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NaNoWriMo - can we be honest for a second? -- by Liana Brooks

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. :)

Step 1: Write the elevator pitch for your novel.

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.

Step 2: Use the Dime Novel Formula

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.

Step 3: You Need Four Plot Twists

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.

Step 4: You Need Three Villains

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?*

Step 5: Building The World

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.

Step 6: The Setting Thesaurus

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. 

- Bookmark the Emotion Thesaurus and Setting Thesaurus in case of emergencies in November.

Step 7: Time For The Math

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.

Step 8: The Dread Outline

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.

Step 9: Write Like A Pro

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.

- Write.

- 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. 

- Write.

- Keep writing.

- Don't give up.

- Have fun. 


Posted by Liana Brooks 9 Nov 2015 at 01:03
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Responses to this blog

Angelsking 29 Sep 2014 at 15:39  
Sounds do-able. I am going to use this "formula" to get back to writing. Challenge accepted!
Bethanne80 29 Sep 2014 at 16:43  
Fabulous advice! I'm not sure if I'm gonna do NaNo this year or not, but great advice none the less. Thanks for posting!
Fairchild 29 Sep 2014 at 18:49  
Curse you, Liana! You make it seem so doable that I'm now tempted to try my first ever nanowrimo, which I vowed never to do. I shall resist, I shall!

*bookmarks page*
Ladyv 29 Sep 2014 at 20:12  
Oh, come on Fairchild, you know you want to do it. NaNo is fun!

*tempt tempt tempt*
Fairchild 29 Sep 2014 at 21:20  
Step 4 is really interesting. I know I have enough main villains in this novel-I-most-certainly-will-not-be-nanoing, but I never thought to prioritize them like that. I can feel the ideas percolating.
Rellrod 30 Sep 2014 at 02:33  
Great stuff — and you can use it even without NaNoWriMo if you simply want to get yourself on a sensible schedule to get a novel finished.

Milana 30 Sep 2014 at 23:58  
Good ideas (I'm inspired by the "villains advice") but do you seriously plan all this stuff out? I plan a few scenes mentally then the scenes that connect them are still fun to write case you don't know what's coming next.
Ladyv 1 Oct 2014 at 00:03  
Milana - I do plan out the villains, the four plot twists, and the basics before writing. It makes it easier to write if I know where the book is going. It might just be how I think, but if I don't know my villains and twists ahead of time I wind up with a novel that doesn't have any villains or energy.
Milana 1 Oct 2014 at 00:05  
Oh, I see. I was under the impression that you plotted out every individual scene, and I was thinking "good grief, how is that possible!?!?".
Tunnell 2 Oct 2014 at 11:25  
Just some notes about my experience and observations of others taking the NaNoWriMo approach.

I see the primary objective of the NaNoWriMo is getting you, the great novelist, to write. If you don't already have some discipline of writing every day, it will be a huge shock. I approach it as a freewriting exercise. I think the structuring detailed in this post excellent, but it is a limitation on actually getting the words down. If it's slowing you up you should jump out of its restrictions. Perhaps concentrate on the areas you find easiest instead of being sequential. If you can't think within the narrative, write character and scene descriptions. If that's not forthcoming, just pure freewrite around your ideas; things could pop out, and I find often do

Make sure you understand that NaNoWriMo will not generate your first novel in one go. This may seem obvious, but I've seen those with less experience have greater expectations of the outcome. Writing is difficult and a skill which requires practice. Even with good skills, this rapid approach will need extensive edits in all respects.

Don't post your daily\weekly efforts on critique websites. Not only does this slow you down, but I believe these sites are best used for work which has already gone through a few of your own iterations, unless you like demoralising reviews.

Single sittings will be very tiring. You could burn out as your enthusiasm wanes. This is individual, but I prefer to start and maintain a steady pace, which includes the discipline of stopping even if I'm on a roll. I do little sprints instead of steady flow; two or three small sessions a day. That also fits in with my other responsibilities. This isn't good for cohesive narrative, but as I already suggested, that's not what NaNoWriMo is good for either IMHO.

Doing Liana's prep would lessen this point, but 'be flexible'. Your amazing idea be a may firework with no lasting burn, but that shouldn't mean failure. I like doing initial openings, so I will have three of a thousand words or so. However, I'll only change stream if I absolutely have to because it's an easy option when the going gets tough. Sometimes I get lucky and the separate story arcs weave together into a greater whole.

Hope there are some opinions here that might help you. Good luck all

Ginger11 5 Oct 2014 at 14:02  
Great post, Liana.

I'm using this Nano to finally get a first draft complete, or at least a complete outline, of my pirate story. I haven't given up on it yet, and one of my characters whispered to me last week that I was writing the beginning from the wrong POV. I've discovered and filled some major plot holes and I've gotten farther with the outline than I ever have before. There's still miles to go.

