Getting the most out of your novel planning time
In 2020 I attempted – and managed- my biggest NaNoWriMo challenge to date: 80,000 words in 30 days, an epic sequel to my previous NaNoWriMo effort, which followed Malcolm The Werefox from A Tale of Two Princes. Along the way lots of fellow writers, and those interested in attempting the challenge themselves, asked questions about my process, but being caught up in it, I didn’t have time to fully respond. So in this mini-series I’m going to break down my processes step by step to help you make the most of NaNoWriMo 2021, starting with my Top 5 Tips to Smashing Your Preptober.
For those not already in the know, NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is an annual challenge where writers of all kinds attempt to write 50,000 words in the 30 days of November. Preptober refers to the October before NanNoWriMo, when we get ready. You can absolutely spread your prep over a longer time frame than that, or squeeze it into the week before. There is no wrong way to approach writing a novel.
Prepping, Pantsing and Plantsing
If you’re new to NaNoWriMo, you might find these terms perplexing, but they just refer to the way you approach writing a novel. If you’re a planner you may spend a really long time coming up with character studies and maps, and working out the fine details of each scene before you ever start writing your first draft. If that sounds like you, this list will help you as a start point to branch out from, and you may want to supplement it with deeper character studies and detailed scene notes, using this as a skeleton to flesh out.
If you’re a pantster, you sit down on November 1st and open your laptop/tablet/typewriter case/ inkwell and parchment with no idea where you’re going to go and no clue who you’re going with. Godspeed to you, if that’s your style, but I can’t do that when I’m speed writing. I’ve attempted it, gotten very lost, and ran out of steam around the 25k mark each time I’ve tried it. If pantsing is your thing, you’ll likely want to skip past the parts of this about post-it notes and planning, and skip on ahead to the clearing your calendar and guarding your time sections. You can mostly ignore Preptober, planning-wise, but a huge part of succeeding at NaNoWriMo is time management, pacing yourself, and making your writing a priority.
If you’re a Plantster, you’re somewhere in the middle of the two. You are my people. You go into November with at least a rough route map of your plot, and an idea of who your characters are. You may not know exactly where the Great Big Showdown is going to go down, but you know when it’s going to happen and who needs to be there. You will likely be the ones who get the most benefit from this list.
This is my way. It is not the only way. It works for me, and you’re very welcome to take what you’ll find useful from it, but every writer, and every book, is different. A lot of developing your craft is learning what works for you and what doesn’t. Your process is yours alone, and there’s no wrong way to approach a big writing project.
5 Top Tips to Smashing Your Preptober
1. Set your Structure – The Post-it System
I find structure a good place to start with planning a novel for NaNoWriMo, even if I have some other ideas in mind. Some people like to use NaNoWriMo as a place to play around with structure and get literary with it, but I prefer to use exploratory writing when I don’t have a time limit. With a tight deadline like NaNoWriMo, I really feel the pressure if I don’t have a basic idea of the places I need my story to go.
The structure you need will depend on the genre you’re writing. Readers have certain expectations of a genre, and while you can play about with certain elements and the order they go in, the reader will ultimately be dissatisfied if they invest time in a book only to be robbed of the payoff they expect. If they pick up a romance book, and you spend a whole novel on will they/won’t they tension building and then end the story without ever telling your reader what happened with the couple and if they got together or not, you’ll end up with readers feeling like they have been cheated out of an ending.
Those structural expectations will depend on which gene you’re writing in, but my last NaNoWriMo project was a supernatural thriller, so I’m going to run through the story beats for a thriller here as an example. I used a classic three-act structure (beginning, middle, end) and broke those down into beats from there.
Grab yourself some Post-it notes and either a big bit of cardboard you can pin up to a wall or, if space is tight, a big bit of wrapping paper or greaseproof paper that you can stick your post-its to and roll up when it isn’t in use. You’re going to pop each of these headings onto one and leave space to make some notes on each Post-it later.
