NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, takes place every November. The entire purpose of this fun, funky non-profit project is to encourage people to write a draft of a novel—50,000 words—between November 1 and November 30. It costs nothing to sign up at http://nanowrimo.org/ and roughly a half-million people on all continents (including Antarctica!) are expected to take part this year. The goals are enthusiasm, determination and a deadline—not gorgeous prose—but NaNoWriMo is responsible for germinating bestsellers Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen and The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. We turned to a NaNoWriMo veteran, Yu-Han Chao, for her best advice on tackling a novel-in-a-month.
1. Start with a title or opening lines: Sometimes a title or opening line comes to you; imagine the story that would go along with it.
2. Read a book, magazine, or newspaper: There’s probably a good story in there, and if not, ask “what if?” about something or someone so it becomes a good story.
3. Character: Visualize a character, then imagine the worst thing possible happening to your character.
4. Passion: Write about what you are excited or passionate about.
5. Steal: Rewrite another plot/story, but avoid clichés.
2. Develop Your Character, Central Conflict, & Setting
1. Develop your characters into round, not flat ones, by asking yourself questions about them: What does my character look like? What is my character’s background and psychology?
2. Decide on the central conflict of the story: Main Character + Goal + Opposition = Conflict. The main character wants something, the opposition thwarts your character’s plans and raises the stakes, and this allows your story to rise to a climax.
3. Decide on the setting: When and where. Jot down some notes about important settings, and later work these skillfully into action and dialogue (avoid boring, clunky paragraphs describing nothing but landscape).
Why outline in the first place? It saves time, something you can’t afford to waste during NaNoWriMo. Making plans ahead of time can be hard work, but it will save you the major writer’s block and possible inconsistency that may result from deciding on these things WHILE trying to write your novel. Not to mention, if something sounds like a bad idea, you can fix it right away in the outline, and not everywhere in a 100k word draft.
So plan and plot ahead. Try Aristotle’s three act structure–it’s old, but it works.
Act I. The Beginning: Present your world, establish the tone of the novel, introduce your main character & opposition, and have some kind of disturbance/conflict happen that pushes your main character across the first threshold.
Act II. The Middle: Confrontations happen, relationships deepen. A second threshold leads your story inevitably towards the climax.
Act III. The End: After that long awaited climax, pick up broken pieces and tie up loose ends for closure.
4. Maximize Word Count
Since writing an outline for your novel helps at the macro level, try it at the micro level as well: spend five minutes at the beginning of each writing session deciding and summarizing in a few sentences what will happen in the scene you’re about to write.
Basically, plan what you will write, then write it.
If you still feel stuck, read something awesome, something you love, something similar to the novel you’re writing, for inspiration. If you’re genuinely stuck, there are two common reasons:
1. There is something wrong with your plot/scene/character/story.
This is difficult to admit to yourself, but deep down in your gut you know that something in your novel or story isn’t working, and that’s why you’re resisting. Try to diagnose what is dragging you down, fix it (which may be hard work, but so worth it), and write on!
2. You are lazy. (We all are sometimes!)
Try forcing yourself to sit down and write for five minutes—tell yourself to just try it for five minutes—and often that’s all you need to get started.
Yes, you are brilliant and talented, but your first draft is nowhere close to its full potential. Before sending your completed NaNoWriMo draft to a beta reader or agent or publisher, read through it and fix things that need fixing, ideally several times. This may take months or even years, but you’ll be glad you did.
7. Know the Industry
Please do not self publish or query an agent until you’ve not only finished your novel, but made it as good as it can be. At that point, you’ll need to research and make decisions about publishing (self or traditional?) and querying agents. But you can worry about all that later—for now, plan a little before you write, have fun, and happy noveling!
Meet the Writer: Born and raised in Taipei, Taiwan, Yu-Han (Eugenia) Chao received her MFA in fiction from Penn State and teaches a novel writing class at The University of California, Merced. She made a yearly event of NaNoWriMo until she had a baby and no longer had time. Her stories have appeared in Bellevue Literary Review, Zyzzyva, and other venues. The Backwaters Press and Dancing Girl Press published her poetry books and chapbooks. Her website is www.yuhanchao.com.