I like the advice about the villains. I have the three, although one is merely perceived as a villain, and he's the one that gives her the most grief. My "big baddie" has never been terribly developed, but I hope during this Nano to learn more about him.

I'm still working on the plot twists. I haven't figured out how my heroine gets to the desired ending. I know the ending, just not how she gets there. I'm maybe 40% there. She and her "beau" are starting to argue and show their differences. Today's only the 5th. I have plenty of time to figure it out.

I have learned something this last week in my Nano planning: trust my inner voice and not that of other well-meaning writers. This is MY story, and I've lived with it for A LOT of years (well over half my life!) Only I know what works and what doesn't. I've ditched ideas and characters that I absolutely loved to make a more cohesive plot. Even now, some of them are trying to reinsert themselves.

I'm off to brainstorm. See yall later! Happy Nanoing.
Fist Draft By First of the Year

Monica67 8 Oct 2014 at 23:07  
This is a fantastic guide. I've been applying it to my Nano prep, but I've gotten a bit stuck at Step 4 - the Villains. I actually do have 3 villains, and even a spare, a more ambiguous character. But what I'm confused on is the timing.

My First villain does come in right at the beginning, so I seem to have gotten that ok. But the other two, well, I'm wondering how flexible these ideas are. I've planned to bring out the villain who qualifies under this description as the Big Bad at the First Plot Point. The secondary villain is kind of in the background until the midpoint, though I'm not entirely sure his role just yet. Will this screw up my timing?
Ginger11 9 Oct 2014 at 20:50  
I say trust your instinct and do what's best for your story. These formulas are great guidelines, but don't stress too much if you can't make your story fit it. Sounds like your on track. Let the villains emerge when they need to.
Fist Draft By First of the Year

Twrt 15 Oct 2014 at 00:30  
I like this. A lot. I will be sure to use your guidelines and understand these villains as they come. Thank you for having such an excellent blog.
Mayrain 15 Oct 2014 at 18:28  
I read this an took it to heart - it helped me flesh out an outline, which will help me out with my WIP whether I commit to NaNo or not. Thanks so much!
Natster 19 Oct 2014 at 13:48  
Great post. I was thinking of doing NaNo (with no planning other than what's in my head), but your advice seems very sensible. Thanks
Whiskeyrvr 21 Oct 2014 at 22:13  
Nice article, very informative. I'm attempting NaNoWriMo for the first time this year so the help is much appreciated.
Am-j 22 Oct 2014 at 17:37  
I'm not up for the NaNoWriMo challenge this year, but I love the method laid out in the post. I copied the post to Word and gave myself some space to type between the steps. I write mainstream fiction and normally don't think in terms of villains and world building, but this framework has given me an opportunity to get out of my box, which is always a good thing.

Thanks for the excellent resource!
Jkenney 22 Oct 2014 at 18:35  
I won't try it again....but it DID inspire me to write me first book.

I think NANOWRIMO is a great concept....but for is insanely short!

I write a good book in about 3 months...asking a new writer to do it in 1...'s a great concept. Just not practical...

Keep Writing!


Jonaslee 22 Oct 2014 at 19:33  
I think NaNo month is a great kickstarter, I just always find myself falling into the editing phase right as it begins.
Deannawa 24 Oct 2014 at 00:22  
Great advice! I'm hoping to "win" this year!
Gracetier 9 Sep 2015 at 11:46  
This year will be my 9th Nano and my 7th as ML (mentor) for my Ireland North East region. Plotting in advance helps and you've some great tips here but I would add - not all writers are plotters and I've seen plenty of pantsers win Nano (but advance naming, researching and just Thinking does help). I would also add - tell your family and friends what you're doing (it commits you to it), scale back social stuff as much as possible in November (I ignore Christmas until the 1st of December, despite having small kids for example). Basically prepare to write - great. But also prepare your life. Oh yeah - and turn off the internet until your daily word count is done - social media and email is the enemy of first drafts.

And during the month, try to be ahead rather than behind. Do extra in the first week, when enthusiasm is high, because there's a high chance of you falling ill, having to handle a family or work emergency etc during 30 days. Have a cushion of words for those days.
Ginger11 11 Sep 2015 at 14:24  
I need a story. I may venture into the dares thread for inspiration.
Fist Draft By First of the Year

Wringale 13 Nov 2015 at 21:48  
I've planned on doing NaNo this year but I got stuck in the planning process because I started just a week before NaNo starts so I didn't get to finish. Reading this made it seem doable. I'm going to try this even if it's not for NaNo. Thanks for the great tips!
Consty 17 Nov 2015 at 09:44  
I'm not doing Nano, but I'm going to be using the techniques listed above to revise my novel.
Mistwalkr 19 Nov 2015 at 16:25  
I am doing NaNo. My problem is the villains. Because the hero is so young, it's hard to make the villains obvious. Then there's the one they think is a villain who is actually a secondary hero later on. Plus the characters are fighting me every time I try to refer to my notes. They are not making this NaNo easy for me.

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