How to Survive NaNoWriMo and Find the Right Critique Group


[Summary of CWC-Marin Presentation — October 26, 2015]

How to Survive NaNoWriMo

Last Sunday’s “Calling All Writers” event at Book Passage provided two useful tools for writers, established and novice alike. The first hour focused on “How to Survive NaNoWriMo” —  that’s National Novel Writing Month, which starts November 1 and challenges participants to write 50,000 words by 11:59 PM on November 30. The second hour covered how to turn those words into gold with the help of a critique group.


Think of NaNoWriMo as AA for writers, suggested the workshop leader, CWC-Marin board member Kasey Arnold-Ince — it provides daily support, accountability, a specific commitment of  30 days. Each day in November, after their writing stint, participants upload their working document to the website, which tallies the word count, and records it on their profile. There are also online forums and AA meetings — sorry, write-ins, in locations across the globe. (Even a few in Marin.) Though NaNoWriMo was created for novels, crafty non-fiction writers can also get in on the act by using the online website and app to develop their non-fiction. The algorithm that counts your words doesn’t care if it’s counting fiction or nonfiction.

NaNoWriMo is not a critique tool and no one will actually read or critique your work unless you choose to share some of it by adjusting the settings in your profile.

NaNoWriMo has led to success for writers — Water for Elephants and The Night Circus were both started at NaNoWriMo.

Here are some tips that Kasey shared:

  • Get an early jump start — prepare your outline and organize your source materials before November 1, so you have a map to follow once the clock starts ticking.
  • Try frontloading the month by doing more writing early, so when the hectic Thanksgiving week comes, you can adjust your pace accordingly.
  • Take care of yourself — make time for sleep, breaks, stretches, and exercise.  

Nonfiction is typically two to three times faster to write than fiction, because you don’t necessarily have the plot issues, character development snafus that plague the fiction writer.  Nonfiction writers are often expert in their field and can draw on their experience.

Kasey compared NaNoWriMo to a writing experience in high school where her English teacher gave students the apparently Herculean task of writing a hundred poems in a month, and regularly checked on her students’ progress. While the poems in the first week weren’t so great, she recalled, they served the purpose of “purging” sentimental, clichéd, and overly emotional poems, creating breathing space for better poems to be written in the later weeks.

Build Your Own Writing Group by Victoria Hudson

Victoria Hudson, author of No Red Pen — Writers, Writing Groups & Critique, led the second hour discussing how to create a successful writing group. Here are some her tips:

  • Watch the tone of the group — keep it positive, not snarky
  • No competitiveness
  • Have an agreed-upon structure and rules, including details like whether to use to the comments/review function in Microsoft Word.
  • Group should be no larger than 4-5 people
  • Give each person 20 minutes to receive and respond to feedback.
  • Agree on the word count maximum for each submission as opposed to the number of pages, which can vary depending on how you format.  
  • Ideally submit work to each other about one week ahead of time, so time during the meeting is not wasted on reading.
  • Mary Webb, a well known writer and instructor has a 3-stage method:
    • Repeat the best “nuggets’ the writer has come up with – hearing them repeated will help the writer develop their voice
    • Author is silent for a period while feedback is given
    • Author then asks questions about the work and feedback to find out what didn’t work 
  • Avoid the following words and terminology:
    • “-isms” – e.g. sexism, fascism
    • “trite”
    • “stereotypical”
    • “I didn’t like it”
    • “I loved it” 
  • Keep advice specific — rather than criticize something as sexist, you might explain that you feel that a female character who is an uneducated housewife with no ambitions beyond pleasing her husband does not reflect the experience of the vast majority of contemporary women. 
  • Advice about comments:
    • Give the good stuff first
    • Be specific – e.g. say “this is how I felt when X happened to the character.”
    • Don’t ask if the content is true.
    • Be encouraging.
  • How to deal with conflict within the group:
    • Have a comprehensive set of rules in place so people know what to expect, like how many warnings about rule violations will be given before someone is asked to leave the group 
  • What should be critiqued?
    • Focus on literary elements such as tone, theme, character development, transitions, verb tense agreements.
    • Don’t devote too much time to typos, spelling and minor grammar errors. Focus on the story.
    • Last but not least, use a green or blue pen – not red!
    • How do I deal with fear of rejection and criticism from other group members
    • Remember that fear is your friend, telling you to pay attention.
  • How do I find a writers group?
    • Check out local libraries — Mill Valley Library has a drop-in salon
    • Attend local writers’ events such as those hosted at Book Passages in Corte Madera
    • Find a meetup group