Preparing to Write a Novel, Step by Step
I originally wrote these posts for Nanowrimo 2019.
# Let’s Half-Ass Nanowrimo Together
If you’re a writer, or if you’d like to be, you’re hereby invited to half-ass National Novel Writing Month with me. Nanowrimo is an annual event where writers all over the world attempt to finish a novel (or 50,000 words) in the month of November. It’s a fun time to work on a writing project because there are several thousand other people working towards the same goal.
I’ve never officially “won” Nano, but it’s fun to participate, and most of my Nano projects were completed and published after the fact. The only problem with Nanowrimo (in my opinion) is that the standard goal of 50k words in 30 days isn’t practical for most people- especially those with full-time jobs, family obligations, and the all the writers who feel creatively blocked under rising pressure. Falling behind on your word count is super discouraging if you believe the 50,000 word number is all that matters, and it sucks when new writers feel discouraged for no good reason.
My solution? Let’s half-ass Nanowrimo! We can set our own goals, have fun, participate, and hold the whole thing lightly.
I think I’ll write my second cruise ship mystery in November. I estimate it will be a 40,000 word project, but in the end it will be as long as it needs to be. And for the rest of October I’ll send out a short blog post each week about preparing for Nanowrimo. If you want to, you’re welcome to follow along. Then in November we’ll be ready to half-ass our dreams.
When it comes to the arts, there’s this really tricky line between taking your art seriously and being so regimented that you smother the joy right out of it. The former is good, and the latter is bad, but too often they feel like the same thing. My hope for this Nanowrimo is that we can give ourselves permission to take our writing aspirations seriously without smothering the flame under too many expectations.
So consider yourself invited. ☺️
# Step One: The Idea
Happy Friday! Today’s post is about preparing for National Novel Writing Month . Our first step in preparation is to come up with an idea for the story. Your idea doesn’t have to be detailed at this point, but it does help to have a basic notion of what your story will be about.
Choosing a Story Idea
How do you know you’ve got a good story idea? Well, it’s less about originality than it is about the way it makes you feel. The truth is, there are a zillion different stories you might write, and very few stories are based on an original concept. Two authors could choose an identical idea, but in the process of writing, their books would differ because their life experiences, preferences, and inner voice are all different. The trick to picking a good story idea is finding one that makes you feel excited and curious. You’ll be spending lots of time on your story, so you want it to be the kind of story that will continue to draw you in.
Here are a handful of story ideas that I pulled out of my brain:
Halfway into a three-year journey, the leader of a colony ship discovers the planet they’re headed toward has been destroyed. In fact, several planets have disappeared off the charts over the last twelve months. And whatever is taking out planets is moving slowly toward Earth. Unfortunately, this colony ship is full of criminals, and the Earth Defense Forces will blow them out of the sky if they dare to turn back…
A teenage girl falls in love with her best friend’s boyfriend, and he with her. But her best friend is very sick with a terminal disease, and the love besotted teens are determined to give their sick friend the best senior year possible.
Take the basic story from Romeo and Juliet and write it from the perspective of an envious servant who deviously pushes the pair toward suicide while making them think it was their own idea. But they fake their deaths as a way of catching her in the act, and the servant goes to prison. Then the Romeo and Juliet characters live happily ever after.
Tell a poltergeist story but it’s a coffee roasting facility that’s haunted and all the beans that go out are cursed. Whenever someone drinks coffee made from the cursed beans they make bad choices that echo the terrible crimes committed in the coffee roasting facility many years prior.
I jotted down those ideas above at random. But the first story idea on my list is probably the best one. Why? Because it invokes my curiosity. Who are these criminals? Where were they headed? What is destroying planets? What will they decide to do? Any idea that opens a lot of doors is usually a fun one to write about. But all those ideas above are workable. Because I’m continuing an existing series, I did the brainstorming process with my current heroine, and came up with an idea for her next mystery: The Case of the Karaoke Killer. That’ll be my book for November, unless I change my mind between now and then.
So if you’re half-assing Nano with me, I suggest you spend time this week writing out story ideas. Cast a wide net! Make a list of five or ten ideas, then pick one that you’ll enjoy spending time with.
