by Steve Shepard, Storyist developer, and avid NaNoWriMo participant.
“What are you writing this year?”
It’s the question on everyone’s lips at the regional NaNoWriMo kickoff parties. The answer, even among seasoned NaNoWriMo veterans, is often “I don’t know.” If you don’t know either, relax—you’re in good company.
As this is my tenth year participating in NaNoWriMo, I thought I’d add to the mix with a quick how-to on the techniques that have worked for me.
So what should you write?
Conventional wisdom says that you should write what you know. If you’re a teacher, write about a teacher facing one of the many struggles teachers face. If you’re an accountant, write about an accountant facing accountant stuff.
I disagree with this “conventional” wisdom. For many writers, part of the joy of writing is learning something new and living in a world of your making. The trick is finding a story idea that captures your imagination.
One of the more effective ways to do this is to play a game of “What If?” Look around you and ask what would happen if something you cared deeply about changed in a significant way. For example:
If you are uncomfortable putting yourself at the center of your story, look around you. Family, friends, and co-workers are great sources for “What Ifs.”
Be forewarned, though; friends and family can be very prickly if you put them in your novel. And while you could use this to your advantage, you’re probably better off disguising their situations so they won’t know it’s them.
If those “what ifs” don’t work for you, you can always turn to the Web. Current news stories make great starting points.
Take fifteen minutes or so and write down as many “What Ifs” as you can. Try to fill a couple of pages.
Tip: Play with a friend. This exercise can be uproariously funny if you give it half a chance.
Tip 2: Be as specific as possible. Use “my boss” instead of “management” and “Bill Gates” instead of “the cabal.” Even a vast conspiracy needs a point person through whom the reader can experience the evil. You probably should use a fictional name, however.
Then sift through the list and find the “What If” that grabs you. If you can’t pick one, take some time to cull the top three, and flip a three-sided coin to identify the winner.
Look at your “What If” question. What is the story is about?
The answer isn’t always obvious. For example, consider the question, “What if I finally found my true love only to discover that she was in love with someone else?”
The story might be about your quest to win her heart, whatever the cost. However, the story could just as easily be about her fight to fend off the stalker that threatens to come between her and her true love.
The character that drives this story line is your protagonist. The character that opposes your protagonist is the antagonist.
Once you know who your protagonist and antagonist are and have a general idea of the story line, take a stack of index cards (or use Storyist, which provides virtual index card support), and jot down all the things you can think of that would keep your protagonist from getting what they want.
When I say everything, I mean everything. Go for quantity over quality. Use one card for each idea. And remember this: the more difficult, the more larger-than-life the conflict, the more compelling the story.
Now, create two new pages of notes, one for your protagonist and one for your antagonist. For each character, ask yourself:
Write down your answers in your character pages.
Then ask some of your own. There are a million other questions you could ask. Brainstorm. Search the Web. If you’re stuck, try answering the Proust Questionnaire for your character. Don’t worry if the character doesn’t “click” right now. Get some ideas on paper.
Many writers like to assemble a collage of photos to use for inspiration as they write. If this appeals to you, take a few minutes to surf the Web for images that evoke your character. Google Images is a good place to start.
Your goal at this point is to understand what makes your characters tick. Keep in mind that many of the character details will change, sometimes drastically, as you write—that’s part of the magic. Taking some time now to understand the character’s core will help you keep your story on track later.
Now that you have a clearer picture of who your protagonist and antagonist are, it’s time to populate your story world with a cast of interesting characters. Set aside a few hours, find a public place, pack your laptop or pad of paper, and sit and watch.
Coffee shops work well since you can sit for hours and use your laptop without attracting attention*. But keep in mind that the clientele at the shop is likely to be a lot like you, so you won’t see as much diversity as you would if you ventured off your beaten path.
Try to find a place that matches your setting. If you’re writing a legal thriller, park yourself outside a law office. Writing a medical drama? Visit a hospital.
Soak it all in. If you do, you’ll have a wealth of character sketches to draw on as you’re writing.
* 2022 edit: I wrote this in the before times. Please don’t do anything you’re not comfortable with.
The supporting characters in your story will change significantly from draft to draft.
The quirky nurse in draft one may need to become the perky intern in draft two to tie up a romantic subplot. The co-worker who inadvertently sets the story in motion may need to become a mailroom manager to accommodate a change in setting. The important thing at this point is to get a sense of the group, so create a new page of notes to record your general impression of the crowd.
