National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, is a great opportunity for writers to challenge themselves to write a 50,000-word novel in just one month. If you even have a small inkling of a story in your head, there's still time to prep (or at least, prep somewhat—I see you, pantsers!) before November begins.
Of course, the official goal of NaNoWriMo is to write at least 50,000 words, but if it's your first attempt or you haven't been successful in the past, setting your own word count goal can be helpful. At this point, you'll also need an idea of your genre and a theme (or two) of your novel.
I acknowledge not everyone is a plotter, but even most pantser's recognize the time and effort that can be saved by having a vague outline of a story in mind before writing begins. Sketching the novel's basic narrative arc (there are so many different narrative formats out there!) provides structure to your writing process but also leaves room for characters and situations in the novel to unfold organically. You might create your outline using paper and pencil, a Word doc, or software like Plottr.
Creating a cohesive character arc is just one aspect of storytelling. You also need characters with distinct personalities, backgrounds, goals, and motivations to interact with and in your created story and world. Some writers find writing character profiles to be a helpful part of the preparation and outlining process.
Depending on your genre or plot, some background research may be required to ensure your story is, for instance, historically accurate or portrays a particular culture, job/industry, or place appropriately.
If you're not in the habit of writing every day, you'll need to spend some time considering a writing schedule. Commit to writing at a specific time each day. In order to reach 50,000 words, NaNoWriMo writers will need to write approximately 1,666 words per day. Regardless of how much your going to to try to write, consider your daily word count target and schedule your writing sessions accordingly, taking into account any special events or regularly scheduled commitments that take potential writing time from your day. American writers should consider that the Thanksgiving holidays fall write at the end of NaNoWriMo. They may need to shift their schedule a bit to avoid potentially falling short in their word count due to the festivities.
Along with finding a time to write, you'll also need a location to write. The possibilities here are endless, but finding a space that is decently distraction-free will go a long way toward helping you reach your writing goals. Finally, make sure you have all of the tools you'll need. While handwriting a novel sounds like a romantic, lovely notion, it's not recommended simply because of the sheer amount of writing you'll be doing in a short amount of time. There's a lot more potential for fatigue if you're using pencil/pen and paper to write your novel. Not to mention, most word processors have a word count feature that will make tracking your progress much simpler.
Writing can feel like a lonely task, but it doesn't have to be. The beauty of NaNoWriMo is the instant community that comes with it. Let friends, family, and coworkers know you're writing a novel (and prepare for the questions about when it will be finished and what it's about!). Consider joining writing groups or forums to connect with other NaNoWriMo participants.
Some final notes
Writing a novel is usually a marathon, not a sprint, but in the case of NaNoWriMo it can definitely feel more like the latter. With that in mind, embrace imperfection. The point is to get words on the page, to take that story out of your head and put it on paper no matter how subjectively "good" or "bad" the story may be. To that end, avoid revising as you go. You simply won't have time to read back over what you've written and knock out your daily word count goal. This is a first draft, and it won't be anywhere near perfect.
That said, be kind to yourself. Take breaks, stretch, and relax. Stay hydrated (and caffeinated!) and eat as well as you can. You may not be actually sprinting or running a marathon but it will certainly feel like, by the end, that your brain has gone through the wringer. Along with taking care of yourself, celebrate the small victories—every time you reach a daily or weekly word count goal, every day that you manage to get any words on the page, reaching the halfway point, etc. are all times to pat yourself on the back!
And for goodness sake, back up your work (and press Save every few minutes)! Technology isn't infallible, and there's nothing worse than sweating over 30,000 that are lost in the blink of an eye. Ultimately, the key to success in NaNoWriMo is commitment and consistency. Stay focused on your daily word count goals, and don't let impostor syndrome or your own inner critic hold you back. And good luck with your novel!