NaNoWriMo #21: Still Struggling with Your ‘Concept’?

Let there be peace of mind.

First of all, nobody said this would be easy.  If you think you’re struggling now, at the planning stage, right there at square one, just imagine that it’s the middle of November and you still don’t have a viable concept in play.  That you’ve written about 20,000 words that don’t connect to a story spine.

Not good.  So stay with it here in the planning stage.  It’ll happen for you. 

At the very least, no matter how hard this feels, you should strive to arrive at November 1st with not just a story idea, but a developed, vetted concept that sets the stage for the unfolding of a dramatic narrative.  It’ll be worth the anxiety, I promise you.

And just to remind you… an unfolding dramatic narrative is the goal.  Your story isn’t a character sketch, a backstory, a true accounting of events… it’s a hero with a problem or a need or an opportunity, facing obstacles, and then overcoming them to bring about a conclusion.  That’s the goal.

And to reach it you need a concept.

A draft-ready concept is more than an idea. 

Some folks begin the whole process with an idea that is already a concept… good on them. 

But if that’s not you, if your concept still eludes… remember that a concept is merely an expanded idea best expressed as a “what if?” question (thus demanding an answer, which becomes your story) that marries character with quest (need, problem and/or goal) in the face of opposition (if there’s not opposition there’s no conflict, and if there’s no conflict there is no story), all of it in context to stakes.

The power of stakes is what makes a story work.  It’s what represents the underlying physics of your story.  Without stakes, nobody cares.  And without conflict, nobody reads.

Staple that to your forehead.

Here’s today’s tip, if you’re still wrestling with your concept. 

It’s twofold: first, determine if what you’re struggling with is the definition of what a concept is and what it means… or if you get it but you’re simply missing one at this point.

Each of those has a separate solution.  To the first… keep reading here.  Go back in this post (the definition is already here)… go back in this series…go into the archives… concept is everywhere here.  It may be much simpler than you’re trying to make it. 

If you’re missing an idea that starts your motor, try this: go to a bookstore. 

Take a notepad. 

Pick up as many novels as you can and read the back cover and/or dust jacket copy.  Stick to your genre in doing this.  The concept for that story will be there.  You’ll see a hero/protagonbist introduced (often with a bit of pre-Plot Point context), you’ll notice that the hero has a problem to solve or a goal to reach (which will connect to that First Plot Point, which just might jump out at you), and you’ll get a sense of what stands in the way of the hero reaching that goal. 

That’s it.  That’s concept.  Read a few dozen book covers and you’ll get the drift, and your creative mind will kick in.  You’ll find yourself juxtaposing what you already have with new possibilities for your story.

If you’re a writer seeking answers in context to these principles, it’ll happen.  It can’t help but happen.  Some writers have to get into a draft to really find and fall in love with a concept… that’s fine… it’s just that with NaNoWriMo you don’t have that luxury.  The goal is to nail your concept before you begin your actual draft on November 1.

If you can’t get one by November 1, I suggest you delay starting the draft until you do.  You can make up for lost time as the month progresses.  Your concept is that important, at least if you intend to use the month to create something that actually works.

And once you have it, and a beat sheet that flows from it, 50,000 words will be no problem, even if you have fewer than 30 days.  Trust the process.

Once you do land on a concept, you may find yourself with a new problem: whittling it all down (or building it up, maybe both) to an optimal concept, one that plays right into your wheelhouse as a writer, a person, a reader and as someone who simply needs a conceptual, contextual starting point. 

For that there are dramatic physics and six core competencies to help you… all of it here for the taking.

9 Comments

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9 Responses to NaNoWriMo #21: Still Struggling with Your ‘Concept’?

  1. Great advice for writing even if not doing NaNo. I did last year with a lot of concepts, but I let the story unfold as I wrote. I ended up editing entire chunks out or rewriting later, but you live and learn. I think the better a writer understands the concept and dilemma, the better.

  2. Just what I needed today as I struggle and worry that Nov 1st is closing in. What if part of the struggle is that you want to write one genre, but you keep finding yourself drifting toward a related but different one?

  3. @Patricia — I empathize. Writing is life… and life is about decisions, compromise and feeling helpless at times in the grasp of both. My advice: pick your strongest idea/concept, and go with it. Nothing says you can’t flip to another genre on your next project. If the concept itself is what’s hanging between two genres… write what you love. Your head led you to the concept, let your heart lead you to the right genre. Let me know how it goes, I wish you well on this journey. L.

  4. Annie

    Along the lines of the book covers: I’d recommend NaNo-ers take advantage of the “synopsis” box on the NaNo site as early as possible. Not for an actual point-by-point synopsis, but for a book-cover or query-letter style blurb that gets to the heart of the story. Trying to condense context/character/quest/opposition/stakes into ~200 words can shine a light on which areas still need work. There are also synopsis-critique threads on the forums that can provide a way to gauge reaction and tweak as needed.

  5. @Annie — thanks for this, I think you just inspired one of the upcoming posts in this series. L.

  6. Annie

    Oh, interesting. I’ll be looking forward to it!

  7. Take advantage of the people around you as a board/audience to bounce ideas off of too, especially if they are frequent readers in your genre. I’ve had success trying to quantify some of my ideas for them. Watch the reactions, listen to the questions. I knew I had something good when my select audience members (friends, significant other, family member) started to sit up, nodded, and had 20+ questions for me about that particular plot.

    On the other hand, I know I don’t have a strong contender if and when I get puzzled looks and questions seeking clarification. Hearing myself aloud has been quite helpful. My NaNo group has often pointed out holes or possible directions to take that I hadn’t always thought of, or I’ve been in love with. Other people are great resources!

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