NaNoWriMo Unsolicited Advice Part 1: Planning

No Telling

This year’s National Novel Writing Month will be my fourth rodeo. I’ve written and helped others to write for awhile now and so I thought I’d sling a little advice out there to help writers who are taking the plunge.

Still haven’t decided whether or not to participate? Aw, go ahead. The worst that can happen is that you don’t finish. At best you’ll find yourself suddenly in December with a novel. Your novel.

The realistic commitment for November is to give yourself an hour a day. If you’re a cracker-jack typist and don’t look at your fingers, maybe 45 minutes. So how much time do you spend on Facebook watching kitten videos or reading what your friends ate for lunch? Seriously, write a novel instead.

No idea where to begin? Start with a character. They’re everywhere you look. When I was a little girl there was this crazy old woman who dressed up in her Sunday finest and pedaled a rusty Schwinn all over town. She had penciled-in eyebrows up to her hairline and failed to wear underwear occasionally, but she always sported a fine pillbox hat. I haven’t written her yet, but I will. It’s likely you have characters like this floating around in your memory or pedaling past your house. Build your story around the unanswered questions.    

Keep Planning Simple. I’ve seen folks compose elaborate, tabbed notebooks of plot twists, character biographies, geographical maps, and chapter outlines. Bless their hearts. If this sort of thing works for you, by all means use it to some extent. But beware, because I’ve also watched more than a few writers quit altogether the first time their fully-planned characters decided to change direction/motivation/gender/the whole plot, and your characters WILL DO THIS.

If you’re planning begins to look like a quadratic equation (whatever that is) or takes more word count than actually writing the novel, it’s time to step away from the computer. It’s possible to plan yourself into a corner and no one wants that for you. Remember, writing a novel isn’t about control as much as it is about possibility.

Think in Scenes. Before the first day of November, make a list of scenes. Don’t call them chapters because they probably aren’t. Open up Word (or whatever you’re using) set up a folder for each scene. Label each with a word or phrase like “They Find the Body” or “She Realizes He’s Cheating.” Why? It’s about frustration and choice – always leave a key under the mat so you don’t get locked out. If you find yourself suddenly stumped or blank or worse while writing one scene, CLICKETY-CLICK and you’re in another. At the end of your daily writing jag, copy and paste what you’ve written into a Whole Enchilada folder to get your running word count. Save it everywhere. Twice.

Keep adding these scene folders throughout the month. Once you’re writing every day and walking around with the story, new scenes will start popping up all the time. Ultimately you won’t use or need every single one and that’s just fine. Just don’t delete any scene folders, even the ones with only a paragraph or a curse word. Ever. You’ll thank me later when you decide to dive into revision.

What? You mean write the story out of my carefully crafted order? Absolutely. Here’s the thing:  you’re going to do it anyway so plan for the inevitable. Give yourself permission from Day One to alter or abandon course. It’s your novel – you can do whatever you want.

That’s why it’s fun. That’s why we do it.

12 thoughts on “NaNoWriMo Unsolicited Advice Part 1: Planning

  1. This is my third NaNo and I've “won” the last two. Halfway through November last year I quit the novel I was working on (YA fantasy) and wrote a different one, then went back to the original and finished it. The second one was a fanfiction book I posted on, a mashup of Jane Eyre and vampires called THORNFIELD MANOR. Very fun to write. The fantasy novel is the second in my Lore of Fei faerie series called WAR OF FEI (LORE OF FEI was the first NaNo book). This year I am writing the third Lore of Fei book, VEIL OF FEI. I can't wait! The only planning I do is deciding which of the characters will be telling the story.

  2. You sound so fired-up, Kathleen! I know some of it is because you know how do-able it is. Nothing like multiple successes to feed the writing. And I'm with you on the narrative voice choice – in fact, I've already penciled that one in for Part 2.

    We clearly aren't exacting planners – anyone out there who is? How do you do it?

  3. That's the brilliance of it, seeing where it goes. After day six or so I'm just channeling anyway. Here's to your novel as it perks, India.

  4. Gsv and Pat, give it a try. It's the best writing experience you will ever have. Writing in scenes makes it easier to hop around a bit and write what feels right on any particular day. It keeps writer's block at bay and permits interesting turns in your story as well. The whole process becomes enjoyable!

  5. “So how much time do you spend on Facebook watching kitten videos or reading what your friends ate for lunch? Seriously, write a novel instead.”

    Now THAT is inspiring – thanks for the tips! Really like the scene folder idea.

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