(For those who have no idea what NaNoWriMo is, it’s National Novel Writing Month, an annual peer pressure method to help people get a book written over the course of November. There’s a website run by a nonprofit at www.nanowrimo.org if you’re interested.)
This year will be my 11th NaNo. Barring unforeseen disaster like a massive earthquake, it’ll also be my 11th win. Winning at NaNo means you wrote 50,000+ words in 30 days. For that, you get a pat on the head. The more important part is that you typically have a manuscript in your hands.
Now, my friends, I can write a novel in 30 days any time I want to. At this point, I can do it any month of the year, with or without NaNo. Most years, I write over 100,000 words in November. I still participate because it’s fun and social. My region is full of people who enjoy writing, and that helps me remember that I too was once young and carefree, without deadlines or commitments.
Excuse me while I cry into my tea about everything I need to get done before the wild abandon of November.
NaNoPrep is the process of preparing for writing that novel in November. I have been both a planner and a pantser. My process is a Goldilocks amount of planning that took me years to suss out and nail down. I, my friends, am a plantser. Though I am 100% capable of writing to a complete outline, I do not enjoy making them. Once i have the basic idea of the story, I would rather just get to the fun bits of writing.
When I pantsed, I knew a very minimal amount of stuff to start. Sometimes, I only knew the genre. Other times, I had a particular character or plot idea in mind. What I learned from this tactical approach is that it requires many drafts and much rewriting. The more planning I do, to a certain point, the less revision is necessary. My typical plan now nets me a manuscript requiring only minor rewrites, so I must be doing something right.
How much planning is enough for you?
This is a process of trial and error. My advice for a writer who has no idea is to start with shorter works because they take less plot. You can do five 10,000 word stories and call NaNo a win! That’s okay! It’s about how many words you write, not anything else. Which sounds stupid, but words written are always better than words not written. You can revise and edit written words. Not so much for unwritten words.
How do you plan? What does that even mean?
Planning takes many shapes and forms. To some, it means a list of character beats, complete character biographies for everyone, and lots of lists of important thing. To others, it involves reams of notes in a less orderly structure. Here’s what I do.
- Pick a subgenre–space opera, YA urban fantasy, superheroes, etc.
- What’s the foundational idea? Harry Potter meets Pacific Rim, Heroes TV show style supers, arabian nights style fantasy, etc.
- What kind of main character do I want to explore? This is where I decide basic things like gender, sexuality, ethnicity, skin tone, and similar points.
- What type of story do I want to tell? What level of romance do I want? Am I going dark or darker? What’s my level of language, violence, sex, etc.? Who is my intended audience? My schtick is family stuff, so will it involve a character with a family or a character who finds one?
- Who’s the bad guy? You can write stories where nature or some other non-personified element is the antagonist, but that’s not my thing. I like bad guys. Sometimes the bad guy is gray area, sometimes they’re really dark and evil.
- My bad guy’s goals tend to drive the plot. That’s how I roll. So I consider what they want, how that’s bad, and why the good guy gets involved. This is where I figure out how the bad guy intends to achieve their goals, and what would happen if they did. Then I look at it from the good guy’s side, figuring out which parts of the bad guy’s machinations are weak points susceptible to interference. That could mean convincing a bad guy lackey to turn traitor, intercepting messages, or stopping a bomb from going off.
- Now I have some stuff to work with. Arrange the bits from point 6 in some kind of order and apply logic to the flow so it makes sense.
- Figure out the opening scene. Typically, you want some kind of conflict at the beginning, though it doesn’t have to be the central conflict. It can be something that, when resolved, leads the hero to the main conflict. It can be something that festers and bothers the hero throughout the story. Or it can be the main conflict getting shoved into the hero’s face. A typical opening conflict for a Hero’s Journey story is the clash between the heroic desire for adventure and the hero’s exceedingly boring, monotonous life full of turnips or power converters.
- Figure out how the story ends. When you take a trip in the car, you typically have a better chance of getting to a place if you know where it is. The exact route may have options, but the end point is kind of critical.
- Along the way, I make decisions about the world that suit my plotting needs. Magic, tech, government, important laws/rules, climate, music, critters, and so on.
Boom. I’m ready to go. Probably. I might do some pre-writing of a backstory vignette to nail down the character’s voice and figure out what kind of sidekick or partner I want. If you don’t have a clue where to start, though, I hope this helps!