This post is part of a series I’ll be writing in honor of National Novel-Writing Month. If you aren’t participating in NaNoWriMo this year, you should. I have a free workbook available for download on the home page that will guide you through the process in a fun and accessible way.
If you’re abstaining this year, never fear. These posts will help you write better no matter what you’re working on.
For “The Essential NaNoWriMo Prep,” I decided to write this post in two parts. You can read part 1, “Getting Your Life in Order,” here.
When November 1st comes every year, many thousands of writers will turn on their computers and pull up a blank document in Microsoft Word. Most of them will stare at the screen for a very long time; others will start typing with no real destination in mind.
Don’t let this be you! While writing without a plan can be beneficial, it’s not the best way to start a challenge like NaNoWriMo. As the pros: If you want to write a novel that quickly, you need to begin with a concrete plan.
Don’t worry — this is fun. Shifting gears to planning out “book stuff” means you get to ruminate on your big idea and play god in your own fictional universe. You get to throw out a lot of ideas in a risk-free way. (Remember: There are no bad ideas in brainstorming.)
To start, you’ll want to grab a notebook to jot down your ideas or type them into the computer. When I begin a novel, the first thing I do is start a document in Scrivener (It’s THE tool for novelists), but you can also use Evernote to keep your idea documents synced in the cloud.
A Note on Software
Most novice writers start their novels in Microsoft Word and then quickly realize how frustrating it can be. While MS Word is a fine program, it’s not really designed for writing a full-length novel. I highly recommend that all my students purchase Scrivener for $45 to keep all their scenes, chapters, and planning pages organized in one single document. (If you’re nervous about using a new program, you can sign up for Joanna Penn’s free webinar on Oct. 24.)
Working Out Your Big Idea
Maybe your idea comes to you as a single image or a character or a place. Maybe it comes to you in the shower or on the drive to work. How it comes is unimportant — what’s important is that you get your ideas on the page as quickly as possible.
Start by writing down everything you know about your story, even if it doesn’t make sense at first. Write down the setting, any characters you come up with — even vague notions that pop into your head as questions: What if she had special powers and the government was after her? What if all the water was polluted? What happened to her mother? What if her lover was captured by the KGB?
As you get your ideas down on paper, one or more genres will usually begin to emerge. Some genres are more obvious than others (spaceships and wizards are dead giveaways). Some are not so obvious. As you’re filling out your story, pay attention to mood. If your story is dark and stormy, maybe it wants to be a thriller or a police procedural. If it’s quirky and humorous, maybe it’s a sweet romance or a classic fish-out-of-water comedy.
Focus on the experience you want to create. It helps if you can come up with examples of books, movies, or TV shows that really swept you away and pinpoint what you loved most about them. For instance, if you love Veronica Mars and The Hunger Games, maybe you need to write a story where the whole world seems to be working against your badass heroine. If you love the epic battle scenes of The Last Kingdom but hate history, maybe you need to write fantasy or a space opera. You can browse Amazon’s book categories if you don’t yet have the vocabulary to describe your chosen genre, or research how a similar book is categorized.
More than likely the genre of your story will fall into or overlap the genres that you enjoy as a reader or a viewer. If you haven’t read widely in your chosen genre, pick up an audiobook (or several), and start immersing yourself in your genre at the gym or on your way to work.
A Note on Genre
Some people think that genre is unimportant, but I believe genre is crucial if you think you may ever want to publish your book. Genre is how you find your readers (both online and in brick-and-mortar bookstores), and it’s also how you satisfy those readers’ expectations.
It’s okay if you pick a genre that isn’t trendy or marketable right now. Readers’ tastes change constantly, so it doesn’t make much sense for a beginning writer to try to predict these trends. But knowing the genre you’re aiming for helps you understand how the story should work and what those readers will be expecting (e.g., popular tropes).
Tropes are recurring literary elements that readers and viewers expect from certain genres. Whether your genre’s trope is an epic sword fight to the death or a heart-melting reunion in the rain, nearly all genres have them. This doesn’t mean you can’t be original (or that you should use them all), but it does mean that there are certain rules you should follow so you don’t disappoint your readers.
For instance, if you’re writing a romance, your readers probably want a happily ever after. If you’re writing a zombie book, they probably want some gore. (They definitely want tension, chase scenes, and an odd group of people thrown together in their quest to survive.)
