National Novel Writing Month, fondly known as NaNoWriMo, comes around every November, challenging writers to produce a novel of at least 50,000 words in 30 days, 1667 words a day. It’s a holiday for some and an obsession for others.
Nanowrimo is Validating
November 2022 will be my eighth time taking on the challenge. I’ve won each time, meaning I generated the required word count and a little more. I can’t claim the words were any good. In fact, I’m pretty sure they weren’t. However, participating in Nanowrimo reaped many benefits for me and for my development as a writer, editor, and book coach:
- I realized I love writing
- I owned that I wanted to get better at writing
- I learned not to revise while drafting
- I wanted to learn as much as possible about story structure
- I found that I love editing and revising
- I tried out some great tools: Scrivener, Dabble, and Fictionary
- I tried out some not-so-great tools (they shall go nameless)
- A mid-November wrist fracture forced me to learn to dictate a novel
- I learned I don’t like subscription model software (others go nameless)
- I know I am part of a wider writing community
- I love to write with instrumental music in the background
- I realized I love talking about plot with other story nerds
My last Nanowrimo was in 2019, but the Pandemic stole my nano joy along with a dozen other concepts of reality, time, and connection. I’ve been feeling the void ever since.
Well, it’s 2022, I just got my third booster, and the world’s still spinning. My writing muse wants out of the box, so I’m answering the call.
I’ve created this post as a handy site for sharing tips, tools, and resources with friends and clients. I’ll be adding to it from October 1st to November 30th.
You can’t go wrong with going right to the source. The Nano Prep 101 guide is a great first step and is located under “Writers Resources” in the main menu. A pdf is available to download.
I’m starting my 2022 story by plotting first with an idea, a blurb, a skeleton synopsis, then characters. I find that recognizing the story’s genre or type helps constrain my ideas in a way that gives my ideas specificity. I’ve written about structure methodologies in this post.
The Fictionary website has a nice post entitled “How to Write a Novel.” The post uses Gone Girl as a masterwork example and highlights building a story from blurb to synopsis to outline.
Structure methodologies for your Nanowrimo story
Two structure methodologies I particularly love are Save the Cat (savethecat.com) and Storygrid (storygrid.com.) Both have extensive articles on their concepts of story genre and on genre-specific premises, controlling ideas, conventions, and obligatory moments.
For STC basic information, including genres, log lines, and beat sheet templates, go to this STC get started page. Click on the “+” for dropdowns with detailed information. Here’s a classic post by Jose Silerio linking STC Genre, Hero, Goal, and Problem into a handy single-sentence story premise, aka, logline.
For detailed Story Grid methodology information, navigate to this SG Resources page and scroll down for details on content genres. The column to the right has a list of the twelve content genres. Click on each link to learn more about each genre and download a cheat sheet for each with their specific subtypes, conventions, obligatory moments, and more.
Here’s a PDF handout for a quick reference on the STC and SG story structure modalities to help jump-start your blurb and synopsis.
If excel spreadsheet-based planning is your bag, check out Jami Gold’s writer resources on her website. Her worksheets use several modalities, including Save The Cat, Story Engineering, Romancing the Beat, Take off Your Pants, and Michael Hauge’s Six-stage plot structure. The page also includes several Scrivener Templates.
One of the great things about Nanowrimo is that hundreds of thousands of writers across the globe are doing the same thing as you. Investigate the community menu area. Visit the forums. Check out your home region. Reach out and ask someone to be buddies. Go to virtual or (if available and you feel safe) in-person events. The energy from the Nanowrimo community is phenomenal and can lift you up when you’re stuck plotting, behind on your word count, or just feel like taking a screen break.
For Nanowrimo success, make characters seem real
If stories are metaphors for life situations, the people who populate our stories are metaphors for behaviors, mindsets, and worldviews. As the author, you will place these action figures in a made-up setting with made-up problems to show how they’ll deal with it. Their fortitude (or lack thereof) defines their character.
“True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure – the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature.”—Robert McKee, Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting
There are many ways to get to know the characters in your story. The Nanowrimo Prep 101 guide covers character development on pages 9-19. Some tactics include questionnaires, dossiers, letters, and freewriting.
