: All this means is that the characters want something. They want to be loved. They want to be famous. They want to be secure, forgiven, avenged, or safe. These are primal needs and everybody wants them. You don’t need to worry about the specifics of the objectives, that will come later.

Step Seven: Give them a handicap: What will keep them from meeting their objective?  Sure, the antagonist will do his part, but there’s got to be more. Let’s say Laverne is a narcoleptic and falls asleep every seven minutes. Let’s say Shirley is deathly afraid of asphalt. Be as nonsensical and illogical as you want because HEY! THIS IS NANOWRIMO! 

Step Eight: Give them something to say:  Open your scene with dialogue. Your pair is bickering because of something. This shouldn’t be hard to come up with. As they bicker, the reader learns about their big objective. Laverne wants all of her black rubber bracelets back and Shirley wants to go to the Madonna concert.

Step Nine: The antagonist makes an appearance OR someone challenges them to acquire something. They are sent off on their mission. They bicker about it some more. They get distracted. Now write about this!

What should I do for Nanowrimo?
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say the pilot died and Laverne had to land the plane. AND she had narcolepsy! If I were Shirley, I’d be biting an apple in fear too!

Step Ten: Stuck? Tell us backstory! This is where Nanowrimo is beautiful. Tell us all about Laverne’s struggle with narcolepsy and how her fiancee left her for a woman who stays awake. Tell us about the trauma that Shirley had when she was four when she skinned her knee on the asphalt. In Nanowrimo (unlike your best work) you can have as much bleedin’ backstory as you want. This will add to your word count, will help you flesh out those characters, explain what happens in chapter 47 and help you understand where the story is going. Trust me.

Step Eleven: Stuck again? Put something unexpected in their path! A car wreck. A flood. A tornado. Have your duo fight it out and regroup and get back to the task at hand. (That could kill a couple of thousand words right there!)

Step Twelve: Take a break and think about your ending. What do you want to happen? Do you want them to meet their objective or not? Brainstorm for 10-20 things that need to happen before your duo gets to the end. This is your very loose outline. From now on, as you get stuck, refer to this. Put Laverne and Shirley in these situations or scenes and then get them out.

Step Thirteen: When you get about 10K from the end, try to wrap it up. Get your main characters in positions where they can see the light at the end of the tunnel. If you’re having trouble, make a coincidence work out for them. Have a high school buddy show up with a solution. Don’t even worry about the logic of it. The important thing is that YOU ARE 10K FROM THE END! You need to fill that space up with something. Sometimes all we need to see what happens next is to put our fingers on the keyboard and plow through. You might be surprised what you figure out for your characters.

How do I do Nanowrimo?
I hope to God that was Carmine under all that gauze and not Squiggy!

Step Fourteen: When you hit 50K, CELEBRATE!  You deserve that badge! You deserve a pat on the back And don’t worry about  the story.

Put it aside for a minimum of three months.

Step Fifteen: When three months have passed, get the story out and go on a search and rescue mission. You are now digging through the haystack looking for the needle. You are digging through the stable full of ca-ca, looking for the pony. You are mining for diamonds in the cave. DO NOT PUBLISH THIS! I repeat! DO NOT PUBLISH THIS! If you have any kind of sense, you will take that 50K words and see if there’s something salvageable, like an exchange of dialog, a good description, a well drawn character or a little bit of a plot line. This is your good stuff. SAVE IT.

Step Sixteen:  Question my method completely. “What’s the point of writing like a mad man for a month if all we’re getting out of it is a little bit here and there.” I’ll tell you. You are learning discipline. You are learning to think fast. You are learning to appreciate the struggle. You are learning basic storytelling elements. You are learning what doesn’t work. You are learning what is good and what is drivel. You are learning to write the hard way. NANOWRIMO is, I believe, the Mr. Miyagi method to all you aspiring Karate Kids out there.

Nanowrimo is not HOW to write a novel. It is however, a way to build muscle and skills. To stretch your story-telling abilities. To gain perspective and insight. It’s good for you. And your car will look nicer too.

So, veteran Nano-ers? What do you think? How has past Nanos worked for you?

First-time Nano-ers, are you up for it?  What will be the most challenging part of the next thirty days?


Katharine Grubb is an author, poet, homeschooling mother, camping enthusiast, bread-baker, and believer in working in small increments of time. She leads 10 Minute Novelists, an international Facebook group of time-crunched writers. She lives with her family in Massachusetts.


  • Sarah

    I highly recommend NaNo and don’t take it at all personally that, hypothetically, Katharine has, hypothetically, read my first NaNo fodder and then says about the “finished” product, ” DO NOT PUBLISH THIS! I repeat! DO NOT PUBLISH THIS!”. But, I digress, hypothetically. Your first NaNo will be like no other. You’ll be thrilled and petrified and feel exhilarated and fried all in one 30-day-span. But, that’s the beauty. It is a wonderful experience that will leave you realizing you, too, can write a book roughly the length (note I say length, people, not quality) of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. How cool is that?! Totally tubular, Dude!

  • Paula

    Congratulations. This is the first time #NaNoWriMo has looked even remotely attractive to me. I’m still not gonna do it – I have plenty of ways to flex my muscles and develop discipline at the moment, and novel writing isn’t a primary goal – but I’m going to send this on to both my kids who have participated in past. It’s a much more reasonable approach than I’ve ever heard articulated.