A Little Help for NaNoWrMo Writers

Not that you need help.  Actually, if you’re signing up for this exercise and you don’t think you need help… then the overwhelming odds are that you do.  Need help, that is.

Because it’s next to impossible to write a publishable novel in 30 days. 

That said… miracles do happen.

And I’m going to tell you how that miracle can happen to you.

Of course — and I’ve learned this from an onslaught of in-your-face feedback on this issue — a huge percentage of NaNoWrMo writers aren’t kidding themselves about the outcome — nor are they hoping for a miracle — they’re in it for the experience.

To learn.  To immerse.  To have fun.  To suffer for their art.  All worthy rationale to devote November to your project.

And a few are just kidding themselves.

NaNoWrMo writers come in two flavors: those who understand the underlying structure and theory of writing book-length fiction, and those who don’t.  Ironically, it is the first group that isn’t kidding themselves about turning out something that will end up in a bookstore. 

Just as true: the vast majority of NaNoWrMo participants aren’t in that group. 

The goal is to hammer out 50,000 words. 

That’s it.  That’s the only stated goal.  Anything else, goal-wise, is in the mind of the beholder.

Thing is, that’s not long enough to be a publishable novel, just as November isn’t long enough to write one.  Not really.  A few YA novels come in at that length, but genre and adult contemporary novels are usually longer. 

But time isn’t the real challenge of NaNoWrMo.  Discovering the true nature of a novel is.

So the first step in the process — the first healthy step — is to set your goal. 

What are you out to accomplish during this month of literary madness?  How serious are you about doing this thing right, versusjust going through the motions and discovering what you have yet to learn?

The latter is a noble outcome.  Thing is, you can learn that stuff before you bleed to death from your forehead before November 30th. 

 You have a week to increase your chances by orders of magnitude.  Keep reading, I’ll show you how.

It isn’t rocket science.  It’s literary science.

Which is harder than rocket science, by the way, because it depends on someone else’s imprecise opinion.  The only thing that is precise about writing a novel are the fundamentals of dramatic theory and structure.

Do you know what they are?  If you don’t, you can’t make them up.  Not in November, and not in any other month.  Not if you want your manuscript to have a future.

If your goal is to bang out a first draft of something that will one day be publishable after subsequent drafts, then I have some valuable tools to offer you here.

If your goal is to write a publishable draft – period – during November, then this information is your only prayer of getting there.  Unless you’ve already mastered the aforementioned theories and structural paradigm, in which case you probably have your reasons for your NaNoWrMo commitment. 

This is about fiction, after all.

I actually think it can be done.

It’s a little-known fact that the rules of NaNoWrMo permit story planning and outlining before the month commences.  Which means you have time create a springboard toward a signficantly higher level of success.

You can begin your NaNoWrMo novel with each scene planned out ahead of time.  Outlined, tested and ready for your glorious words.

In fact, in spite of my own skepticism, I believe that it is possible to write a submittable first draft doing just that, and that you actually can do it in 30 days.  But only if you know what you’re doing, if you understanding what your story needs to be before it will work.   You have to know the game intimately, and you have to be able to bang out from 2000 to to 5000 words per day, depending on the extent of your story planning going in.

You can’t simply plan it, either.  You have to plan it right.  Which is why you need to keep reading, because I show you how to find that information.

If you begin planning your story on Day 1 — again, you don’t need to wait, it isn’t cheating to begin plotting your story now — then you probably won’t get to the actual writing until about Day 10 (if you do it right; fair warning — getting this right is the hardest part of writing a publishable novel), which means you have 20 days to write 60,00o to 80,000 words.  Do the math. 

Remember, you can start your story planning right now and get a week or more ahead of the game, leaving you more time — and a lower daily word count — once the clock starts ticking.

You wouldn’t show up on a vacant lot with a load of lumber and a snapshot in your head and expect to build a house that anyone would want.  No, you’d have a blueprint, based on solid architectural principles.  That’s the idea here, too.  Show up on November 1 with a plan.

The question is this: do you know what you need to plan?

I’m going to tell you.  Right now.

First, you need to accept and understand this: you can’t make up your own structural paradigm or linear flow.  Any more than a first time surgeon can feel their way through their first operation without the benefit of medical school.  Certain things need to happen at certain places in the story, and in certain ways.  In novels and in surgery.

All published novels end up ascribing to a fairly specific structural model.  I’m speaking generically — your story can be about anything you want.  Anything at all.  But it needs to unfold in a certain order, and in a certain way.