- Questionnaires: the web abounds with templates from one page to dozens. Check the Nanowrimo Prep document for ideas
- Dossiers: pretend you’re the CIA collecting all the important details about this person’s life
- Letters: your character—now older and wiser—writes a letter to their younger self explaining how a past event impacted their life, their happiest moment, their greatest loss, etc
- Freewriting: let the ideas flow and write what comes up.
Focus on worldview and behavior over physical attributes
Before defining your character’s attributes, take another look at that Robert McKee quote. To paraphrase, character is defined by what one does under pressure. Our behaviors and choices are honed by years of experience and influence and coalesce into a particular worldview.
It’s not easy to break old patterns. In fact, that’s what most stories are about, the need to break some pattern or worldview in order to express what has been suppressed or to see what could not previously be seen.
Knowing height and eye color do little to help writers write characters in action. A writer who understands a character’s underlying worldview, motivations, and beliefs is better able to show their actions and reactions in the course of a scene and the entire novel.
The worlds of psychology, acting, and sports offer some helpful perspectives, techniques, and concepts.
Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
This pyramid places base needs at the bottom and more transcendent needs at the top. Without digging too deep into the original intent, examining universal human needs is a way to identify your story type or genre, its overall point, and the characters’ specific driving forces.
Is your story about survival and your character’s intent of saving lives? That’s an action story with an action hero. Is your story about showing others what you are capable of and your character intent on succeeding in some event, job, or academia? That’s a performance story, and your character may have to learn or give up a few things before their true light can shine.
Essential Tactics and Lines in the Sand
This is an acting technique to identify what a character tries to achieve in a scene or beat. Knowing this helps actors show the motivation behind the dialogue and body language.
Story grid has an excellent post explaining essential actions: https://storygrid.com/essential-action-key-compelling-characterization/. Download a copy of their Essential Actions Cheat sheet in the above article, here, or below
A character’s line in the sand is that thing they won’t do. When pressed to this point (and you should) they are forced to either double down on their old method (increasing conflict) or consider something new (change.)
Your Character’s Playbook
The playbook is a technique to identify what your character will tend to do in certain situations. Allows the writer to establish the norm, then break it, if necessary. This lends itself to a spreadsheet or table to populate your NaNoWriMo notebook. What does your character do when complimented, when hungry, when scared, when attracted to a stranger, or when lost?
Character Relationship chart
Create a chart to show the characters’ relationships and histories. Again, a table works well. For example:
|Harry is Jan’s ex-husband. They clash over parenting but share a love for classical music
|Damon is Jan’s teen son who plays both parents against each other
|Bonnie is Damon’s girlfriend who wishes her mom was as attentive as Jan
|Damon’s science teacher with a crush on Harry
|Harry, Damon’s dad, wants to be the “cool parent”
|Harry, thinks Bonnie is a bad influence on Damon
|Harry thinks Steve is a positive influenced on Damon
Some writers use the real-life or slightly altered names of friends, mentors, or even childhood bullies (villain, anyone?) Some use books or websites with lists of baby names.
A favorite tool of mine is grabbing interesting names from movie credits; there’s bound to be something interesting you’d never considered. Every movie end credits crawl is a repository of hundreds of names. I save names on a notepad or smartphone, then mix and match them later.
Look to the role-playing gaming community for an array of character and location name generators. RPG books are great sources for characters and settings, especially if you’re writing fantasy.
Online name generators abound. Here are some links, but beware, this can be a time-draining rabbit hole (I recommend setting a goal and a timer.) Nanowrimo is for writing. So get your prepping and wild-tangent following down before November 1. Until then, try these out:
For a single post listing multiple sites, take a look at this Kindlepreneur article: https://kindlepreneur.com/character-name-generator/
If you’re writing with Scrivener, you can take advantage of the built-in name generator in the Mac and PC versions. Go to Edit >> Writing Tools >> Name Generator. Options include alliterations, double-barrelled names, and names from many different languages.
Keeping track of it all
Now that you’ve got a better sense of your characters, you’ll need to keep track of it all. Once in the midst of Nanowrimo, you’ll want easy access to your character information. Some writers use notebooks, index cards, and binders, others keep digital files in Word, Scrivener, Dabble, Plottr, or other formats.
