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NaNoWriMo is one of the best ways for an aspiring writer to kick themselves in the butt and take their writing to a whole new level. Before NaNo, I could never get more than 20-25k words into a book before I petered out and gave up. I won NaNo in 2009 and again in 2010, each time just crossing the 50k finish line, and I did it while working a full time job.

Part 1: Planning your Story

Got a few things you’ve already started working on? A few thousand words head start? That’s great – but you’re not going to want to hear this: don’t use them. Start fresh. There are two reasons for this: One; if you’ve started something before and hit a rut, you’re going to start November in a rut. Two; when you started your last novel adventure, it was the book you really wanted to write. NaNo is not for writing that book. NaNo is an experiment. You’re already putting pressure on yourself by attempting to write 50k words in 30 days, so take a little pressure off and come up with a story idea that has a little less history for you. A new idea; one that if it fails you won’t care about so much. This advice might turn some people off, but I truly believe that NaNoWriMo is not about writing a novel – it’s about learning how to write a novel. It’s about learning how you write. And remember – just because you start with less pressure doesn’t mean you won’t be proud of the result.

If you’re going to survive the month, riddled with writer’s block and distractions, you need a solid plan. I’m not going to give the secret formula for writing a complete novel: there are plenty of books out there on that subject, each describing techniques that may or may not work for you. Yes, it’s true – some writers can start from scratch and write until a book is done with very little planning. These people are sometimes called pantsers (as in, they write by the seat of their pants); if you’re doing NaNoWriMo for the first time, you’re probably not – or should not be – one of them (otherwise you’d have written a novel or ten by now).

So do yourself a favor and do a little planning. Without trying to box you into a formula, I’ll mention a couple of key things that can help in this regard:

Characters

I start with this for a reason – most novels are character-driven. When you fully plan your characters, you’ll be amazed at how much of the story comes from their backgrounds, their motives, their desires, their fears, etc. Giving some depth to your main characters helps you break out of cliches and stereotypes. At the very least, for each main character you need to know:

  • Name (make sure you like it or you’ll be search & replacing later)
  • Age
  • Physical description (I like to doodle them; no one is going to see my terrible drawings, but it helps solidify a purely imaginative character in my mind’s eye; sometimes I collect photos of strangers – it helps!)
  • Occupation
  • Education (training, upbringing, etc)
  • Family: parents (living or dead, what were their occupations) and siblings (younger or older and occupations). There’s always a temptation (in particular if you’re writing anything action/adventure/thriller/etc) to leave parents out; they become a liability, and sometimes we might like to pretend we’ve grown up to be independent human beings that act of their own free will, with no influence (positive or negative) from those that raised us. Even if your character’s parents died young or if your character was adopted, then someone raised them (even if that someone was a pack of wolves). Of course, being raised by someone other than your biological parents in and of itself could be a central theme of your whole storyline.
  • Arc: Last but not least, you need to have an idea of how your characters are going to change, or how they are going to refuse to change throughout the story; in other words, the character arcs.

Setting

Seems obvious – obvious enough to overlook. Just write it down: the where and the when. Rural, urban, real world, fictional world, past, present, future? If you’re doing anything other than real world places that you have lived in and in the time periods in which you lived there, then you’ve got some inventing and/or researching to do. Get as much of it down as possible; you don’t want to run into a roadblock halfway through your story because you don’t know some key bit of information about your setting. And remember, setting isn’t just location and time period – depending on your story, it might include cultural identities, political environment, racial diversity (or lack thereof), class diversity (or lack thereof), even the weather.

Plot

How different writers plan their plots varies all over the map; and there are tons of books that describe success-guaranteeing methods. The good news is, NaNo is going to help you learn which plot-planning method works best for you.

I like to create an outline, breaking the story into a few key moments that get me from the beginning to the end. Then I do one or two sentences each for the first 5-10 scenes. When I’m actually writing, I can go a few days just following my own outline, and I can easily adjust as I go. I always make sure I have at least the next 5 scenes or so planned out before I move on. This is a big motivator for me: When I know where the story is going, I never have a problem with writer’s block. Even if you get stuck in the middle of a scene, you can always skip it and move on – you can always come back later. Yes, you’re allowed to do that! Heck, you can even write the last third of the book first and then start from the beginning and back-fill.

