It's October, an that means National Novel Writing Month is one month away!
And to get you ready for it, it's time once again for...
NaNOctober - National Novel Writing Month Prep!
What is National Novel Writing Month?
Started by Chris Baty in 1999, it's a month where you write a 50k word story. Whether you finish it or not doesn't matter, nor whether or not it's good: just as long as you hit 50k. This means 1.6k words every single day for 30 days, but there will be off-days where you'll miss your quota, and on-days where you'll overshoot.
NaNoWriMo is not a race or a contest! It's a marathon! You're not competing with anyone but your own procrastination. You're free to race with folks to 50k if you want, but that's not the point: the goal is to just finish.
Prizes for winning include...
- The fact you can say, "Hey, I wrote a 50k+ word story!"
- A bunch of coupons and discounts on writing-related stuff, like writing software, a personal print of your finished story (if you do finish the whole thing, that is), etc.
Why should I do it?
- It's fun and challenging.
- You'll be amused and surprised by the story you'll come up with.
- It'll get you tons of writing experience.
- It'll get you tons of time management experience, too.
- Did I mention it's fun?
- You can share story ideas with friends and vice versa!
- For a month, you get to have the novelist experience!
- Seriously, you'll have a friggin' blast!
What are the rules?
- You may only start drafting on the midnight of November 1st, and you must reach the 50k word minimum before 11:59:59 on November 30th, local time.
- No early starts: you cannot draft any portion of the story prior to the 30-day writing period. However, planning and outlining is perfectly okay. (That's why I'm writing this post!)
- You don't have to finish the story: just reach a minimum of 50k words. It can be a finished 50k~ word story, or first 50k words of a longer story, but just as long as you hit 50k, you win.
- You can write about anything. Genre does not matter. Content does not matter. Fanfiction and metafiction is okay. If you think it's a novel, it counts. Although the main focus is fiction, NaNo-Rebels are writers who do other categories that bend the rules: non-fiction, short story collections, essays, and memoirs, but as long as if you hit 50k, it works!
How do I do it?
- Register yourself on the NaNoWriMo website and set up your novel. Pick your genre, upload a cover, and get ready for November 1st.
- Once November begins, write away. Every day, update your word counter on the NaNoWriMo website. Use the word count function of your word processor to find out how much you've written.
- Once you hit 50k words, there'll be a verification box on the site. Copy-paste the text of your novel into the box. It will count the words. If you've hit 50k, you win!
So, how do I prepare?
Whether you've never written before or are a seasoned pro with multiple NaNo wins, here's what you can do!
Here's what you'll need:
- Some way to take notes: either a notebook, a phone, or a tablet.
- Preferably a cloud-drive document system like Google Drive.
- If you have a Bluetooth compatible device and internet, a wireless keyboard for writing on the go. This one is a HUGE lifesaver for those regularly stuck at work or on the go.
- Some way to track time: it can be as simple as a phone timer to a fully detailed planner.
- Music to get you in the right mood, so start making an inspiration playlist.
- A group of friends to write with and share ideas with.
- Grit, determination, and a can-do spirit of never giving up.
If you've taken a class in literature and actually paid attention, you may have all you need, but for those that need the extra push, here's a list of recommended reading:
- No Plot? No Problem! by Chris Baty. The original NaNoWriMo handbook, which covers how to write as much as possible in as short time as possible. It covers how to keep your plot going forward, how to schedule time throughout the month, how to come up with a premise that'll keep you going, and so on.
- Story by Robert McKee. The gold standard of story guides, it covers every imaginable story structure and style under the sun. It covers plot construction, character and cast design, how to develop theme, genre conventions, common pitfalls in story writing, and much, much, MUCH more.
- The Anatomy of Story by John Truby. Similar to Story, covering every major writing topic, but focuses more on character arcs as the center of the story. It comes with several nifty exercises that'll help you develop your premise, plot, characters, and beyond.
- The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler. Want to study The Hero's Journey structure and character archetypes, but don't have enough time to read Joseph Campbell's comparative mythology writings? Used as a blueprint in the renaissance of Disney, Vogler's writings on The Hero's Journey simplifies everything in an easy-to-understand and digestible format anyone can understand.