If you’re feeling stuck, you could do worse than to put a new twist on a story you already know and love. Want to write a story that’s like Buffy the Vampire Slayer IN SPACE? Or how about some Game of Thrones-style political intrigue but with cyberpunk war machines instead of dragons? Mixing and matching can be a fun way to brainstorm new ideas.
Next week, we’ll take your idea a step further.
# Step Two: Structure
Hello, internet buddies! Let’s continue our NaNoWriMo prep today with this question: What is a story? Well, even if you can’t verbalize the answer, you know it intuitively because you’ve been hearing stories all your life! Stories are narratives that follow a familiar structure, and coming up with your story structure is your nanowrimo homework of the week.
Here’s one example of a story structure. This one is called the Story Circle , and it’s been popularized over the last few years by television writer Dan Harmon.
The Story Circle
1. Character begins in a zone of comfort.
2. But they want something.
3. So they enter an unfamiliar situation.
4. They adapt to it.
5. And get what they wanted.
6. But pay a heavy price.
7. Then they return to a familiar situation.
8. Having changed.
In my most recent novel, The Assistant , what Jessica Warne wants more than anything is to gain respect, stability, and financial security. She’s somewhat representative of the Millennial generation, in that she’s smart and hard working while also being deeply in debt, underutilized, and stuck in a shitty job with few prospects. So when she gets a job offer from a high end staffing firm that offers her huge pay, big challenges, and an all-expenses paid makeover, she’s over the moon! Finally, she’s been given the opportunity to prove her skills and become a successful adult. The Duke Agency offers Jessica a path to what she wants, but what will joining the agency cost her? That question is the entry point to the Emerald City Spies series.
In fact, I wrote one story circle for that series as a whole, and smaller story circles for each novel within the series. The story circles fit together like LEGO blocks, and I find that to be a satisfying way of holding a narrative together.
Not a fan of the story circle? Here’s another sample story structure that I found online and jotted down a while ago. (I don’t know who came up with it, but I’ll update this post if I can find the original source.)
In order to Avoid Problem a Flawed Character must Try To Achieve Goal but when Complication Arises they realize they must overcome Antagonist and Personal Flaw by Doing Cool Shit before Deadline.
Nice and compact, right? But you can see how all the big elements of the story are contained within that structure. Have you noticed that stories usually contain both an antagonist (external enemy) and a character flaw (internal enemy)? Perfect characters are dull, and stories that moralize about personal growth without real-world consequences are also dull. That’s why most stories contain both character growth and an external threat of some kind. Those elements work together to create a satisfying story.
For those who like lots of detail, you can find story spreadsheets on Jami Gold’s website that contain more detailed templates for story structures. They’re a great resource, but personally I prefer to keep my structure loose at this stage to give myself lots of room to play as I’m drafting the story. But feel free to check the worksheets out if the structures I laid out above feel too vague. I’m also a big fan of Libby Hawker’s short book on structure: Take Off Your Pants.
It might feel too early to outline your book, and that’s fine. For now, I want you thinking big picture.
# Step Three: Characters, POV, and Setting
Welcome back to our month-long prep for national novel writing month in which I invite you to half-ass NaNoWriMo with me. In week one we talked about coming up with a story idea , and last week we discussed structure. This week’s prep covers three more elements of story building: Character, Point of View, and Setting. The prep work we do this week will help us write more quickly when we begin drafting our stories in November.
# Decision #1: Which Point of View Will You Use?
Think of point of view (POV) as the camera you use when telling a story. You might tell your story from inside one character’s head, using sentences like “I raced down the hall.” If so, that’s called first-person perspective. It’s a fun way to tell a story because the tale unfolds like you are reading someone’s diary. But there’s a big limiting factor. You can’t tell the reader things that your main character doesn’t know! We can only see what the POV character sees, which is why it’s a popular choice for murder mysteries.
So perhaps you’d like to describe events from outside your main character’s head? Your sentences will read more like this: “Erin raced down the hall.” This is third-person perspective. We’re not inside Erin’s head the whole time, but we’re able to follow her closely. If we tell the story from Erin’s perspective, using a third-person POV, that’s called third-person limited. But that’s not our only option here. If we’re careful not to confuse our readers, we can also switch our camera between different characters in third-person. We could write one chapter from Erin’s point of view, then another chapter from her adversary’s point of view, for example. This is helpful when we’re following different groups of people, or when we want to build suspense by showing what the bad guys are up to.
