Top 10 Ways You Can Conquer Nanowrimo Like War & Peace

by Katharine Grubb, 10 Minute Novelist

We’re just a few days in to National Novel Writing Month and it can feel like you’ve decided to read a Russian novel.

Last spring, I read War and Peace for reasons that I can’t quite remember. I think I wanted to add to my literary experiences. I think that I had seen on too many lists that it was one of the greatest novels ever written. And I also think that somehow my 21st century American sensibilities would totally identify with the plight of rich, idle Russian aristocrats who kinda hate the French.

But, oh my, that book was 1300+ pages long. I was committed to finish and I had to push myself forward, even when I thought it was dull and impossible.

Nanowrimo can feel the same way. It can feel like an eternity to get out of the battlefield of the Russian countryside and back into the warm parlors of Bald Hills. It can feel like an eternity when you read page after page after page, and only get 2% more read than yesterday. Nanowrimo is putting one word after another, just like those poor, poor Russian soldiers put one foot in front of another defending themselves against Napoleon.

Oh, Napoleon! Leo Tolstoy really hates your guts! From Fine Art America Images

Like me, you’ve signed up for something bigger than you because you thought it was a good idea. You thought that you’d have the fortitude to endure the daily grind of 1667 words. You thought that the story that’s been rattling around in your brain for weeks/months/years would just flow out of your fingers.

Nope. It hasn’t, has it? This feels about as hopeless as a French army facing a Russian winter. I am probably not the ideal reader for War and Peace and you can read about why I think so here. 

I’m here to help you. With all the imaginary vodka I can muster, I want to give you top 20 ways to get going on your Nanowrimo project.

Top 10 Ways You Can Conquer Nanowrimo Like War and Peace

1. Put your character in an actual emergency. Food allergies, car accident, flash flood, explosive plumbing, gas leak — none of these are planned. You don’t have to plan yours too. And even if it looks rather deux et machina -ish, don’t worry about it. You can always go back and fix it later. In War and Peace, the big emergencies were that Pierre, the bastard son of the richest rich guy may inherit the estate against the wishes of nearly every noble in the countryside. Apparently, besides not having married parents, his big sin is that he’s dull. Put your character in direr straits than that, please.

2. What does your character have in his pocket, purse or glove compartment? Candy? A gun? Drugs? A crucifix? A hundred thousand dollars in cash? Microfilm? A flash drive? A recording? An epi-pen? A switchblade?  He remembers!  And it uses it, just as the right time to get past this little problem he’s facing. Or, better still, the antagonist finds it in his possession and uses it against him! In War and Peace, the many princesses would have a sewing needle. Yawn. Wait, no, I shouldn’t criticize that. What else would they have? An iphone?

3. Someone asks him to do something against his character and he must do it. For instance: the drug dealer has to rescue kids from a fire, the hooker with the heart of gold saves the First Lady, the victim of abuse stands up to the lady who cuts her off in the parking lot. Aha! This is where we can learn a lesson from the Russians. Pierre, against his better judgement, marries Helene for her looks.  This connection would ease the grudges that the rest of the nobility have against him. What kind of fix can you put your main character into?

4. The paranormal sneaks in. Okay, this might not work for everyone. But what if a unicorn appears in the kitchen and tells him what to do? What if the lawn gnome knows where the treasure is? What if there is a zombie coming across the backyard and the hostas aren’t doing their job of keeping him out? War and Peace has this too. It’s called The Masons. Get this, they require Pierre to think. 

5. Have your character take a break. Maybe if he sat down and ate something, slept and had a crazy dream, did his laundry and bumped into someone at the laundromat, maybe he would think of the solution to the problem, see a clue, meet a friend, fall in love . . . . oh the possibilities are endless! Now, with a title like War and Peace, you’d expect more than just parlor romances, wouldn’t you? Of course you would. Nearly every non-curmudgeon male character in the book goes to war to defend against those nasty French. These soldiers get their breaks in various ways: capture, disease, losing a leg. If Tolstoy can use this device, so can you.

6. What would Napoleon do? No really. Think about your favorite movies and steal, steal, steal! There are no new ideas. You are smart enough to disguise any dialogue, scene, or plot point from film. Write in down now and then tweak it later. Even while I was reading W&P, I was thinking, Hey! These bloody battle scenes remind me of Gone With The Wind!  Wartime saga in which families lose their fortunes and the women have to do anything, anything, to survive! Oh Tolstoy! I know nuthin’ about birthin’ no babies!

7. Go backstory. What has propelled the bad guy to do the bad things? What makes your protagonist want what he wants? Dig a little deeper, even for a thousand words or so and that may be enough to get you on your feet. Or, if you’re Tolstoy, and thank God you’re not, you could spend 100 pages or so contemplating the purpose of one man, his conscience, the theory of free will, and the wheels that turn history and how you can compare it to bees.

8. Cupid strikes! Nothing complicates life more than romance. What if there’s a secret love connection between a supporting character and the antagonist? What if another supporting character confesses a life long crush towards the main character? What if the romantic advances that have been in the story all along were just a ruse to advance the goals of the antagonist? And in Tolstoy’s frosty Russia, all it takes to fall in love with an heiress is sitting at her feet while she mourns her broken heart. That’s it. You might touch her hand! OH THE SCANDAL!

This is Alexander I, the emperor that could do no wrong! (At least according to Tolstoy!)

9. And if you really get stuck, ask Twitter. I love some of the ideas that my followers come up with. And then when I’m done (if I ever get done) I can remind them of their help and maybe gain a reader! Or compare your setting, characters and plot to bees. Tolstoy did it twice. Twice!

10. And then, hit the showers. No kidding. There’s something about hot water and physical touch that stimulates our brain. You may have a new idea for your story when you get out! And when you grab that towel, brush your teeth with running water and realize just how wonderful it is that you have neither lice, dysentery or gangrenous limbs, you may want to write about it.

Remember, the point of participating Nanowrimo is quantity, not quality.

This draft is supposed to be messy, kind of like War and Peace, but with less hype. Use these ideas to up your word count. You can clean it up, make it more plausible, omit the cliched scenes, and take out your rants about Napoleon later.

I got through War and Peace. I started April 1 and I finished April 25. I kept at it because I knew that at the end, I’d be glad I finished. You can finish Nanowrimo. And at the end of it, let me know. I’ve got a big bottle of vodka to celebrate with you.


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I am a fiction writing and time management coach. I help time crunched novelists strengthen their craft, manage their time and gain confidence so they can find readers for their stories.

Katharine Grubb is a homeschooling mother of five, a novelist, a baker of bread, a comedian wannabe, a former running coward and the author of Write A Novel In 10 Minutes A Day. Besides pursuing her own fiction and nonfiction writing dreams, she also leads 10 Minute Novelists on Facebook, an international group for time-crunched writers that focuses on tips, encouragement and community. 

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