- The Breakout Novelist by Donald Maass. The Breakout Novelist is a combination of publisher Donald Maass's previous works, The 'Writing The Breakout Novel' Workbook and The Fire In Fiction. It's full of exercises to get you thinking more about what goes into your writing, as well as sharpen any weaknesses you may have. (And really, check out pretty much any guides by Donald Maass. They're all good. It's just this one encompasses a lot of his work.)
- The 3 A.M. Epiphany and The 4 A.M. Breakthrough by Brian Kiteley. Writing professor Brian Kiteley offers a series of unconventional writing exercises and prompts to get you to break out of your typical writing habits and think more creatively about what goes into your writing.
- Wonderbook by Jeff Vandermeer. Sci-fi writer Jeff Vandermeer gives us a unique book on world-building, prose, story structure, and character creation with unique illustrations, artwork, and even "devil's advocate" advice that goes against conventional storytelling wisdom. Definitely a must for sci-fi and fantasy writers.
- Dan Harmon's Story Circle Guide. Before creating Rick & Morty and Community, Dan Harmon was the founder of internet TV site Channel 101, to which he had this super-nifty distillation of the Hero's Journey, but even more distilled than Vogler's writings above. It's available freely online, written for aspiring writers of Channel 101, but it serves as the backbone to all of Harmon's works. If you don't want to read it, there's also this nifty video version.
You may have noticed a lot of this covers story structure, characters, and theme, but not a lot on prose. Well, if you can talk, you can probably write, but if you need a style manual, there are way, waaay too many to recommend. Just go to a reference section of any book store or library and you'll find more than enough guides on actual prose writing.
If you got more book suggestions, suggest them in the comments below.
Chris Baty's recommended method involves the following:
- Write down a list of your favorite story tropes. Do these!
- Write down a list of your least favorite story tropes. Avoid these!
- Follow these guidelines you've now written, and you won't get backed into a boring corner!
- Then, for all subsequent ideas, write everything down! Get your ideas down on paper so you don't lose them! In the words of comedian Mitch Hedberg, "If I have a joke that I need to write down, but I can't find a pen, I just have to convince myself what I had wasn't funny."
- Look at your favorite genres and think of story ideas in that! Or, stretch yourself and do a story in a genre you've never done, just to see what'll happen!
Want to develop settings? Remember the dimensions of setting:
- When does the story take place? If it's in the past, research the culture of the time period. If it's in the future, see if you can write a parallel/contrast to now.
- Where does the story take place? Different places and geographies, whether real or imagined, have different cultures. If it's real, do your research. If not, same as above: ask how these people would live in a place like this.
- What is the inherent level of conflict in this setting? Compare a love story that take place in a big city vs. a small little town, or an action story on a battlefield vs. a small bank. Different locations have different possibilities for what can go down.
- What is the history of this setting? How the past of this setting will affect the present and future of the story. Know what happened previously in this setting and how it colors the story world.
Want to develop characters? Remember the dimensions of character:
- Characterization: The surface details, which often influence how the character behaves. These traits include...
- Hair and Eye Color
- Physique and Body Weight
- Mannerisms and General Behaviors
- Conscious Motivations
- ... and basically anything you can see without getting to know this person.
- Deep Character: The inner world of the character, the stuff hidden in the character and only brought out during the conflict of the story. These traits include...
- Unconscious Motivations
- Hidden Fears and Desires
- Thoughts and Feelings
- Past Memories, both good and bad.
- ... and basically anything that controls the characters' underlying behavior.
Want to develop plots? Well, there'll be more on that, but first, let's look at all the different genres we can explore...
- BASE GENRES: Genres by plot. These can be contained within a setting or medium.
- Relationship Story: The catch-all for any story about the coming-together or falling apart of a relationship. Subgenres are divided by what kind of relationship.
- Buddy Story: A platonic love story.
- Love Story: Your classic romantic love story.
- Love Tragedy: Two characters in a relationship fall apart.
- Erotica: A love story with a focus on physical love.
- Passion Tragedy: The spiral into sex spells doom for the characters.
