When Chris Baty founded National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in 1999, a challenge for writing a novel in a month, there were only 21 participants. Now there are hundreds of thousands of global participants annually. Here are 5 tipsfor writing a novel in 30 days for plotters and 5 for pantsers (but you can use them any time of year):
NaNoWriMo preparation: 5 tips for pantsers
The NaNoWriMo rules stress that you cannot use any previously written material towards your NaNoWriMo target word count (NaNoWriMo’s recommended 50, 000 words). You are allowed some preparation and outlining, however, so here are tips if you prefer not to be confined by a comprehensive story outline:
1: Develop a clear idea of where your story is headed
The problem of not outlining is that it’s easy to work yourself into a corner, plot-wise. If you’ll be writing a novel in a month, you’ll need to have a clear concept of the general arc and purpose of your story from the outset.
To start preparing, write a synopsis of your story idea in two to three lines. Include the major objectives for your central character(s) and any primary conflicts. It doesn’t have to be perfect.
For example, for Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the synopsis would read something like this:
‘In wealthy Long Island, New York in the 1920s, war veteran Nick Carraway rents the house next door to a mysterious millionaire, Jay Gatsby. Carraway enters Gatsby’s social circle, eventually learning scandalous secrets that culminate in tragedy.’
2: Summarise the direction of each scene before you start writing
If you’re writing a novel in a month without the guiding hand of a plot outline, you will still need a source of direction. Instead of just launching in blindly, create direction before each writing session. Before you draft a scene, write a down the header ‘scene summary’. Underneath it, note what you intend to happen in the coming scene. For example:
‘Party arrives at the ancient forest and must pass through to continue their quest, not knowing what lives in its deepest interior.’
This will help ensure your story has a sense of continuity and that each scene drives towards an important goal that furthers the overarching story arc.
Although pantsing means not having an extensive plot outline, rather than stumbling in the dark, shine a torch a little ahead of you as you go using scene summaries. This will help you find your way to the 50,000 word mark.
3: Divide your word count, set goals, and track your progress
The problem of writing a story in a month without a plan is that you could wind up writing a 15,000 word composite beginning and middle, leaving 35,000 words for the closing chapters of your book. This could leave your story feeling end-heavy.
During the preparatory phase, decide on target word counts for parts of your book. If you plan on using three act structure, then you’ll write roughly 17, 000 words each for the start, middle and end of your novel.
As you write, take note of where you are in relation to your 17,000, 34,000 and 50 to 51,000 word count targets. This way you’ll know when you need to bring more complications into the narrative arc or wind down for your story’s resolution.
4: Do preparatory journaling
If you are preparing to write a book in a month, at the very least spend some time journaling around your primary story idea. Note down things such as:
- Why you want to tell this story in particular
- What you think will be the most challenging part of writing 50,000 words in a month (staying motivated? Creating story structure?)
- Who your main characters are (their goals, fears, drives and factual details such as their ages, professions and physical appearances)
Pantsers usually let imagination steer the rudder while drafting, rather than an outline. While this can result in a meandering book, this suits some styles of writing. Authors considered ‘postmodern’ for example (such as Tom Robbins or Thomas Pynchon) weave satisfying (though perplexing) stories that flow in a less obviously structured way from scene to scene.
5: Get to know your characters during the NaNoWriMo preparation period
In the month leading up to NaNoWriMo, if you won’t be outlining your book, spend some time getting to know your characters. One effective approach is to do character interviews. Write questions (e.g. ‘What was your proudest moment?’) and answer these for each of your main characters. Even if this information doesn’t make it to the story, the more real your characters feel in your mind’s eye, the easier it will be to let them lead your story.
What if you much prefer having a story outline to guide you?
NaNoWriMo preparation tips for plotters
Planning a novel in the lead-up to National Novel Writing Month is wise to avoid getting stuck. Outlining a novel can be accomplished many ways, but when you’re plotting a novel with the express aim of writing it in 30 days there are extra considerations:
1: Build dates and word count targets into your plot outline
When you write a novel in a month, you can plot your story outline to a calendar, complete with target word counts by date. Be organised this way because when you need to reach 1,666 words per day on average, it helps to have a clear, structured plan.
2: Remember to treat your plot outline as a flexible guide
Whether you’re participating in NaNoWriMo or not, it’s seldom wise to be rigid about sticking to your outline. If your story takes an unexpected detour, go with it. Treating your plot as a flexible guide rather than a life sentence will give you the breathing space that makes it easier to keep up your storytelling momentum.
3: Choose a plot outlining approach that will give you an accessible overview
Taking October to prepare for NaNoWriMo gives you time to choose between different story outlining methods. Because you’ll be writing a novel in just 30 days, you need an outlining approach that will:
- Let you see at a glance where in the story you are and what you planned next
- Make it easy to divide your story arc up into units corresponding to target word counts
For the above reasons, two to three-line chapter summaries work. Create an outline that spans no more than two pages of typed text (preferably one, if possible). Pin your outline prominently above your writing space, or store it virtually on your desktop where you can access it for a refresher anytime.
4: Flesh out only the parts of your outline you need
A combined mix of plotting and pantsing might be exactly what you need to write your book in 30 days. For example, you might want to let character arcs unfold as you go and only outline setting and changes in setting. Remember the target of writing a novel in November (as Chuck Wendig points out here): Quantity. November is for finishing your draft – let December (and January, February and March, if necessary) be the time for cutting and polishing.
5: Track your progress and adjust your story outline as you go
It’s important to track your progress if you’ve set yourself the challenge of writing a book in a month. As part of your NaNoWriMo preparation, create a calendar of daily word count targets, leaving space to fill in the actual word count you reach each day in a different colour. This will give you a visual chart of how much progress you’re making.
Tracking your progress will keep you motivated, and will also help you to make adjustments to your targets and/or outline if the end date is approaching and you’ve strayed a little off course.
Will you be participating in NaNoWriMo this year? Join the NaNoWriMo group on Now Novel and use the Idea Finder to prepare your central idea, story setting, character outlines and more.