Happy #Preptober everyone! 🎃👻
I love this time of year. You get to dress in cozy layers, drink hot tea and coffee all day, decorate for Halloween, and consume all things pumpkin spice and cinnamon!
But besides all that, it's also a month of intense preparation for any writer who's planning to participate in NaNoWriMo.
NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. It’s a worldwide write-a-thon that occurs every year during the month of November.
On November 1st, participants start working towards the goal of writing 50,000 words by 11:59 pm on November 30th. That might sound crazy, but it’s a pretty popular event in the #writingcommunity.
Thankfully, there’s still PLENTY of time to prepare!
The first few times I attempted to write a novel during NaNoWriMo I crashed and burned miserably. I did a lot of things wrong, but the main one was not planning and outlining my story before NaNoWriMo started.
I thought that having a good imagination and some ideas for a story meant I could show up on day one and successfully write a 50,000-word draft in 30-days. Long story short, I “failed” NaNoWriMo — and it didn’t feel good AT ALL.
And that's why I wrote this guide to NaNoWriMo planning — so you could avoid the mistakes I made and "win" NaNoWriMo.
To set you up for success, I'm going to walk you through the first 10 steps to take BEFORE embarking on your month-long NaNoWriMo adventure. My hope is that you’ll not only “win” NaNoWriMo but that you'll also walk away with a finished first draft of your story.
The best part? You can use everything you learn in this series to plan and outline ANY book you write, whether it’s during NaNoWriMo or not. Let's dive in!
The first thing you need to do to get ready for NaNoWriMo is to pick a story idea to work with. Maybe you already have an idea that’s been floating around in your head, but maybe you don’t. Here are a few ways to get your creative juices flowing and come up with a bunch of story ideas.
I think we can all agree that there’s nothing worse than wasting time on an idea that’s going nowhere. So, once you’ve come up with an idea you like, it’s time to test it out (or flesh it out!) with these two exercises:
A logline is a short summary that gives the gist of your book in 1-2 sentences. It includes who the main character is, what the conflict is, and what’s at stake. It’s the WHO, WHERE, WHAT, and WHY of your story, (but not the HOW). For inspiration and examples, look up your favorite movies on imdb.com and check out the 1-2 sentence summary they provide.
A pitch is a longer summary of your story (usually, 250 words or less) that expands upon your logline but does not give away the ending of the story. When writing your pitch, you’ll want to answer these questions: Who is your protagonist and what does he or she want? Who or what is standing in your protagonist’s way? What is the conflict? Where does the story take place? What happens if your protagonist fails to achieve their goal? What’s at stake? For inspiration and examples, look up your favorite books on Amazon and check out the summary that describes what each book is about.
Once you finish writing your logline and pitch, ask yourself — does this story sound interesting to me? If not, re-write your logline and pitch to focus on the most interesting parts of your story or pick a different idea to work with.
👉 Recommended Reading: How to Test Your Story Idea Before You Start Writing
When you hear the word “genre,” you might think of the shelves in a bookstore or the categories on Amazon. But, genre is more than just a way to sort and classify stories according to their shared elements.
Genre can also provide writers with a blueprint or roadmap for writing a story that works. Plus, when you understand your genre, you’ll have a much better idea of how to write a story that delivers on readers’ expectations.
A story will either have an external genre, an internal genre, or both.
Plot-driven stories make up the external genres and are primarily driven by outer conflict. The external genres are — action, horror, mystery, performance, romance, society, thrillers, war, and westerns.
Character-driven stories make up the internal genres and are primarily driven by inner conflict. The internal genres are — worldview, status, and morality.
Stories can contain BOTH an external and an internal genre, but they don’t have to. If you decide to include both an internal and external genre in your story, you must choose ONE to be the main genre. If you don’t, you won’t know what to focus on as you write.
👉 Recommended Reading: Understanding Genre: How to Write Better Stories.
Stories are all about change. Mainly how the external plot events affect your protagonist in such a way that he or she must change internally to achieve their story goals.
To figure out your character’s arc (or how they will change throughout your story) start by asking these questions:
A lot of the time, your character’s objects of desire will be determined by the genre you’re writing in. For example, in a thriller (external genre), the protagonist’s conscious object of desire (or what he wants) is to stop the villain and save the victim’s life.
