Nail Your NaNoWriMo #3: Vet and Fertilize Your Story “Idea”

31 Empowering Posts in 31 Days

Don’t just start something.  Develop something first, so you can start something worthwhile in November… and finish it.

There are two ways to immerse yourself in NaNoWriMo.  One is to arrive at November 1 with either no idea what will happen after Page 1… or only a vague idea. 

The other is to execute an idea that has been — during the month of October — expanded into a fully fleshed, waiting-to-exhale conceptually-driven blueprint for your story.  A blueprint that is, in retrospect, nothing other than pumping enough air into your original idea to allow it to get airborne as a story.

And if you don’t think you can develop a blueprint…  you’re wrong.  Because drafting is nothing more than another form of blueprinting if it isn’t the offspring of an outline or at least a robust beat-sheet.

Both processes involve the search for story

Every novel must engage in, and succeed in, this search. 

The former method above — it’s Nov. 1 and you don’t know how your book is going to end, or worse, what happens on the way — renders your entire month and the draft that results from it an exercise in searching for your story.

I don’t buy the notion that you “win” NaNoWriMo by just finishing.  Do you “win” a marathon by just finishing?  No, you win — on a personal level, which is the case with NaNoWriMo — by finishing strong, by exceeding your expectations, rather than limping across the finish line broken and useless.

Let’s make that happen for you.

Today’s tip: find your story during October. 

Search for it (tips on how to do that are forthcoming), expand it, test it, grow to love it. 

Then arrive at the November 1 starting gate with a workable plan for your story not only in place, but chomping at the bit.

The former will, at best, become the basis for another draft.  When it doesn’t, you’ll read about writers who say, “well that was hard but it was fun, and at least I proved to myself that I could do it, that I actually can write 50,000 words in one month.  Hey, I finished, so I won.” 

Really?  They may or may not have a viable story to show for it.  This isn’t National Manuscript Completion Month, it’s “novel writing,” which implies it’s really a novel when you’re done.  And if it doesn’t work in the way a novel should work, then it’s not a novel at all… and in that case, what, precisely, have you “won”?

The latter approach (planning) will, if you do it properly, and if you finish that planning in October, and if you write as one possessed by the story that is now in your head… if you fall in love with your story before you write it…

… it will yield a manuscript that will, at best, be a tweak away from being submittable, or more likely, be the basis for a story that can see the finish line.

Which writer will you be? 

The one who pats his/herself on the back because you finished, because you “won” NaNoWriMo?  Putting 1600 words per day into a manuscript isn’t winning, it’s time management.

Or will you be the writer with a viable manuscript on their hard drive?

To become the latter, your October planning process must, in the early stages (like, now), begin to crystalize an “idea” for your story… and then — this is critical — evolve that into into a fully populated story that touches on all six core competencies

My guess is you have an “idea” in mind already.  If not, that’s your starting point.  You need to find one, and fast.

But finding an idea isn’t the hardest part.  Because when you do have an “idea,” you’re still not ready to write. 

In fact, writing from just an “idea” is one of the most fatal mistakes a writer can make — especially during NaNoWriMo — unless that idea has morphed into a story concept.

What’s the difference between an “idea” and a “concept”?

Ideas come in all sizes and shapes.  “I’m going to write a mystery starring a blind detective.”  That’s a pretty good idea, actually… but it’s not a story.  Not even close.  And if you sit down to Page 1 to using only that idea… then you are pantsing.

And pantsing really never works during NaNoWriMo.  You can “win” doing it that way… but you probably won’t “succeed” doing it that way.

No, a story needs the following elements:

A hero with a need to fill or a journey to take, with opposition to that need, with stakes and consequences attached, with dramatic moments along the way that offer and then dash hope, and then, an ending that satisifies.

But even that much isn’t enough.  That’s just a high altitude view of a much more complex landscape.

A “story” that works requires a concept that is best expressed as a series of hierachical “what if?” questions, the answers to which begin to define what happens along the way… a rootable and empathetic hero with a backstory and inner demons to conquer that creates the opportunity for character arc and a definitive world view… thematic resonance… a properly populated scene sequence complete with a plan for the Part 1 set-up scenes… a killer First Plot Point… a context-shifting mid-Point… a catalytic Second Plot Point… and most all, a viceral, logical (and possibly surprising) ending that delivers a huge dose of satisfaction to the reader.

That’s a story.  Nothing less. 

Just try whipping all that out, come November 1, in 30 days without a plan in place.

You really can figure it all out — each and every one of those elements, plus many of the scenes that will render them — during October.

So get started with “vetting” your idea. 

Does it set the stage for a story?  What dramatic questions does it inspire?  What will your hero need or want in y0ur story?  What will oppose this quest or journey? What does that opposition need or want?  What are the stakes, and will your reader feel the weight of them?  How will your character respond to opposition, and then, how will they change to become empowered to overcome it?  How will your hero become the catalyst for the ending, rather than a spectator to it?