Things to observe:
A little secret: What you observe in these outings isn’t actually that important. What is important is that you’re training yourself to observe the world as a writer does. You’ll find yourself doing that a lot in the coming month.
After you have a good sense of the group, pick a few individuals who interest you and dig deeper. What attracted your attention? Jot down the physical actions and details as quickly as you can.
Then, try to imagine what they are thinking. What problems do they face? What do they want badly? Why are they having trouble getting it?
Now that you have a tentative cast of characters, take out that stack of index cards, and spread them out in front of you. These are the candidates for scenes in your novel.
Arrange them in a sequence that makes sense to you. You can set some of the wackier cards aside, but don’t throw them away—these cards often contain the seeds for your most powerful scenes.
Don’t hurry through this phase. Take time to ponder. Annotate the cards with new ideas. Create new cards entirely. You’re creating your story’s reality. Enjoy this god-like ability.
When you’re happy with the order, pick the five cards with the highest conflict. These are candidates for your key scenes.
What are key scenes? These are the dramatic high points that sling the story onward toward its inevitable conclusion. A lot of writing books describe the key scenes roughly as follows:
Sounds simple, right?
Usually, it isn’t that simple. The high-conflict scenes you picked from your stack will rarely match the key scenes listed above. So why didn’t I tell you about the “conventional” key scenes first? Because I don’t think you should spend too much time pouring your story into someone else’s mold. Pacing is important in storytelling, though, and you should think about how you’re going to keep the story moving. Use the above descriptions if they help.
So what now? Are you happy with your key scenes? If not, don’t be afraid to reshuffle the cards or start over. The goal here is gradual understanding. If you know more about your story after this first pass than you did before you started, you’ve made progress. Put the cards away for a day and come back to them with a fresh pair of eyes if you need to.
Here are some common problems you might run across in the process.
Your high-conflict scenes are all bunched together in the middle of your story.
First, ask yourself if your story is begging to be told over a shorter period of time. Shortening the timeline can heighten the tension (usually a good thing) and make it easier to keep the story moving. If this opportunity presents itself, jump at it. Set the other scenes aside for prequels and sequels.
If not, see if you can spread out the high-conflict scenes and rework the others to fill in around them. Keep in mind that the best stories have a natural rhythm, though, so resist the pressure to shoehorn scenes into places they don’t belong.
Your scenes don’t grab you the way they did.
There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that, knowing more about your characters than you did when you started, the scene no longer “fits” the character. Change one or the other. Modifying your story at this point is trivial. It won’t always be so.
You don’t have enough scenes.
Don’t worry about it. Do your best and move on. As you’re writing, you’ll come up with scenes you like better, anyway. At this point, you’re just trying to identify the high points, the signposts that point the way.
Now that you have the cast and story line fleshed out, write the blurb that you’d like to see on the back of your book jacket. Why? Three reasons.
How do you write a jacket blurb? That is up to you. Look to the back jacket of your favorite novels for examples. In general, try to accomplish these things:
Need a place to start? Try this:
“When <an inciting incident rocks the protagonist’s world>, <protagonist> must <overcome a series of obstacles> to <achieve the story goal>.”
Frank Daniel, a noted screenwriter and teacher, summarized the story goal as follows: “Somebody wants something badly and is having trouble getting it.”
When reading your blurb, do you get a sense of who wants what badly, and why they’re having trouble getting it?
OK, now the controversial part: My next step is to write a two-page outline.
“Outlining!?” you say. “That sounds downright un-NaNoWriMoish. I’ll bet Chris Baty is rolling over in his grave.”
To that I say: 1) Chris is very much alive, and 2) I agree. But bear with me here. While NaNoWriMo is a “fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to novel writing,” it isn’t anarchy. Not usually, anyway.
I think of it as an expedition: Four peaks in four weeks.
The map that helps you get from peak to valley to peak is your two-page outline.
Why two pages? It is long enough to convey the gist of the story, but short enough to leave plenty of room for discovery along the way.
My two-pagers usually include a sketch of the major characters and their plot threads and some specific details about what happens at the turning points in the story.
If you’ve already written your character bios, identified your key scenes, and written your jacket blurb, you’re most of the way there. Just put it in prose.
Here are some tips:
Congratulations! Now you’re ready to write. Well, almost.
November is a busy month, and it goes by quickly. Here are some things you can do to make sure it goes smoothly:
So to recap:
That’s about it. If you follow these steps, you’ll be in excellent shape for November. The most important thing is that you spend some time understanding your story in October so you can use the precious days in November to write.
50k or bust!