How to Prep for NaNoWriMo in 7 Days
November is National Novel Writing Month, or #NaNoWriMo, if you follow along on Twitter. This November, I’ll be writing ten short stories compressed into 30 days. That’s about 5,000 words per story, with each story taking me about 3 days to write, or about 1,600 words a day. However, my plan is a bit nontraditional and most writers will be writing the first draft of an entire novel. The only guideline is that you have to write 50,000 words in the month of November in order to “Win.”
NaNoWriMo is one of those writing events that tends to get a lot of flak, usually from people who’ve tried it and found it didn’t work for them. But for authors who work well under pressure, deadlines, and outlines, NaNoWriMo can be a plotter’s dream. For every naysayer, there’s a writer who swears by this process.
If you’re a procrastinator, never fear, it’s never too late to start prepping. Below is a 7-Day guide to setting up for NaNoWriMo. If you follow this, you will end up with a good portion of your idea already sketched out, which will leave you free to write during the month and not stalled with “what happens next” or “now what?” questions halfway through.
This is just one way to approach NaNoWriMo planning. I encourage you to adapt to your own system, feel free to experiment, and don’t be afraid to tweak as you go. You do you. The goal here is to get inspired, not to get bogged down.
Day One: Create a NaNoWriMo Calendar
Using a calendar, sketch out your NaNoWriMo schedule. For 50,000 words in 30 days, each day should have about 1,666 words. You can use your normal calendar for this, a bullet journal, a printable calendar, or just a hand-drawn separate piece of paper that you can attach to your wall where you might look at it each day.
Below are some samples you might use. I particularly like Pacemaker for those who want to track their word count online. With Pacemaker, you can decide if you want to work more or less on the weekends and it will track based on your progress. There are even sample plans available.
Be sure to plan for the holidays or other events. Is there a day you know you’ll be too busy? Move that word count to a different day if needed. You can get very detailed if you want and sketch out what times each day you might write.
The act of doing this by hand can be helpful, especially if you create a physical check list of word counts for yourself. It’s terribly satisfying to check off those words as you go!
This is also a good day to create a NaNoWriMo login if you haven’t already.
Join your regional group if you have one, for updates on local in-person meetups and write-ins. Join your local NaNoWriMo Facebook group. Check the NaNoWriMo hashtag and follow other writers for inspiration and support. It’s super helpful to find a support network, other people who will cheer you on and get excited as you meet your goals. Writing is not just about sitting alone in your office (at Starbucks, on a bus, etc.) staring at your computer screen. Writing is a community.
Day Two: Sketch out Your Plot
Doesn’t that sound simple? This is a tricky task, but it must be done. Hopefully, you already have some idea that’s been simmering around in your head. If not, I’ve listed some ways to get ideas simmering below.
For Writers Who Already Have an Idea:
- Write out a one-page summary of the idea for your book. The summary should be similar to what you might send an agent: It should include who the main character is, what their goal is, what obstacle they might face, and if possible, how the story ends. Go wild with this — you still have time to tweak it. Focus on plot: What happens? What’s the problem? How does the main character solve that problem? What are the story’s influences or other books like the one you want to write? What authors are you aiming to emulate, or on the other hand, avoid sounding like?
- Cut that summary down to one paragraph. Ouch. That hurt didn’t it? But I bet having to sum up your entire book in one paragraph means that you’ve thought even harder about what the crux of the story is, right?
- Cut the paragraph summary down to one sentence. Oh baby, this is such a hard task. If you can’t make this work, that’s okay. You can always come back to it later. But if you can, you’ll have boiled your idea down to its pure essence. One way to do this: reread your one-page summary. Choose the one sentence that seems to convey the most juicy, most interesting part of the book. Work from that sentence.)
The above method is also called the “Snowflake Method” in some writing circles. Below are links to samples of this process:
For Writers Who Don’t Have an Idea Yet:
- Sketch out ten different ideas that interest you. Making a list like this is a great practice, because it forces you to come up with ten ideas and it gets your brain working. Sometimes ideas are something small, for example, objects, places, people. (I am writing a story about mood rings this NaNoWriMo. No clue how they will play into the story yet, but that was the nugget of idea for the story that got me started.)
- Send that list to three friends. Have them pick which ideas are the most interesting.
- Winnow that idea list down to your top five ideas.
- Pick an idea from the list and do the above exercise of writing a summary for it. If you don’t like that summary, pick a different idea.
Your NaNoWriMo idea might change as you write and it’s important to realize that this process doesn’t work for everyone. If you are someone who doesn’t like to be bogged down, this method might not work for you. But if you’re a writer who wants to get better at meeting goals, trying this method out might help you get organized.
Day Three: Sketch out your characters
A good story starts with characters. They move the story along, they help bring a reader into the story, they make the story one that readers can relate to. The reader wants to put themselves in the shoes of a character they love or hate. They want to think “What would I do in this situation?” So the best place to start is with character. Don’t feel you have to spend too much time on these exercises, just make rough bullet points. If you feel inspired to write more, feel free.
Here are some different character-building ideas to get you planning:
- Sketch out a profile for your main character/protagonist. (Think of it like a Facebook or Dating profile if that helps.) Some questions to answer:
- What are their likes/dislikes?
- What is their profession?
- Do they have any romantic love interests?