Moodboards and Storybibles are popular as repositories for names, pictures, colors, maps, book covers, quotes, and dialogue snippets. They may be physical: Corkboard, whiteboard, a wall, a mirror, tabletop, or they may be digital: spreadsheet, slides (PowerPoint, Google slides), Pinterest, Scrivener character, setting, and research files (allows words, pictures, imported websites), personal wikis, Notion.
The folks at Nanowrimo share a simple system for an inspiration board in this Nanowrimo-sponsored video: https://youtu.be/jj5Jx0D9K78.
Books and associated websites
Honorable mention goes to Destiny Salter for her wonderful Storyhacker Character Playbook, which beautifully links your character with a plot, a want, and a need. https://beacon.by/magazine/pdf-request/the-book-clinic/the-storyhackers-character-playbook
Finally, Becca Puglisi and Angela Ackerman’s Emotional Thesaurus and Positive and Negative Traits books are fabulous references for showing a character’s emotions, traits, and behaviors. The series has expanded to nine books, including occupation and setting elements, and is well worth adding to your library.
Story structures for Nanowrimo inspiration
Story structures abound. They are best used as forms, not formulas. I’ve written on structure in this post. Here is an excerpt with links referencing some of the more popular story structure methodologies:
- Save the Cat: Getting Started Tools (click on the “+” for details)
- The Story Grid: drafting with the Foolscap and understanding the 12 content genres
- The Story Circle: a Reedsy article
- John Truby’s Anatomy of Story: notes at Kiingo
- The Heroine’s Journey: from Maureen Murdock, from Gail Carriger, from the heroine’s journey project
- The Hero’s Journey: hero’s journey and search the internet for many more
- The Virgin’s Promise: a DIY MFA article
- The 7-point story structure: from K.M. Weiland, a Reedsy article, Lancy McCall article, and for the original, search YouTube for “Dan Wells 7 point plot structure”
- The Snowflake Method: from Randy Ingermanson
- Plotting the Pixar Way (great for pantsers): 22 rules for storytelling, the 4th rule (story spine), and kindlepreneur on the story spine.
The prolific K.W. Weiland writes on story craft and hosts a popular blog and podcast called “Helping Writers Become Authors.” Her post series on writing scenes is a must for Wrimos seeking to plan scenes and draft faster. She’s provided a great scene-planning cheat sheet.
When you sit down to write, the process will go much smoother if you’ve decided what to write ahead of time. The prep time can be during a month, such as October, or the day before or after a writing session. The prep may be in thought, dictation, or on paper. I prefer paper and, on the fly, my smartphone voice recorder.
Master your focus by mastering your time
- Schedule your writing in sessions
- Alarm clock: from old-school to smartwatch
- The Pomodoro Method helps you manage time in chunks.
- Toggl: a bare-bones app to time projects
- Centered app: task management tool augmented with voice, music, and visuals
- Focus Mate: distraction-free productivity with a virtual workmate (free & paid).
Writerly Health: nutrition, hydration, movement
Be proactive. The best time to plan for and stock up on what you’ll need is before you need it. Let your family and friends know what you’ll be doing in November instead of hanging out with them. Identify your writing community, locally and virtually. Plan and stock up on meals, or have a system in place such as delivery service.
Here are a few ideas to set yourself up for success.
- Set up your writing space. I live in a multilevel townhouse, so have my main writing space upstairs and, for variety, an ancillary space downstairs. I have a few outside areas in mind for when I’m feeling cooped up.
- Keep hydrated. The kitchen is downstairs, so I’ve set up a water, coffee, and tea station upstairs.
- Keep nourished. Plan or stock up on meals. Consider freezing soups and smoothies to avoid needing to run out to the store for fresh ingredients. If you use food delivery services, go for more nutritious foods to keep a steady energy level. Order enough for multiple meals to save on delivery costs
- Schedule your writing day. Plan in blocks of time, for example, a 15-minute review of the scene plan, a two-hour writing block, and 10-20 minutes of stretching and movement.
- RSI prevention. Take care of your hands.
- Eye strain prevention: Focus on distant objects several times an hour, blink consciously, humidify your room, if necessary, and consider using dry eye drops and sprays. For more information: The Dry Eye Zone The American Optometric Association
- Dictation: for free, use MS Word, Google Docs, or Scrivener’s dictation tool to give your hands a break. Dictation is located in Word and Scrivener’s edit menu. Voice typing is located in the Google Doc tools menu.