A Slow Writer’s Scheme to Win #NaNoWriMo

I’ve just signed up for NaNoWriMo for the first time EVER. Here’s proof:

HeatherJacksonWrites NaNo Profile

As a hardcore plotter, I’ve never felt ready to participate. I can’t even fathom writing 50,000 words of prose without a solid outline. Plus, I’m not a fast writer. My inner editor and I are a team, not enemies, and I like it that way. She (my inner editor) gives damn good advice and prevents my story from going off the rails. I appreciate that.

I know, I’ve just confessed to doing the two big no-no’s of NaNo: 1) write slowly, and 2) listen to your inner editor. I bet you’re thinking I will totally fail this challenge!

Not so fast. I have a plan. I said so in the title. Let me tell you what it is and then you can determine if I stand a chance…

NaNo Slow Writer Scheme

Since I’m a plotter, I’ve already written multiple beat sheets and step outlines and character sketches, and have revised these documents extensively so that the story now resembles something that doesn’t completely suck. To most people, I seem ready to write this novel and write it fast! But as soon as I say the words “write novel,” my inner editor shows up, red pen in hand, eager to get to work. Common advice is to ignore her, but I can’t. I really can’t! Any of you have this problem? I suspect you might.

So the first step in my scheme to win NaNoWriMo is this:

#1 – Do not classify NaNo project as a “novel”; call it an “extremely detailed outline.”

My plan is to go scene-by-scene paraphrasing everything that happens in the story, including set up and action and transitions and filler dialogue. When this detailed outline is done, it’ll be about 100 pages long. It’s like writing a novel in shorthand. I suspect that my detailed outline resembles many writers’ rough first drafts in detail and scope. Maybe they’re exactly the same! But the plotter in me needs to call this process an “outline” so my inner editor doesn’t freak the eff out and try to improve all the words. I know, it’s just semantics, but it works for me.

NaNo I can't write fast

However, this detailed outline might not quite be 50,000 words when I’m finished. It’ll probably be 40,000 or a less. So where am I going to make up that other 10,000?

We’ve arrived at the second step in my plan:

#2 – Slow down and write a few scenes.

Writing fast burns me out. I know this from experience. Plus, no doubt there will be days when I just can’t think of what happens next. I’ll get stuck on something, a minor plot point probably, and I’ll need to take a break. But breaks aren’t efficient! NaNo is a race! Keep writing. So I will. I’ll take one of those scenes I’ve paraphrased in my detailed outline and write it out in pretty prose with all the proper pacing and dialogue and grammar. My inner editor will help me. We’ll probably spend eight hours honing just 1000 words, but that’s okay, that’s how we write, and when it’s done we’ll be super proud of those words and happy to have that scene in a readable format.   

That’s it. Just two steps. Perhaps it’s not the way people think you are supposed to do NaNoWriMo, but who cares because *cue music* I’m gonna do it myyyy way!!!

Are any of you participating in NaNoWriMo? If so, how do you plan to win? Share in the comments. Oh, and my username is HeatherJacksonWrites if you want to add me as a NaNo buddy. 🙂


Author: Heather Jackson

Heather is a freelance screenwriter, game writer, and novelist based in Toronto. For more, visit her website at heatherjacksonwrites.com or follow her on Twitter @HeatherJacksonW

51 thoughts on “A Slow Writer’s Scheme to Win #NaNoWriMo”

  1. As a creativity coach and Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center, I get questions about NaNo that I struggle to answer fairly. I have philosophical reservations about NaNo because counting words prematurely can seriously block a writer — I know because I see it in some of the writers I work with. This is The Best approach to NaNo I’ve ever seen. I’ll be sending my students and clients interested in NaNo to your site.

    1. Thanks so much, Rosanne! I too have philosophical reservations about NaNo, which is why I decided to create an approach to the challenge that works for me. I hope this helps your students and clients!

  2. I know exactly what you mean about not being able to shut off your inner editor. I never feel right moving to the next sentence when she’s tapping on my shoulder questioning word choice in the last sentence, so unless I go correct it, I won’t be happy with anything I do from then on, which usually means I halt all together.

