How to write a novel during NaNoWriMo

Had a book idea that’s been waiting patiently at the back of your mind for the right moment? Get started during NaNoWriMo this November

Kezia Newson
Illustration of someone writing on their laptop with long reel of paper coming out like a printer
Illustration: Alexandra Francis for Penguin

According to a study, 30% of Brits have an idea for a book, but struggle getting past 700 words.

Enter National Novel Writing Month (affectionately known as NaNoWriMo), an annual writing challenge where participants spend the month of November attempting to write a 50,000-word novel. Some participants will be aiming to reach this word count, others may want to use NaNoWriMo as inspiration to build better writing habits. Ultimately, the challenge isn’t about creating a polished book, but to start working on your novel.

So where to begin? We've compiled our top tips from writers and editors to help you on your way...

Gather some inspiration

Even if you’ve had a book idea for years, it can be hard to know how to actually start writing it. A good place to start might be gathering some inspiration for yourself before your pen hits paper.

If you’re writing fiction, why not create a mood board for yourself? This could include what clothes you think your characters would wear, what food they’d like to eat, or something more conceptual about the tone of the book – if it had a colour palette, what would it look like? Similarly, a lot of authors like to create playlists to assist their writing experience. It can transport you into the world of your book, whether it's the time period, mood, country or setting.

Dialogue can be particularly tricky to write in a way that sounds natural. To gather some inspiration, try listening to how people talk in real life – notice the rhythm and how people ask questions. Why not sit in a coffee shop and create characters from conversations you’ve overheard? Think about the tone of their voice, the way they might walk and their mannerisms. What are their relationships like, what are their hobbies? Even if they don’t make it into your novel, it’s great practice for creating believable characters.

Nail your structure

A blank page can be an overwhelming place to start for any author, but getting stuff down in a rough draft is a brilliant place to start. Children's author Abie Longstaff had some great advice on mapping out your structure at a WriteNow workshop:

“I get a huge piece of paper and draw between 0-100%. Then I mark out the timeline of the book – when characters are introduced, where the peaks are in the storyline, what happens when. When you look at it all mapped out, it gives you great perspective for where the book slows down. Often the original draft sags in the middle – you don’t want everything to be happening right at the end.”

This can be a useful exercise throughout the entirety of writing your novel. Why not start your writing process by mapping out the initial idea to see what the pace of the book is like? This exercise will quickly identify where you can move sections, as well as give you easier milestones to work towards.

Discover how you work best

Writing a book can be an intense, solitary task, and it’s easy to put too much pressure on yourself and the dreaded word count.

Give yourself some generous time to research, and then create healthy milestones that fit around your calendar outside of being an aspiring author. Remember to take breaks and don’t be tempted to overwork – giving yourself some space from your book can actually generate some fresher ideas and help you read your draft from a new perspective.

Remember that you’re not alone in your writing journey. There are many others dealing with writing block, rejection, or fitting it in around work or childcare. Connecting with other aspiring authors can help with advice and feedback, and also give you the chance to meet a new group of people with the same aspirations as you!

There are writing groups that take place in person, on discord servers or in conversations happening daily on social media – just take a look at the #amwriting or #NaNoWriMo hashtag as a place to start.

Illustration of someone meditating whilst balancing books on their head and hands

Getting published

Writing and your mental health

Don’t worry about creating perfection

Even if you’re using NaNoWriMo to finesse your novel, if you’re intending to publish it, it will go through both an agent and an editor during the publishing process too. Publishing a book is about collaboration with a whole team, so what you’ll send to an agent won’t necessarily be the finished product.

If you don’t have a title, or if it’s a work in progress, that’s fine. A great title can immediately capture the attention, but equally if the story and writing is amazing, the title doesn’t matter at this stage. The only thing you should have nailed is what the book is about.   

Have faith in your voice

Committing to writing a book is an amazing feat – congratulations! We’re always looking for new voices at Penguin, so make sure your own, distinctive voice comes through in your writing. Publisher Katy Loftus has previously touched on this:

“We often talk about ‘voice’ in publishing, and by that we mean the way in which an author’s own style of writing evokes a particular character or feeling. This is at the heart of the personality of the book, and it’s what takes it from being a load of words strung together to something that's enjoyable to read. For some of the best writers, it’s the reason people read them time and time again.”    

Now you’re equipped with how to begin your book, we can’t wait to see what you write. Who knows, we may be featuring it on Penguin.co.uk in the future…

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