This is where you introduce a compelling character (usually your main character but sometimes in a thriller this can be your antagonist). Give the reader a glimpse into the world, maybe a hint at the conflict. You may even have the murder weapon/murderer/key piece of evidence that solves the case shown briefly here. Don’t worry if you don’t know what that is yet, that’s why we’re planning.
The inciting incident
Your inciting incident is The Big Thing that happens to kick everything off. In a thriller, usually a murder, or irrefutable evidence of a serial killer. The inciting incident is the reason everyone in your story doesn’t just sit at home in front of the telly, doomscrolling Twitter and having a snack.
First Plot Point
This is the end of act one, usually about a quarter of the way into your story. Something happens to push your protagonist into serious action. If your main character is the detective, something has happened that makes it suddenly personal and meaningful. Their spouse was killed, their life is threatened, their dog gets kidnapped. Whatever it is that makes your character think “Ok, now this is personal.”
Act two is where a lot of us struggle. The key to planning the middle is to keep in mind that the whole of act two is about preparing your character for act three. This is where we want to see them struggle with personal issues thrown up by the subplots, see them grapple with and begin to overcome personal flaws, and generally grow enough to see the ending through. It’s where, in a thriller, your false leads and red herrings will mostly be. It’s also the stage where you’re most likely to wander off down a subplot woodland path and end up lost.
First Pinch Point
This is where we give the reader a glimpse of the stakes. You can do this by literally showing your killer take another victim, or have it through a growing sense of danger – for example, your detective realising that the killings are getting more prolific, or the bad guy is gaining more power in some way. The point is to up the tension for your reader here, make them care about your good guy saving the day.
The midpoint turn is aptly named at just around the halfway point of your story. It is usually a false high, where it suddenly seems the detective is moving toward solving the case, or a false low, where it seems like they can’t possibly solve the case and are obviously doomed. Either way, it should make your character switch from defense to offense, from reactive to proactive. Perhaps they find a lead or have a flash of insight about the antagonist’s motivations that leads them and your reader to see things differently.
Second Pinch Point
This is where your reader gets to see what your main character is going to have to overcome to save the day. It’s often subplot-related (so don’t worry if you don’t know what it is yet), and shows a personal weakness of the protagonist, or a personal issue with the foil/supporting character.
Second Plot Point (Act 2 Climax)
Here you’ll really upset your main character. We are about 75% of the way in, and we need to make our readers gasp out loud and forget to get off the train at their station because they’re desperate to find out what happens next. It’s huge cliffhanger time.
Here we need to throw the worst at your character. They lose all their friends in a huge fight, their boss is about to sack them, everything points at them failing catastrophically. They know everything they need to solve the case, but they’re going in alone and having to face their worst fears and flaws to pull it off. The whole story now needs to be hurtling towards the Big Showdown.
The Crisis/ Dark Night of the Soul
Your character has lost everything, they’re totally alone, and grappling with subplot issues and their own fears. This is where you make them face it all, and they have that click moment where the link between their internal and external conflicts resolve and are able to be pushed through in order to defeat your antagonist.
AKA The Big Showdown. This is the point where your antag and protag finally face off. There will probably need to be a point where it looks like your protagonist is going to die. This is where they pull out the special thing about them that makes them power through. If your main character has grappled with confidence issues in your subplot, this is where they find their self-esteem. If they’ve got a major phobia of spiders, they push through it to save the kitten from the tarantula tank. Whatever question you set up in the inciting incident of act one – whether that was “Can our detective stop the killer before he goes on another spree?” or “Can the martian stop the invasion of killer cows before all life on Earth is exterminated?” should be answered here.
Aaaand relax. And also let your reader relax. Show them a glimpse of what life is like now the danger has passed. How has your protagonist grown? Did they succeed or fail in their task? Any little dangling threads from your subplot(s) that need to be tied up should be dealt with here.