Perspective

Here’s another one that seems obvious, but trust me, you need to make sure you’re happy with your decision before you start. Basically, you need to decide if you’ll be writing in the first person or the third. Let’s take a look at the differences:

  • First person: You can get very in depth into one character this way, describing their thoughts and motives throughout the story. This is NaNo, so this perspective can actually allow you to cruise through word count pretty quickly, because a character can ponder loquaciously page after page. However, when it comes time to edit, you might end up taking big chunks of the inner voice out because it often slows down the movement and the progression of the plot. The other major warning about first person: if at any point, you want to know another character’s views and motives, they either have to declare them out loud (or in writing or whatever) or the main character has to speculate. This is often a good, challenging restriction to place on yourself as a writer, but you need to be aware of it up front in case that’s just not going to work for you and your story. One last point about first person: yes, it’s possible to do multiple first person perspectives. I’ve read a few books written this way and I’ve enjoyed them very much; but I’d venture a guess that it’s not easy to pull off for a beginning writer.
  • Third person: With this perspective, there are actually a couple of sub-categories. I’m not an expert in this stuff, but I can tell you what I think is important to know when planning for NaNo. There are two ways this can go: First, you can write in the third person, but from the perspective of one or more characters. This is a good way to go if you have one to few central characters that you’re going to need to use to tell the story. Think of it like you’re standing over someone’s shoulder. You aren’t seeing the world through their eyes totally, but you get a sense of what they are thinking and each scene moves along in their single perspective. That last part is important, so I’ll repeat it – if you’re going to do it this way, you need to be consistent – don’t change shoulders mid-scene (in your outline, when you’re mapping scenes, designate a character to be the lead over-the-shoulder perspective in each). The second way of doing perspective is to go more omniscient, where the whole story is more of a TV-camera view. It sounds the easiest and the most natural way to go, but you can’t really get too much into a character’s head without making the perspective confusing. And let’s face it, are you writing a novel or a script?

Tense

I left this for last because it really is the least important. Most of us are used to writing in the past tense, and that usually works fine. Personally, I’ve fallen in love with the present tense lately – I find it adds an element of tension, as in, the narrator or storyteller isn’t looking back on a whole book of what has already happened, but instead is discovering everything at the same rate as the reader. Be careful if you’re going to try present tense: You’re going to spend a lot of time rewriting sentences that came out in the past tense.

With regards to the last two sections, Perspective and Tense: what’s the best way to decide? Practice, of course! Come up with a scene or two – it doesn’t have to be interesting, just something with dialog and maybe a bit of action (or a lot of action) – and write it a few different ways. Change the perspective, change the tense. You want to find a combination that works best for telling the particular story you are telling, but more importantly, you want a combination of perspective and tense that you are comfortable with.

So that’s Part 1 of Surviving NaNoWriMo, the planning. I’ll be back with another post of just general tips for getting through the month of November.

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Thanks for reading!

Jason LaPier is the author of Unexpected Rain, an interstellar murder mystery that reviewers have called "unexpectedly unique" and an "homage to past masters". Learn more about this noir SF novel that kicks off a trilogy.

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Jason W. LaPier is a multi-genre writer, delving into science fiction, speculative fiction, horror, slipstream, literary fiction, and surrealism. Originally from Upstate NY, Jason now lives in Portland, OR with his wife and their dachshund. By day, he is a software engineer at Elemental Technologies, where he creates the kinds of virtual worlds that actually do something. He is always in search of the perfect Italian sandwich.

9 Comments

  1. Excellent advice, especially for a first timer like me. Thank you!

  2. thanks jason! i have been searching for nano prep info for a while, and this is hands-down the most helpful!

  3. Great advice. I do believe I’m half a “pantser,” because when I began to read what you wrote about plot I felt some anxiety come up. A loose outline works for me, but midway I end up writing something else.
    Totally agree with 1st person, it so much easier to get the dialogue and interior monologue going, that is until I mix up past and present tense.

  4. Yes, thank you so much for sharing these tips! Very kind of you! xo

  5. Excellent advice! Thank you! I’m a first-timer with NaNoWriMo. I’m excited, but nervous. Breaking into the world of “real” writing.

    Kat

  6. I’m still undecided about wheather or not I’ll participate in the NoMo, but your article is great inspiration. Thanks a million. Wish me luck if I get brave enough to try.
    Barbara.

  7. Stephanie

    Thank you for sharing. I am a first-timer as well and am terribly excited for the ride.

  8. Thanks for the helpful hints. I hope that this year will be the most fruitful of all.

  9. Lucinda Fountain

    Thank you so much for this most helpful and informative post. I only recently herd about NaNoWriMo for the first time and have decided to have a go. The main point that keeps apearing on everyones lips is in regards to planning, and how important it is if you want to write a novel in November (especially one, even a first draft, to publish).
    With your sound advice i do hope that something positive comes out of Nov 2012.

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