So, you’ve committed to writing a novel this month. The ambitious goal of completing 50,000 words of a cohesive story in 30 days is both daunting and exhilarating. Whether you’ve completed previous NaNoWriMo novels or are dipping your toes into these challenging waters for the first time, you’ve made the choice to face down that blank page right now. Where and how do you begin? Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, a veteran or a novice, here are a few ideas that will help you finish November with a draft you’ll be proud of.
1. Structure before you begin (or don’t). Some people prefer to have every detail of their story planned out before they begin (see above re: “plotters”), while others like to let their stories surprise them (these are the “pantsers” of the writing world). If you have a strong preference, it can be genuinely challenging to work outside of your preferred method. However, it can also be revitalize blocked writing. When you’re looking to write something fast (like a NaNoWriMo novel), having an outline speeds your progress, because you know what to write next. If your story isn’t moving as planned, though, try giving it freedom to develop and seeing what twists and turns pop up as you go along. And if you’re an obsessive plotter, writing a fast novel by the seat of your pants might be an exhilarating, and even time-saving, experience.
2. Work with others. Writing is usually a solitary activity: one person, one keyboard (or notebook, or typewriter). But it doesn’t have to be. NaNoWriMo offers a treasure trove of virtual support, as well as in-person opportunities in many communities to meet and write together. Take advantage of these changes to find support and camaraderie with others who are embarking on the same writing journey. Other fun ways to bring collaboration into your writing process include completing NaNoWriMo with friends, working with a writing group or coach, or coauthoring a novel. (My coauthor Kacie Berghoef has a great blog post about book collaboration, which might be helpful if you’re looking to go this route.) Collaboration means you don’t have to work alone. When you run into challenges, you’ll have others around you who will understand and help you through them.
3. Write to reader interest. You want to write the book you want to write. Maybe you’ve heard about “writing to market,” and cringed at the idea. Why would you want to follow ephemeral publishing trends? Conversely, maybe you’ve thought, “if (insert best-selling author) can do it, surely I can,” and decided to take up some broadly selling genre, topic, or formula, whether or not your heart is in it. Writing to reader interest is more complex than many of us think, though. It’s not about writing to a script; it’s about writing something that will be enjoyed. When it comes right down to it, most of us aren’t writing solely for ourselves. We write because we have a story to tell, and we’d like it to connect with an audience. And, my desired audience is probably going to look different from your desired audience. Consider the type of reader who gravitates to your genre and interests, and rather than writing to a general audience, write in a way that will keep their interest. Changes are you’re part of your own target audience. What book would you love to read? Write that book.
4. Write from personal experience. It’s an old truism that you should “write what you know.” This doesn’t mean that you need to limit yourself to things you’ve experienced in the real world. If this were the case, we’d have no imaginative science fiction, fantasy, or horror to enjoy. What is helpful is to draw inspiration from your experiences to ground your story. When your character’s in an emotional situation, look to your past to bring to life similar emotions that you’ve experienced. Your background can add color, detail, and richness: if you have a long career as a gardener, for instance, you can bring unique skill in describing the setting’s plant life. And don’t be afraid to mine your past for ideas. Your life is a wealth of inspiration, if you look at it closely.
5. Research what you need to know. There are lots of times when your story idea will extend beyond your current knowledge. Don’t be afraid to consult other people, books, or the Internet to learn the answers to your questions. From familiarizing yourself with your setting to getting to know the technical or medical details of your plot points, you’ll find that you need to research more factors than you’d expect to get everything right. In addition to information,relevant images, videos, and narratives (not just books–consider blogs and other internet resources) can make good sources, as can reaching out to people in your network who are qualified to answer your questions. Some of this research may come after NaNoWriMo, during the revision process. When the information is important to the plot, though, don’t hesitate to look it up on the go.
6. Throw in some danger. I’m not talking about endangering your own life as you sit in front of your treacherous laptop screen – I’m talking about imperiling your characters! Most novels are about people with problems. To maintain reader interest, keep the problems building until the end. When one problem is solved, might the solution create another one? Plumb plot possibilities by asking, “What could go wrong here?” If you want to write a can’t-put-it-down read, try ending your chapters with cliffhangers.
7. Keep the process fun and rewarding. External incentives make excellent motivators to keep going. NaNoWriMo is already great for this, with pep talks from prominent authors, relevant sponsor offer “prizes”, and the goal of “winning” built in. Build in intrinsic motivation by focusing on the fun parts of the writing process itself. Each day, focus on writing something that’s exciting and intriguing to you. If your scene is boring, cut it out. If it’s necessary to the plot but not that interesting, bring in fun details, dialogue, or other colorful touches. If you maintain your own interest through each passage you write, your writing will intrigue your readers too.
8. Use action to drive the story forward. Your story is about things that happen. Make sure enough happens to keep the pace going. Even a reflective story needs to have a consistent, interesting sequence of events. Your characters, too, need to be active – especially your protagonist. If you notice that things keep happening to your main character(s), give them more agency. Make sure they make decisions and initiate events rather than simply reacting. Give them a choice in every chapter. Give these choices consequences that significantly influence the plot.
9. Look at the story as a whole. If you’re a plotter, consider thematic elements and plot and character arcs up front. If you’re a pantser, watch them evolve and keep them in mind as you write. Beyond storytelling and entertainment, what meaning are you seeking to convey? What ideas do you want to explore? Who are your characters beyond their surface traits? What motivates them, and how will they grow (if they grow – iconic or static characters can work too)? What will they learn from the journey you are taking them on? Looking at your novel on a macro level will help it resonate with themes that speak to your target readers, ensuring it is both cohesive and meaningful.
NaNoWriMo is a wonderful challenge to take on, and you don’t have to do it alone. Feel free to reach out for support if you’d like some writing coaching, or to share what you’re working on in the comments. Happy writing to all of you!