Optional Last Page Twist
In some genres, particularly thrillers, you can get away with one final twist at the 99% mark. Maybe the killer we thought was dead is suddenly revealed, to the reader only, to be still alive, or one of our red herrings is revealed to be not so innocent as our protagonist assumes. This is difficult to pull off, but can work really well, particularly if you envision the book being part of a series.
You can scrawl all of that out as a flowchart, if you’ll find that easier than Post-its, but you may find it hard to move things about that way. There’s probably a fancy-pants digital way of doing it (I’ve heard good things about scrivener and the like) but I prefer to handwrite at this stage. Whatever works for you is fine.
There are a zillion websites out there that will give you the story beats to every genre under the sun. Have a read of a few, and pick out the ones that are repeated in a few different posts by different people. These will form your main structure. You don’t have to stick rigidly to the orders any template sets out, so don’t panic if your story only makes sense if your second pinch point happens just before your midpoint turn or whatever. It’s to give you an overview, and the point of the Post- its is that you can move them around to suit your story.
2. Know Your Characters
Once you have your structure in place, you’re going to need to populate your story. Sure you probably could have just your protagonist and antagonist, but then you have no one for your main character to be challenged by, no room for personal growth with a subplot. Supporting characters give you conflict, they lead your main character on wild goose chases, and give them information that ultimately leads to your main character to saving the day or solving the mystery. I like to use a different coloured Post-it for this, so I can keep bullet points about my characters handy. You may find it easier in long-form, so you can get into the detail.
Who is your main character? What do they want? What’s stopping them from getting it? What happens if they don’t get it? Are they afraid of anything? How do they see themselves? Does that match with how others see them?
Which of their relationships will we be seeing most? This character will act as a foil and a catalyst for your main character. In a romance this is usually the object of their affections, in a thriller it is likely (if your main character is the detective) their partner. The important thing is that the relationship causes conflict. This can be personal – maybe your detective feels their partner doesn’t like them, or that their partner isn’t pulling their weight, but they have to work together to defeat the Big Bad. Ideally, the conflicts in this relationship should mirror the book’s theme. For example, if your detective feels their partner doesn’t like them, is this rooted in the self-confidence issues they’ll need to overcome in order to defeat the Bad Guy in the Big Showdown? This relationship will help drive the main character’s personal development and main arc. Of course, if you want this character to feel like a person, not a cardboard cutout (and you should!), you’ll need to ask yourself what they want, what’s stopping them from getting it, what happens if they don’t get it, etc too. You don’t need to write it all into your actual novel, but knowing their motivations will help you see where they can push the story forward while still feeling real.
These are the characters who your story can’t function without, but who shouldn’t be allowed to overrun the story too much. Your detective will need a friend, or an assistant, or a forensic specialist. These characters will have their own arcs too, but they shouldn’t be the focus – their arcs should directly relate to your protagonist’s. They can be useful for driving up personal stakes and conflicts, for example, the friend is kidnapped by the serial killer, or the assistant is about to find out the detective’s big dark secret, adding conflict or driving the story forward in some way. They could also provide you with red herrings, or love interests, or in some cases, one character could perform the role of both.
Lower Level Antagonists
These are the characters who frustrate your protagonist along the way, ultimately preparing your main character for the main showdown. They include authority figures (the boss who is going to fire your character if they don’t solve the case, the older brother suppressing the main character, the traffic warden who clamped the protagonist’s car just before the big car chase scene). Don’t let them send your character on irrelevant tangents though. The conflict created by them should be relevant to your main arc and driving your plot forward toward that big resolution.
This is your Big Bad Guy, and you’re going to need to ask the same questions about them as your other characters. What do they want? This will be the driver for most of your story. If they don’t have a goal, and a compelling reason to work towards it, your characters are stuck on the sofa eating Wotsits again. You may also want a small supporting cast for them – the grand vizier, the Igor type person, the sidekick. This will largely depend on whether you intend to show any of the story through your antagonist’s eye though. Either way, knowing their motivations and personal stakes will lead your story to being much stronger and your reader feeling more satisfied.