I’ve written about it on this site many times. 

Read my story structure series, which unfolded in about 12 posts last fall.  There are many other posts on story architecture here, too, including one you need to read even if you skip the rest.  Read it HERE.

And I’ve written an ebook about it.  In case you want the whole contextual picture in one place, and them some.

If you aren’t familiar with the principles of story structure, dig in.  It’s your only shot.  The odds of you blindly dumping your killer story onto the page in the right order, with the right timing, dramatic tension and escalation, are almost non-existent. Don’t write your NaNoWrMo manuscript with blinders on.

But you aren’t done.  Once you know the nature of the requisite architecture, you need to wrap your head around a long list of more aesthetic facets of character, theme, conceptual power, scene execution and writing voice.

That’s why I said the odds are almost non-existent if you enter these 30 days without this base of knowledge.

That said — because I know you believe you are the one writer that can beat those odds — I can help you there, too.  Click HERE to read what I named my #1 post of 2009, one that has been reprinted all over the internet because it holds the key to your best shot at having a successful NaNoWrMo, at least if you’re thinking long term.

I’m moving this weekend, so I’ll leave this post here a little longer than normal.  Tell your NaNoWrMo peers, kick it around, and write your novel from an informed perspective. 

A month of your life is a long time.  Make it count for something beyond the experience.  Make it the start of something.


Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

27 Responses to A Little Help for NaNoWrMo Writers

  1. Darren Cox

    Hi Larry,

    I did Nano last year and it was the best thing I’ve done. It was a great feeling writing a novel in the course of 30 days. Certainly, it didn’t come out perfect, but with a little polishing, one day you never know. 🙂

    I recommend everyone have a crack at it. It’s great fun.

    This year, I’m bowing out mainly because I have a newborn son who I’m looking forward to spending most of my time with. Also, living in Australia, November is filled with sunny skies and lots of sun. Conversely, in your part of the world, where winter is creeping up on you, the weather is somewhat cooler and grayer – perfect for staying indoors with a warm mug of cocoa and tapping away at the keys.

    I’ll guess I’ll have to settle with the beach, sand, and sea.

    Oh well. Life is hard. 🙂

    Good luck to all who give Nano a go!

  2. Patrick Sullivan

    I truly love NaNo, it gets me going and more productive writing wise than any other time of year. I do at least one other novel attempt each year but those always fall apart for some reason or other (be it an attempted pantsing for change of pace or I didn’t account for something that makes even the proper structure not work and being unable to fix it), but November, I knock out those 50k+.

    This year will be… interesting since I’m much more fully indoctrinated in Structure even than last year, and unlike last year I’ve been kicking around and plotting a story off and on for months.

    Exciting times ahead, fellow NaNos :).

  3. I did NaNoWriMo before and made it to 50,000 words on the last day of the month. Unfortunately, I didn’t know where I was going with it and ended up with a few interesting situations and characters, but not much as far as plot. I did learn how to turn off my internal editor while writing so that I could write 2000+ words each day.

    This year, I decided to try it again with one difference. I mapped out the approximately sixty scenes needed to move the story through to the end with the tent poles in the right places.

    When the month is done, I will have a great start on the novel. However, I’ll have another month (or more, considering the holidays) before the first draft is finished.

    Larry, thanks for the pointers both on your website and in your books.

  4. You know me, Larry. I discovered your site and valuable advice last February. I’ve long since abandoned my nano efforts (although the setting and some of the primary characters have made it in to my latest completed 1st draft).

    This year’s nano is plotted in Scrivener, plotted to within an inch of its life and I really can’t wait for 00:01 November 1st. I fully expect to have a polished first draft by the 30th. But I couldn’t if I didn’t know the structure.

    I’ll be pointing all of my nano friends this way.

  5. (That was last year’s nano that’s been abandoned, if it wasn’t clear, and good luck with the move. I just did that and I hated every minute of the process. Love my new place though.)

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  7. I’m seriously considering Nano this year. I write MG fiction — but if I do Nano, it would be YA, possibly sci fi. I have a really vague outline …
    I’m not an outliner, generally speaking .. but then my first novel was a chapter book of 11,000 words, and second is 40,000 words.
    At this point, I’m feeling I’d have to start writing to plot out scene by scene. What seems to happen is that my characters start moving and talking in my head and I write the stuff down. I get a first draft, and then I rewrite .. maybe several times.
    First draft of present 40k book was 15000 words I wrote in 3 weeks.. then I spent a year rewriting it.
    If I do Nano, my goal won’t be to get to 50,000 words .. it will be to write the first draft of a novel, as far as I get, in a month ..
    Then I expect I’ll spend the next year whipping it into shape.
    It would be nice, in theory, if I could outline scene by scene .. but at the moment, that’s not the way it works for me…

    I have ordered your latest book, which I’m looking forward to reading.