    Kudos for finding a system that works for you! I find I can’t purposely be, what I feel, is disjointed with my scenes and story. Unfortunately, your way doesn’t quite work for me, my brain doesn’t work well when the story gets all out of place in timeline while I’m writing, no idea why, but it makes me cringe when I try. However, I too am trying to find a way that my inner editor and I can work together on this, and I’m hoping the extensive planning and marinating of this idea will be the ticket to finish. Best of luck!!

    1. I understand – I’m a chronological writer as well. When I’m writing prose, I can’t move onto the next scene until the previous scene is right. Even with my outline, I am sure I will be going back and rewriting things as the story changes. The challenge will be to continue forging ahead even with the rewriting. It’ll be hard and I’m not sure if it will work, but I’m going to give it my all! Thanks for the comment, and best of luck to you too!

  3. Good luck with NaNo. I like your approach (perhaps I will adopt it for next year) and it’s good to know I’m not the only slow writer. Keep in mind Alice Hoffman’s quote “No one knows how to write a novel until it’s been written.”

    1. Thanks for the comment, Lynne! You’re definitely not the only slow writer. I think speed is something that is so valued amongst writers today that if you’re slow, you don’t want to admit it. I certainly didn’t! But at some point, well, we’ve got to own it. 🙂

  4. Typically, I’m a panster. I’ve always been before NaNo even. I rarely plot if not just a few jotted ideas and just let my brain take it where ever. Then after, while going through for edits and such, I’ll write the plot down to make sure everything’s consistent. This year, I’m trying something foreign to me, which is I’m actually plotting. I’ve got most of it worked out for me and I’m hoping to get it done before November and we’ll see if it helps with my slow ass writing. I’ll find you on NaNo!

    1. I think having a plot outlined will definitely help you write faster. I know how much slower I was before I started plotting – yes, even slower than I am now! As we learn and figure out our process, we can pick up the pace. Thanks for finding me on NaNo (I added you back). Happy writing!

  5. Good plan. I still like to call it a draft “first crappy draft” it gives me the feeling that at least something is accomplished. But after 2 wins at Nano, I can say one thing. I hate editing afterwards because it is not editing it is redoing the story. I start with a one page outline to give me the flow of the story and then I just write. Depending on the story you may get stocked or you need research or…well, when doing Nano you don’t have time for it. I think the idea with pinpointing scenes is very good then you just develop them. Plan your writing through the day. Unless you have a clear long scene in mind, write in chunks – 500 morning, 500 noon, 500 evening. It gives you time in between to clarify the scenes. I’m pretty sure you are going to make it. You seem very organized.

    I may not finish Nano this year due to different other reasons, but I would still like to take the challenge. Who knows? A clean detailed outline may come to life 😉

    1. Ooo, great tip – writing in chunks. I tend to procrastinate when I have a long time to do something, so setting tiny deadlines within short time frames sounds like the perfect approach. Thanks so much for the tip and comment! And good luck with NaNoWriMo.

  6. I totally agree with this theory! I do the same thing, but never considered it an involved outline–but it truly is! My finished Draft 1 is basically 2/3 of my Final Draft word count, and EVERY SINGLE WORD gets changed, characters change, plot points change. I read in Elizabeth George’s Write Away that she does the same thing. So, hey, we’re in good company. ;o)


  7. I am a total pantser. Won Nano the last two years starting without a clue what I was going to write. I love writing this way. I would rather do a rough outline after to see what needs work than before, so Nano works for me. Having said that, I have had a long learning curve on the editing side, and I have spent two years learning how to edit. First novels are definitely a slow go.

  8. Step one is all you need! I did Nano in 2013 and once I realised that there was simply no time to edit, I just let go and allowed myself to write. That makes it sound easy – it isn’t, but it really opened my eyes to a new way of writing. Just get the story down and worry about whether it’s any good or not later! Best of luck – I’m taking part this year too (I’ve obviously forgotten how hard it was first time around!) Knowing you’re not alone does kind of help though 😉

    1. Yes, knowing you’re not alone does help. And I think NaNo is a challenge I need to force myself not to overthink the story too much. Thanks for the comment, Evie, and good luck with NaNo!

