NaNoWriMo Prep – Even for Pantsers!

(Originally posted in my region’s forum on nanowrimo.org)

NaNoWriMo is less than a month away! Do you have any idea what you’re going to write yet? If not, that’s fine! I’ve got some suggestions to help get you going. Even if you like to totally fly by the seat of your pants when you write, you can really benefit from having at least some vague points in your head before you start.

You don’t have to go all dystopian-YA-novel and declare your faction. It’s not plotters vs. pantsers to the death. It’s not “start without a single idea” vs. “20 pages of meticulous notes”. There’s tons of middle ground between those options, and you can find a balance that will work for you and keep you motivated and inspired throughout November!

If you do nothing else, it can really help to elevate your NaNo plan from a vague idea to a premise. Larry Brooks talks about this in his book Story Physics, and in this Writer’s Digest Article. Here’s an example using The Hunger Games:

  • [Idea]  I want to write a dystopian novel about reality TV
  • [Concept]  (add conflict and tension) I want to write about an annual televised event where poor kids are pitted against other poor kids for sport
  • [Premise]  (add character and themes) A girl named Katniss volunteers for The Hunger Games to save her sister from participating and has to fight to the death against other kids—including a boy from her own district who has always shown her kindness.

Look for that hint of conflict inherent in your basic idea and start questioning it. Want to go a bit more in-depth into the plot than just the basic idea? Larry Brooks also has a book called Story Engineering, and just about every story in the western world* ends up falling into this structure, whether by instinct or by planning.

What’s great and useful about this style of outline is the focus on when characters learn new pieces of information, which makes you think through what bits of info the characters need to learn over the course of the story to achieve their goal, which in turn gives you points to write toward. What does Harry Potter need to know to defeat Voldemort? What does Luke Skywalker need to know to embrace the Force and blow up the Death Star?

The very boiled-down version of the structure is:

  • Part One: The Setup (the orphan) — Introduce your characters, have the inciting incident, foreshadow things that will be important later, introduce your antagonist in some small way. At the end of part one, at approximately the 25% mark of your story, include Plot Point One: The clear statement of the quest/goal/major obstacle, our first full view of the antagonist, and the statement of the stakes. What do you characters stand to lose? Make sure we know why it matters to the characters.
  • Part Two: The Response (the wanderer) — Your characters have their very human reactions to the quest. Run, hide, seek information, get help, find an advisor. At about the 50% mark, you’ll have the Midpoint, where the character learns something new that changes the context of the quest. The game has changed, and it shifts the character from reactive mode to proactive mode. Time to DO STUFF.
  • Part Three: The Attack (the warrior) — Your characters attack the problem/obstacle/antagonist head on. They can’t totally succeed yet, because we’re not at the end of the book yet, but they can make progress. At about the 75% mark, you’ll have Plot Point Two: The final piece of information the characters need to conquer the obstacle/defeat the villain/begin the final chase. It’s ON.
  • Part Four: The Resolution (the martyr) — No new information can be introduced after this point. It’s time to defeat the obstacle/villain, resolve the conflict, let the stakes come into play in a big way, and make the character sacrifice something to achieve the goal. Make it happen, cap’n.

Come up with as much of this as you can ahead of time! If that’s just the big four basic sections (Setup, Response, Attack, Resolution), then great! That still gives you some good direction. If you can, add in those plot points. If you want to go even more in depth than that and plan out chapters, go for it. The level of detail is up to you.

Or, maybe you want to approach things from a character standpoint, rather than plot. Consider: How will your character change over time? What kind of person are they at the start, and how will they be different at the end? Why does the conflict matter to them? What do they personally have to lose?

No matter where you start (plot, character, idea, or even worldbuilding), look for that source of conflict and change. No conflict, no story!

And if you want to do a bit more in-depth prep, don’t forget that NaNoWriMo puts out some excellent workbooks through the Young Writer’s Program. The high school one is great for adults, too!

Do you have any NaNo prep strategies to share with your fellow wrimos? Post ‘em below!

Happy writing,
M.K.

* – except literary fiction which, by its very nature, is about experimenting and subverting expectations.

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