jb… a weblog by Jonathan Buys

Winning NaNoWriMo

So, I won NaNoWrimo, and wrote a “novel”. Although, it’s not really a novel, more like a novella, and it’s not really written just yet, it’s 50,000 words that somewhat make up a complete story, but with more plot holes than you can shake a stick at. Couple that with the number of inconsistencies in the world building, flat characters, characters who’s names I forget half way through the writing, and two chapters that I decided I was going to throw away completely, and you’ve got what is colloquially known as a first draft.

Here’s how I did it.

Minimize Decisions

If you’ve read my old posts, you might have picked up that I was once a big fan of Vim and the command line. Those days have past. Vim can be fun, but it can also be one of the biggest time sinks I’ve ever encountered. Can you write long form in Vim? Sure, but it takes more self discipline than I have to not try to tweak the configuration just a little bit more.

Instead, I wrote my story using the excellent Ulysses editor, “a powerful tool made for writers.” In fact, I’m using it to write this right now.

Set Daily Goals

My favorite feature of Ulysses is the word count goal. To win NaNoWriMo you need to write at least fifty-thousand words in thirty days. So, divide fifty-thousand by thirty and you get one-thousand six-hundred sixty-seven words per day. I set up thirty “sheets” in Ulysses, and attached the daily word goal to each one. I labeled each sheet as a chapter, and wound up with three acts of ten chapters each.

When I sat down to write each day, I wrote until the Ulysses goal circle turned green and wrapped up the chapter. Being able to keep an eye on the daily goal, and knowing that if I met it the circle would turn green gave me a great sense of accomplishment throughout the month. I always knew how much I had to write, and that I was on track.

Enforce Focus

If left to my own devices I’m perfectly happy to check Twitter every ten to fifteen minutes. Or seconds, depending on the day. I knew that I was going to have to give up everything distracting and time wasting to focus completely on writing. To help I signed up with RescueTime. RescueTime tracks how you use your computer, and sends you an email with weekly reports on how you’ve spent your time. You can classify websites or apps as highly productive or time wasters, and you can use the “Get Focused…” feature to block time wasting sites for a specified period of time. I’d shoot for an hour at a time of enforced focus, and wound up getting a lot done.


Months before NaNoWriMo started, I started brainstorming in MindNode and outlining my plans in OmniOutliner. I used these two tools to explore the universe I was building, flesh out characters and motivations, define a (somewhat) cohesive plot, and plan out a chapter by chapter flow of what should be going on at a given point in the story.

It didn’t take long for the story to take on a life of it’s own and diverge from the outline I so meticulously wrote up, but knowing it was there was a huge mental safety net, I knew that no matter how far off course I got, if I needed to I could refer back to the outline and get the story back to where it needed to be.


More than one night I nearly didn’t meet my goal. I had nights where each and every word had to be pulled kicking and screaming out of my head and through my hands. I had nights where I was so tired that I literally fell asleep while typing, and had to go back and remove the gibberish on the screen. Then again, I had nights where the story almost wrote itself, where I was merely the conduit for the story to be told, and the goal was met in an hour or so. The important thing was that no matter what, I was writing. Every day.

Sit down and write, lose yourself in the story, get excited about action, and be thoughtful during introspective scenes. Most of all, just keep writing. Don’t edit, don’t worry and fuss over sentence structure, there will be plenty of time for that after November. Put your butt in the chair and write.