Now you have the main plot arc down and a list of characters and their motivations, it should be easier to see what your characters need to be doing and when. You can go back and add as many different types of post-it notes as you want. In NaNoWriMo 2020 I had a different colour Post-it note to remind me about clues, red herrings, twists, character development, and beats. In NaNoWriMo 2021 I’ll probably simplify a bit, but the important thing is having your main plot laid out in front of you so that each day you’ll know exactly what you need to write next. No more staring at an empty page wondering what to write and struggling to get started.
Which brings us nicely to;
3. Craft Your Opening Line
Just like with running, I find the hardest part of writing is actually getting started. It is intimidating staring at a blank page at the best of times, but when you know you have a huge chunk of words to write in a very short time, the pressure amps up. You find yourself sweating, staring at the little cursor blinking, not knowing how to begin. Friends start posting their word counts and you feel like that one kid who is still struggling to read question one of an exam while they can hear everyone else turning their pages over to start question four.
That’s why I always craft my opening line in advance. No, it isn’t cheating. You don’t have to count it towards your overall word count. But if you have that opening line, it is so much easier to get going. Craft it in advance, save it on a document marked NaNoWriMo, and when it comes to November 1st, you won’t need to worry about the blank page of doom and the blinking cursor of inadequacy.
4. Clearing Your Calendar
This is the one bit of preptober that even pantsters will find useful. NaNoWriMo is a huge challenge. Yes we break it down into manageable chunks and we plan things out to make it easier, but it’s still a massive cognitive load, and it’s much easier if you can shift some other things about.
Wherever possible, move stuff out of week one, at least. If you use my method for the writing itself, detailed in the next post, you’ll be using that week to get ahead, and you’ll need every spare minute you have. Do all the laundry and tell the kids they’re to wear fig leaves for now. Batch cook if you can so you have healthy food you can plop out of the freezer into the oven with no effort at all. If you have meetings you can move to later in the month, or even December, do it. Get a big shop in so you wont have to faff about with that in week one. Is your car due a service or anything like that? Get it done in October if you can. You’ll be glad of it later, every minute counts in November.
5. Value Your Writing Time
I really can’t stress this enough. The biggest obstacle to getting a project drafted is feeling like it isn’t important. And it is important. I don’t care if you’ve never written a word before, or you’re a bestselling author with 100 titles in Waterstones (though I may wonder what you’re doing here!) – your writing matters. Your art matters. You have chosen to take on a massive task that many wouldn’t dream of trying, or would dream of trying but never put into action. You must must MUST value your writing time. It is more important than hoovering. The dust will still be there in December. It’s more important than your Twitter. I know that one stings, but it is. Your followers will understand that you’re busy, and if they’re good for you, they’ll encourage you.
Tell your friends what you’re doing. No, not that friend that always puts you down and makes you feel inadequate (why are you still even talking to them anyway? Do you ever leave that interaction feeling good?)- tell that friend who always encourages and inspires you to try. Don’t have one? Find a buddy on twitter or Facebook or the NaNoWriMo forums, and big each other up. Keep each other accountable. Find someone who will ask you each day how it’s going, and gently admonish you for being active on your socials when you haven’t yet done your words.
Prioritise your writing over everything you can – if it won’t die if it’s neglected, neglect it. If you’re juggling a lot of balls you’re going to drop some sometimes. The trick is to drop the rubber ones, not the glass ones. During November, your writing is a glass ball. Housework is a rubber ball all year round.
Now you should be feeling suitably prepped and ready to it November’s NaNoWriMo challenge running. Join me next time when I talk about surviving during NaNoWriMo itself.
Have you participated in NaNoWriMo before? What are your top tips to smashing your Preptober?Follow Victoria on social media: