Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

12.44: NaNoWriMo 2017 Primer

Your Hosts: Brandon, Mary, Dan, and Howard

We’re going to share some of our experiences with NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) in an effort to encourage you to participate in ways that will advance you toward your goals.

Note: After a week, this is the only photo we’ve found of Wounded Howard. Dan took it, and Howard was clearly putting on “angry face” for show.  Also, he doesn’t look nearly as pale as any of us remember him looking.

Credits: this episode was recorded in Cosmere House Studios by Dan Dan the Audioman Thompson, and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Do NaNoWrimo in a way that matches your personal goals.

Thing of the week: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern.

Powered by RedCircle


As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: Nanowrimo is a community of people who are all pushing for a goal, giving you a sense of participation, community, and commiseration. It can also push you to up your game, seeing other people turn out words. Look for tools, for word sprints, or roleplaying games with monster writing challenges. Motivators! Nanowrimo can help you learn to be a professional writer, to set goals and get the job done. It teaches you to get the words out. “You can’t find those awesome words without writing the crappy ones.” You can also do Nanowrimo just for the fun off it. Writing quickly and writing well are two different skills, and Nanowrimo can help you practice and learn to write fast. Nanowrimo is a tool to help you be a better writer. It’s one way to learn that you can write 50,000 words in a month. 

[Mary] Season 12, Episode 44.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, NaNoWriMo 2017 Primer.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m Howard.

[Brandon] We realized that this episode’s going to air right before November starts.
[Dan] Whoohoo!
[Brandon] And… We… It’s been a little while since we did a true Nanowrimo primer. Most of us here are very experienced, having done Nanowrimo a bunch. I’m smiling at Howard, who is smiling back.
[Howard] I’m very experienced in…
[Dan] Smiling through pain.
[Howard] Never having actually done it.
[Brandon] But you do have valuable experience for this episode. I’m going to start us off with my story of Nanowrimo, which is somewhat hilarious because back in the late 90s, it was like 90… No, it would’ve been 2000. Right around 2000, 2001. Nanowrimo swept our little writing community. We were at Leading-Edge Magazine, then, working on it, being the editors, and this whole concept had… It just started a couple years before and it hit us. Everyone was doing it. We actually set up an online spreadsheet…
[Dan] I remember that.
[Brandon] That everyone posted their numbers every week.
[Brandon] In order to encourage each other to keep going along. I was writing Way of Kings. So this would have been the 2002 one. Because we did it a couple of years. I remember sitting and writing Way of Kings. It was middle of the month, and I was like at 78,000 words or something. I would go on and add just as much as I was supposed to be adding so as to not intimidate everyone else with my writing speed…
[Brandon] It’s the first time I can remember trying to hold back on bragging…
[Brandon] About this… The epic length of my work, which… I have generally given up on that, trying to not brag, but… I can remember trying to hold back and being like, “Well, I don’t want Eric, our mutual friend, to feel embarrassed because he’s having almost meeting it and he’s winning right now by adding 30,000 words today, so…”
[Dan] Yes. I remember that spreadsheet.
[Howard] It’s good that you weren’t a jerk.
[Brandon] No, it’s good that I was a little less of a jerk than I could have been.
[Howard] Well, okay, there’s that.