  9. My friend has convinced me to give NaNo yet another try, but like you, my inner editor can be quite loud … and overbearing. She tends to slow me down, which kind of defeats the purpose of NaNo but she refuses to be quieted. The other worry I have is that I am not a plotter at all. I have tried plotting and then when I write something else comes along and all of my early work is tossed aside for something that I like better in the moment. I wouldn’t even know where to start to do a detailed, in-depth outline like you mention above. I fear that this NaNo year may be another losing one for me, but I hope it at least gets me on my way to something that could be good later on.

    1. Even with an outline, the story can change quite a lot. But it sounds like sticking to one story might be your issue. Regardless, writing is a life-long journey, so don’t worry about figuring it all out this year. Give NaNo a go, have fun, and like you said, it will lead to something better later on!

  10. Terrific post Heather. I like to call the 1st draft outline a story scaffolding. When I let myself get lazy my writing gets very telly, meaning that my words aren’t very efficient, but I get patches of “this happens, then that happens” which I can go back and fill in the details for later on. When I was writing CORP the whole novel ended up kind of like that. After filling in the details my 50,000 word scaffolding turned into an 80,000 word novel very easily.

    I think it’s a great idea and look forward to your daily updates as November progresses.

  11. Heather, thanks for the post. I’m still deciding whether or not to do NaNoWriMo, because, like you, I’m a slow writer. I’m considering the same preparations as you are doing, at least some of them, so you’re inviting me to think maybe I can do it. I have a beginning written and I’ll try to do an ending before the first of the month. And there’s a short story to give me structure for most of the last half. Now to the outline for the first half to two thirds. Maybe I can do it . . .

  12. Hey, there is not a “supposed” way to do anything when it comes to writing. All of us are so different we have to figure what works and what doesn’t. Don’t let anyone judge you for who you are, writer or otherwise.

    Your plan is so damn brilliant, love it. You work on a detailed-detailed outline and then start filling gaps to cover the last few words remaining. I’ll be cheering all the way, you can do this Heather, I have faith in you. 😀

  13. Welcome to NaNoWriMo! Good luck!

    This sounds like it should work. The super detailed outline plan definitely sounds like a good idea. Hopefully your inner editor can stay away where needed~ Just make sure to take care of yourself. If you’re feeling burnout, take a break (I hear there are such things as productive breaks. I have not yet found my way to them).

    Added you as a buddy on the NaNo site. We can cheer each other on!

  14. This is the first year I’ve signed up for nano too. I always thought of myself as a plotter, but I must be more of a pantser as I still have no clear idea of what I’m going to do. I have had several stories within me for years so it’s time to take one and run with it. 🙂
    @dino0726 from 
    FictionZeal – Impartial, Straightforward Fiction Book Reviews

  15. Fantastic idea. Do it. Your way. Can’t wait to hear how it goes!

    (As a pantser, I’m especially interested to hear how it goes, because this might be a way for me to plot, er, pants a plot in the future! Although it might be a fun challenge for you to give your inner editor a boot now and then.)

    You might enjoy my reference to Mr. Sinatra doing it his way in my post on tips for NaNoWriMo:

    1. Ha! I am sure I will have a Frank Sinatra moment or fifty during this challenge. A lot of people think that when I begin writing nothing veers from the beat sheet or step outline, but that’s not the case. I veer every single draft! No matter what stage I’m at. That’s just the way it works. 🙂

      Thanks for the comment, Diane, and I’ll definitely let you know how it goes.

  16. Thank you so much for writing this post!

    I am about 15,000 words into my book right now and want to use NaNoWriMo to help me finish it up by December.

    But I am a slow writer and I always go back after I get my first thoughts down to add more.

    I am thinking that I might adopt your strategy. Thank you!