  8. Nano last year I ended up with plenty of extra words between two poorly pantsed ideas. Not pretty. But the two months of world building I did for one idea are still waiting for proper attention one of these days.

    This year, I’ve got my beat sheet filled out for two ideas (I always get the 50K early and start to drift – so I’ve outlined two things to work on but only after I get the first one to the end).

    I look at November as my month of the first draft, because I know it’s not just crank out however many words and be done with it. It’s apparently just the kick in the pants that I need to get something written to the end.

  9. Once the rules of story structure really settle in writing becomes an honest endeavor in making a living; and NaNoWriMo simply a creative place to meet interesting peeps. Having a killer structure in place is such an advantage it almost feels like cheating…

  10. Great post, Larry! I am right on the same page with you–I’ve been planning my NaNo novel for almost 2 months now! Maybe that seems like a long time, but I really wanted to get a head start so I could really know my characters, really know my story and really know all the scenes and what needs to happen in each one. I feel more prepared for NaNoWriMo than I ever have before. And because of that, I know this is going to be the first year I actually stick with it and finish the 50,000 words. Hooray for planning!!!

  11. Debbie Burke

    Larry, I’ve been plotting, planning, and outlining with my two critique groups, using your model. This will be my first nano, and with all the preliminary homework, I hope to get much of the novel down on paper. I’m no way expecting a publishable draft, but rather using nano as a prod to get me producing a lot of words to fill in the outline. As Lake said, it’s so easy to write when you know where you’re going that it almost feels like cheating 🙂
    @Rachel, you deserve a big nod of recognition for your great circus tent and balloons, which are the tools I settled on as being my most effective visual aid. But…use a pencil when filling in the info b/c it changes.
    Thanks, Larry, for all the great advice.


  12. @Debbie – Glad the various worksheets are still working out for you. 🙂

    I always use pencil for them anymore – though I’m more prone to scribbling out ideas on extra bits of paper as I brainstorm and plan things out. Once I have a more concrete idea, each story is given its own comp book to keep everything together.

    Pretty much I just do the major plot points, and a few scenes I want to happen leading up to them. The rest of it I leave less planned – because I have a project I’ve stalled on (twice now) because I find I’m not liking what I planned out and will probably start over and change things again. I’m trying, but it’s difficult to get away from the inner pantser. 😛

  13. Abby

    Larry –

    Thanks for the post. I also wanted to let you know that I stumbled across a request for an expert in the feild of writing and getting published for a radio show called Your Book is your Hook. I immediately thought of you and would love to pass on the info if you would like. The more promotion the better right?

    Oh and you have inspired me to start writing fiction. I have an excellent story idea…! Thanks for the spark of insight!

    Cheers – Abby

  14. Curtis

    For what it is worth. There is an indivudual on NaNo front page today who tells his story of selling his 2009 Novel… Here is the salient comments.

    “When my (now) agent saw the novel, she gave it to two readers. The three of them suggested extensive changes and corrections, especially to do with the timeline. As a result, I added ten chapters and rewrote much of the novel (which I had considered to be complete)”

    There yea go. Pray for a great idea and three angels to show up. 🙂

  15. nancy

    I did nano two years ago, and everything you say is absolutely true. I was told you couldn’t write one word before it started, so I only planned in my head–I have this thing about cheating. I finished the word count but ended up with a skeleton plot. No character development, little description–just bones and no fat. And the hard part was on certain days I would say, “What should my character do now?” because I had no outline and no knowledge of the core competencies.

    If I were to do it again, I would follow your advice and outline in advance. However, I have just returned from the Ubud Writers Festival (you should get your bad self invited to that, Larry!) and several presenters like Louis de Bernieres said they take 3 months to plan. So it may already be too late for people who are just starting to think about nano this morning.

    Good luck to all who are prepared!

  16. Adam

    Thanks for this post Larry. I forwarded the e-mail to the members of the Writing Group i just joined because we’re going to participate in NaNo this year. I’m working on a project for a buddy of mine (his concept, my world building and execution). Going to be a fun challenge to get that many words in that short amount of time with my schedule.

