Writers all over the world are gearing up for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), so it's time to break the prep guides out of the archives for those about to dive into the writing frenzy. For those of you not doing NaNo, this is a good overview of what goes into a novel, so you'll likely find some helpful tips as well.
Today, let’s focus on the overall plotting of your novel, so when you do need to write like the wind, you’re not spending a lot of time thinking about what to write. I’m assuming that if you decided to do NaNo, 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 before diving into today’s article.
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: This will help you figure out how to pace your story. For example, are you doing a complete novel in 50K or the first half of a longer one? A plot for a rough draft 50K novel will be very different from the first half of a more fleshed out novel.
Even if it’s bad, 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.
Why: The better you can clarify what the core conflict of your novel is, the easier it’ll be to plot (and write) it. You’ll have a clear goal for your protagonist to work toward, and you’ll be able to determine if a subplot is helping your novel or sending you off on a tangent.
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.
Why: 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.
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: 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 pretty fast that this novel might not 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: 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.
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: 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 words.
Next, we'll cover a novel's beginning.
Looking for more in-depth help on planning your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, for a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel and give you a head start on NaNoWriMo.
Who’s doing NanNo this year? Are you going for a full or half novel? Are you plotting it or pantsing it?
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where 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 first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now. She is also a contributor at Pub(lishing) Crawl, and Writers in the Storm.
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