Tip: If you’re using third person to tell the story through the eyes of multiple characters, keep the number of POV characters limited. Juggling a bunch of POV characters is difficult to do, and too many camera angles may alienate readers who get invested in one character only to have you hop into someone else’s head.
Lastly, we have Omniscient point of view. Common in epic fantasy, omniscient POV is where there is a narrator who knows all things, and they are telling us the story. Omniscient point of view pulls the camera way out and provides a panoramic view of events across different groups of people, places, and even different points in time.
A quick note about tense: We also get to choose whether we will write our story in past tense or present tense. Present tense is less common, but it’s become more prevalent in YA novels and some thrillers. Most novels will be written in past tense, telling us what happened, not what is happening. If you’re curious about what effective present tense looks like, check out The Hunger Games trilogy.
So your first decision for the week is this: what POV will you write in? If you aren’t sure, it’s smart to follow the conventions of your chosen genre. Murder mysteries are all past tense, for example, and can be told in either first person or third. If it helps, pull a few books from your preferred genre off the shelf and flip through the pages. What point of view do they use? Emulating others is a fine place to start.
# Decision #2: Who Are My Characters?
For each of your primary characters, I’ll suggest that you fill out a quick character sheet that summarizes important facts about them. Here’s an example of what goes into a character sheet, but you can include any categories you like:
Family Situation/Important Relationships:
How they Respond to Stress:
Tip: Don’t worry if your characters feel “flat on the page” at this point, because if you are anything like me, you’ll get to know your characters as you write them. You’ll be writing a scene and their personalities will come busting out, surprising you. But it definitely helps to have some of the basics ironed out, like names, appearance, and a few personality traits. This will keep your words flowing instead of stopping you up every time you need to come up with a name. This also helps when you need to remember a fact mid-story. Checking a character sheet is easier than paging through a hundred pages of text to make sure you didn’t change someone’s name or hair color mid-book.
Some writers also add a stock photo or celebrity photo to their character sheets, “casting the character” to make it easier to describe them when the moment comes. If that helps you out, go for it! Also, some writers “get into the zone” by doing some freewriting (journaling) from the perspective of their main character. I’ve done that a time or two, but usually I just dive into the story itself and let the characters show up.
Tip: Need help coming up with character names? Check out this generator and popular names in the USA by decade. The latter is helpful when you want to name characters via their age. A 30 year old might be a Jessica, and a 50 year old might be a Heather, for example.
# Decision #3: What are my Major Settings?
Lastly, it can help things along during NaNoWriMo if you know what your major settings are. Will your scenes take place in an office? A mall? A spaceship? I like to pull photographs and illustrations of settings I might use off the web and stick them in a research folder. I don’t spend a lot of time on this, but that way when I want to describe a room or setting I can pull up a photo and use it as a reference. Wikipedia is a good resource for snagging details about different cities.
That’s it! This week’s work will help you hit the ground running once Nano begins. We’ve got two more posts in this Nano prep series. Next week I’ll cover outlining, an optional step, and in our final week we’ll discuss workspace, time management, and mindset.
# Let’s Get Ready for Nano!
To recap, here’s your suggested homework for the week: Take your story idea from last week and apply some structure to it. Use big, broad strokes, and think about how your story will flow. Where does your main character begin? What is their goal? What will be their main plan to reach that goal? Where will they fall down? And how will they be changed by the time your reader reaches the final page?
Think it through, and jot down some notes, but don’t stress if you feel it’s too early to make these decisions. Some writers like to go into their story completely planless, and you might be one of them. But for me, having a loose structure defined stops me from flailing too much during the first draft, so I encourage you to think those questions through.
Next time, we’ll do some time-saving prep work as we tackle Characters, Point of View, and Setting.
# Step Four: Beat Sheets
Welcome back to my Preparing for Nanowrimo series! We’re just a few weeks away now and shit’s about to get real. But no worries! If you’ve been prepping along with me you have your story idea plus a bit of structure, also known as your story arc. Perhaps you’ve jotted down some notes about your characters and chosen a point of view to write from. If so, you’re already well ahead of the game. For me, this stage in the writing process feels exciting but messy. Today we’ll add some specificity to our writing plan to help us hit the ground running on November 1st.
