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Friday, October 14

NaNoWriMo Prep: Planning Your Novel

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy
It's that time of year again!

Writers all over the world are gearing up for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), so it's time to break out the prep guides from the archives for those about to dive into the writing frenzy. If you're not doing NaNo, this is a good overview of what goes into a novel, so you'll likely find some helpful tips as well. And if you're looking for a handy guide to the whole novel-planning process, I suggest taking a peek of my book, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, with ten self-guided workshops and over 100 exercises designed to guide you from idea to a solid novel plan.

If you decided to do NaNo, I gather you already have an inkling of the novel you want to write. If you don’t, then I’d suggest starting here for some brainstorming ideas  or looking at the bigger story picture here before diving into today’s article.

Step One 

Decide if you’re going to go for a complete 50K novel (even if the plan is to flesh it out later) or the first 50K of a longer novel.

Why do this: This will help you figure out how to pace your story. For example, the plot for a rough draft 50K word novel will be very different from the first half of a more fleshed out novel aiming for 100K words. A rough draft will try to capture the entire plot, while the first half will cover (naturally) the first half.

Step Two 

Write down your one-sentence pitch line and nail what this story is about. This holds true for either a full or half novel. If you can’t do it in one sentence don’t sweat it, but try to keep it under a paragraph if you can. Think of it like writing a query to identify all the critical pieces of your novel. If you absolutely can’t boil it down to a few sentences, that’s a red flag that you don’t have a solid understanding of what the core conflict is yet, and that can result in hitting a wall around the 25% mark come November.

Why do this: Clarifying what the core conflict of your novel is will make it easier to plot (and write) that novel. You’ll have a clear goal for your protagonist to work toward, and you’ll be able to determine if a subplot or idea is helping your novel or sending you off on a tangent.You might try this basic three-point outline structure as an early test to see if you have enough plot to write an entire novel.

Step Three 

List your major set pieces. Your opening, the inciting event, the first major crisis, the midpoint reversal, the second major crisis, the point of no return, and the climax. It can be vague if you’re not yet sure how those things play out, but try to get a general idea of where it will go. “Protagonist beats bad guy on her terms” is good enough for now. If the details are still fuzzy, try thinking about your novel conceptually.

Why do this: These will be your guides for the month. As long as you know where your story needs to go, it’ll be that much easier to figure out what your characters have to do to get there.

Step Four 

Write a rough synopsis. It doesn’t have to be good or even something anyone but you can understand, but try to get in those major set pieces. Again, it’s okay if some things are vague. Write down the general idea of what you want to have happen if you’re unsure of the details. Speaking thematically is also fine at this stage. “She learns she has to stand up for herself and stop being such a doormat after her experience with the villain.” If you’re only doing a half novel you can stop at the halfway point if you want.

Why do this: A rough synopsis is like brainstorming on paper. It’ll get you thinking about how your novel will unfold, and even if you change it when you actually write that section, you’ll have a guide to get you there. You’ll also know rather quickly that this novel won't work if you can’t think of anything to fill a synopsis.

Step Five (optional)

Do a rough outline of the novel, however you like to outline. Put in as much or as little as you have or need. Pantsers probably won't want to do this (they may even find the synopsis more outlining than they like), but unless you really hate outlining, I suggest giving it a try. You're writing on a tight deadline and every advantage helps. It'll be harder to meet those daily word count goals if you spend half your writing time staring at the page trying to think about the next scene. You can also look at different ways to pre-write your scenes if that works better for you.

Why do this: This will enable you to breakdown the novel into pieces, so not only will you have firm daily writing goals, you'll be able to see the pacing of your novel and ensure you have everything it needs. If not, revise your outline until it feels solid.

Step Six

Write down any ideas you have about the novel no matter how vague or unconnected they feel. Think of it like an idea bank for later.

Why do this: Random ideas are often the work of our subconscious. Right now they might not seem like much, but as you write your novel, that snippet of a scene could be the exact thing you need to move forward. It also lets these ideas simmer in your mind so they can be useful later.