- Sex Comedy: The spiral into sex creates problems, but is solved in humorous fashion.
- Horror Story: Characters must escape something, well, horrific. Subgenres divided by the source of horror.
- Natural: The source of horror is something real. Examples include...
- Serial Killer: A killer is trying to kill the characters.
- Home Invasion: Criminals invade a house.
- Animal Survival: An animal threatens the characters.
- Nature Survival: Nature threatens the characters.
- Torture Porn: The villains want to mutilate the cast, not quite killing them quickly.
- Supernatural: The source of horror is something imagined. Examples include...
- Ghost Story/Haunting: The literal supernatural threaten the character.
- Possession: A ghost takes over a character.
- Zombies: The undead threaten the characters.
- Monsters: Any sort of creature threatens the characters.
- Kaiju: GIANT creatures threaten the characters.
- Aliens: Extraterrestrials threaten the characters.
- Cosmic Horror: Incomprehensible creatures threaten the characters.
- Super-Uncanny: The source of horror is unknown: whether the ghosts and monsters are real, or simply the character's imagination. Examples include...
- Psychological Horror: Is it real, or is the character going crazy?
- Faux Horror: Is it real, or is it simply characters using the horror for their own motives? (Ala Scooby Doo and the original House on Haunted Hill.)
- Modern Epic: One individual takes on a larger system, often one that controls society.
- War Story: A battle between two warring sides. Comes in two flavors...
- Pro-War: Glorifies the heroism, adventure, and necessity of fighting.
- Anti-War: Discourages the violence and questionable morality of fighting.
- Maturation Plot: The coming-of-age-story: a character begins with an immature outlook on life, thinking their outlook is the correct one, only to get hit in the face with reality.
- Morality Arc: A character changes their behavior. Comes in three versions:
- Redemption Plot: A bad character becomes good (and is usually rewarded).
- Punitive Plot: A good character becomes bad (and is usually punished).
- Moral Dilemma Plot: A character takes a trip across the entire spectrum, turning bad to good to bad or good to bad to good, and experiencing the punishments and rewards of all sides.
- Testing Plot: A character is tempted to give up their ideals in exchange for something else. Essentially a Morality Arc, but the plot comes from avoiding the choice.
- Outlook Arc: A character changes their worldview. Comes in three versions:
- Education Plot: A character's outlook shifts from bad to good.
- Disillusionment Plot: A character's outlook shifts from good to bad.
- Mindset Change Plot: A character's outlook shifts from good to bad in one area, but bad to good in another related area.
- The Western/Folk Tale: A single character, usually an outsider, brings law and order to a lawless and/or chaotic land.
- MEGA GENRES: Genres by focus and tone. Contains base genres within them and can be contained within a Supra-Genre.
- Comedy: Takes apart the conventions of society and life to examine the stupid, the witty, or both. Subgenres grouped by what's the target for the jokes and how rough is it. These include...
- Satire (ridicules society)
- Parody (makes fun of society)
- Pastiche (celebrates society)
- Romantic Comedy (celebrates love)
- Screwball (makes fun of love)
- Farce (ridicules love)
- Black Comedy (ridicules the dark, painful corners of life)
- Wit (celebrates how people behave)
- Comedy of Manners (makes fun out of people behave)
- Cringe Comedy (ridicules how people behave)
- Surreal Humor (celebrates the unexpected)
- Shock Humor (ridicules the unexpected)
- Crime: A story of a crime being committed, the crime being discovered, whether or not the heroes get away, and if justice is delivered. Subgenres grouped by perspective...
- Murder Mystery: The master detective's POV.
- The Caper: The master criminal's POV.
- Detective Story: The cop's POV.
- Gangster Story: The crook's POV.
- Thriller: The victim's POV, often at the mercy of a powerful criminal who makes it personal.
- Courtroom Drama: The justice system's POV; often the lawyer's or jury's.
- Newspaper Story: The reporter's POV.
- Espionage: The spy's POV.
- Prison Drama: The inmate's POV.
- Film Noir: POV of a protagonist with mixed qualities: part cop, part criminal, part victim, and maybe more.
