How to Prepare for NaNoWriMo (part 1)

It’s not too early to start your NaNo prep for National Novel Writing Month–a 30-day accountability and motivation challenge in November to help writers hit a target word count and jump-start that book they’ve wanted to write.

But having a NaNoWriMo prep checklist is a great tool for any author drafting any manuscript, whether you’re participating or not–and, most important, whether you’re a plotter, a pantser (someone who writes without much planning, “by the seat of their pants”), or a hybrid “plantser.”

I get the pantser’s aversion to meticulously outlining every element of a story before beginning to write. For me it sucks away the urge to write the story so that I can find out what happens as I go, and it dampens my creative fire.

But plunging into a story without any kind of preparation–especially with deadline and productivity demands, as in NaNo or under contract–is almost a guarantee of failure.

Why Prepping Is Essential

This weekend I’m tackling an alcove tiling project in our house I’ve been meaning to do for years. I have a finite amount of time to get it done around other obligations, so I know I’ll need to work as efficiently as possible.

So I spent last weekend ensuring I was ready for the job. That meant reading up on installation to refresh my memory (it’s been a while since my last tiling job), making sure I had all the correct supplies and tools, and preparing my surface as well as the tile layout. Here’s what some of that looked like:

Researching in advance the types of tiles I was using taught me that I needed to spackle and prime the walls to make sure the tiles would lie flat and properly adhere and that the dark paint I’d had on the wall wouldn’t show through the glass.

Meticulously laying it out in a diagram on the floor meant I discovered that the large tiles I’d initially chosen would require some really tricky cuts to create a rounded shape for the arch, and that the pattern on them wouldn’t match up in the layout I wanted to use—I needed to reselect.

Y’all, it took two trips to Lowe’s and three trips to the tile store, but if I hadn’t done all that—if I’d just plunged in and started tiling, the way I wanted to—this project would have been a spectacular failure. (Stay tuned and I’ll show you the results in the next post in this series.)

Setting yourself up for success in your writing—whether in NaNo or with any manuscript—doesn’t have to entail nailing down every element of your story or creating a point-by-point outline. It simply means considering the most important support structures for your story in advance, so that when you do sit down to write, the job goes smoothly and well.

Setting yourself up for success in your writing means considering the most important support structures for your story in advance, so that when you do sit down to write, the job goes smoothly and well.

In this series of posts I’ll lay out a broad checklist of areas to consider and develop a bit before you start writing. You can get as nitty-gritty or loosey-goosey as you like with these questions, depending on how you like to work.

For part one, let’s lay the basic groundwork.

Prewriting Prep Checklist Questions

  • What’s the story?

This sounds simplistic, but honestly I’ve worked on full “finished” manuscripts that haven’t clearly defined the spine of the story they’re telling, and that can result in an unfocused manuscript, one that often lacks propulsion.

Defining your story can be fairly succinct—think of it as your log line—but before you put the first word to paper, articulating the basic premise helps enormously to focus the story:

Katniss Everdeen is a resourceful woman determined to provide for and protect her family—but when her younger sister is chosen as a “tribute” for the deadly Hunger Games, Katniss offers herself instead, and must figure out how to survive the games and return to her family.

While I’m not a fan of “rules” or dogmatic formula in creative pursuits, there is a pretty straightforward template you can use to help you define what your story is actually about. It looks like this:

Character (including her most defining traits) + thing she wants most + change of circumstance that forces or pushes her into new action + thing that stands in the way of achieving what she wants.

In other words: Protag + motivation + problem + obstacle.

You don’t need to define every single step or nuance of the story–just make sure you can concretely articulate what it’s about at its core (this post may help). If you have multiple protags and story lines, you can do this for each one.

You can come back to this spine again and again anytime you may feel you’re getting off-track as you draft, to pull you back to the soul of the story you’re telling.

  • What makes writing this story important to you?

Don’t make the mistake of dismissing this as a “fluff” question—it’s not. When your story goes astray or dead-ends or gets lost in a detour (and frequently it will, pals), knowing what made you want to write it, what matters to you in sharing it with others, will bring you back to true north every time.

I often call this the story question, and I wrote about finding and defining yours here, and clarifying your intentions here.

As a bonus (but don’t worry about this while drafting), it also often helps weave the thread of a strong theme or “message” into your story that can give it more depth and impact.

  • Who is your protagonist(s)?

The first question above helped you define your protag in broad strokes, and that may be enough for you, depending on just how pantsy you are. But character is the soul of story, and the more you can get to know yours before you start your journey together, the more your characters will help guide you as you draft.

One of the most effective ways to do that is to start with what you know and work backward. Consider the essential traits you identified for your protag(s) in the broad story description and mine out the situations, experiences, forces, relationships, challenges, triumphs, etc., that might have shaped this person into who he has become by the time you join his journey in this story.

I write in more detail about how to do that here, as well as in my book Intuitive Editing.

This is of course a huge topic, and you’ll learn much about who your characters as you’re drafting and living the story with them. But there are countless questions you can ask yourself—and the characters—to dig down deep and flesh out who they are so they come to vivid life on the page…and can help you find your way forward as you write.


Okay, that gives you a few key things to be mulling over as you get ready to dive into your story. Next week I’ll continue this post with more questions you can consider to make sure you’re positioned as strongly as possible to create a successful first draft.

If you have specific areas you’re worried about as you prepare to start drafting, or questions, feel free to drop them below and I’ll see if I can weave them into upcoming posts in this series.

Next week this series will take a break for the regular monthly How Writers Revise feature (this one features author Erin Flanagan, and you won’t want to miss her analytical insights into how she edits her stories, complete with pie graph!). But I’ll continue the checklist the following week with questions to consider to help you keep stakes high and momentum strong all the way to “the end” (or winning NaNo)….and pictures of how my tiling project came out. 😊

Meanwhile, if you want concrete techniques and tools to help you create a clear road map for your story—and one that’s easily adaptable to whatever level of planning/plotting works best for you—you can join me and Jane Friedman on Oct. 6 for my live online course, “5 Steps to an Airtight Plot,” $25 with video playback for attendees.

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