By now you should have a decent overview of your novel (or half novel). It might be pretty rough, or very detailed depending on how much you know going in. Don’t worry if it’s vague as long as you can see a story unfolding there. There’s a protagonist with a problem, a series of attempts to solve that problem, a conflict keeping them from their goal, stakes if they fail, and a resolution to the problem. If you have that, you have a much better chance of avoiding writer’s block during November and hitting that 50K word target. 

If you're ready to move on, here's more on planning a novel's beginning.

Who’s doing NanNo this year? Are you going for a full or half novel? Are you plotting it or pantsing it?

Looking for tips on planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  

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  1. I'm not doing Nano but need a kick in the butt to get going on organizing my story so I can start writing. Thanks so much. I loved the links too.

  2. My writing style is really not cut out for NaNo, so I'm doing a more modest word count this November and leaving myself open to be the sanity hook for the other two people I know who are going for the full word count. I'll pass this advice on to them. Thanks for the links!

  3. This is a great post. Visit my NaNo prep post on the Structure Sheet. Best of luck to you this November!

    In My Write Mind

  4. This post is so helpful - thank you! I'm a first time Nano participant, so my goal is simply 50K but I suspect my story will require more (perhaps 70K?).

  5. This is my 3rd NaNo. I didn't finish the last two times. I hope too this time. I have planned on 2000 words per day. I now have to squeeze time in as I've gone back to work PT.

  6. Wonderful post! I'm sending the link to my area (yeah, I'm crazy enough to ML for a third year!)

    This will be my fourth year doing Nano. I've made the 50K goal each time and hope to do more this Nov. My goal is to get the complete first draft down of my shiny new idea. I'm shooting for 2000 words a day at least, like Debra.

    The best news from this pantser? I've done all those things you listed up there. :)

    Good luck everyone!

  7. This is my 2nd NaNo, and I'm bringing the Write on Edge community with me this time.

    This is fantastic advice; I'm going to share it with them.

    Thank you!

  8. Hi, great post, thanks. You're blog looks awesome. I haven't stopped by in a while.

  9. This is my 4th time at Nano, and this time I want to actually finish what I started.

    The previous times I didn't have a plan and honestly, I wasn't in the best mindset, and that ended up doing me in.

    This year, I've taken the time to be more methodical, without turning me into a overly meticulous scheduling fiend.

    My only problem now is deciding what to work on this year.

    There are two promising projects I've been pre-writing since September, but I just can't decide which to do for November.

    I wish others who are going for this year all the best.

  10. I just heard about NaNo this year and I've decided to try it. I'm going for the full 50k and I have my story plotted...mostly in my head lol

  11. Very helpful post, I'll probably be using this as a check list to make sure I've got everything down although luckily I've already got some of that planned out!

    I'm going for the full 50k with a plan to flesh it out later. Fingers crossed :) looking forward to tomorrow's post!

  12. Not doing NaNo, too busy working on the first draft of book two in my series. I would love to, have a lot of ideas bouncing around in my head. But deadlines are deadlines, even if they are self-imposed. Good luck to those who are, I'll be cheering you on.

  13. I'm doing Nano for the third time but attempting a full outline for the first time, so this post was definitely helpful - thanks!

  14. After seeing that I wrote 45K this month, I'm doing NaNoWriMo for a breather project.

    I used 750 Words, a website, to do some brainstorming of the first act of my novel. I pretty much typed up a summary, but I have the structure down. I'm going to do Act II today.

  15. This is my first NaNo. I've done most of the things you suggest and just have scene snippet and flow left. I couldn't imagine pantsing this, the idea has developed so far over the course of this month that if I had waited for it to happen while actively writing it things would be a mess. Oh, and NaNo will put me between the midpoint and Act 3, I think.

    Great post, Janice.

  16. I'm doing NaNoWriMo for the first time . . . so very much appreciate the tips. Some, I actually had started but there are some I hadn't thought of so THANKs. I'm excited to pound out that first drafts, but think these planning advice will help me stick it through the month.

