Update: If you’re in the middle of your novel and it’s going slow, these tips will help: Stuck With Your Novel? Get Unstuck!
NaNoWriMo is almost here! On November 1, writers around the world will start tapping keyboards like crazy to complete a 50,000 word novel by the end of the month.
Granted, you’ll need a lot more than 50,000 words unless you keep it short, like Hugh Howey did with Wool. And most of that writing will need loads of revision. But it’s a great start and motivation for both beginners and more experienced writers alike. And who knows? You might end up with a published novel or even a best seller.
Trouble is, lots of writers drop out. Some just don’t have any experience, and they don’t know how to get going and keep going. And still others might have emergencies, health problems, or other issues out of their control.
But most drop out because they didn’t prepare. Now some of us—and that includes me—can just sit down and start writing with apparently no prep at all. One year I wrote over 70,000 words, and the story’s got a strong enough backbone to rework it.
But I always have stories scampering around in my head. And I know the kind of structure they need to work.
Doing some serious preparation will make a big difference.
You’ll write less fluff and filler. And you’ll write fewer words that are more like exploration than passages you can actually use.
Instead, you’ll write a logical story instead of a mish-mash of scenes. Sure, it will still need work. But it’ll be more like a rough-hewn path with a clear beginning and an end instead of a disorganized collection of situations and side roads.
And best of all, you won’t go crazy or quit.
Here’s the plan. Consider all the tips even if you’re a “pantser” and would rather wing it. Some might not apply to you, but they might spark some ideas.
Why not set yourself up for success rather than frustration and failure?
1. Decide what the story is about.
“Two people meet, fall in love, and get married” isn’t much of a story. Even if one of them is torn between two lovers, that’s still not enough.
Who are they and what’s special about them? What’s their goal or quest, and what conflicts or challenges do they face? Now you’re getting somewhere, but let’s take it a bit further.
Traditionally, four main types of conflict exist in literature:
- Person against person (hero vs. villain or enemy)
- Person against self (fear, addiction, prejudice, existential angst, self-destructive behavior, psychological wounds, etc.)
- Person against society (corruption, totalitarian regimes, slavery, hatred, war, bigotry, political processes, etc.)
- Person against nature (cold, heat, storms, mountains, bodies of water, tsunamis, earthquakes, etc.)
Some experts make finer distinctions and include a few more:
- Person against fate or God
- Person against supernatural forces
- Person against technology or machine
A novel can feature more than one type of conflict, but every story needs at least one. Otherwise, what’s the point?
What conflict will drive your novel? Who will complete the quest and reach the goal against all odds—or not?
2. Sketch out a few details.
It’s not cheating to develop character profiles, a basic plot, or the narrative arc before you start the actual writing. And creating an outline can stave off writer’s block.
Character profiles are your characters’ personality traits and background.
Maybe your main character is a 25-year-old guy who quit university and wonders if he should go back. He’s slender but fit with smooth caramel skin, shiny black-brown hair, and long-lashed, brown eyes. He grew up wealthy, but his parents died and left him very little. He has a younger sister. And so on.
Here’s a great chart you can use for creating unforgettable characters.
The plot is what happens.
This happened, that happened, and the other thing happened. Or it didn’t happen.
Maybe you’ll start with your character at age 20 walking around his university. His parents were killed in a car crash, and he’s angry at them for their high expectations and how they left him with nothing. But he’s also grieving. He decides to take charge of his life. He gets a job and gets fired. He quits school, and he meets a woman. She dumps him, he finds another job, he gets robbed, he gets fired again. He finds an outlet in sex and drugs, and he slowly self-destructs.
The narrative arc (sometimes called story or plot arc) is defined in various ways.
It’s not about what happened, exactly. It’s more like the ups and downs of a story. The introduction of the character(s), the spark that lights the fire, the attempts to put it out, and so on.
Narrative arc is often taught like this:
- Exposition or introduction provides background information
- Rising action starts with a series of conflicts or challenges
- Climax is the final big problem or last obstacle
- Falling action means everything is winding down
- Resolution or dénouement is the final scene(s) and how everything works out
If that sounds like, um, intimate relations, you’re right. It does. And that’s a good way to remember narrative arc.
In the example above, the novel is almost at the climax. Maybe our young man lands in a hospital after falling off a balcony, drunk. He’s hit bottom, he sees his errors, and he vows to reverse them. Slowly, he forgives his parents, and he heals. Maybe his sister visits with an aunt, whom we’ve glimpsed earlier in the story, who has a more recent copy of his parents’ will. He’s not destitute after all. Woo!
A novel’s architecture can be described in other ways and in more detail. Here’s a list of five narrative arcs with a handy chart: Shifting the Narrative Arc
A novel outline can take many forms.
The snowflake method is a popular way to outline. You start with small bits of information which expand in a series of steps. But it’s not the only way to create an outline.
I like timelines. You draw a line from left to right and add notches that represent events in chronological order. Behind or above that is the narrative arc that matches events on the timeline. It’s a good visual representation of a story. Here’s an example that comes close to what I do (horizontal, left to right instead of vertical).
And check out 8 Ways to Outline a Novel. I’m sure you can find more even more novel outlining methods with some searching. And remember: The method isn’t as important as using what works best for you. You can even use a combination of methods.
Use this preliminary prepping only as brainstorming.
You don’t want to get too detailed at this point since things may change. Stay open as the story unfolds, and let the characters reveal themselves.
3. Consider the device(s) and word processing app you’ll use.
This is probably the least of your worries, but it’s something to think about.
First, some of you might share a family desktop PC with your kids and partner. Will that PC be available when you need it? See if you can work out a schedule now rather than get frustrated later.
