10 Steps to NaNoWriMo; Tips, Tricks, and Resources

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Also see my dedicated page on NaNoWriMo.

NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is only a week away.  For the uninitiated, this is a worldwide event in which thousands of people attempt to write a 50,000 word novel during the month of November.  Some of us have bigger goals (for example, I aim for 100,000 words during the month – eliminating writing on Sunday, that’s roughly 4,000 words per day), but to “win”, you must write 50,000.  It is supposed to be new work, not a revision or a continuation of a work in progress, and it is supposed to be a novel.  But of course, there are rebels who choose other goals instead.

Here are some of the things that I do as NaNoWriMo approaches:

1. Get an idea

Usually I have lots of ideas.  So rather than “get an idea,” it is probably more accurate to say “narrow down ideas to two or three”. One main idea.  A few others that might work with it.  Choose between competing ideas.  But get some idea of what you want to write.  I have on my list to do a blog on where to get ideas, but you’ll have to wait for that one.

2. Brainstorm

Write the ideas down in some form.  Longhand in a notebook.  A new note in Evernote.  Musings in your journal.  Add other ideas about the character, plotline, etc.  For me, a lot of this initial work is done during a long walk or run without any music or audio.  I have my phone handy, and whip it out every few minutes to add some more ideas.  Depending on your process, this might be a long list, or a short list.

3. Organize

You may or may not organize things at this stage.  Once I have a number of thoughts together on the story, I like to mindmap them in Freemind.  My novels are generally character based, so the protagonist goes in the middle, and all of his/her attributes, family, friends, antagonists, history, etc. radiate around him.

4. Research

Between my brainstorming and other ideas that came to me during mindmapping, I probably have some ideas that need further research.  My main tools are Google and the Evernote web clipper.  By this point, I need a notebook dedicated to the new novel set up in Evernote.  I look up details on character attributes, mental illness, hobbies, crimes, settings, weapons, medical conditions, jargon, culture, or other research that I may need more information on.  Highlight stuff in Evernote.  Follow rabbit trails.  Add more stuff to the mindmap.  Make new connections.  Start to get a fuller picture of my protagonist and his/her journey.

5. Cast Characters

This is something I have only started to do in the last year or so, and it has turned out to be a powerful tool for me.  I’m not good with faces.  I’m not good at recognizing them or picturing them without some sort of assistance.  So if I’m not careful, my characters end up as rather nebulous ghosts without any particular physical features.  But recently, I have started to get visual models for each of the main characters.  They may be actors, stock photos, photos that I found on Google search, etc.  Preferably, I will have several different pictures of the same person, and they aren’t photo-shoots where they are smiling happily all the time.  I want them to look like my character, and it can be incredibly annoying to find a person with the perfect physical characteristics who is smiling broadly in every picture.  My protagonist is generally a tortured soul, not smiling in most scenes. The bonus that comes with picking actors that I am familiar with is that they come with mannerisms, voice inflections, facial expressions, etc. that I am already familiar with, so those things are easy to add into the story when I am trying to write the action in a scene.  I tend toward lots of dialogue without much mention of what people are actually doing, so this is a big help.  Again, I clip the pictures of my characters into my Evernote notebook dedicated to the new book.  I create one note per person, with three or four pictures of the character and a notation to remind me the actor’s real name if I want to look them up again later.  Each of these notes will also come to contain a character sketch with important details about the character for my reference.

6. Enter the book on Nano

Sooner or later you have to go to the NaNoWriMo site and enter the details of the novel you are working on.  A title, short synopsis, and genre, to start with.  You can add more and make changes later.  Entering it before November means that you have fewer things to distract you from writing once November hits.

7. More ideas

If I need more ideas to add to my mindmap, whether at this point or earlier in the process, I will check out my “Story clip file” in Evernote.  This file is chock full of ideas for stories/books.  Some of them are brief one-line or one-phrase ideas that may have come from a dream, a phrase in a book, a wild idea while listening to a talk or lecture, etc.  The majority of the items in my clip file are news articles that I have come across and clipped using Evernote.  Interesting happenings, coincidences, criminal cases, social problems, etc.  You never know where you might come across a good idea.  It’s a good idea to have somewhere to put them for future reference.  If I have one I definitely want to use for the current novel, I’ll move the note to the appropriate notebook. If I think I might use it, or part of it, but I’m not sure, I’ll copy it to the appropriate notebook, retaining a copy in the clip file in case I want to use it later on in another book.

8. Cover art

The NaNoWriMo site gives you a place to upload cover art for your proposed book.  I am finding, as I have started to publish, that it is best to figure out what kind of image, title, and theme you want on your cover before diving into the writing of the story.  I want these aspects to be echoed throughout the text of the book, so it’s best to have them established in the beginning.  Easier than adding them in and reforming your text later.  And it’s fun.  Use whatever graphic program you have available to pull together a picture or two and throw a title on your cover.  Photoshop, Publisher, Gimp, even Paint.  Whatever you like.  It doesn’t have to be perfect, just a concept at this point.  Something to inspire you.  (That’s my concept cover for my NaNo book up top.)