[Mary] But one of the things that is fun about Nanowrimo, and it’s why a lot of people do it, is that having a community who’s all pushing for a goal, it gives you a sense of participation and community and commiseration. And can also be like, “Wait. If they’re doing that many words, I can try to up my game a little bit more.” So let me actually… Can I toss out some tools that I use?
[Dan] Absolutely.
[Mary] I have two kind of favorite websites for writing… For things that help me get writing done. One is called It’s great. It’s word sprints. You can set up a group. You can’t see what anyone else is writing. All you see is, as you are going, you and whoever are writing, real-time, you can see their numbers changing. There is a little…
[Dan] Oh, that’s cool.
[Mary] It’s great. So you can say, “Okay, let’s do a word sprint.” It’s actually built so you write for 25 minutes and then it stops counting your words. So you’re supposed to take a five minute break. So it’s the Pomadora method. It’s a lot of fun.
[Brandon] And you can race. You can actually race. Wow.
[Mary] And what also happens is you’re like, “I don’t wanna do… I’m not going to delete words. I’m going to just keep going, because then my numbers go down.” So it’s very motivating. The other one that I have recently found and am completely in love with is a site called That’s the number four. It is a role-playing game in which the mechanic for defeating the monsters is the number of words you write and the amount of time you write them in. You can go after different monsters, like some monsters, they’re really big bosses, it’s like, “All right, I’m going to have to write 11,000 words in the next five hours.” Which I’m like, “Okay, I can…”
[Brandon] Yeah, yeah, yeah.
[Dan] 11,000 words in five hours?
[Mary] Gotcha. But some of them are, it’s like, “You have to write 11,000 words in the next… Hour.” You’re like, “Ooo.” You can… You have an avatar, and you can get… There’s quests that you can go on. It’s a lot of fun.
[Brandon] That’s hilarious.
[Mary] It is stupidly fun and ridiculously motivating. There was a day that I wrote 7000 words because I was like, “I am going to beat this thing.”
[Brandon] I am so happy there are people out there that do things like this.
[Mary] It’s a Brazilian team that’s put it together. I’m in love with them. I have written them fan mail.
[Dan] That’s so cool.

[Brandon] Do we need to mention what Nanowrimo is?
[Mary] Oh, we probably should.
[Dan] Oh, I guess. Okay. So, Nanowrimo…
[Howard] It’s that thing that Mork used to say…
[Dan] It stands for National Novel Writing Month. Na. No. Wri. Mo. The idea behind it is that you write an entire novel, as defined by 50,000 words, within the month of November. Start to finish. Done. It’s something that we’ve all done… Most of us have done it.
[Dan] In our early careers. For me, at least, it was absolutely key in teaching me how to be a professional writer. To set a goal for myself and to power through and to turn off the inner editor. So that I can get the job done, and then go back and revise it later instead of just constantly noodling around on one sentence and never accomplishing anything.
[Brandon] Now, this sounds mercenary and even hack-like to people sometimes. Let me say, for Nanowrimo, it is a little bit sometimes. Where you are pushing for word counts rather than the quality of those words. But, the thing you have to understand is, doing some heavy lifting like that increases your skills across-the-board. Beyond that, something that struck me as I’ve become a professional writer, and I started to see quotes by classic professional writers, people like Steinbeck and whatnot, that you’re like, “Wow, we studied these people in school.” If you go read their advice on writing, none of them talk like the occasional new professor I had teaching a 200 level class like, “You must feel the art.” Nobody talks like that. None of the pros. They say, “You get the words on the page,” and it doesn’t matter who you’re talking about, how beautiful their writing was, they all kind of reinforce this idea that you need to be able to put words on the page so you have something to work with then and a way to get better.
[Howard] The best words you will ever write, listener, are hiding behind crappy words you haven’t written yet. You gotta get those out of the way.
[Brandon] Sometimes the best words you will write will be revising the crappy words.
[Howard] Sometimes they will be hidden in and among those crappy words.
[Howard] But, as many, many a failed writer has discovered, you can’t find those awesome words without writing the crappy ones.