Does your device need an OS upgrade? What about apps you’ll use, like Evernote? Maybe you’ve been meaning to install a helpful writer’s app on your smart phone, like one of these. And you might want to install an app to block Facebook or improve your focus.
As for a word processing app, you might shrug and figure you’ll use Word or whatever you usually use. But what will work best for you in the long run?
For my first NaNoWriMo, I used Word on my Windows laptop and Pages on my desktop Mac. At a coffee shop or library, I’d save my work as a new document that’s clearly dated. Then I’d email it to myself and copy/paste into my master Pages document. But these days I import to Scrivener instead of Pages.
You have lots of choices, but I recommend Scrivener (Mac or Windows) because I use it and love it. It’s designed for writers, and you can create your outline, character profiles, synopsis, chapters, research notes, and so much more. It takes some time and effort to learn, but it’s well worth it. And it’s inexpensive, too.
4. Get set up on the Nano site.
This is the easy part. Go to National Novel Writing Month. Sign up, and do some exploring.
Under My NaNoWriMo you’ll find your Dashboard, Account Settings, and Writing Buddies. You might want to check out Regions and Find a Region.
5. Join a local NaNoWriMo group and attend kick-off meetings.
I usually write alone in complete quiet. That’s because I can get seriously distracted by the hubbub at a coffee shop or other public place. And when I’m out with people, I want to talk with them, you know? Otherwise I might as well stay home.
But I’ve had some really great times with a local NaNo group, and I found I was able to write just fine. In fact, I got a lot of writing done! After the initial chit-chat dies down, you get to work. And the “sprints” are great for motivation.
So be sure to get in touch with your Home Region NaNoWriMo group, and join in the fun. If you don’t have a nearby NaNoWriMo Home Region, check out local writing clubs. They’re probably gearing up for NaNo even if they’re not an offical region.
Now for some practical matters
Don’t let stress win. Clear the way for November in October. What can you do now to make writing and focusing easier for National Novel Writing Month?
6. Clean Your House or Apartment
If you don’t care much about cleaning, skip this.
But if you’re like me, you can’t function in chaos. If my place is a little messy—fine. Dishes piled up, recyclables overflowing, or who-knows-what-all covering my desk isn’t a big deal. It doesn’t take me long to get things in order again.
But funky red and black stuff growing between bathroom tiles? Seriously dirty windows? A crunchy kitchen floor? Fuhgeddaboutit.
Get your house or apartment organized and sparking clean in October so pick-up’s a breeze in November. Have friends doing Nano? Team up in each other’s homes and have fun while you’re at it.
7. Get Your Laundry Done
I’m not joking. And I mean do all your laundry. Sheets, towels, hoodies stuffed in the back of a closet—anything to save time for writing and prevent distractions.
And while you’re at it, make sure change-of-season apparel (if needed) is ready to go. If you’re in the northern hemisphere, get the sweaters and jackets out. In the Southern Hemisphere, do the opposite. It all depends on your climate and what you’d normally do in November. Just get it done early!
And you do have at least 30 pairs of underwear, right? Enough socks, T-shirts, bras, and whatever else to last a month, right? Whatever it takes to make November easier, do it.
8. Stock up on food and supplies
Stock the cabinets and freezer with everything you’ll need for the month except perishables.
Cook and freeze meals—casseroles and soup freeze especially well. You can even chop veggies you need for recipes (like onions and peppers) or prepare your own sauces (like a curry sauce) and freeze in advance.
Stock up on canned goods or grains you normally use like rice, pasta, or cereal. And set up a stash of healthy treats like pumpkin seeds, nuts, or healthy trail mixes you can make yourself. You’ll need to plan, however, on a weekly trip for fresh fruit or veggies like carrots, broccoli, or cauliflower to slice up for finger food.
I don’t recommend loads of coffee, chocolate, cookies, or pastries, by the way. This is serious business, and you need to keep your brain in tip-top shape. Forget the sugar rushes and crashes. Stay steady.
And don’t forget extra napkins, toilet paper, and cleaning supplies. The last thing you need is to run out of essentials when you have more important things going on.
9. Get ahead of holiday prep if it applies to you.
If you’re in the US, you know what that means: Thanksgiving. And that can translate to four or five days of family, feasting, and shopping. Throw in travel time, hosting or visiting relatives, cooking, and even decorating for Christmas and you’re risking failure.
Why not skip the holiday hullabaloo? Take the family out to dinner or limit family visits. You can catch up later on.
You’re a writer, after all, and you have serious work to do. Dare I suggest boycotting Black Friday?
If skipping or cutting back on holiday jazz means mutiny or permanent familial ostracization, do your preparation in October. Make plans, create menus, compile lists, and do the shopping. Get out the table linens and whatever you normally do in November.
And ask for support from your kids and partner, if that’s your situation. Assign extra tasks for the month. Show teenagers how to do their own laundry or other tasks if they don’t already know how.
10. Give yourself time to think and imagine.
If you do nothing else, do this.
Find alone time. Take walks. Go to a park or other nature area, and just sit. Watch birds or a sunset. Linger over coffee or tea if you can. Stare out a window. Do some reading about the location and time period (if applicable) in which your story takes place. Visit the locale. Use Google maps to explore the area.
Or sit in a room with nothing to do but sit. Face a blank wall. Give your mind nothing to do but wander.
And think about your story. Your characters. The problems they face. What their lives were like before the story unfolds.
Envision situations that might occur and scenes you could write. Think in terms of “What if?” as Stephen King advises.
Set your imagination free.
What are you doing to get ready for National Novel Writing Month?
What got you stressed last time? What are you worried about if this is your first NaNoWriMo attempt?
Share your tips, experience, or questions in the comments!