If this thriller had an internal morality genre, we’d eventually learn why it was so important for him to save the victim in the first place. Maybe his subconscious object of desire (or what he needs) is to overcome some kind of moral failing in his past.
👉 Recommended Reading: 5 Questions to Help You Write Compelling Characters
Point of view (or POV) is the “lens” through which your story is told. You need to make a deliberate choice about POV because each option can affect the reader in a different way. Some things to consider while choosing the POV for your story are:
Once you know WHO is telling your story, you have to figure out HOW they’ll tell the story. In fiction there are three main options to choose from:
After that, you’ll need to choose your tense. Will you write in the past tense or present tense? If you’re not sure, look to your genre for help. If you’re really not sure, go with past tense -- it’s the most common tense in modern fiction.
👉 Recommended Reading: Everything You Need to Know About Point of View
Setting is not just WHERE your story takes place — it’s also the WHEN. So, first, you need to determine when your story takes place — the past, present, or future?
Then, you can drill down to WHERE your story takes place. Look at what you already know about your characters and your story idea. For example, if you know your protagonist works with horses, your setting might be a ranch or a farm.
If you’re writing a novel that takes place in an imaginary world, you’ll need to do some world-building. Here's a list of questions to help you build the preliminary version of your story's world.
Regardless of whether your story takes place in a real or made-up word, your setting’s role is to provide context for the central story. It’s not something you should spend a ton of time on — especially upfront, but it’s definitely something to consider during these early stages.
Now it’s time to expand on the short summaries you made in step 2 and write a longer synopsis of your story. Here’s a quick overview of how to write a synopsis:
Aim for 1-3 page (approximately 500-1,000 words) double-spaced. If you go much longer than this, you risk getting stuck in the weeds. The goal is to remain “high-level” here.
You want to capture the beginning, middle, and end of your story focusing on the primary plot thread. You won’t be able to mention every character or event. And you definitely won’t be able to summarize every scene or chapter. That’s okay (and kind of the point)!
👉 Recommended Reading: Where Should Your Story Start and End?
Grab some index cards, post-it notes, or a notebook because I’m going to show you how to break your story down using (gasp!) math. If you’re using index cards or post-it notes, then each index card or post-it note will represent one scene.
Since we know the goal of NaNoWriMo is to write 50,000-words in 30-days, that means you can break your story down like this:
Breaking your story down into these three smaller parts will make the planning and outlining process much easier. But guess what? You can break it down even further using the key story moments that occur within each section.
Within each act, there are key story moments that help you create and show change throughout your story. Not only that, but these key moments also help you to properly pace your story and create a sense of narrative drive.
In this example, I’m going to assume you have 40 scenes. In that case, you could plan each scene to be around 1,250 words. Take a look…
Once you figure out those key story moments, you can ask yourself what happens before and after each key scene. For example, after your story’s hook, what happens to lead up to or cause the Inciting Incident? What happens as a result of your Inciting Incident and how does that lead up to or cause the First Plot Point?
The goal here is to create a CAUSE and EFFECT trajectory from scene to scene. In other words, every scene should be related to and have a direct impact on what happens next. This is how you develop the kind of narrative drive that makes readers turn page after page to find out what happens next.
To write 50,000 words in a month means you’ll have to write an average of 1,667 words per day. So, the first thing you’ll need to figure out is how exactly you’ll get those words written.
Have you blocked out time in your calendar yet? What activities can you give up to make more time for your writing? Where will you do the work so you won’t be interrupted?
If you’re not able to write every day, take the time now to figure out how you’re going to compensate for the days you can’t write and put it on your calendar.
If you feel like you need external support to achieve your NaNoWriMo goals, you can:
Whew! That was a lot! If you made it to the end of this post, thanks for sticking with me!
My hope is that after going through these 10 steps, you’ll have a strong for your story and the ability to start NaNoWriMo with confidence!
If you used the exercises in this article to prep for NaNoWriMo, please come back and let me know how you did this year. I’d love to give you a shout out on social media if you “win!”
👉 Let’s discuss in the comments: Are you participating in NaNoWriMo this year? Have you ever written a novel in 30-days? Which parts did you find challenging? What are your tips for success? Let me know in the comments below!
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