    Without the resources on this site, i’d not have been able to approach this with any confidence. I’m almost itching for Nov to get here so i can start drafting what i’ve plotted according to the story structure model.

  17. Thanks, Larry. I’ll be posting this to some of my groups, too. Planning on doing the planning next week using Story Structure Demystified.

    Other than that, I have only one goal for NaNo — to let go of perfectionism and give myself the gift of a shitty first draft.

  18. Thanks to all for the enthusiastic contribution to this conversation. I wish all of you a rewarding NaNoWrMo experience.

    @Abby — by all means, please forward my name and contact info (since I’m moving, probably best to go through the site). Glad to hear you’re considering fiction, you have so much to offer in whatever genre you choose. Wishing you well – L.

  19. Mike


    I just finished reading the entire Story Structure Series and the epilogue article with the outline of questions. This will be my first NaNo. I’ve been signed up for a few years, but life events always got in the way. This year, I decided to go for it no matter what. I’ve bounced around story ideas but was never able to fully define a story I wanted to write. This will give me a frame that I can erect prior to 1 November, and give me some real direction for my writing through the NaNo!

    Honestly, what I was expecting from NaNoWriMo was a chance to see if writing fiction novels was for me. I love creative writing, but have never attempted something as ambitious as a full novel. Sure, the dreamer in me loves the idea of being published and rich (who doesn’t?), but honestly, just completing something on my bucket list would be reward enough. The principles I learned here give me a chance to know that my underlying story structure will be sound, and the only thing left for me to find out is if I have the writing skills to complete the quest!

    I’ll let you know if it worked on 1 December…

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  21. Kelly

    Hello, Larry. Kelly here.
    I have mixed feelings about NaNo. Having never done it, my impressions come from anecdotal information.
    I’m a believer in BICHOK DAW (butt in chair, hands on keyboard, doing actual writing) as a daily discipline necessary for writing success. Literally logging hours.
    I can see NaNo as a jump start, but I’d never promise myself a polished novel without the writing habit deeply ingrained ahead of time, and a sh#@load of story planning.
    Just me…
    Good luck with your move. Hope you get some dry weather for it!
    Cheers, Kelly

  22. @Kelly, it’s the jumpstart. I think that their main focus is to get as many people writing as posible, which is an admirable cause. In their ‘About NaNoWriMo’ section of their website they even say “Make no mistake: You will be writing a lot of crap. And that’s a good thing. By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes. To forgo the endless tweaking and editing and just create. To build without tearing down.”

    If even 1% of those that take part in NaNo go on to bigger and better things in writing, then I think it’s a success.

    I’m doing it again this year.

    With two months of planning under my belt and the expectation that it will take to mid Dec to get the 100k 1st draft finished.

    I’m really using it as a push. With a full time (non-writing) job that pays the bills taking up most of my time, the annual self-discipline reboot is needed.

  23. Kelly

    Hello, Tony. Kelly here.
    Thanks for your input on NaNo. Maybe I will try it. I’ve done writing bootcamps in the past, and NaNo is essentially a type of basic training, IMHO. Can’t say I’m prepared to start a new project 11-1-10 though.
    Like you, I have a “real” job and a “writing” job. I’d like the latter to be the former.
    I know I write a lot of junk sometimes (don’t we all), but I’m used to treating writing like a second job at this point, with a required number of hours and production.
    You sound well prepared– likely you will be one of the few with a completed MS at the end. Good luck– may the story structure force be with you!
    Cheers, Kelly

  24. Thanks to storyfix, I feel prepared for NaNo this year. Got my story framed with all major plot points, including pinches and even a darkest moment! Gonna spend the rest of the week fleshing out the characters (in all their 3D glory), and researching my awesome setting. Nov 1st, here I come

  25. Sammi

    This is going to be my third year attempting NaNo, but the first one where I know anything about story structure. I think that knowing what needs to happen and where will be the key to actually winning this year, instead of giving up when I realize I don’t know where to go next.

  26. Steph

    Larry, what is there to say? Do three dimensions of the character to a thank you exist? What about the six core competencies of heart felt gratitude for all that you share.
    I’ve done nano and won but, bled all of the way through ending up with 50K + of thrown together thoughts with no direction. But your guides have helped me to apply a solid skeleton underneath the body of this years nano.
    Thank you in every way imaginable.

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