After doing National Novel Writing Month as many times1 as I have to date, one starts to pick up on a few similarities and tricks from year to year that help with the goals. Not the word-count goal; that’s the easy part. If you really want to ensure that you validate at fifty thousand words, you just employ the Joycian method of writing one particularly long run on sentence fragment that may or may not be in any way coherent and conveys several thousand ideas some simultaneously some sequentially and does not employ any punctuation (because of course contractions are one word and not too words) and the sentence may read like the Steve Reich of wordsmithing where you no longer have any concept of beginning nor end but that’s okay because all you are doing is attempting to cross an arbitrary word count goal and–
Not the word-count goal. That’s the easy part. The real challenge of NaNoWriMo is writing a complete manuscript. Or as much of one as one can manage in 30 days, give or take. Sure, you could just wing it. But maybe you’re writing a murder mystery, where every detail matters. Or a science fiction novel, when world-building can make or break the spine of your book (figuratively) (perhaps literally, too). Or, gods forbid, Game of Thrones x Star Trek fanfiction, and you need to keep track of who all these characters are.
Eventually, there comes a time when winging it simply won’t suffice. And that’s when you’ve wandered into Plotzing territory. It’s okay. This is a safe space. Be welcome. We won’t judge you. In fact, we’ll do our best to guide you.
Plotzing, or Drafting the Battle Plan
Some folks go in for 100-page story bibles. Other just jot down some guiding principles. Either way, you just need to be consistent. Or, at least, consistent enough to push you through this first draft. But here are some questions to consider as you’re creating a new world:
- How Earth-like is the setting of your novel? Is it literally our world, our timeline, in present day? Are you taking geographic liberties, or is this a place you know well?
- If it’s Earth but not our time, what are the details of the current era? How has history played out, or what is yet to come?
- If it’s Earth but not our timeline, what historical events have changed? How did this impact how the human race played out (if it survived)?
- If it’s not Earth, how did it come into being? What is the geography of this place? Do you expect this to cover many miles, or happen within a small spatial radius?
- How strong is science, magic, and/or faith in this place? What are the rules of your science and/or magic? (If you don’t have rules, then you don’t have any dramatic tension, because any problem can be hand-waved.)
- Are the humans in thatched roof cottages or fallout bunkers? Are there any humans left? What sort of culture do they have? Does art (still) exist? Is there music?
Once you have a setting, your next step is characters. You’ll have 1 to n2 point-of-view characters. (Don’t worry just yet about narrative voice.) You could do a full character diagram for each (explaining hopes and dreams, motivations, familial relations, Batman-esque traumatic past, etc.), but your main goal is to get to the core of the character. The more main characters you have, the more often this step repeats.
Once you have a location and a narrator, you can proceed with the story. Unless you’re writing pseudo-Franzenian Brooklynite wankery, you’ll need something in the story to challenge the protagonist, to cause her or him to grow in unexpected but believable ways. Often their goals (or their destinies) will drive this. Without challenge or conflict, be it internal or external, there’s no reason for your protagonist to do much of anything. Which, again, if you’re writing that sort of “literary” “fiction,” that’s your prerogative. But you’re throwing away a vital storytelling tool in the process.
Finally, you can (if you wish) outline the beats of your story. Sometimes, there are good reasons to have guideposts defined on your road to the end of the novel. It can help you to parcel out the size of chapters, figure out how many POV characters you really need, and dole out bits of mystery at good intervals. It’s not a requirement, though.
Tools for Plotzing
There are a lot of these available, and their efficacy is dependent upon how your mind works. I personally find that, in the NaNoWriMo initial (zero) draft, I put all my notes in a flat file (read: word processing document). I do up a chapter list, character list (with motivations), establish scenery, jot notes on world history, add in details of pertinent research (e.g., “here are the details of how Mary Shelley came up with the idea for Frankenstein,” with links as pertinent).
Other folks use spreadsheets, or software like Scrivener. If these tools work for you, go for it. If they don’t, don’t feel badly! Everyone’s mind is a little different. (And that’s a good thing, otherwise every novel in the world would be The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym.) If you’re curious about trying out new methods, go for it. I’d just recommend the trial versions before paying for software you don’t actually need.
I find that Post-Its for scenes are helpful during the editing process. However, this is NaNoWriMo, and your goal here is to dump out as many words as possible. Don’t worry about Post-Its, story cadence, etc. just yet. Do, though, make a note of what each chapter contains.
An exception to the above: murder mysteries. Mysteries are some of the most tightly woven of stories. They depend upon not only suspense, but a slow revelation about the core truths hidden by antagonists. While I generally don’t advocate plot outlines, I’ve found that pantsing a murder mystery can get confusing in a hurry. Try, then, to have a core truth worked out in advance–this will give you ammunition to create twists and turns away from that truth as your POV character(s) march through the chapters.
What happens when you write to a plotz or outline
Things get messy3, quickly.
Don’t panic. This is expected.
Writing a novel is a fluid thing. You started off with one set of thoughts. But as Plato tells us, you never stand in the same river twice. Not only is the river constantly moving, you see, but so is your mind. And if writing is distilled thought, then your writing (and your plot) is apt to change along with you.
This means that you could have better ideas about the beginning, middle, and ending of your novel as you work your way through. It may mean that, especially during NaNoWriMo, that you create scenes that ultimately are cut from your book. It may mean, conversely, that your progress leads more naturally into a new ending that exemplifies the core themes of your novel (unintentional as they may have been) far better than the one you were about to shoehorn. You find yourself thinking above the curve. First you have nothing. Then you have everything. And then your everything changes.
In my years of NaNoWriMo, I have never once written the book I thought I was going to write, whether I pantsed or plotted. The plotted books turned out a bit closer to the original plan, but my story bibles looked wildly different from the end result. And I’m glad for this. In every case, the book turned out better than for what my original plan would have ever allowed.
This first draft, zero draft really, is not going to be pretty. It never is. It takes a long time (about 150,000 words) to forgive yourself for this. You’ll go back and reread it later. You’ll be horrified. But you’re going to see the bones of a good story underneath the tattered rags and think, “This is okay, but it can be great.” And it will be … so long as it makes its way out of your head, through your fingers (or vocal cords) and into the page. Thinking about writing without a plan is a wish, not a goal.
Get to it. Sit down. Put words to paper. Repeat.
It will be magnificent.
1Started in 2003, which means this is … well, it’s been a lot, we’ll leave it at that.
2Up to you. I stay between one and three, but you could well have a different POV character for each chapter in your novel. If this is your first novel, it may serve you well to keep it simple. But don’t let me stomp on your dreams here — go nuts!
3We’re talking scenes that have nothing to do with one another because that plot point you picked out in October got cast by the wayside. Or now there’s a dead body and you don’t know whose it is or who put it there. Or there’s a dragon. Like, where did that come from, anyway?