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NaNoWriMo - National Novel Writing Month - can we be honest for a second? You are only doing NaNo for one of three reasons:
1) You need to get into a daily writing habit and writing 1666 words a day for a month is a good way of developing that habit.
2) You need to get a big chunk of writing done in a hurry and 50,000 words in a month ain't a full novel for most genres, but it ain't too shabby either.
3) You're friends are threatening to steal your fuzzy socks and your chocolate stash if you don't join.
See, the 50,000 words you get when you win NaNoWriMo aren't the prize, they're the byproduct. Winning NaNoWriMo means spending the month of November turning yourself into a better writer. And I want to help you be a winner.
There's pages and pages of writing advice on the internet. You could read books on writing, and nuance, and metaphor. If you're lucky you'll spend your entire life reading great books and learning from other authors, but not amount of learning is going to help you get off the starting block and to writing a book unless you know where to start. So that's what this post is about: how to prep for NaNoWriMo.
Mid-October you need to set aside a day for NaNoWriMo planning. You're going to be doing your research, basic plotting, and some very simple outlining. It you're a Plotter who needs to have all the details written down, fine, add more. If you're a Pantster (like me!) you'll find this method isn't overwhelming and leaves lots of room for improvisation. Once you've got your date set grab something to make notes on and give yourself five hours to work... and yes it's perfectly fine to do this in fifteen minute increments over the month of October. You're busy, and that's normal. :)
Don't get hung up on finding an original plot or the perfect pitch right now. Just pick an idea that tickles your imagination and run with it. The fact that you are writing it will make it unique. Every person is different, and so is every story!
- In two sentences or less write what you're going to write your book about. It doesn't need to be perfect, you just need to verbalize it somehow.
- If you don't know what to write about look for inspiration in art work, online story prompts, the NaNoWriMo Adopt A Plot forum, or on Tumblr where the Out Of Context D&D people give anyone with a pulse an urge to write fantasy.
- Can't decide on just one plot? No problem! Plan them all out. Start writing whichever catches your fancy in November and write the others next year.
This is 100% stolen from the author of the Doc Savage novels Kenneth Robeson (Lester Dent) and he deserves full credit. Partial credit goes to British author Tim Dedopulos who wrote a NaNoWriMo post in 2010 entitled How To Write A Novel In Three Days. We're using a modified version of his method....
- Lester Dent said every good novel needed four things: A new way to kill someone, a new thing for the villain to want, a new place, and a menace that threatens your hero at every turn.
- Write down your four things.
No one likes a book where they can guess the ending on page one. It's boring. Plot twists set in the right place along the course of the book will give your reader a wild ride that keeps them reading long past bedtime. Plan on at least four plot twists.
- Plot twist #1 comes in the first quarter of the book. "You're a wizard, Harry." "I found a wardrobe that leads to a kingdom of snow and my brother ate the evil queen's Turkish Delight!" etc. You get the idea.
- Plot Twist #2 comes about 40% of the way through the book, this one's the gut punch. The hero loses something, they're betrayed, something horrible happens and at all cost you must leave the readers thinking there is no way your hero can ever find a happy ending after this. If you're George R. R. R. Martin this is where you kill [spoiler redacted], you soulless fiend.
- Plot Twist #3 comes at the climax of the story, when the fate of the universe hangs by a thread, and then suddenly PLOT TWIST! something amazing happens. Harry comes back from the dead. Loki really didn't kill Thor. Mulan shoots Shan Yu with a firework and the Emperor bows to her.
- Plot Twist #4... and I know you're scratching your head here... this one comes in the last pages of the book. The villain confesses they did it all for the love of the hero, the hero pulls the sword from the stone and finds out it's plastic, the long-lost princess realizes she rescued the wrong kingdom! This is the very final twist that keeps the book alive after the last page is turned. It may seem diabolic, especially if you're not writing a series, but it lets the reader believe the characters will live on and have more adventures even after the book ends, and that's important.
Early in my writing career I wrote several novels that were great except the pacing and tension seemed almost nonexistent. It wasn't until I wrote a book with a well fleshed out villain that I realized my early novels suffered from a lack of antagonist. Save yourself some tears and define your villains up front.
- Who is your Primary Antagonist? This is the villain that shows up one page one and gives our hero grief but who may not be a villain all along. If you're writing an Enemies-To-Lovers romance this antagonist will wind up being a hero in the end.
- Who is your Second Antagonist? The Middle Villain, is the one who comes in the center of the book (hence the name) and who the hero didn't see as a problem beforehand. Either this antagonist was a friend before and betrayed the hero, or they become a villain because of the hero's actions in achieving the first quest of the book. This antagonist carries a lot of weight and deals the hero the most set backs. They're the one that drives the hero to the moment of despair and strips them of everything (which is why a betrayer makes such a good second villain). While dealing with the second antagonist the hero stumbles into a realization of who the bigger villain is. If you're writing a series with One Big Villain driving the series (think Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews or Star Wars where the Emperor is the Big Bad) you'll have the hero defeat a series of Middle Villains in each book and only face The One Big Bad in the final book. If you're writing a series driven by Hero's Choice this second villain will bounce between being a villain and being a temporary ally (think the Mercy Thompson series by Patricia Briggs or Star Trek where Romulans and Klingons are sometimes enemies and sometimes friends). The other series option is the No Hero series like Game of Thrones where everyone is an antagonist and a protagonist in their own mind.