- Social Drama: Identifies a problem in society and looks for a way to cure it. Subgenres grouped by the problem at hand...
- Domestic Drama: Focuses on problems within the home.
- Political Drama: Focuses on political problems.
- Gender Study: Focuses on the problems of being a man/woman in a culture with certain disadvantages on being a man/woman.
- Eco-Drama: Focuses on saving the environment.
- Medical Drama: Focuses on saving the physically ill.
- Psycho-Drama: Focuses on saving the mentally ill.
- Queer Drama: Focuses on the problems within gay or transgender culture and how it clashes with straight culture.
- Action: Focuses on external conflict. LOTS of external conflict. Comes with two subgenres...
- High Adventure: In addition to normal worldly conflict, there are also concepts like fate, destiny, and other supernatural forces at play.
- Disaster/Survival: Nature provides much of the conflict.
- SUPRA-GENRES: Genres of setting or medium. May contain the above genres within them.
- Historical Fiction: Takes place in the past to look at human nature from a safe distance, reflecting back our current behaviors.
- Biography: Focuses on the life of one person from real life.
- Docu-drama: Recreates actual events, but told in dramatic fashion.
- Mockumentary: A fictional documentary.
- Musical: The major plot turning points finish on the character erupting into song.
- Science Fiction: Uses technology as the crucible for character change.
- Sports: Uses sports as the crucible for character change.
- Fantasy: Uses magic as the crucible for character change.
- Metafiction: Uses writing itself as the crucible for character change.
- Animation: Uses the stylization of animation to distort reality. With novels, you can make them into Visual Novels.
- Arthouse: The story itself is unconventional in its telling or structure.
As said in the rules, you're free to outline your story early, and October's a good time to plot your course. Some folks write by the seat of their pants, but if you write with an outline, here's several ways to outline once you got your premise ready:
- Three Act Structure: The old classic standby, Three Act Structure is versatile and covers your beginning, middle, and end.
- Act 1 shows your character(s)' life being thrown out of balance and then vowing to fix things.
- Act 2 is them trying everything they can before failing miserably in an apparent defeat.
- Act 3 is their final act of desperation (and hopefully character development) that resolves everything.
- You can then break down the acts into sub-acts, or sequences, and break those sequences down into scenes!
- Plot Spine Paradigm: Instead of three structural units, why not 7? The Plot Spine Paradigm runs like this:
- Opening: How life is at the beginning of the story. Should wildly contrast the ending.
- Plot Point 1: Something to kickstart the character(s) journey into the story.
- Pinch Point 1: The initial obstacle the character(s) faces while resolving the conflict.
- Midpoint: A major moment of character development and apparent victory showing the character has what it takes to resolve the story.
- Pinch Point 2: The apparent defeat of the character(s).
- Plot Point 2: The final act of desperation (and hopefully character development) that resolves everything.
- Ending: How life is at the ending of the story.
- Ideally, write the Ending first, then the Opening, then the Midpoint, Plot Points, and finally Pinch Points.
- Character Arc Paradigm: Structural units not your thing? Why not break down the plot by the main character's development itself?
- Weakness and Need: Your main character suffers a weakness that affects both them and the people around them in a negative way, and they need to do something to overcome it. For example, let's say you have a reckless character: their behavior hurts them and they put others in danger. In this case, their need is for maturity and responsibility. From this, you preferably want the setting to play on this weakness as much as possible.
- Problem and Desire: The inciting incident that throws your character's life out of balance, and what the main character's desire is from this initial problem.
- Opponent: What's to get in the way of the main character stopping the problem and attaining the desire? This can be actual opponents, whether it's well-meaning people undermining the character's efforts or an actual villain threatening to stop the hero. It can also be an external force, from weather to society. Lastly, there's also internal conflict as well. Either way, name your opponents and how they beat the main character because of their weakness: you'll need this shortly.
- Plan: How the main character will attain the desire, usually without foresight thanks to their weakness. Inversely, the opponents also have their own plans.