[Mary] One thing that I want to say based on… We were talking a lot about professional writers and how this will train you to be a professional writer. I just want to remind people that you can do Nanowrimo just for the fun of it. Lots of people do, with no intention of ever publishing the thing. It’s… This is not something that… You don’t have to feel like you’re aiming for publication.
[Brandon] I’ve shared my basketball metaphor before, right?
[Dan] Yeah. But it’s a good one that I use all the time…
[Mary] It’s worth repeating.
[Dan] So say it again.
[Brandon] The idea that… I think that writing is naturally just good for you. Just like sometimes, friends of mine will go play basketball every Wednesday night. They have no aspirations of ever being in the NBA. They don’t need to. They have a satisfying life. They’re not a tortured lost basketball player who missed their chance at true happiness. Like, no. Basketball’s good for them. They go out, they exercise, they spend some time with friends. Writing can be the same thing for you. We talk a lot about being a pro because that’s been our life experience. But the truth is, if you just want to sit down and write a book… A story once a week, work on a story because it’s good for you, we love that. We encourage that. Nanowrimo is a time, a chance to try something different. Try to write every day, to see what that does to you.
[Mary] This is like people who train for marathons. They have no intention of becoming a professional runner. They just want to run a marathon. Which I think is crazy.
[Brandon] Yeah. I’ll agree with you. My wife does it. It’s insane.
[Mary] And I realize… I’m just going to flag that we’ve used ableist language there and I want to apologize. I’m working to train that out. But it’s still… That’s… I don’t know… Why would anyone… I don’t understand it.

[Dan] So. One thing I want you to remember, dear listener, is that writing quickly and writing well are two different skills. That’s one of the things that Nanowrimo taught me was… I feel like I already knew how to write pretty words. I’ve gotten better over time, but that was a skill I had. I didn’t know how to write those pretty words fast until Nanowrimo. So this focus on word count over quality is valuable.

[Brandon] Let’s stop for the book of the week, which is Night Circus.
[Mary] Right. So the Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern was a Nanowrimo novel. It is fantastic. This is one of the ones that I highly recommend you pick up the audiobook for. It’s a beautifully narrated book. The book itself is gorgeous, but the audiobook narration just takes all of that gorgeous, lush prose and the world building… It’s about this circus that only shows up at night. You think, oh, that’s interesting. Except there’s this other thing going on in addition to the circus. There are two magicians that are fighting this decades-long battle of the wills. Using the circus as their battlefield. It is an amazing book. It’s just fantastic. And written during Nanowrimo.

[Brandon] Excellent. Now, to offer a contrasting opinion on all of this, let’s ask Howard why he has never done Nanowrimo before.
[Howard] It’s not for lack of wanting to do it. I love the idea of sitting down and shooting for a word count goal during a month, while everybody else is doing the same thing. The problem that I have run into is, and it’s a weird sort of… And I don’t want to sound like I’m boasting here. I don’t have spec novels in my trunk. I’ve been paid for almost all of the less than 250,000 words that I’ve written. I’ve drawn a lot of pictures and I’ve written a lot of dialogue in comics, but in terms of prose, I don’t have very much and I’ve been paid for all of it. When I sit down to write, when November rolls around, what I immediately discover is well, I could write this, or I could write this thing that I’m currently being paid for where the pace is a little different. And, I think I’ll just… I get to write and draw for a living anyway. So I’ll spend my time doing that. I always feel a bit guilty, because here on Writing Excuses, we talk about how important it is to write something. To… You’re out of excuses, now go write. Get these words out. I just said, “You’ve got great words hiding behind the crappy ones. Go write those.” Why am I not following my own advice? That’s an excellent question. At some point, I will have structured my life so that I can enjoy the luxury of devoting two or three hours a day of writing time during the month of November to getting this done, but let me tell you this. I know that with two or three hours a month… Or two or three hours a day, every day during November, I can kill a 50,000 word count. I already know my writing speed. I know I can do that. I just haven’t built the schedule yet…
[Brandon] I don’t think you should feel guilty. Because one thing I wanted to emphasize is Nanowrimo is a tool to help you be a better writer. Everything on Writing Excuses we mention are tools to try, and discard potentially if it doesn’t work for you. I often say I’ve never officially won Nanowrimo. This is because November has never hit yet, in the 15 years we’ve been doing this, where I was starting a new project. I think the spirit of Nanowrimo is to sit down with something that you have outlined but not written a word on, and just write 50,000 words. I have always been in the middle of a project. I said, “Well, for moral support of my friends who are doing this, I’m going to post my word counts as I write this month anyway.” But many times recently, it’s been I’m in revisions. I can’t stop these revisions or a book will get delayed a month.
[Dan] I’m in the same boat. I did Nano three or four times. Won it most of those times, and haven’t since. I haven’t done it since I’ve been published because of that reason. It never lines up with what I’m working on at the time.
[Mary] So, I’ve actually managed to structure my writing career so that I can start the book in November, and then I have to turn it in in April, and it’s been fine.
[Howard] That’s what [garbled moralized writing?] Looks like.
[Dan] [inaudible some of us can]
[Brandon] Yeah, I know.
[Mary] No. It’s just lucky. But I just wanted to point out that there is an unofficial clause that everyone… A lot of people use. It’s called the Zacuto clause. That clause is… It allows veteran writers… Someone who… If you have already finished a work, you can continue a work in progress during Nanowrimo. The reason that this clause exists, and the reason that a lot of people refer to it, is that… One of the goals with Nanowrimo is to demonstrate to you that you have it in you to write 50,000 words in a month. If you already know that, if you already know you can complete a novel, then this is just…
[Brandon] Right. Right. Giving moral support to others is great. But not at the expense of your writing… Your current project.
[Howard] There’s a… In 2017, I started to teach a family history class in my church Sunday school congregation. One of the things we talked about his writing your family histories. I talked to them about crafting stories. And about, well, what makes a story? How do you make the story of your life exciting? We started talking about word counts. These were people who were not writers. I said, “Guys. If you can write 30 words a minute in story telling mode, after 60 minutes, you will have written…” How many is that? 1800?
[I don’t know]
[Mary] [garbled]
[Dan] 9 million.
[Howard] You will have written 9000 million words novels in an hour, and they will all be about you. The point is in talking with these people, who are not writers, I watched the lights come on. It was like, “Oh, my gosh, that’s…” A lot of people have never written that much since college. They looked at the 15 page term paper as a thing to be dreaded. I look at it now and think, “Oh, 15 pages. Do you want that singlespaced or doublespaced? Manuscript format? What’s the word count here?” I know how to turn out words like that. I’m excited to see what they come up with.

