A Guide to Winning NaNoWriMo – Part 2: Planning Tips

We’ve battened down the old hatches here in New England as we await the arrival of Hurricane Sandy, and I’m hoping to get this post out soon in case we lose power. More importantly, though, I need to finish my Nanowrimo planning!

Some people spend months planning their November novels, but I’m not one of them. I usually take a day or two, probably for a total of three or four hours, sometime in the last week of October. You might take more or less time. If you’re in the pre-Nano planning stage yourself, I hope these tips below are helpful.

Planning Tips

  • Have a plan. I’ve been a plotter and a pantser, so I know the merits of both. In my 11 completed Nanos, I’ve scrapped mid-stream twice and started fresh with no plan at all. Now, though, I always go into it with some kind of idea. Think of it like your backup parachute: if things go horribly wrong with your spur-of-the-moment pantsering, you have your plan to fall back on.
  • Figure out what you love. There’s a great process and model for this in No Plot, No Problem by Chris Baty, called the Magna Carta I and II. Basically, you figure out what you love to read about, and include those things in your novel. Don’t worry about writing for an audience. Really. Write what you would love to read, even if you think it’s hackneyed and cliché. Your audience is Other People Who Think Those Things Are Cool.
  • Hone in on weakness. No, not yours. Your main character’s. Once you start developing a main character, figure out their weakness, their tragic flaw. What is their greatest fear? The conflict of your story should engage that weakness or fear. If your character has no flaws, you’ve probably created a Mary Sue and should rework some details.
  • Write some kind of overview. Here’s my structure, which is a hodge-podge of several different techniques, but predominantly a bastardization of the Snowflake Method.
    • Remind myself of my list of What I Like In A Novel. Maybe make a new list.
    • Brainstorm a bunch of ideas for a story in a Google Doc. Start to figure out what my main conflict is, or what themes I want.
    • Write a one-sentence summary of my story. Write four or five or twenty versions until it describes a story idea I kind of like.
    • Write a one-paragraph overview of the whole plot. A sentence for the background, and then one sentence for each major conflict and a sentence for the resolution. Don’t get too hung up on resolution: mine often changes when I write the book, but I like to have some idea of how I think it should end.
    • Make a bulleted list or free-form paragraph giving details about my main characters. I figure out their names, ages, occupations, hobbies, personality quirks, and weaknesses. There are lots of character charts to help with this process, but I freestyle it most of the time.
    • Write a one-page summary of the whole plot. Take each sentence from the one-paragraph overview and turn that sentence into a paragraph. This is where I start to really flesh out my conflicts and dynamics, and get a sense of the scenes of my novel. (see below) It also starts to illuminate plot holes for me as I figure out the rationale behind different characters’ actions.
  • List your scenes. I recommend making a list of 30 scenes in your novel. A scene is a complete interaction between characters where the plot moves forward or a character is affected in some way. Ideally, all scenes should advance the plot. Listing my scenes is seriously the #1 most beneficial step of my planning. With a list of 30 scenes, all I have to do is write one scene per day for November, and I’ll finish on time.
    • Note: your scenes need to each run at least 1667 words, or about 6 double-spaced pages. (More if you use a lot of dialogue.) If your scenes are running short, you’ll need to have more than 30 of them. If your scenes are running long, though, you’re just fine.
  • Clean your desk. Wait, what? No, seriously. Straighten up your workspace before November 1st, and you’ll be a lot happier sitting at it for long stretches of time.
  • Fill out your word count calendar. There are apps and such to do this for you, but for me, I like to write it all out. I use a monthly wall calendar, so before November 1st starts, I write my minimum word count on each day. A quick glance will let me know if I’m on schedule. If you use a Google calendar, I imagine this would be pretty easy as well.

That’s all for now! Providing our power is on this week, I’ll post some first-days tips soon. Good luck, everyone, and happy noveling!

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