- Battle: This will make up most of the rest of your story until the climax. Now that you have your main character's weakness, a desire, your opponents, the hero's plan, and the opponent(s)' plans, you should have all the ingredients you need for conflict. Start writing out scenes of the hero trying to beat the opponents with their plan, but failing because of the weakness, eventually culminating in the climax (which you preferably want to figure out first). They may succeed on occasion, but their desperation starts hurting others thanks to the weakness, eventually resulting in an apparent defeat.
- Self-Revelation: Eventually, usually by the climax, the hero will realize what their weakness is, and will usually have to make a final choice between staying the same or changing. Of course, it can't be an obvious choice: they wouldn't have had that weakness if it didn't serve them in the first place, like a shy person who avoids people because they feel safer that way, or an angry person who credits their anger for their passion. Either way, their final choice determines whether or not they achieve the desire or not, or succumb to tragedy. Of course, the main character doesn't necessarily need to attain the desire: they can change and give up on the initial goal. And they can also attain the goal without changing: tragedies where the hero becomes the villain end this way, where the main character has no moral revelation. But again, as said with the other structures, this is the final act of desperation (and hopefully character development) that resolves everything.
- New Equilibrium: How the character lives their life after the story, hopefully overcoming the weakness.
- The Hero's Journey: Another old standby, these are the most common beats of myths from around the world. You don't need every step or even in this order, but here they are in detail:
- The Ordinary World: Establishing the main character(s) and the world they live in.
- Call To Adventure: The inciting incident. Something's wrong and the characters have to venture out to resolve it.
- Refusal of the Call: At first, the main character(s) can't resolve the problem because they're not ready.
- Meeting the Mentor: The character(s) meet a character who can prepare them for the journey.
- Crossing the Threshold into the Special World: The character(s) must face special threshold guardians before crossing into a world unlike the Ordinary World. Luckily, they should be prepared by now.
- Tests, Allies, and Enemies: Now inside the Special World, it's time the character(s) learn how things work. They'll meet new allies, fight new enemies, and use what they know to make it through, but they'll quickly learn the things that work in the Ordinary World do not work here.
- Approaching The Innermost Cave: Like a room full of health packs and ammo in a video game, this is the main character(s)' last chance to get ready for the deepest section of the Ordinary World. If they have any doubts about why they went on this journey in the first place, it's time to put them aside once and for all.
- Ordeal: The main character(s) faces their greatest fear, and even succumbs to it.
- Seizing The Sword: Luckily, from their previous metaphorical/literal death, there is a rebirth, and the hero(es) emerges stronger than ever, often with a special reward that will help them for the remainder of the journey.
- The Road Back: Now with the reward, the hero(es) must return to the Ordinary World, but they may also have the option to stay if need be.
- Resurrection: The final confrontation, similar to the Ordeal, only now the hero(es) have both the abilities from the Ordinary World and The Special World. By this point, the hero(es) is no longer the same, but reborn as someone entirely new.
- Return with the Elixir: Back in the Ordinary World, the hero(es) is now transformed, now better able to handle things in the Ordinary World.
- The Story Circle: Dan Harmon's even simpler version of the Hero's Journey. It requires a little setup and understanding, but once it's ready, it's quite powerful.
- Prepwork - The tops and bottom halves: Draw a circle. Then, draw a horizontal line through the middle. The top and bottom halves now represent the dualities of life: life and death, order and disorder, the conscious and the unconscious. Keep this in mind for later.
- Prepwork - The left and right halves: Now draw a vertical line down the middle. Going clockwise, number the top 1, the top-right corner 2, the right 3, the bottom-right 4, the bottom 5, the bottom-left 6, the left 7, and the top right 8. These halves represent the journey: to the right, the descent into the unconscious desire of the character, from safety to danger, from order to disorder. To the left, their ascent out back to the normal world, but with new insights picked up from position 5.
- 1. You: Introduce the protagonist and some sort of weakness they have their ordinary world. Once they get to 5, we should begin to understand why they have this weakness and what they think overcoming it will bring.
- 2. Need: Something upsets the life of the protagonist, even more so than their normal everyday weakness, and now they decide to embark on a journey to restore balance. Again, this will play a large part in 5.