- Where are they from? What is their hometown like? What are their parents like? How were they raised?
- What is one bad thing that happened to them in the past?
- What is one good thing that happened to them in the past?
- Do they have any secrets?
- What do they look like? (Hair, eyes, build, clothing, style of talking)
- How does your character change throughout the plot arc?
2. Do the same for any main sub-characters. Specifically, how does their personality interact with the main character? What do they do to halt the plot or move the plot forward? What role do they play in the story?
3. Think about your villain or antagonist. Be creative — an antagonist can also be a non-human: the landscape, society, the government, a faceless entity. Answer the above questions about your antagonist, plus these:
- What is their ‘tude? (Why do they want to get in the way of the protagonist?)
- What is their redemption moment?
- Their moment of weakness?
- How will you make them likable or dislikable?
If these ideas aren’t enough to get you inspired, check out some of these character resources:
Day Four: Sketch Out Your Setting/s
Whew. If you’ve made it this far, I applaud you for the work you’ve done! Now, the fun part. What is the setting of your novel? You might be thinking, my novel is literary, there’s no real setting, just the real world. Well, even real world stories need good landscapes for characters to interact with. For example, a story about a family struggling with divorce will have a different feeling if set in a remote part of Kansas than one set in the city. World-building doesn’t have to be complex at the early draft stage, don’t fuss too much — just start with some basic notes.
Answer these questions about your setting:
- Where are we?
- What date is it?
- What language do people speak?
- What do people eat? What does the food look like or taste like?
- Is there a religion? A system of politics?
- What does the setting “feel” like — dark? Unnervingly cheerful? Dreamy?
- Is there a system of magic or technology that will change the plot in any way? If so, describe the system and how it works. (Again, don’t be afraid to go wild: Spaceships, Dragons, and Witches, oh my!)
- How does the setting change or impact the main characters? (This will, hopefully, tie back to plot.) Whether your MC is a space pilot or a teacher, setting will come into play in their lives at some major point.
It may also be helpful to make notes for later in the writing process about what you might need to research. If you’re writing a complex setting you may want to find maps, historical references, and other resources for when you’re ready to write the sections of your novel that need those details.
Resources for Writing Setting:
Day Five: Sketch out a broader theme of resonance
Every story has an underlying theme. Harry Potter is arguably about the struggle of good vs. evil, or else you can call it a coming of age story. Pride & Prejudice is about social morays and a woman’s place in that society. While you may be focused on the main plot…what happens and why…it’s also great to think about what you want to say about the story, why does it matter? What’s the “so what” that will make a reader remember the story when they’re done?
Think about this theme and sketch out a few ideas for different themes you might explore. Think about how your characters reflect that theme, how your setting reflects it.
Write a list of words that relate to your theme, perhaps you’re writing a dystopian novel. Your words might include: struggle, power, system, gritty, fate, future (This is very broad, but you get the idea.)
Remember, theme is interpreted by your reader. So you don’t want to hit them over the head with it. You just want to lay out the emotional impact that will make them want to keep reading.
Day Six: Create an outline
Okay, now that you’ve got all that done, you can focus on your outline. Now, I realize you only have one day to create an outline. So I want you to limit yourself as much as possible. Go back to your plot summary and reread it. Now, think about the different actions that your character has to take to reach those plot goals. Make a bullet point list of the different plot points. This will be your rough outline.
If it helps, break the bullet points into the following story parts: Exposition (introduction of characters and their problems), Inciting Incident (What makes the plot get started? This is the classic fairy tale element of the protagonist forced to leave their home on a quest), Rising Action (Things happen! Tension builds! The villain is villainous!), Climax (The story ends in a big bang, or else, the final problem is solved), Denouement (We revisit the characters after the last big duel, or else all the little remaining threads are tied up).
If you want too, you can approach an outline in one-sentence chapter summaries. This basically fleshes out the skeletal outline above into one-sentence chapters. It will help you with word count too, because you can roughly estimate how many chapters your book might have this way. This is called the “Flashlight” method of outlining. It’s nice to do this because it also helps limit your writing, so you don’t get too carried away in outlining. Excel spreadsheets are super helpful for this exercise.
Day Seven: Gather, Collect, and Implement Your Plan
You’ve made it! Tomorrow you’ll start the actual fun of writing your novel. For this last day of prep, gather all your notes in one place: A folder on your computer or else a physical folder on your desk. Prep your dropbox folder or your Scrivener document. Copy all your notes into these places if you want.
Review what you’ve written so far. Consider going back to your Day One calendar and adding chapter goals or plot point goals. Maybe you want to reach the end of the first section of your novel by Week 1 of NaNoWriMo. What’s the most exciting thing in your notes? Start November 1st writing that thing — the shiny bits, as I like to call them. This could be the backstory behind your villian, or else a dramatic scene. Remember: You don’t have to start your novel at the beginning. Your writing might start in the final scene of your novel, to give you something to work towards.
I hope this guide has been helpful. Remember: You do you. Every writer has a different process. The fun of NaNoWriMo is in the discovery of process as well as the challenge of sticking to a plan. There will probably be points during the month where you want to claw your eyes out. The finished product may look nothing like a novel. That’s where revision comes in.
Not everyone who participates in NaNoWriMo ends up “winning.” But at least you’ll have tried something new and hopefully learned more about yourself as a writer.
Now go forth and write!