How to Prepare for NaNoWriMo. (Updated 18 Oct 2012)
You’ve really got to try it once at least, don’t you? Sure. And you’re not going into it cold because that would just be plain silly. So what should you do to prepare? Well, I have some suggestions.
First of all, you must have an idea for a novel. Something that has been lying around for quite a while, either sketched out on paper or floating around inside your brain is perfect. It could even be a short story that you wanted to expand into a novel. But it may be none of these. Something may have just popped into your head, and you can’t resist following it down the rabbit hole.
So let’s say you’ve identified that idea, and now you’re all set to play NaNoWriMo. Here we go!
First of all, identify your protagonist and antagonist. Again they must come from the idea you identified above. You know that these two characters are what your novel is about. You also know that they are in conflict with each other. That’s why we call them antagonists. They may or may not want to fight with each other, but they will eventually because their desire to prevail is stronger than the desire to walk away.
Once you have these two characters identified you should look at the nature of their conflict. And by the way, this conflict will be the central conflict and will determine the overall structure of the novel. But the other thing you should know is the nature of the conflict. What is the conflict over? And also, what is the conflict about? They can be two kids fighting over a marble, or two countries fighting over the future of the human race. It can even be an internal conflict raging inside the central character, which means s/he is both the antagonist and protagonist, sort of Raskolnikov if you’re into Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, or a Gollum character if you’re into Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. The nature of that conflict is the theme of the story. It is the overall philosophical question posed by the work. Now, don’t get too upset if you can’t state all this in words right up front, but you should have a good shot at the answer to the theme question. If you can’t answer the question of what the conflict is over, then you should take a good hard look at the idea for the novel because it’s still half-baked, and you need to give it some more thought.
Okay. So now you have your idea, identified your protagonist and antagonist, and uncovered the central conflict, what it’s over, and what it’s about. You should also take a first guess at the outcome of the story. I know. I know. I can hear some of you screaming and hollering your lungs out. But theme dictates ending, and you can’t just leave it up to the elements completely. Besides, it’s all very simple and many times can be boiled down to just three words. For example:
Love overcomes hate.
Hate overcomes love.
Author overcomes procrastination. (internal conflict)
The topics and possibilities are infinite. The first word relates to the protagonist, the third to the antagonist, and the second word describes the conflict and indicates the ending of the story. You must know what you’re writing about. So at least give your ending a good first shot, realizing that it’ll probably change by the time you get there. By the way, this is called the Premise. All that we’ve determined up to this point is the premise of the novel. Every story needs an angle and this is it.
Before you can write even the first word of your novel, you have to determine which narrative technique you’ll adopt. You have a multitude of choices, but the simplest for first time authors is First Person. This means that the protagonist tells the story as if s/he were in the room talking to you. For other techniques you could see Burroway’s Writing Fiction, or you could visit my website (novelsmithingblog.com) where I discuss the subject in some detail.
You also should decide on sentence tense. Some stories are told in present tense (I go…), while others are told in past tense (I went…). This is many times decided easily by the novelsmith because s/he has hooked up with a voice that tells the story, and that voice has already decided for itself. If you’re undecided, take a look at a few novels of each and see which you prefer for your particular story.
All right. We’re finally ready to plot the novel. And yes, you do need to do this, particularly for NaNoWriMo because you can’t afford to stall out wondering where your novel is going. But where to start? With the central conflict, of course. And the first thing you’ll want to know before you can start writing is: How does the conflict get started? Another way of saying this is: How did the protagonist and antagonist get into this mess in the first place? So the first thing the novelsmith has on her/his agenda is to set up the conflict. To do this, the novelsmith must first lock the conflict. This is the point where the conflict starts, and really, the story itself begins. Because the truth is that conflict is what story is all about. That’s the reason in television programs like Law and Order, Bones, or Castle, the writers lock the conflict before the titles roll. They always find a body, or on House, someone gets sick. From then on it’s the cops against the murderer or doctors against the disease, etc. It’s also the reason that at the end of each program they catch the murderer or the doctors cure the disease or possibly the disease kills the patient. Anyway, at the end of the story the conflict is resolved. So there it is: the beginning and the ending of the story. Here’s the summary:
Beginning of story: Conflict Locked
End of story: Conflict Resolved
So that’s it, right? Beginning, End. Story over. Right? Right? Right?
Well, not quite. What throws most beginning novelsmiths is the in-between stuff. And this is where plotting gets difficult unless you’ve had a little experience either analyzing stories or you’ve written a few. This is where we come to things called “plot points.” Plot points are the major changes in the central conflict, and they are amazingly few. Stories do vary, but most contain five plot points. If you can identify these events in the central conflict, you have your story outlined. It’s that simple. Well, yes, it’s also that difficult. Let me first tell you what they are (again almost all stories have them), and then I’ll discuss each separately. The good news is that we’ve already talked about two of them.