- 3. Go: The character embarks upon the journey, meeting the forces of antagonism along the way. This is your "movie poster moment" where we get the full idea of what the character wants and what's to stop them, from dealing with a killer shark to meeting an enemy army to simply falling in love.
- 4. Search: This is your "Road of Trials" phase, where the protagonist has fully crossed over into the bottom half. The metaphor Joseph Campbell used was "like food being broken up in the digestive tract": in this case, the hero can no longer rely on their status, phones, promotions, or eyeliner here, but adapt to the new forces of antagonism. It's sink or swim.
- 5. Find: Your midpoint, the protagonist is actually starting to get the hang of things and learns or attains something absolutely vital for resolving the story. If you'll notice, 5 is on the opposite side one 1. This is the location where we learn more about why the protagonist wants what they want in 2, and often how it relates to their weakness in 1. They might even attain the desire from 2, but either way, this will lead to setbacks in 6. This step is often called "Meeting with the Goddess," though it doesn't necessarily need to be: the basic idea is if the protagonist was a child in a mother's arms in 1, this is them leaving the house and meeting a new mother-like figure who will give them new knowledge.
- 6. Take: Think of this as yet another Road of Trials, only much more difficult. Now that the protagonist has reached 5 and attained new knowledge or gotten the goal at the bottom, they've awakened the maximum force of antagonism. This is where the hero is temporarily beaten by the villain, or the lovers break up, or bad guys capture someone important. However, having made it to 5, the protagonist takes this punch and is still ready to fight back in 7 and 8. If you'll notice, this one is opposite of 2: the character now has a new need for the finale.
- 7. Return: The protagonist, using what they learned in the story so far, they are now more easily handle all of the challenges they had previously encountered before. This is often the "Magic Return Flight" part of a hero's journey, on the opposite side of 3.
- 8. Change: The climax of your story. Using what they learned, this is where the protagonist is now the master of both worlds. They are now equipped to now defeat the bad guy, confess their love to love interest, and so on. With 4 being opposite of 8, it's no wonder all of the setups in 4 are finally paid off in 8.
- Repeat: If you are writing for multiple characters, you can do the same with them as well.
There are dozens of other structures you can use, and you can even combine the best of each one's parts to average out your plot, but this should get some ideas flowing.
5. Other tips!
Naturally, your will get stuck during NaNoWriMo, so here are some useful tips for avoiding missing you quotas...
- Write more than your quota! Just because the word quota every day is 1667 words doesn't mean you should stop around 1667. Preferably, you want to push past it enough so you don't have to worry about the deadline by the end of the month.
- Never underestimate the power of a sudden plot revelation. A good plot reveal, a character confession, or a sudden death can bring fourth hundreds of new ideas. Even in improv theater, a classic technique for driving a boring scene into something interesting is to simply have a character say, "I have a confession to make," and then admitting something huge. Dropping a bombshell into the story is a surefire way to keep things going. (And don't worry if it doesn't make sense: it's NaNoWriMo, and part of the fun is just seeing where it goes. Plus, if you really like the story, edit it and work it into the plot later... or hell, go back and work it into the plot during NaNoWriMo and get some extra words out of it!)
- Always, always, always be coming up with new ideas. If you're busy at work or school and in a spot where you can just brainstorm without it interrupting anything, take that opportunity. Even better, if you have a chance to jot it down in your notes, do that, too. That way, when you finally get back to your keyboard, you'll be ready to just type away, story fresh on your mind.
- Join a writing group. Thankfully, most of you are part of some sort of chat group or have access to one, so have some way to bounce ideas off of others. Two heads are better than one, and more than two heads is even better, so if you're running dry on ideas, feel free to ask others for their input.
- Remember to take care of yourself: As much as it's joked about, please take care of your health and sleep well during NaNoWriMo. Besides, you write better with a full night's rest and a full belly. If you want a meal on the go without sacrificing nutrition, consider protein meal bars: light, cheap, filling, and usually full of vitamins and nutrients.
That's all the help I can offer for now. I hope it helps you on your NaNoWriMo journey this year, and I wish you all best of luck hitting 50k words!
Lastly, if you're a NaNoWriMo veteran, feel free to share your tips below!