How to NaNo

In the past, I’ve been the unofficial ML for the Portsmouth (UK) Region. This year, it’s official. There will be a series of tweets running through October to get you prepared for November (from @AngelLithium and @NaNoPortsmouth), but if you can’t wait to see them each day, here’s an outline. I’m mostly using my worksheets to get you planning, but there are some days when I leave you to your own devices. Good luck!

Week 1

  • Day 1: Decide what kind of story you’d like to write. Pick your genre or mix a few together. What is the basic plot? Try my plot ideas worksheet if you’re stuck.
  • Day 2: Start fleshing out your ideas. If you still have none, try this worksheet.
  • Day 3: Make a simple outline of your plot. Where does it begin? What happens? Focus on the first page of this plotting worksheet.
  • Day 4: Plan each of your story’s stages in a little more detail. How does it begin? How does it end? Why? Go onto page two of the plotting worksheet.
  • Day 5: Where does your story take place? Describe your settings. Visualise them. This settings worksheet may come in useful. You can also make pin boards, sketches, collages etc.
  • Day 6: Think a little more about the world/area you’re setting your story. Don’t forget the bigger picture! The society in which your characters live can have a huge impact on the plot. Try this worldbuilding worksheet.

Week 2

Yes, I know week 1 only went up to day 6. Deal with it.

  • Day 7: Start thinking about characters. Who is in your story? What do they want to achieve? Give them a background story and dreams. Try this character worksheet if you struggle.
  • Day 8: Think about the strengths and weaknesses of each of your characters. Are they well rounded people? If not, why not. It’s okay to have characters who are unstable, so long as there is a reason and they’re not unlikable. Try this worksheet for ideas.
  • Day 9: Following on from yesterday, how might the strengths/weakness of your characters interact? Do characters balance each other out? Do they conflict? How might this affect your plot? This worksheet aims to help you find the best combination to make or overcome plot points.
  • Day 10: How do your characters speak? Any vocal quirks? Make sure they can be distinguished from one another. Record the details using this dialogue worksheet.
  • Day 11: How do your characters react in unusual situations? Pick a news article and substitute your characters to see what happens next or try this set of prompts.
  • Day 12: Make a sketch of your main character(s). Draw, photoshop, cut up magazines and glue them back together – whatever works for you. It often helps to have a visual representation of your characters.
  • Day 13: Think about the archetypal role each of your characters play. Who’s the hero? Who’s the villain? Do a little research on character archetypes – you need a basic set to get a novel moving. It’s worth noting that the ‘archetypes’ might not be physical characters – they could also be locations, objects or even emotions.

Week 3

Week 3 is all about plotting. It follows the plotting worksheet, but you can wing it if you prefer or use a beat sheet or some other tool. It’s all about what works for you.

  • Day 14: How does your story begin? Describe the ‘everyday’ life of your characters. This is the ‘Ordinary World’ from page 3 of the plotting worksheet.
  • Day 15: Turning point 1. What happens to change the lives of your characters? What kick starts the story? The is the ‘Inciting Incident’ from the plotting worksheet.
  • Day 16: How do your characters resist their journey? Show them dragging their feet or not taking it seriously, even if they’ve agreed to go along with it. To them, it’s still fun and games at this point.
  • Day 17: Turning point 2. Kick ‘em again. Make your characters realise they MUST do this story. Don’t be gentle! This is the beginning of Act II in the plotting worksheet. This is where things start getting really interesting.
  • Day 18: The crisis. Now they’ve started, make it a fight for survival. Put them on the brink of defeat. After their minor victory in getting started, this is where the absolute seriousness of the situation becomes apparent. Perhaps they lose one of their group, get separated or have a key item stolen. Check out page 5 of the plotting worksheet.
  • Day 19: Turning point 3. The Showdown. Nearly there. Think about how they’re going to defeat the big bad. Don’t forget to foreshadow any skills you’ll need in the finale. If you’re missing something vital, go back and add it in somewhere in your plan. This is the beginning of Act III.
  • Day 20: Resolution. What has changed, both in the characters and the world around them? How are they different now? Tie up any loose ends and weave in your subplots. Bring everything together. Your ending doesn’t have to be happy, but we do have to feel like your characters have achieved something. If they don’t, what was the point?