Plot Point 1: Lock the Conflict
Plot Point 2: Major Conflict Escalation
Plot Point 3: Mid-Story Reversal
Plot Point 4: Point of Realization (Anguish of Choice)
Plot Point 5: Resolve the Conflict
The first thing about plot points is that they divide the novel into four equal sections. By splitting the novel up this way, they provide the pacing for the story. Since we’ve already talked about locking and resolving the conflict, I’ll concentrate on Plot Points 2, 3 & 4.
PP2 is where a major change in the conflict occurs. It can be a dramatic escalation or a revelation that changes the nature of the conflict and exposes it in all its ramifications. Generally, it will expose the seriousness and true nature of the conflict. As an example, in the movie Groundhog Day, this is where Phil wakes up to learn that Groundhog Day is repeating. The movie follows that pattern with Phil’s varying responses to the repetition until the end of the movie.
PP3 is where the central conflict experiences a reversal. This is a plot point that is generally left out of other attempts at story structure based on the three-act play. But trust me, this is at least as important as the other plot points. What this reversal accomplishes is that it keeps the tension building and prevents the mid-novel sag. Generally, if the protagonist is chasing the antagonist, this will be the point where the antagonist starts chasing the protagonist. If we imagine a story where a detective is chasing a serial killer, this would be the point where the serial killer starts chasing the detective. In the movie Jaws, the fish chases the people for the first half of the movie and the people chase the fish for the second half of the movie. In Cameron’s Titanic, the ship floats during the first half of the movie and the ship sinks during the second half of the movie. Practically all extended narratives have this plot point right smack dab in the middle.
PP4 is where the protagonist learns something that will either make her/him or break her/him. I have called it the “Point of Realization” because many times the protagonist will get what s/he needs at this point to give her/him an edge on the antagonist. It will also probably be the point of what is known as the “anguish of choice,” which is where the protagonist makes the difficult change that will either make her/him or break her/him.
So there you are. You’ve locked the conflict, explored that conflict through the dramatic changes, and then resolved the conflict. The only thing that comes before locking the conflict is a short introduction to set up the story by possibly identifying your principal characters. The only thing that occurs after resolving the conflict is that short period of time during which you show the aftermath of the conflict. This is called the denouement.
And there you have it. You have accomplished the first level of plotting. And this may be enough to get you started. If your idea is really hot in your mind, you may want to just jump right in at this point and pound away at it. However, some authors will want to get deeper into the intricate details of plotting, so I’ll provide some additional suggestions for those who like a more structured writing environment. Even if you don’t want to do this much legwork up front, you might want to read on so you’ll have a more intuitive feel for what you are up against if your narrative starts to go off the rails.
So what’s next? You do certainly have a lot of work left to fully plot your novel. You’ve yet to set up all the scenes and separated them into chapters. Since you have four sections to your novel, you might consider a multiple of four to estimate the number of chapters. You should be able to tell from the nature of your story how long it will be. According to NaNoWriMo you’re writing a novel that you anticipate will be about 50,000 words. At 250 words per page that’s 200 pages, rather short but your publisher will love you. At 10 pages per chapter, that’s 20 chapters, and 5 chapters to each section between plot points.
From here, you should be able to identify what each chapter will be about, and you can start filling in summaries to see how the story progresses. Once you’ve done all of this, you’re ready for NaNoWriMo. Of course, you can still do some of this while you’re writing the initial chapters, and much of it will change as you go along even if you have done all of it, but the more you accomplish up front, the easier it’ll be to keep going.
The only other advice I can give you is to always just tell the story and keep it simple. Yes, you’ll have subplots, (each of them will also result from a peripheral conflict) but keep them to a minimum. You may be able to figure out an intricately plotted storyline, but chances are you’ll confuse your reader. This is particularly true of you because you are writing 50,000 words, coordinated words in clear sentences that tell a coherent story in 30 days. All stories are more complex for the reader than they are for the novelsmith. Remember that your reader has to figure out what you’ve written. You see it all in your mind before you put it into words. The reader sees the words and tries to construct the world you intended.
Well, yes, and one more piece of advice. If you seem to run out of creative energy, take your story to bed with you and think about it just before sleep. Think of it again if you wake during the night, and don’t let any other thoughts intrude. When you wake in the morning, your first thoughts should be about your novel. This just might get the creative juices flowing again. I’ve used this technique for the last thirty years to fight writer’s block, and found it to be foolproof. So there. No excuses.
If you prepare yourself in this way, the really, really good news is that you won’t write 50 pages and stop because you don’t know where your story is going.
If you’re interested in reading more about this “Novelsmithing” technique, go to my website NovelsmithingBlog.com and you’ll find every chapter of my book there for free. If you have to have a paperback, you can find it on Amazon. If you’d like an eBook, you can find it at most online bookstores. But remember, it’s available in its entirety at NovelsmithingBlog.com for free.
Good luck and don’t give up. I’ll be watching from the bleachers.