  17. Definitely doing NaNo this year and this time I will win!

  18. This is my first time doing NanoWriMo. I had sketched out many things but finding your posts on the subject helps to further organize my plotting and outline. I can see there are some things I didn't plan for that would have hit me mid-November.

  19. Natalie, most welcome. I'm glad I did this. It's a handy thing to have. I'm not doing NaNo either. I'd wanted to, but I'm still not done with the new book and that has to come first.

    Kathie, that works too! I think the goal is to motivate yourself to write. However you do that it's a win.

    Justin, thanks! I'll take a peek. The more help out there the better.

    Lee, I bet a lot of folks will be fleshing out their 50Ks, so you're not alone. I tend to write short rough drafts and flesh them out myself.

    Debra, best of luck to you! you know what they say - third time's the charm. I'll keep my fingers crossed that proves true for you.

    Charity, wow, a four year veteran. Good for you. Yay, it works for pantsers! Makes me happy

    CDG, most welcome! Good luck to you and your group.

    Amanda, thanks, and welcome back. I did a major redesign back in Feb.

    Taurean, even though I haven't done a NaNo, I think planning has got to be important. You have so little time to think about what to write. If the ideas were the ones you pitched, I'd suggest the first one.

    Danielle, plotting in your head works too :) Good luck!

    Patricia, fingers crossed and good luck vibes heading your way.

    Ken, I'm in your boat there. Have to put it off one more year, but hopefully next year I can join in.

    Jillian, glad to hear it and good luck!

    CO, wow, you're all set. I do about 30K a month for the most part. That pesky day job gets in the way of doing more.

    Gene, thanks and good luck! I'd be lost if I tried to pants it as well. But then, I'm be lost pantsing anything.

    Cathe, another first timer, awesome. Even a loose outline gives you something to work from and keep you moving.

    Najela, awesome! I'm rooting for you.

    Teresatrent, you just made my whole NaNo prep series worth it. Hearing that makes me happy :)

  20. This will be my seventh NaNo and, hopefully, my sixth win. I'm shooting for an 80K novel, although I don't expect to finish it during November.

    I started out a die-hard pantser and have been gradually moving towards plotting. Last time, I did a lot of work on background and character and identified the major turning points (act endings).

    This year I'm going so far as to write out chapter summaries, at least for the early part of the novel. Having never done that before, I have no idea whether the amount of plot I've planned for a given chapter will actually be one chapter's worth or not. Any advice for a reformed pantser?

  21. Forgot to add -- best of luck to all of you!

  22. Siri, seventh NaNo, wow! I think the chapter summaries are a good start. That'll allow you to get some first ideas down on paper, then you can pants your way through it. I adjust my summaries all the time as I write, so shift things around as you need them. Sometimes the summaries run long or short.

    You might also try just doing a few chapters at a time for the whole novel, like planing short stretches so you don't get too far ahead of the story. You can plan out the next week, and then see what happens. Small steps, but not outlining the entire novel.

  23. I am going to do Camp NaNo in June and August and then NaNoWriMo in November... 150000 words... 3 stories... one author who has a learning disability of sorts and dyspraxia... it will be hard work but it will be totally and utterly worth it, especially if it means i can prove that i can do something right! I am going to attempt Script Frenzy next year as well... bring on the first of june... bring on the challenge!

  24. FanFic, wow, that's quite a goal. Best of luck and I hope you nail it :)

  25. I am planning on writing NaNoWriMo for the first time. This panster is even going to try an outline and strategic planning for once. *Cringes a little*

    I am super hyped to have seventy of my students join NaNoWriMo Young Writers Program. This will be part of my classwork for November. All these youth will then publish through Smashwords. The word counts will vary, but writing is writing!

    I am taking the challenge with them. Sounds like so much fun.

  26. This is a great post. It's useful not only for NaNoWriMoers but also people starting out on a new lengthy project.

    This year I'm starting my own NaNoWriMo 10% Project. Yep, 5000 words in a month on my WiP.
    Thanks for the Twitter mention the other day, Janice!

