What happens every year after you’ve tossed out the Halloween pumpkin and eaten all the good candy? Nanowrimo. Janice Hardy shares pointers on how to streamline the chaos.
Tomorrow starts the first day of the unofficial NaNo prep month. (That’s National Novel Writing Month for those who haven’t discovered this fun, yet exhausting, writing challenge. The goal is to write 50,000 words in 30 days, and over 300,000 writers around the world write like fiends for the month of November to hit—or surpass—that number). In October, writers gear up to plan, prep, and prepare their novels so they can hit the keyboard running when November 1st rolls around.
It can be a daunting task, so if you’re looking for a little guidance on planning your NaNo Novel (or any novel really), here are some tips to get your started:
- Know what your novel is really about.
A big stumbling block for many NaNo novels is starting with little more than a general premise about your story idea. You have a setup, maybe a setting, a basic problem, but no actual core conflict or solid goal for your protagonist to solve, so you hit a wall before the first 50 pages. For example, let’s look at an early idea sentence for my fantasy novel, The Shifter:
A girl who can shift pain gets discovered by people who want to use her as a weapon.
This feels like there’s enough information to write a book, but all it really does is offer a vague idea for a story. There’s no problem to solve, nothing that says what happens after she gets discovered or what trouble she’ll run into. Sure, there’s plenty of potential in this premise, but you don’t want to waste time every day trying to come up with things to write about. You want to know the conflict going in.
Spend some time in October and nail this core story down so it can guide you when you need it most. Aim for the classic structure:
The protagonist + the conflict or story problem + what has to be done to solve this problem (the goal) + why it all matters (the stakes) = novel plot.
Let’s look at the vague premise again with these elements in mind:
A girl who can heal by shifting pain from person to person, discovers it’s the only weapon she has to save her missing sister, and while trying to rescue her, uncovers a plot that threatens every healer in the city.
It’s rough, and not anything I’d show an agent, but it’s enough for me to understand the core story and where my plot is going to come from. And surprise surprise! That early idea about people using her as a weapon—it’s a small part of the actual conflict, and not the driving force behind the novel. Had I tried to write the novel with just that vague premise, I would have stumbled and floundered and not known what my story was truly about. This new sentence has enough real plot-driving conflict to guide me.
If you can’t fill in these pieces, odds are you don’t yet know enough to write the novel.
- Write a query blurb for it.
I know many of us hate writing query letters, but the format is one of the best tools I’ve found for ensuring a story has all the critical elements needed to write a novel. It’s a fleshed out version of the summary line, and it captures the essence of a novel—the protagonist, where she lives, what her problem is, why she needs to solve this problem, who’s trying to stop her, and what’s cool about the book, etc.
The blurb doesn’t have to be agent-worthy, just something that hits the right elements to summarize your novel.
For pantsers—if capturing the whole book won’t work for you, try focusing on just the setup instead. How does the protagonist start her journey in this story? Give yourself enough information to point you in the right direction without stifling your creativity.
- Plan (at least) three to four major turning points for your plot.
Different writers have different preferences of outlining, but try to figure out three to four major turning points of your plot to provide a framework for your NaNo novel. Four will give you a solid goal to write toward during each week of November, which can make it easier to hit those word count goals.
Plot your turning points on where those weekly counts would be in your novel. For example:
If you’re planning a 50K-word middle grade novel, every week would need 12,500 words and encompass 25% of the novel. Your four turning points might be:
Week one: The beginning—getting the protagonist to the first major act one problem of the plot (where the protagonist has to make a choice about moving forward and how to fix her problem).
Week two: The first half of the middle—where the protagonist attempts to fix the problem, and the goals lead toward a surprise, unexpected change, or impossible choice in the middle.
Week three: The second half of the middle—where the protagonist struggles to recover from whatever happened at the midpoint, and things get worse and worse until she feels that all is lost and she will never win (and the end of act two).
Week four: The ending—where the protagonist pulls herself up, vows to keep moving forward and eventually faces off against the antagonist and resolves the novel’s core problem.
This is a very basic overview of how a novel unfolds, and you can be as detailed as you need with it. If you like outlining every scene, fill in what happens between all these points. If you’re more a free-writer, determine just enough to guide you as you write.
If you’re not writing a full novel, then shift the points as needed. If your planned novel is 80K words, your turning points would be around the 20K word marks (20, 40, 60, 80). NaNo would get you roughly halfway between your midpoint and the start of your ending (act three). If your target is a 100K-word novel, NaNo would get you halfway through the novel, so you might use two weeks to get through these basic plot points—weeks one and two for getting to the end of act one, weeks three and four to get you to the midpoint where things go sidewise.
For those aiming for more (or less) than 50K words, adjust your plot points and weekly word-count-goals accordingly.
- Understand what you need to figure out before you start writing.
We all have our processes, and we usually know where we struggle and bang our heads against the keyboard. I figured out the less I know about my ending, the more off track my plots tend to go in a first draft. So now, I spend extra time fleshing out my endings during the planning phase. It keeps me focused and lets me spot potential plot problems long before I get to them—which makes for a tighter novel that’s easier to write.
Think about where you’ve stumbled and what you wished you’d figured out ahead of time during the last novel you wrote. Take some time to solve those trouble areas now, while you have the time to brainstorm and run into dead ends. If this is your first novel attempt (grats!), I recommend outlining at least the basic plot points to guide you. Find an outline structure you like (you might try one of these) and see how it works with your process.
One of the challenges with NaNo is feeling pressured to produce those 1667 words a day. It’s stressful when you sit down to write and have no idea what to write about, and precious time ticks away. The more you know going in, the easier those words will come, and the more productive your NaNo will be.
Have you participated in Nanowrimo? Any advice you can share with us?
If you’re looking for more plotting and planning help, try Janice’s book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure. It leads you step by step through the novel-planning process, with over 100 exercises and ten workshops to help you turn your idea into a novel.
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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