9. Outlining

Outlining is something that I did not do for a lot of years.  My stories wandered around, and eventually resolved themselves.  I didn’t know what would happen next.  I didn’t know how it would end.  I still have some works in progress that have not been outlined.  It can be frustrating to try to figure out where the story was going.  But I had run into problems a couple of times when I had tried to outline a story, particularly a mystery.  Once I knew who did it or how, or how it ended, I wasn’t interested in writing the story any more.  But I have found compromises that still allow me to outline and to be surprised and keep my creative edge.


I use the Snowflake Method.  I have not yet bought the software or book, but I follow the method set out at http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/articles/snowflake-method/.  To an extent.  With all of the brainstorming and researching I have done up to this point, I have a pretty good idea of who the characters are and what the general theme of the book will be.  The Snowflake Method helps to pull together a synopsis and flesh out a rough outline of the three act structure, or however you want to define your storyboard.  I only do up to about step four of the Snowflake Method.  At that point, I go back to my mindmap, add anything else that has come up during the Snowflake Method drafting, and do a scene outline.

Scene Outline

I have done my Snowflake Method drafting in Evernote in the past and my scene outline in Excel.  But now that I have Scrivener for Mac, which will allow me to do my whole outline internally instead of in an Excel worksheet, I want to do as much of the drafting in Scrivener as possible.  So I have created my own novel template in Scrivener that includes a document template for each of the steps of the Snowflake Method, the Snowflake character sketch template, etc.

Then comes the outline.

In Scrivener you can look at your outline as index cards, a spreadsheet/table format, or notes (scenes) within folders (chapters).  Each is just a different view, you don’t have to rewrite anything to move from one to the other.  You can drag and drop scenes around to reorder them as you please.  Now that I have Scrivener for Mac, I can make use of custom metadata fields (which are not available in the Windows version).  So I have added fields for timeline date, setting, and point of view for each scene.  The timeline date will allow me to keep track of how much time has lapsed between each scene, and will allow me to sort scenes by date, even if in the book they are out of order (i.e. flashbacks, backstory, etc.)  Keeping track of setting and point of view just helps to keep things well structured, consistent where consistency is needed, and varied where variety is required.

Looking at my mindmap, I will start to make a list of all of the scenes that I foresee needing in the book. These will tend to be incredibly vague.  And that’s okay, because I need to be sure not to kill my creativity!  For example, in the outline for the book I wrote in July (“Stand Alone”), I have a card/scene descriptors such as:

  • nightmares/memories
  • scene developing character trait ___________
  • interview with psychologist
  • remembering Christian
  • hates ___________
  • hospital
  • predators
  • behavior shows she is _______________
  • the skaters

(Blanks replace the actual behaviors and traits to avoid spoilers! You don’t want to know the author’s intent behind building each scene.)  Some authors make long, detailed descriptions of each scene.  Mine are just things that need to be established to move the storyline from A to B, without a clear decision on exactly what action is going to occur.  A card that is labeled “anger issues” may end up being about pizza, loud music, and an argument over what the psychologist said.  While I know that a particular character dies before the beginning of the book, I may have only a vague idea about how, and the actual writing of the flashback to the character’s death is a creative venture I can really sink my teeth into, not knowing from one line to the next how it is going to end, other than in the death of the character.  Lots of tension, foreshadowing, etc. gets built into the scene because of what I know and what I don’t know.

I may also have only a vague idea of how the story is going to end at this point.  I had “Stand Alone” split into three parts.  The first part was to establish the character, conflict, general story line, etc. and was fairly detailed. The second part was about a major event/conflict, and had only three or four notes attached to it. The third part was the resolution, and when I started writing, I don’t think I even had one note attached to it.  I knew generally where my protagonist would end up, but not the events that would lead there.  As I worked through writing part one, I also added new notes and twists to part two and three, and as I wrote part two, added notes to part three.  One card/outline entry may be a simple, 500 word scene, or it may end up taking 5,000 words and multiple scenes to accomplish the purpose on the card.  It all depends.

10.       Write!

By the time I am halfway through the process, I am excited and raring to go!  When I have my characters cast, a concept cover drafted, and an outline (or partial outline) mapped out, I can barely contain myself.  As snippets of conversation, scene ideas, and various other twists and turns occur to me, leaking out of an overpressurized brain, I make quick notes in Evernote and wait for November 1 to roll around.  By the time it gets here, I am all revved up, straining on the chain, just waiting to be released.

In July (Camp Nano, when I write another book…) I was on a family vacation for half of the month, and I knew that working my writing in around travels and visits was going to be a challenge.  Since I needed to have my manuscript available on whatever device I could use while in the car, a mall, a library, a bedroom, or a hotel, I had my outline and manuscript all in Evernote ,with the scenes numbered for sorting.  Since I only had Scrivener for Windows there was no way to synchronize my manuscript between Scrivener and my other devices (iPhone, iPad, etc.)  Evernote I could keep synchronized between all devices.  Then I imported into Scrivener when we were back from vacation.

Now that I have Scrivener for Mac, I am taking advantage of the “sync to folder” function, and I sync text copies of my manuscript to Dropbox.  My iPad and iPhone use “Notebooks” to sync, view and edit the text documents while I am on the run, so whether I am on the bus, in the car, out for a run, or in the park, I can make a few quick changes, write a scene, etc. and stay up to date.  And since my new MacBook Air is small and has a battery life of longer than the five minute battery life of my old laptop, it is also easy to take with me to write in the car or at remote locations.

Happy writing!  Feel free to buddy with me at nanowrimo.org (search, profiles, pdw)

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