This week I recommend you create something called a beat sheet for your story. A beat sheet is a bullet point list of the major events in your story. I used to call this step outlining, but in all honesty I hate the concept of outlining because it feels too rigid. So I think of my beat sheet as pre-writing. I’m smoothing the path by laying down some ideas I can expand upon.
A story “beat” is a small piece of action that moves your story forward. Think of it like a note of music, leading to another note, and another.
Here’s a sample of two beats from a cruise ship mystery I just drafted: The Case of the Missing Finger
DAY ONE: MID-DAY BOARDING – SUNDAY – MIAMI
- Ellie admires the cruise ship. The S/V Adventurous Spirit is far bigger than she’d imagined and she compares it against what she read in the brochure two years prior. It’s very white and has tropical birds painted on the hull. She wishes Ronnie were there with her, but reminds herself that he wouldn’t want her feeling sorry for herself.
- Her daughter in law comes up beside her, making noise. She loves her DIL, but her concern-trolling is a bit much. Does Ellie have X, does she have Y? DIL hates the thought of Ellie being alone on the ship. It’s too bad she couldn’t wait for all of them to go. Ellie remarks that she won’t be alone, she has 1,XXX new friends. She says this, but inside she’s feeling nervous. Mostly she sees couples and families. Was taking this cruise alone a mistake? She hopes she won’t be lonely. But it can’t be worse than moping around at home. She’s tired of feeling sad.
Earlier, when we talked about structure , I mentioned that your character will likely start out in a zone of comfort (or a status quo) but they want something. My opening beats establish who Ellie is, what she wants, and what she’s leaving behind. Over the early chapters we learn that she’s widowed and that she loves her family, but she’s also craving more adventure in her life. From there I move into the plot of the murder mystery.
Your “beats” might be a single sentence, a paragraph, or something longer. It’s up to you! What we’re doing here is taking our prior prep work (structure, character, setting) and fluffing them out into a list of events.
Tip: I’ve never been able to define the final few beats of my story. I leave those blank, because I know I won’t know what the final scenes look like until I arrive there. So don’t worry if that happens to you too. This isn’t a school assignment and you aren’t being graded. Do it your own way.
# Tips for Building Your Beat Sheet
Beat sheets are optional. You might prefer to sit down without one and just crank the words. But I find having a beat sheet helpful because I can take a beat and paste it into a document for the day, then expand it out to a full scene. This is far easier (for me) than generating every single scene on the fly.
Here are some things that might happen when you try to make a beat sheet:
You write some beats, then you read them, then you think BOY THIS IS BORING. That’s helpful! It’s your signal to come up with some exciting events to spice up your story.
You write five or ten beats, then you’re not sure what happens next. That’s fine! You might come back tomorrow with more ideas, or you might want to start with those initial ideas and take it from there. There’s no wrong way to do this.
You make a beat-sheet for your full novel, but it seems a bit sparse in sections. No biggie! You’ll find yourself adding more depth and detail in the moment as you write. Some of us write “thin” beat sheets then thicken up the story considerably as we write.
You make a beat sheet and use it, but then you find your story is diverting off the path you set. That’s cool! You can adjust your beat sheet as you go, because we don’t always see the story in full until we start writing it. That’s normal and pretty darn fun. A surprised writer can mean surprised readers too.
You start making a beat sheet, but you get all jazzed and some of your “beats” are getting really long and detailed like scenes. Awesome! You might be doing some early writing before Nano starts, but I’m not going to rat you out.
For this week’s nano prep, my suggestion is that you try to write a beat sheet for your novel, or at least for the first part of your story. Can you make Nanowrimo easier by laying down some beats before you start writing? If so, go for it.
Future-you might be very glad you did. 🙂
# Step Five: Mindset
Hey, Nano preppers! We’re just a few days away from the big event, so I’ll wrap up this Nanowrimo prep series with some tips about mindset. How should we think about our writing? And what attitudes should we adopt in order to complete our projects well? I’ve got a few suggestions, which I’ve listed below in the form of beliefs. Do you agree with these beliefs, and if so, are you ready to adopt them?
