Oh, man, friends. I wrote this post before writing the into, and let me tell you, this one is a doozy. But! Keep reading if you want some solid advice on how to start planning your NaNoWriMo novel this year!
Whether you’re a Plotter or a Pantser, we can all benefit from a little forethought before November 1st. And, please, if you want to share your plotting tips, hop on over to our social pages or Discord to join the conversation! We are always eager to talk story.
Settle on an idea
If you’re like me, you have dozens of tiny snippets of story taking up room in the notes section of your phone. But sometimes that isn’t enough to spark a whole story. And when it comes to NaNoWriMo, you don’t want to get stuck with an idea that you have to abandon after a week. Although, if you do, you’ll get no judgment from us. Some stories just aren’t ready. Words are words this month, no matter what.
If your well is empty, though, and you have no idea where to start then you need to get thinking. Ideas can come from anywhere. Listen to some good music and see what happens (what do you picture when you hear certain songs? Can you write what you see?). Read books and watch movies and keep an eye out for ideas you like (pirates with eyepatches, grand gestures, brooding princes, pink ballgowns) and then see what else you can do with them. You can ask yourself some other questions, too. How can you subvert your favorite trope? What cliche have you always wanted to write about? What if this fairy tale ended differently? What if this classic tale happened in space?
Ideas are everywhere, you just have to find your spark and turn your spark into lightning.
I’m always a fan of testing the waters. If I have a small idea and I want to know if it is worth writing, I always like to write down what I know about it now and maybe even write a test scene or two. If I can do all that, then I know my story has merit and I can go from there and actually begin brainstorming.
Megan’s process in action
Here’s an example of my process, if you want to try it out for yourself:
For my NaNo novel this year, I’m working on an idea that I’m calling “All the Devils,” but the very first thing I ever wrote down about this story was just two words: Nasty job. (Maybe you can think of some weird things you might want to write about, too?)
So, basically, from just those two words, I knew that I wanted my main character to have to do some super gross, low level job (think sewers, mud, blood, etc.) Based on that, it didn’t take me long to have a premise:
“Girl does a “nasty job” because she’s the oldest in her family after the death of her brother, who did the same job. It’s what killed him. His boss needed someone to fill his place and they weren’t going to take no for an answer.”
Once I had my premise, I knew I wanted to write this story.
Storm your brain
Once you’ve picked an idea, whether or not you’ve tested the waters like me, this is the point where you can write down every single thing you know about this story. Do you have a main character? A few plot points or scene ideas? A grand romance? A creepy badguy? A cool setting?
Even if some of these ideas never make it onto the page, this is your chance to at least get them out of your head. But don’t forget to organize! Color-code, have different documents, whatever you need to make sure you keep track of all your notes.
Megan’s process in action
To keep using the example of ATD: After I settled on my idea, I needed more. My brainstorming happened in this order:
- Expanded on the premise and character (why she had to take the job).
- Who is this boss? Brainstormed a gang and what her job would entail.
- Knew I wanted a super slow-burn romance.
- Had the idea of the title (and a book two title).
- Wrote a random snippet of a scene.
- Brainstormed magic system.
- Brainstormed character basics (appearance and personality traits).
- Thought of names.
- Brainstormed rough plot ideas.
- Brainstormed more about the gang.
- Brainstormed the fantasy city setting.
- Worked out a backstory and basic arc for my two main characters.
- Wrote more sample scenes.
Crazy, right? Totally. I’m a mess. There’s no way anyone else’s process is exactly like mine. But from this, at least you can kind of get an idea of the types of things I think about before actually writing a story. It really comes down to three things: the characters, the world, and the plot.
Design your characters
Now, you don’t yet need to know every Starbucks barista, gas station manager, and high school teacher. But now is a great time to start thinking about who’s telling your story. A book is nothing but a bunch of things happening until you have a character for you and the reader to care about.
Whether your idea sparked as a character or as a story or something else entirely, you have to ask: why does this matter? It matters because of character. Who’s telling the story and why is the most crucial part of your novel. Yes, even more than plot.
In very, very basic terms (that can lead to a whole lot), here is some advice from Victoria Schwab on building characters:
- What do they fear?
- What do they want?
- What are they willing to do to get it?
Schwab also recommends giving your characters a mantra (In the Shades of Magic series, Lila Bard’s mantra is “if something is worth having, it’s worth stealing.”) and then have them break their mantra over the course of the story.
After you have their motivations, you can start crafting your main character’s physical appearance, personality traits, backstory, quirks, hobbies, birthday, Enneagram type, etc. But only if you want to. Check out this blog post on designing characters for a more thorough approach.
Once you’ve nailed down the main character, you can think about other important people in your story. Like you love interest, or bad guy, or best friend, or whatever. These people will all have backstories and motivations and personalities too, but if you’re not ready to delve into them too deep, that’s okay. You learn a lot about characters when you write them.
Megan’s process in action
I’m going off the cuff here, because I haven’t actually through Schwab’s process for my main character. I know a lot about her so far, but not everything.
- What does she fear? – Being stuck in her place and tied to her family forever.
- What does she want? – To figure out how her brother died. To pay his debt to the gang so that her family will be better off. To get out of her neighborhood and find something better.
- What is she willing to do to get it? – She’s willing to get tangled up with the local crime syndicate and do the lowest of the low jobs.
- What is her mantra? – Everyone is selfish and you have to be selfish to get anything you want.
I don’t know, guys. I’m not sold on my answers. Let me know what you think.
Outline a plot
There are a few different ways to outline and no system is one-size-fits-all. You have to do whatever works best for you and your story, whether it’s as simple as writing out a few key plot points or writing up a full skeleton draft.