[Brandon] Now, if you want a writing prompt…
[Mary] Hehehehehe…
[Brandon] I’ve got to say, I’m sitting here staring at Howard across the table from me.
[Dan] Who is a vision.
[Brandon] Howard has a blanket around his shoulders, because he was just a little bit cold. He cut the front of his finger off earlier. So he’s got a bandage on his finger, and a bloody cloth in front of him. He is wearing a headband because the way we do Writing Excuses is we stick a little microphone onto our forehead and then put a headband around it. His actually has sequins on it. Blue sequins.
[Howard] I’m wearing a blanket, a bloody bandage, a sequined headband, and there is a microphone hanging over… Essentially my third eye.
[Brandon] Right. And he’s hunched in front of the table. He looks like a prizefighter mixed with like someone who’s going to announce…
[Dan] Like the old herbalist…
[Mary] [garbled Breaking Bad?]
[Brandon] I mean… Interesting.
[Mary] Not that you… Sorry.
[No problem]
[Dan] So take everything that he is wearing and build a magic system out of it.
[Brandon] And he’s got a monster energy drink next to him. It’s just a perfect image.
[Mary] That’s true. It is a monster energy drink.
[Brandon] Bloody cloth, and some chocolate. That image… That image has to go in a story somewhere.
[Dan] There you go. 50,000 words in one month.
[Howard] In the interest of liner notes, you want to grab your camera phone and take a picture of this, and I’ll just put it in?
[Mary] I was going to do that after we finish recording.
[Brandon] We will take a picture and put it in.
[Howard] We’ll do that. We don’t need to do it while we’re recording.

[Brandon] We’re out of time. With that… On that wonderful note, you guys… Your homework is to find a way to use Nanowrimo to your advantage. Set some goals this month. Some writing goals. It doesn’t actually have to be the 50,000 words. It can be whatever is going to fit your schedule. But I want you to push yourself. And I want you…
[Howard] Use this month to make words that you would not have made otherwise.
[Brandon] That’s right. That, simply, is your homework. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.