The quicker you can turn your “idea” into a dramatic ‘what if?” question that begins to answer these questions, the more flesh you’ll be able to provide your outline come October 31.

And thus, this idea vetting and expansion becomes context for all the planning that lies ahead of you.  So that, come November 1, you are not writing your novel in context to your idea, but rather, in context to the plan that the idea has inspired.

Huge difference.  The difference, in fact, between playing and really winning NaNoWriMo.


Filed under NaNoWriMo

12 Responses to Nail Your NaNoWriMo #3: Vet and Fertilize Your Story “Idea”

  1. Abso-fricken-lutely. Structurally I’m set. I could probably start writing today and get to where I want to go, but I want more.

    October, for me, is exactly as you described it: “You really can figure it all out — each and every one of those elements, plus many of the scenes that will render them — during October.”

    I’m writing back stories for the main characters – writing scenes that will never be in the final story, but will allow me to write characters more real and sympathetic (or not, as their role dictates).

    And as I go through the structure I’m looking for anything interrupting the flow of the story, making sure I have an answer to every ‘why’ I run across.

    Fantastic commitment from you to deliver a motivational post per day through October. Looking forward to reading each and every one of them.

  2. Glad you covered this, as this answered my original question on the first of this series. I don’t just want to put something out there because I’ve never written a novel. I want it to pop.

  3. I had a realization as I was reading today’s post — October suddenly has a life of its own! October is no longer just that horrible month to get out of the way of November! Oh dear, what are we going to do about September? 😉

    This may be an inappropriate time for this question, but, what is your opinion about novels that start with a dramatic scene that is actually close to the ending of the story as Chapter 1, and then begin, with Chapter 2, to tell how it got to that point? Just wondering. All comments welcome, by the way. 🙂

  4. I’m loving this series of posts!

    Evelyn – I don’t know what editors think of that kind of organization, but if I were the reader I’d probably have forgotten what happened in Chapter 1 by the time I got to the chapter where the scene takes place chronologically. Does Chapter 2 start on the day everything changes for your main character and the plot starts rolling? If so, maybe it’s interesting enough to be Chapter 1!

  5. Yeah, great idea, Larry! Like the old saying goes, wish I knew then what I kno now! I used to be a hard core NaNoWriMo guy. I still have one of the posters framed in my writing lair. But at this point, the push is on and every month is like NaNoWriMo.

  6. How much or how little to outline before starting seems to be a matter of method more than results.

    As a successful pantser, I agree with you – drafting to find the story is still the same search for story. I’ve tried outlining. My results were the same as if I hadn’t outlined except that it took longer and was less enjoyable.

    Your post made me think, though. I agree with you – the process of exploring the story and finding the plot has to happen at whatever stage of creation it does. The fact that I prefer doing so while drafting is just a different path to the same goal. The principles are the same.

    I think outlining is a tool like using a ruler and protractor. Some artists get straight lines easily with those tools once they learn to use the tools. Others face a longer learning curve to be able to create a straight line freehand. The results are the same. Only the method differs.

    I will throw in that learning to draw freehand straight lines or ellipses or circles is a lot harder than learning to use the tools. It’s definitely the long way around. Those six core competencies all have to be mastered however they are used, whenever in the process they’re applied. A strong plot with a clear beginning, middle and end is essential.

  7. Evelyn, I’ve seen that plot device used successfully in a number of published novels. I think that like most things, it works when it’s done well.

  8. You are tempting me to do it this year. I’ve never NaNoed and I never thought I would… but… dang… you make it tempting! Stop it.

  9. First I want to say how sad I am to not be able to attend your workshop, you are the guy who gave me my “aha’ moments when it comes to learning the craft of storytelling/novel writing.

    Concerning NaNoWriMo, I totally agree with the approach. Often I’ve embarked with the mindset of making it up as I go along and wonder why I’m always getting stuck and half sixteen unfinished manuscripts and most that doesn’t make sense.

    Having already started (after I purchased your book) I am already making progress and weaving a better story by following the six core competencies.

    Therefore I expect NaNoWriMo will be much more productive for me this time around rather than trying to muddle through and blow a cork of frustration.


  10. I’ve done NaNoWriMo for a few years. I’ve both leapt in with minimal planning, leapt in with a living plan, and leapt in from a dream I had the night before. The living plan one was actually hardest for me to write.

    But that’s probably strange.

  11. Carolyn

    @Carradee. Your experience is not strange. I have done most of my NaNo novels with a plan in place before I started, including the very first one.

    However one year I decided I wouldn’t participate, changed my mind late in the game, and finished the month with one of my favorite drafts in hand–no planning done during October at all and starting on November 10th.

    There is no one “right” way to write a novel. It’s just whatever works best for the writer and for the story at hand. It’s like rearing children–each one is unique and takes a different approach even when the same core family values are in play.

    Structure is critical to a good book, but it can be honed and refined at any point in the writing.

  12. Pingback: Brian Wethington » Archive