Week 4 & the leftover days

Well, there’s still eleven whole days to go. Let’s polish our plan and touch up on the details.

  • Day 21: With the outline complete, focus on the main plot points. How do they unfurl and resolve? This applies to both your main story and any subplots that contribute to the resolution. Try the plot points worksheet if you work well with lists or make a diagram if that’s easier.
  • Day 22: Yet more detail! Get down to the nitty gritty of each trial your characters face. Think about why each trial is happening. You can use these mini tests to foreshadow skills in the showdown or to obtain key items you will need later on. Your characters might not know why something is important, but as long as you know, it will probably work. Try the tests and trials worksheet if you need a more in-depth plan.
  • Day 23: If you get stuck resolving a scene, think about the pros & cons of every possible outcome. What changes if a character breaks an arm instead of a leg? How do the different outcomes affect character dynamics? Which outcome is the most devastating and which fits best in your story? I use this worksheet ALL the time for brainstorming when I get blocked. See also: day 28.
  • Day 24: Make sure each of your main characters has a good story arc. What do they want and how do they get it? If they’re just along for the ride, what justifies them being there? All characters need a motive – make sure you know what it is. Use the subplot worksheet to plan these smaller journeys. You’ll notice that it follows the same template as the main plot – these are the key elements in any story, no matter how small.
  • Day 25: Don’t forget about your villain! Make sure that they’ve got a good reason for doing that bad thing you made them do. Remember that the villain is never the bad guy in their own story. Make sure they’ve got a good back story (even if it’s not really explained) and redeeming features too. No one is just pure evil.
  • Day 26: “Stuff” has a place in stories too. What “key items” do your characters need to obtain? How do they get them? Where? Why are they needed? This goes back to the detail on day 22. If there are a lot of key items in your story, you can use the inventory worksheet to keep track of them. I find this particularly useful in adventure and crime stories. You could also use it to log pieces of “key information” that a character might need to know – like the clues in a mystery novel.
  • Day 27: Is there magic in your world? Think about the way this affects the world and its people. The way it is used could affect your plot – imagine running out of magic at a key moment or having just used up the last ingredient you need for a potion. Try the magic worksheet to make sure your magic works.
    • If there isn’t magic (or if this is going to be useful anyway), use this day to do any fact-checking that may be useful to you. This could be making sure you have easy access to a list of important names and dates, distances between key locations or even if cyanide is lethal to cats (FYI, yes it is).
  • Day 28: If you’re still deciding between scenarios, try this worksheet. It may also help with deciding an outcome like I mentioned on day 23.
  • Day 29: Tie up all those loose ends – we already did it once, but no doubt, you’ve made more. Make sure each character has a resolution of some sort. This is where you can add in the small details, foreshadow events to come and work out the best places to drop all the hints to your reader.
  • Day 30: Refine your characters’ strengths and weaknesses in light of the story you’ve decided to tell. Do they make sense? Do they push the story? For example, if you have a character with a crippling fear of snails, what role do the snails play? If there are no snails in the story at all, consider a more relevant fear. Whenever a character has to overcome a barrier in their own mind, we can all relate – we’ve all had to face our own demons at some point.
  • Day 31: Read over everything again. Revise. Tweak. Decide. Plaster your plans all over your walls. Charge your laptop. Buy a new pen. Find a nice notebook. Let’s get ready to go! NaNoPrep is over. The writing is about to begin.

I hope you’ve found this whistle-stop NaNo guide useful. Just bear in mind that writing is a very subjective and personal undertaking and what works for me might not work for any other person on this planet. Do whatever you like with what you’ve learned. Follow it strictly; put it in a different order; ignore bits; tear it up and throw it to the winds.

Whatever you do, if it stops being fun, take a step back. Do something else. If you’re not enjoying it, why are you doing it? If all else fails, start November with a blank sheet of paper and write whatever comes to mind. You can do it. I believe in you. Whoever you are.

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