  17. Heather, this is almost exactly what my first drafts are and it works well for me. . (It’s a combination of detailed outline and really bad screenplay, which gets turned into a serial later.) Amusingly I used to call this stage outlining but now I call it a vomit draft because that terminology helps me feel like I have something “finished” to show for all the effort I put inAnd a NaNo project can really be anything, as long as it’s 50k.

    1. Hi, Rose! That’s funny that you’ve stopped calling them outlines and prefer the term “vomit draft.” But I get that that term makes it sound more finished, even if it’s not. I think mine are part detailed screenplay too, since I come from a screenwriting background. My first crack at conversation scenes is usually all dialogue, and I always have to go back and put in action and feelings and less corny lines. 😉

      1. That makes sense. I usually do dialogue and some basic description with a lot of summarizing the first pass through. Then I add feelings and motivations. Action and narrative are the last part I add.

  18. After last year’s Nano, I realized that I really liked the foundation I built for the story, but that it needed a LOT of work. This year I redid the outline with attention to the story’s conflicts and themes, further developed each character, their backstory, and their motive and purpose in the novel, and hammered out a better final climax. I’ve come to think of that first draft as a 50,000-word brainstorming session, since I never would have gotten all the ideas I’ve had since last November if I hadn’t written those 50,000 words first. I’ve long known the Nano motto that “first drafts suck,” but the thought of trying to edit that suck into something better has always overwhelmed me. Thinking of my first drafts as brainstorming actually makes me want to go back and rewrite them from scratch.

    Good luck with your extensive outline this November!

  19. That sounds like a fabulous idea, Heather. I could never go back to pantsing, which NaNo kind of requires. Unfortunately/fortunately I’m polishing a novel now, so I won’t have time to participate this year. Good luck!

  20. i was a pantser for the last years and it worked well for me until the last NaNo. That’s why i wanted to plan and outline something for this year. Looking at the date though, i guess i will be pantsing again. I like writing without knowing where the story goes. There are surprises everywhere, in characters, in setting, in small details… For winning i use things like the “write so many words if” thread, or wordsprints, or daily word-dares (one of my favourite characters was born through this). I write every possible disaster i can imagine my characters to suffer through, i write about blue ducks with a wooden leg, chasing demons with an old pan, and so on, just letting my imagination go wild 🙂
    I still don’t know what i’ll be writing in November, i will just start with an image and see where it goes from there. Next year though, i definitely will be planing. And outlining.

    1. Hi Marie! Those are some really interesting ideas for how to reach one’s word goals. It’s neat to hear how everyone has their own tricks. Good luck with NaNo this year, and with your outline for next year! 🙂

  21. Well, I’ve been a rebel for the past four years, I’ve been revising different part s of my WIP, but th elast time I did a stright NaNo I did just what you plan to do: a very detailed synopsis of my entire triilogy. Or at least this was the plan, because if the first novel was really a detailed synopsis (20k words long), the second started as the same but ended up like a very rough first draft (40k words).
    But it was ok. I won NaNo (yay!!) and I put down the basis for the work I’m still doing four years later.

    But then you know, NaNo give complte freedom to do what anyone wants, as long as they write 50k in the month of November. And I thnk that’s nice. The main part is the challege, writing those 50k words in one month, and it is the true big fun for me. Cheering up buddies, challening them, challenge yourself. It’s really motivating as long as you do it in a way that is agreeable to you. If you try to do it as other people tell you to, you’ll probably hate it.
    So I think you have worked out your method. I’ll see you on the finish line 😉

    This year I’ll rebell very hard. I’ll revise a novella and write many blog posts. Let’s see how it’ll go. The blog posts worry me, but I’ll do it 🙂

  22. Sounds like you have a creditable plan. Best wishes on your success. NaNo is not for me, but I can see how adapting your plan might work for me in future. And that’s the first time I’ve ever considered NaNo as a possible undertaking.

    1. Thanks, Sharon! I think individualizing the process is the only way to go. I held off joining NaNo for years because I didn’t think it was right for me. Heck, I still don’t know if it is! But I’ll find out this year. 😉

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