Once you can hold your idea in your head and you have an idea of the genre, you’re ready for the nuts and bolts of novel prep:
Step 1: Get to know your protagonist.
This is incredibly important — some would say the most important part of writing a novel. You must understand what makes your protagonist tick, as well as his or her fatal flaw.
“The plot’s goal isn’t simply to find out whether [your protagonist] snags that brass ring or not; rather, it’s to force him to confront the internal issue that’s keeping him from it in the first place,” writes Lisa Cron in Wired for Story.
Your protagonist’s internal issue is that niggling flaw hidden just beneath the surface. It’s something that your protagonist isn’t even aware of, and it may be something your readers aren’t consciously aware of either (unless they happen to be English majors).
Your character may think he wants to defeat the Dark Lord to keep his friends safe and vanquish evil (which he sincerely does), but the larger issue is proving to himself that he is good inside and worthy of love. (Sorry to blow your mind, Harry Potter fans.)
“If you don’t provide your protagonist with a deep-seated need that he believes his quest will fulfill, the things that happen will feel random,” Cron writes.
The chief way I identify a character’s fatal flaw is to identify the point of trauma in the protagonist’s life that severely altered her worldview. This point of trauma doesn’t necessarily need to be an isolated incident like a car accident or a tragedy. It can be small erosions to your character’s psyche over time or a false perception that was reinforced throughout her life.
If you know your character’s fatal flaw but aren’t sure where it comes from, try one or more of the following activities:
- Interview your character. There are a million and one question sets available online to get you started interviewing your character. The Gotham Writer’s Workshop has a wonderful questionnaire available on their website. Instead of posing these questions to you as the author, reframe them as though you were a reporter interviewing your character. (Food for thought: What might your character have done to warrant such an interview in the first place?) Pay attention to your character’s body language as you imagine him answering these questions. Where does he squirm, scoff, or try to redirect the question?
- Write a character history. Start from your character’s earliest memory. Describe his upbringing, the relationship between your character’s parents, and the early events that shaped him. Write about your character’s first job, early romances — tell it all leading up to where your story begins. (This history could be a couple thousand words if you’re feeling ambitious.)
- Describe your character from the perspective of his oldest friend. Try to write in the friend’s voice about your protagonist’s strengths, weaknesses, and past memories that really encapsulate his personality. Your protagonist’s friend has the advantage of seeing your character clearly but reporting through a compassionate lens.
Step 2: Get to know your secondary characters.
You don’t necessarily need to be as detailed when considering who your secondary characters are, but you should know a few basic things:
- Their overall worldviews
- Where they come from (this includes family, friends, occupation, a few past experiences)
- How they relate to your main character
- What aspects of your protagonist’s personality each character represents (e.g., your character’s fun side or his over-critical nature)
You may wish to write a (brief) character history for the secondary characters closest to your protagonist or even “cast” them with real-life actors. If you do this, make sure you specify an actor in a specific role (e.g., George Clooney as he appeared in Up in the Air).
Step 3: Build your world.
This is especially important if you’re writing science fiction or fantasy, but it applies to every genre of fiction. For me, this is the fun part. You get to decide what the buildings (or castles) look like. You get to decide how advanced the technology is, what historical events led the world to where it is now, what the social mores are, etc.
This is also where you establish the rules: Are your vampires sparkly? Are your wizards immortal? Are your superheroes born or made? How is the virus transmitted? Are there any laws governing the use of magical powers? Is teleportation a thing?
Even if something in your world could easily be explained away by magic, you need to craft a world that is consistent and that has limits. (Think about Harry Potter: If wizards could simply make more money appear out of thin air, the Weasleys wouldn’t be poor. Ron wouldn’t have such a complex about money, which means he wouldn’t later struggle with jealousy and feelings of inadequacy. Not only that, but the entire wizarding economy would probably collapse.)
Even if your novel is firmly grounded in reality, you need to build the world that your characters inhabit, including that run-down filling station where your protagonist works and the dive bar across the street. Your “rules” will include the boundaries of your character’s reality. How much money does she make? (Don’t pull a Friends — her home, clothing, and lifestyle should reflect this reality.) Does your character have a car? How does she get from point A to point B? If your character needed to get to Memphis, would she fly or take a Greyhound?
Step 4: Create a detailed plot outline.