  27. Love these tips! My favorite piece of advice from NaNo...don't edit as you go!

  28. Read your "Dear Teen Me" post and loved it. Gave me an idea for my high school journalism students. THANKS!

  29. Janice thank you for ANOTHER wonderful post!I've been debating on whether or not I want to try NaNo again to finish the first draft of my first YA novel. If I do it will be my third attempt. I am however very tempted to give it a try again after reading this post. Going to use this writing plan on my WIP and see where it takes me. If I can successfully fulfill this prep stage of plotting I think I will give it another shot.

    Thanks for being such an inspiration! Oh, and good luck to all the participants.

  30. Shouldn't do NaNo - real life commitments and all. But it is so darn appealing...

  31. Glacier, ooo good luck on both! Kudos for trying something new though. That's awesome about your students. What a great way to get kids writing.

    VirtueFiction, anytime. I love the idea of a 10% NaNo. Sometimes you need to start slow to get anywhere. That first step :)

    Julie, oh absolutely :) Maybe not even use the same file so you never get a chance to look at what you wrote the previous day.

    Marti, thanks, glad you liked it (and it sparked an idea, that's always cool). Good luck on your YA novel! Maybe third time's the charm? I know it's taken me multiple drafts to get some of mine right. (like 5 drafts for Blue Fire)

    Raewyn, that's always been me. I want to do it, but Nov is a tough month for me. We need an April NaNo :)

  32. Since I read this post I have been using this plan and i really like it so far. So much so that I shared it on my blog Marti Ink. Take a peak:

  33. Marti, cool, thanks! I love Kristen Lamb's blog, too, especially her posts on antagonists. Fun gal. Got to meet and hang with her at RWA this past summer.

  34. I'm raring to go on NaNo! I've got a rough scene by scene plot sketched out, character sketches, synopsis, logline, etc. Working on a title and cover mock-up for my NaNo novel profile. Then maybe cast my characters, which is always fun and helps me to visualize them better.

    I think this is my fourth NaNo, plus a number of Script Frenzies and Camp Nanos as well. I'll be working on a 100,000 word novel to be completed in November (50,000 is never long enough for me, and I like to have a first draft done by the end of NaNo.) Actually, looking at my scene outline, it might be over 100,000 words, but we'll see. Some of those scenes will probably end up being combined, and new ones will crop up.

    If anyone wants to buddy with me on NaNo, I am pdw.

    1. Hi. Thanks for the reminder about NaNo. I didn't do it last year but I did use the month to work on my WiP novel and managed to get 20,000 words further on during the month. So, if you're working on a novel use the month to make progress knowing loads of others are in the same boat!

    2. Grats! And great advice :) It's a nice way to motivate yourself in some way.

  35. WOO NANO! i'll be aiming for 60k like my last draft, but if the first act happens to be a bit longer, i'll move the line.

    And for those out there who are trying NaNo for the first time, i HIGHLY suggest outlining as much as possibe. last year i wrote off of ust a sypnosis and most of what i wrote was usless. Like Janice said, there will be no time to think of where to go next. if you get stuck the best thing to do is push ahead and tell yourself its just a first draft.

    Nice post and good luck to anyone trying NaNoWriMo this year!


  36. Hi Janice. I wrote and won nano wrong last year. It was the first time I attempted a novel. I got to revising it a few months back and realised it's much harder to revise. I had come across your blog on revising back then. This time around I am going to read up all you have to say on writing the first draft so that my nanowrimo 50k words aren't as 'unsaveable ' as they were last year. Full novel attempt again this year.

    1. Sending good luck writing vibes your way :) Hope the outlines work well for you and this year is a more productive NaNo!

  37. Thanks for that, this is very helpful.

  38. I love this organizational structure of how and why.The best I've seen of its kind.

  39. I love this organizational structure of how and why.The best I've seen of its kind.

  40. Thanks for these helpful tips Janice. I'll be taking your advice on board this time around.