# Belief #1: Writing requires time and effort, so I’ve made space in my life to do it.
Writing is work, right? It’s work in the same way that going to your day job is work. If you put in the time and make an effort, you’ll make it through and you’ll improve your skills over time. And because we learn by writing, not by worrying about our writing, action is what matters.
That begins by making time, space, and energy available for your November writing project.
# Belief #2: I’m writing a first draft. Later, I’ll improve it.
Writing a first draft is about telling the story to yourself. You can trust your future-self to edit your story, and focus now on the first task which is getting the whole story down so you can look at it. Nanowrimo isn’t the time to perfect your “first page hook” or obsess about comma placement.
That being said, you’re not required to write a shitty first draft! I’d rather see you produce the best work you can, right now, given your current skill level. Let’s talk for a moment about the notion of the happy medium, when it comes to the quality of your first draft.
# Finding the Happy Medium
“I’ll just write shit because that’s what a first draft is.” Nah. Why on Earth would you intentionally write shit?
“I won’t start chapter two until chapter one is AMAZING.” Nope! You’re being too rigid. First drafts aren’t amazing. You’ll be stuck in a perfectionist loop!
“I’ll write this scene to the best of my current ability. Then I’ll move on to the next, because this is FIRST DRAFT TIME, baby!” Perfect! You’ve found the happy medium.
Seek out that happy medium, okay?
# Belief #3: It’s time to listen to my gut and heart. Not the experts.
You’ve probably internalized a lot of advice from other writers, right? Stephen King hates adverbs. Others advise against prologues. Your high school English teacher yelled at you for using sentence fragments, or starting a sentence with and. Yadda Yadda_._ Taken in context, writing advice can be useful. But for a beginner, all this advice becomes an extra voice of criticism, making you second-guess your natural style as you start writing.
Tip: You’re fine. Just write! Use the voice that comes naturally to you. Fix any excesses in editing, and stop worrying about what the experts think. It’s not their story. It’s yours!
# Belief #4: Progress matters, but progress is not linear.
You might have this idealized notion that you’ll write X words per day during Nanowrimo. And goals can be motivating sometimes. But in reality, writing is far more… lumpy than you might expect. You might have a day where you squeak out 200 words during lunch, and another day when you write four chapters because the words won’t stop flowing. It’s okay to have general targets in mind, but don’t flip out if you’re not producing equal numbers of words.
Keep it simple. Every time you write, move your story forward. And try to set aside enough hours in the month to reach your overall goal. That’s really all you can do.
# Belief #5: No one is forcing me to do this.
Write because you love it. Or because it challenges you. Or because you’re curious to see if you can. Write because you’ve got a story to tell, or because you’ve admired authors forever and books still feel like magic.
But if writing is making you miserable, or if you hate it, it’s okay to stop. Don’t turn a story into an ego contest with yourself. Remember, no one is forcing you to do it. Proceed with the intention that you’ll enjoy yourself, and see how it goes.
# Belief #6: I’ll decide what to do with this story later.
You might publish your story, or not. You might give it to friends to read, or not. But my point is, you don’t need to worry about any of that now. Get the draft down, edit it later, and then you can decide what to do.
Your story is a squalling little baby made of words. It’s red-faced and shouty and it has no career plans or life goals. So put away the college pamphlets and let it grow up a little. Let your story exist for its own sake! Don’t squash it under all your bossy expectations.
And that leads me to my most important belief, which is this:
# Belief #7: I’m a writer.
If you write, you’re a writer. There’s no secret-handshake, certification, or permission slip required. Drop the word “aspiring” from your vocabulary and flush your impostor syndrome down the toilet. Once you accept the reality that you’re a writer, you can stop being all angsty about labels and do your damn job.
You can write.
Nanowrimo might be the start of something lasting, or perhaps just a fun month to try something new. Either answer is fine, but time spent worrying about labels is wasted time. Imagine me smacking you upside the head with THE OFFICIAL SCEPTER OF ALL WRITERS. Boom. You’re a writer! Now get to work.
This concludes my Nanowrimo prep series, and I hope you’ve found it helpful. Good luck with your story, and feel free to drop me a comment during the month of November to tell me how your project is going. And if you’d like some in-person camaraderie during the month of November, there are plenty of local meetup groups being organized on the official Nanowrimo website right now.