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With NaNoWriMo once again around the corner, I wanted to offer a brief “prep sheet” for those of you who may be participating—or for anyone embarking on a fresh draft.
You can find deeper dives into this work in my in-depth five-part posts about preparing to draft (start with part one here), but as you get ready for NaNo, check that you have three main factors ready to set you up for success: considerations of craft, practicalities, and mind-set.
Facing a blank page and randomly starting to write—even if you start with a great idea or premise—is guaranteed to leave you stalled out or dead-ended long before Nov. 30.
Even if you’re a pantser, taking time to consider your destination and the route you’ll take to get to get there is a necessary element for arriving where you set out to arrive. (Imagine taking a trip by the total seat of your pants—with no clear idea where you’re going or what roads lead you there.)
Read more: “How to Write a Good First Draft”
That doesn’t mean you have to consider every single stop and turn. Just that you have a basic overview of the route:
- Where are you starting from? Who is your protagonist when we join them, and what’s their situation? What are they struggling with in their life—what challenge do they face, or what challenge are they avoiding to stay in their comfort zone? What’s their point A in their arc—where are they stuck and need to grow?
- What does your protag(s) want? Despite that they haven’t pursued it until now, what does your main character long for or lack that they desperately want? Even if they may never arrive exactly there in the course of the story, where do they think they’re going—specifically, concretely what do they want?
For the story to be most effective and propulsive, this requires not just the internal, thematic answer—“He wants love”…”She wants her child to be okay and to move past the grief of losing her husband”…”She craves success as an artist.” These are “squishy” goals—impossible to measure and therefore hard for readers to invest in and root for.
For that we need specific, concrete representation of those goals. “Wanting love” is impossible to define or know when your character has attained it—what tangible outcome can you attach it to, like “He wants the head cheerleader to be his date to the prom”?
What does “an okay child” and “moving past grief” look like? Maybe her daughter gets into her first-choice college—and decides to go, rather than staying home feeling she shouldn’t leave her mom alone, and Our Heroine finally accepts that her husband is really gone and gives away his things from the closet—all but a few sentimental items she keeps, because she realizes moving past her grief doesn’t mean forgetting him or what they had.
What concrete thing represents “success as an artist” to your character—is it a specific contest or competition? Admission to her first-choice art school and a scholarship? To draw crowds and media attention to the opening of her gallery to give it its best chance at popping above the “noise” of all the other NYC galleries, and to sell enough paintings to pay the past-due loans she took out that are coming due the following week or she will lose the gallery entirely?
- Why does it matter? That last suggestion above hits on the next important building block to have in place before you plunge in: why does it matter if your character achieves their goal—and what makes it urgent?
If your protag doesn’t stand to gain or lose something truly impactful and important, and if it isn’t essential that she pursue that goal right now, stakes are low and momentum will drop out of your story—and your drafting.
- Why must they take this trip now? What forces your character into action when that’s not necessarily their choice? What happens that sets them in motion and makes the journey of the story inevitable? That’s your inciting event, and without it the wheels will never get in motion.
- What do they have to do to get where they’re going? This is the meat of the story and the plot—the steps your protag must take in pursuit of their ultimate goal. Each of these will represent a more immediate goal that is in direct service to that overarching goal, creating story structure and momentum and keeping you moving forward as you write.
Read more: “How Much Should You Plot Your Stories?”
Learn more: My online course “Five Foolproof Steps to an Airtight Plot” shows you how to map out your story this way, as much or as little as is useful to you on the plotter-to-pantser spectrum, complete with worksheets to guide you through every step and create a rock-solid road map for your drafting.
- When will you write? For how long? Where? Hoping to snatch enough moments from your days won’t work. Have a specific plan and a specific schedule—an actual concrete one that you post for yourself, abide by, and share with your other household members and any others who may need to accommodate your changed schedule. And a dedicated workspace—at home or elsewhere—does wonders for commitment, focus, and productivity.
- How many words must you write on that schedule to “win”? If you want to complete the entire challenge—50,000 words in a month—calculate what that means for you in word count production each day you write. Having a specific goal makes you much more likely to achieve it—just as with your characters and their goals.
- What are your contingency plans? What will you do on days when you feel frozen or dead-ended? What if things come up in life that derail that day’s writing? What if the story goes off the rails? What if you miss your word count and fall behind? Plan on the unplanned. It can help to do some prep work before each actual writing session: What scene(s) you’re writing, what is the character’s goal for it, what happens next. If you stockpile a few of these, you can shift to another scene if one is balky one day, and stay on your word count.
- What about the rest of life—how will it function for a month with this added time and energy suck? Make advance plans for meals, shopping, paying bills, child and pet care, laundry, and all other obligations, like carpools and logistics and other commitments. These activities are time-consuming and you may not be able to cram them in around your writing time. Make meals ahead and freeze them, for instance, or sign up for meal delivery if that’s a viable option, or assign meal prep to other household members. Find similar ways to reassign or rework other household necessities to allow you to dedicate time to your writing schedule. Stockpile coffee (you’re going to need it).
This is one of the most important and least addressed aspects of NaNo—or any creative process. And as with all of it, planning ahead will give you a much greater chance of succeeding.
- How will you set yourself up each day for success the next? Does this mean going over your schedule the night before, your writing plan, the logistics of life so you know everything is settled and ready? Going to bed on time, and shutting off the TV? Laying out your clothes the night before? Consider all elements of your daily life, routine, and drafting schedule before you find yourself mired in snafus.
- Who is supporting you? Have your partner or spouse or kids agreed to take on more responsibility to free up your writing time? Do friends and coworkers know you have this extra obligation? Do you have “accountability buddies,” or fellow writers to support, encourage, and commiserate with you? Know—and notify—these folks in advance that you may be leaning on them more than usual, and then do that. It’s okay to ask for help and support.
- How will you rest? This is key in life in general, when we are so often go-go-go that rest is treated as expendable. It’s not—it’s when you replenish the energy you’re expending that makes your goals possible. That means sleep for sure—but it also means nourishing downtime: family and social interaction, nature, walks or invigorating exercise, and mind-wandering time when your brain can subconsciously work through the snags that are inevitable as you draft, no matter how thoroughly you prepared. Make sure you allot time for rest in your schedule—it’s as important as work.
Read more: “Give It a Rest”
- How will you shore up your energy and resolve? There will be hard days. Hopeless days. Discouraging days. Days when the last thing on the earth you want to do is write. Days when you hate your story and think it sucks and your work on it is pointless. Acknowledge these demons—but let them know that now isn’t a good time to talk, and you will make time to hear them out in December. Have a file full—or a Post-it notepad full—of quotes that help keep you motivated and positive and on track. Phone a friend. Do it anyway. Push through.
Most important, let go of the need to “finish,” “win,” or do NaNo perfectly. There is no perfect—and first drafts are where you give yourself total freedom. Editing and revision are where you will make it a viable, effective story—all you’re doing for now is putting a sketch on the page.
Every single word that lands on the page is progress, one more word than you had before. Every single one—even the ones you may wind up stashing in a discard file—gets you where you’re going, makes you a better writer. Every moment you dedicate to sitting down to write honors your creativity and your soul and your self. There is no failure.
Be kind to yourself, and enjoy what you’re doing—and if you aren’t enjoying it, give yourself permission to stop…without judgment, without recrimination, without regret. There is no real timeline or deadline. The muse is a part of you and will be with you all your life, ready when you are.
Read more: “You Are a Writer, No Matter What”
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