- Who is the Third Antagonist? The Big Bad, the villain whose presence is felt but unknown throughout the book. In a series, you may not see this person until the end of the series. The best part about this kind of antagonist is it invites readers to reread so they can catch the earlier clues. You really can save this villain for the very end, or at least the last 1/3 of the book. They usually appear around the hero's Moment Of Despair, when the hero has lost all hope, friends, support, and belief in themself. This is the villain that defines the hero. Because the hero looks up from the mud and blood and despair and say, "I cannot let you do this. I cannot let you win even if I lose everything." The decision to fight this villain when all hope is lost, at great personal sacrifice, is what makes an ordinary person a hero. And because the hero is coming from such a low point, beaten and fragile, their victory is all the more sweet in the end.
*Whew! Got all that? Okay. Good. Take a breather because the next section is there we're going to tackle the nitty gritty. You ready?*
Do you know what derails the most NaNoWriMo novelists? The research. They pause to look up a name, or find a place to set a scene, and then they're lost down the rabbit hole of research and you find them wandering bookstores in mid-January wondering why people are hanging Valentine's Day decorations. It's sad, really. And you, smarty that you are, are going to dodge that bullet by naming everything right now!
- Make a list of 25 female names and 25 male names for your book. You can do it by culture or race if you need to, but get it done before November 1st. And, remember, if you hate the name November 15th you can change it in edits. That's why we have the Search-Replace function.
- Make a list of all the modes of transport in your book. If you have spaceships or sailing vessels make a list of names for them too. Ten minimum. More is better. Pick a theme if you're having trouble, like naming all the ships in your fleet after minerals: Jasper, Feldspar, Malachite...
- Make a list of all the places you might set a scene. Name the cafes, name the fields, name the forests, name the nebulas, name the schools, name the rooms. You may not use them all but they'll be there if you need them.
- Make a list of all your props: weapons, clothes, whatever will be on stage goes right here. If it helps, pretend you're planning a play. Picture what you might need. And feel free to add more when you start writing. These lists are guidelines only, you can use them or lose them to your heart's content.
This is going to take a bit of time, so plan ahead. What you need to do here is follow the excellent example set by Becca and Angela and make a thesaurus for all the scenes.
- Honestly, this is more for the Plotters who need to know everything. Pantsters, write five or six key words to describe each place, one for each major sense. If you have more or have something you really want to see in that place, scribble it down.
NaNoWriMo is meant to be thirty days of steady writing, but let's be realistic, unless you're life is perfect you won't be writing all thirty days. Look at your calendar right now and decide how many days you can write. For me is about 24 days in November. I take weekends off to spend time with my kids and I'll be too busy cooking on Thanksgiving to write.
- Grab a calculator. Divide 50,000 by the number of days you have to write. This number is your target word count if you want to have 50,000 words at the end of the month.
- 50,000 isn't a full novel for adult genres and most YA. If you really want a novel in a month you need to do that math with 75,000 words. I'm sorry.
- Curse yourself. Cry. Google WRITE OR DIE. Thank the creators of WRITE OR DIE for all they have done for you. Bookmark WRITE OR DIE. Tell your family and friends you love them, and then go buy some note cards.
This trick I actually picked up from a fellow Critique Circle writer my first year participating in NANOWRIMO. She said she spent Halloween night handing out candy and writing scenes on a note card. One card per writing day with all the scenes she needed to write.
- Let's pretend you have 25 writing days in November and you want 50,000 words. That's 2000 words on each of your writing days, or one scene per day.
- Pick out 25 cards and write one or two sentences describing a scene you want to write on each card.
- Put a small sticker or check mark on Plot Twist days and mark the days on your calendar. You'll probably be writing a plot twist on the 7th, 14th, 21st, and 28th of November.
- Rearrange, discard, or rewrite anything that doesn't seem to make sense.
- REMEMBER! This is only the rough draft. It's meant to be rough. You are aiming to write something ugly. Everything will be smoothed and polished in edits. These cards can be changed at any time, they're really here to be your count down clock to victory. No panicking allowed.
Can I share a teeny tiny little secret with you? There's not an author alive who knows what they're doing. That blank page is just as blank for you as it is for your favorite author. Every person is unique. Every person will write differently and in different ways. There is no wrong way to be an author.
- Sit down.
- All the planning you did, that's there for reference. All those lists and names and plot twists were written down so your subconscious could have time to play with the ideas and present you with the scenes when it's time to write. On November 1st all you have to do is show up and write.
- If you get stuck, check your notes.
- If you go running down a new avenue just make sure to connect with your plot twist.
- Never abandon your villains, they're what makes your hero a hero.
- Keep writing.
- Don't give up.
- Have fun.