Even if you’re a Panster, you can still outline a plot. It just might look very different than a Plotter’s outline. Here are some questions to ask yourself if you’re a Pantser:
- How does your story start? – write down some key ideas and themes that you want to see at the beginning of your story, even if you don’t yet know what scenes your novel will open with. Write down what you know about your characters.
- How will your story end? – you may not have an ending yet (or it may change drastically between now and the end of November), but you can still think about how you want your characters to change over the course of the story. Does a selfish character learn to be selfless? Do two characters fall in love? Does the bad guy lose? Does someone die?
- How will you get from the beginning to the end? – again, you can think about this just in terms of general ideas, themes, and feelings. Your characters need to change from the start to finish. What has to happen for them to do that? How will things like setting, other characters, antagonists, etc. catalyze or force that change?
Hey, look at that, now you’re a Panster with the start of a plot. And if you’re a plotter, now you’re in a great place to start outlining some points for your novel. To keep going, you’ll have to pick a plotting method. Do your research and find one that’s best for you.
One of our favorites is the Save the Cat method. In simple terms, this method takes the three-act plot structure a step further. Save the Cat Writes a Novel is a great resource to read up on how so many books are structured and what kind of plot points and emotional steps happen along the way. Check out our blog post on Plotting Your Novel to help you get started.
Megan’s process in action
I’m not going to outline my whole story for you here (cause secrets), but I will say that I am still working through it. In very, very basic terms:
- Act One: MC has to do a nasty job
- Act Two: MC does the nasty job to find out how her brother died and repay his debt
- Act Three: MC learns big secrets, but also realizes that not everyone is selfish all the time and it’s okay to trust people sometimes.
Think about your world
I won’t go into too much detail here, because, again, your world will really come through as you write. You really might not have a clue about what’s going on in your world until much later in your process. You can, however, start to think about a few things if it fits into your schedule:
- Setting and geography
- Structure of society
- Magic system
- People and culture
Now, there is a ton that goes into your world, but really, don’t sweat it if it’s too much to think about just yet. For a bit more of an in-depth look at world-building, though, you can check out this blog post from last year.
Megan’s process in action
Again, I won’t bore you, but I have not written more than a couple of tiny snippets of this story and I’ve still thought about all of those things listed above. I have extensive notes on:
- The industrial city that is my setting, its different neighborhoods, and how it’s situated in the geography of the area
- The upper class who governs the city and the gang who actually controls the city
- The subtle magic system and how it plays a role in the plot
- The hierarchy of the gang and how this gang culture has infiltrated every neighborhood of the city. How the working class makes money. How the ruling class spends money.
Get your research out of the way
Research is a major step in getting ready to write and we know better than anyone that random research can crop up at any moment! During NaNoWriMo, however, you really can’t afford to spend two hours looking up the history of indoor plumbing instead of getting your words on the page.
Instead, try writing down all the topics you might need to research ahead of time. Spend a few days on Wikipedia and take notes along the way. If that’s not how you work, though, maybe you could save a few web pages so that when research does come during November, you don’t have to dig. The information you need is right there!
Of course, there will still be things you don’t know or will want to expand on while you’re writing. Our best advice for NaNo especially is to add a certain marker into your work so that you can come back later and fill in the details
For example, you can add a note like: ***more details about 15th-century men’s fashion here*** Point out all your notes the same way, so that when NaNo is over you can just type *** or whatever marker into your search bar so you can find every place you need to do a little more research.
(Fun Fact: This works for a lot of things, actually! Sometimes when you’re on a roll, you don’t want to slow down or get distracted. You can add a similar note and skip ahead. Example: [[add steamy bits here]] or [[a fight ensues. A injures B and then escapes.]] Try it next time so you don’t get stuck!)
Megan’s process in action
Okay, so I’m a little bit hypocritical. I have done, like, no research for my story so far. That’s just not how I work. I did some vague googling on the Industrial Revolution and the 1920s (a mashup of these two time periods is the inspiration for my city). But other than that, I have only spent time on Pinterest and Spotify. But that TOTALLY COUNTS.
In fact, even if you, like me, aren’t really a research person, you should absolutely create aesthetics, scour Pinterest, make playlists, and whatever else before November instead! I highly recommend it, actually. Getting in the right frame of mind for my story is my research. And it’s just as important as figuring out when electricity became a household thing. (This is fantasy, does it really matter anyway? Nooo.)
Join me on Instagram for more on my NaNo journey this year and I’m sure you’ll get an even better look at my writing process and my story this year (maybe even including some aesthetic and playlist insights).
Don’t forget your Mighty Pens resources!
If you’re struggling to pick an idea or where to go from your initial spark, you can always rely on your friends at the Mighty Pens! Hop on Discord and talk it out with a few like-minded writers.
We also did a Preptober series on our blog last year all about planning different aspects of your story.
Want to join the fun?
We hope you are ready to tackle Preptober and your next novel! But that’s not the only reason we’re here.
Community is one thing that drives us forward every day in the writing world. Sure, we want to write books and get them published, but we will never be able to accomplish that without a few people keeping us sane. The Mighty Pens is a fantastic place to meet new writing friends, tackle NaNoWriMo, and support a good cause along the way. Join in on the fun here!
Come visit us on social media, too! We’ll be talking about some great things over the coming weeks on Twitter and Instagram. And if you’re interested in connecting with more people during Preptober check out hashtags like #preptober and #preptober2020 to see what other writers just like you are up to.
Good luck with your NaNoWriMo prep!