Some writers tend to avoid outlines like the plague because they like to create on the fly. They enjoy the spontaneity of writing, and outlines make them feel restricted. To these writers, I like to emphasize the fact that an outline doesn’t mean every scene is set in stone. Sometimes a new idea occurs to you as you’re writing — or your character has her own ideas about what she’s going to do next — which forces you (the writer) to adjust. Even though I always start with an outline, I reserve the right to move things around, switch character points of view (because I write from multiple perspectives), or add/remove entire chapters. This is all made possible by the fact that I know where the plot is going.
Your outline doesn’t have to start out super-detailed. I begin every novel with about twenty sentences detailing what could or should happen in the book. (In a series, I do this for every book as soon as possible so that I can seed in events and ideas throughout the series.) Once you have an idea of your beginning, middle, and end, you can start filling in your outline chapter by chapter.
I like to write my outline as “story beats,” which the guys over at Sterling & Stone describe as “CliffsNotes written by someone who’s only half paying attention.” My beats are five to twenty sentences that describe what happens in each chapter. I’ll make a note of anything I need to research or make up (e.g., how hypersonic missiles work, the name of a new character) and go back and fill these in later.
Five to twenty sentences sound like a lot, but because I write them stream-of-consciousness style, it’s a fairly quick process. Here’s an example of one of my beats:
Chapter 29: Jonah
Maggie and Jonah get to BlumBot and find the place is eerily quiet. All the hard drives are gone. The place has been thoroughly searched by the authorities. They are on high alert. They half expect a bot to come out of the woodwork and kill them. They go into Mordecai’s office, and he pops up on screen. He tells them that he’s surprised it took them so long, but they are already too late. He killed Buford. He admired Buford…he knew as soon as they met in Russia that he was his ticket in. SO WEAK. Buford was easily manipulated. But now that he is inside the Space Force, he doesn’t need him. His bots are super deadly. The best assassins — better than their top human counterparts. He says that Ziva was too busy making deals to mind the store. He has bots everywhere. Now they are going to do his bidding.
Now that you’ve read one of my beats, you see that they’re really not all that sophisticated. The idea isn’t to create a concise summary that would make sense to anyone who reads it. These beats are just for you.
A Note on Plot (and How It Relates to Character):
One thing to keep in mind is that plot isn’t just “what happens in the story.” You must think of plot in terms of how the story affects your protagonist.
“Plot facilitates story by forcing the protagonist to confront and deal with the issue that keeps him from achieving his goal,” writes Lisa Cron. “The way the world treats him, and how he reacts, reveals the theme.”
Some people like to discuss books and movies in terms of stories that are “character-driven” and stories that are “plot-driven.” Character-driven stories tend to be slow-burning, and the audience spends a lot of time analyzing what the protagonist thinks and feels.
A good example of a character-driven story is Wild. We don’t really care all that much whether Cheryl makes it to the end of the Pacific Crest Trail; we’re just along for the hike. Same with Twilight. We really couldn’t care less what the Volturi are up to — so long as Bella ends up with the supernatural hottie we’re rooting for.
“Plot-driven” stories are often how people refer to page-turners. The storyline is driven by the quest or adventure the character is on, and there are bound to be twists and turns.
Game of Thrones is an example of a plot-driven TV show — but not a very good one. Protagonists are killed off so often (and the show switches between storylines so fast) that viewers aren’t always sure whose story it is. What keeps viewers hooked is the suspense of watching the power struggle (and the shock value of the violence). Conversely, The Walking Dead is a character kill-off minefield, but we continue to watch because we like Rick or Daryl or Glenn. The character work is just as strong (if not stronger) than the plot. Ideally, the internal quest of your protagonist is just as important as the external quest she’s on — even in a plot-driven novel.
Step 5: Pick your tense and point of view.
Are you writing in first person, limited third-person, or omniscient third-person? Past tense or present? While some writers bristle at the thought of writing in present tense, I find it’s actually the most natural for many of my stories. The best way to know for sure is to give it a test drive. If you find the way you’re writing a chapter feels awkward or clunky, try switching up your point of view. It could make a world of difference.
If all this prep work is sounding like a lot of work, don’t be intimidated. Just start with your big idea and begin moving through the steps one at a time. If you hit a snag on something like genre, you can skip it and circle back to it later.
I want to emphasize that some planning is always better than no planning at all. Even if you only nail down your main character and your beginning, middle, and end, it will make your NaNoWriMo journey so much more successful.
Still have questions? Leave me a comment, or shoot me an email at email@example.com. I’ll be here to help all month, and I love coaching writers!
Photo by Daria Shevtsova