NaNoWriMo Rescue

A Strategy for Finishing Strong

You’re a quarter of the way there.  Calendar-wise.  If that’s all NaNoWriMo means to you, stop reading here.  I wish you well on this project.

And by the way, you’re missing the point.

If you are using NaNoWriMo to jump start your novel, get off the procrastination dime or otherwise put to work what you’ve learned about story structure and the other five core competencies of storytelling, then you already know this:

Where you are on word-count is less important than where you are story-wise

Either way, you’re probably somewhere near a quarter of the way into it.  You may be happy with where you are – especially if you’re on top of the four-part storytelling paradigm, which means you’re somewhere near your First Plot Point – or you may already feel a bit lost, stuck in a dead end or a corner (different things) or simply not liking what you’ve done.

That’s natural.  Especially if you started writing without a story plan beyond a vague idea of where to go. 

There’s a way out of this jam.  One that you can use to still reach your NaNoWriMo goal and have something promising to show for it (also different things).

It’s like recovery: to heal, you have to acknowledge where you are.

Don’t kid yourself into believing that, even if you are at 12,500 words, you are a quarter of the way through your story.  At least a publishable story.  That particular NaNoWriMo goal is dangerously vague.  Because, unless you are in the YA genre, 50K words is too short to publish.  You need to be up over 70K to be competitive in virtually every other genre of the novel.

If publishing this story is your ultimate goal – and it should be, otherwise, to resort to an analogy, you’re killing yourself and going broke in the process as you court a mate you have no intention of marrying – then you have two choices before you:

Reach 50K without finishing (not sure if that counts as a “win” or not in NaNoWriMo-speak), or “finish” a story of 50K words that is, that has to be, somewhat bare bones. 

In other words, you get to write “The End” on the last page.  The story points and milestones are all there, but deep in your NaNoWriMo soul you know that you need to add some meat to this somewhat anemic skeleton in a subsequent draft.

That can work, by the way

It’s actually a great story development strategy: use the first draft as a search for your story, even if it takes 50,000 words to find it.  But it only works if you understand story structure to an extent you are making those bare bones choices consciously.

Or, in other words, that you understand that once your search for the story has been successful, only now can you actually write it well enough to sell it.

This is, in my view, the best NaNoWriMo outcome. 

They should call it NaNoSer4StoryMo.  My opinion.

You can reach 50K words, you can print out your certificate, you can feel good about reaching that sketchy quantitative goal.  And, even though your novel isn’t remotely done, it’s a first draft – one you can expand into something more professional – it’s in the bank.

(Author note: no, I’m not bashing NaNoWriMo again.  I’m pointing it in the right direction.  If all you care about is that 50K mark, please return to the first two paragraphs of this post.)

Here’s a strategy to make sure that happens. 

Again, the idea isn’t to write 50K words and then realize you’re only 70 percent through the story you set out to write.  That’s not really finished at all, even in NaNoWriMo land.  The higher goal is to actually reach the conclusion of your story, and then understand that you aren’t quite done with a publishable draft, just a NaNoWriMo-generated first draft.

Is it a novel?  Yes.  Is it a completed draft?  Sure is.  Is it 50,000 words or more?  Of course, the computer don’t lie.  Go ahead, print out your certificate and celebrate.

Then it’s time to get back to work on this thing.  You need to add another 2oK words or so to bring your 60-ish scenes (not chapters… you can put as many scenes into a chapter that you want, as long as they are separated by white space; then again, you can do it James Patterson style and make every scene a chapter… your call) up to publishable snuff. 

If you have the time and energy to actually write 70K or more words by November 30, good for you… this strategy is your ticket to getting there in one, soon-to-be-publishable piece.

By the way, I’ve heard from many Storyfix-reading NaNoWriMo writers who are already well in excess of a quarter of the way to the goal, and every one of them credits the principles and their story plan for getting there.

The first step in this rescue strategy is to stop writing narrative. 

Right now.  Then, instead of banging out another 2000 words tomorrow, set out to plan the rest of your story instead. 

Do that planning in one or two days.  Or more if you can crank out, say, 4K to 6K per day thereafter, in context to that bulleted story plan.  Trust me on this one: it will be the most important aspect of your NaNoWriMo experience.

But how, you ask?  Is such a thing even possible?

It could be.  You actually have a head start in comparison to other writers, you’ve already written the bulk of Part 1.  You already have some vision for what you’d like to do with your story.  Build on that – or revise that – within the context of accepted story structure and what you are about to read (technique-wise), and watch your tower of creativity rise like a Phoenix from the ashes of your sudden confusion.

Again, don’t write another word of actual narrative.  Instead, begin writing story-exposition bullets.  Like this:

–         Hero flees the scene (first plot point)

–         Hero calls for help.

–         Hero is betrayed.

–         Hero must hide.

–         Everyone doubts her innocence.

–         She tries to contact the press.

–         Finds a writer who says he believes her.

–         Cops show up at her house.

–         The writer, the one who believed her, is murdered.

–         She has to contact her father, whom she hasn’t seen in 20 years.

–         Father is a senator, moved to tears at his daughter’s sudden appearance.

–         They meet, she asks for his help.  Which he can’t give her until he has her forgiveness.  (He molested her as a child, and thus became his dirty little political liability.)

–         Someone tries to kill her.  They know where she is (second plot point).

And so forth.  Play with it.  Plug in new ideas, alternative twists.  See what happens, what feels right.

Add bullets until you’ve reached the next story milestone… and then the next… until you’ve built momentum and tension… until it all works… until you have a tingling sensation in your gut that comes from realizing that, even though this may not be the story you set out to tell, this is a better story, one far beyond your hopes for it… a story that promises to take you somewhere.

Now you have a manuscript you can write with confidence. 

And, with the blinding speed required to reach whatever word goal – the 50K, or a fully-fleshed-out ending – you set for yourself.

Each bullet defines what happens in a scene. 

Do this – it’s called beat sheeting; each bullet is a story beat, rendered as a single scene – with story structure in mind.  You are writing four distinct phases of story, each separated by major milestone scenes, called plot points, pinch point, the mid-point and the ending.

If you don’t know what those parts and milestones are, what the mission of each is (and thus, the scenes that comprise them), here’s what you do: they’re all addressed in the archives of this site.  Get busy digging and get enlightened.  Before you write another word.

And then, when you actually write the scene, it’ll be in context to something.  Something that you already know works.  Knowing each scene’s mission, you can set it up right, get to the point quickly, without padding, and with optimal drama and mystique.  And, you can execute a nifty cut-and-thrust into the next scene, because you know the context for that one, too.

Click HERE for more about the beat sheet.  It’s the most efficient and powerful tool there is to actually create a story that works, albeit in skeletal form.

Whether it’s for your NaNoWriMo project or not.  It’ll work either way.

As for NaNoWriMo, your new list of bullets will give you a completed story to shoot for by November 30th.   Remember, if your goal is to publish it, that completed skeleton is precisely what you’ll need come December.

And that’s a successful November by any standard.


Bear with me here, I’m a little pissed.

First, thanks to all who have purchased my ebook, “Story Structure – Demystified.”  Especially the dozens of you who have done so in the past week – it really is the essential knowledge you need to get your NaNoWriMo project done properly, and with the future in mind.  Many hundreds of you have told me precisely that.

Also, I’d like to remind everyone that this is copyrighted material.  It’s not okay to reprint the ebook – which is well in excess of 100 pages — on your site, or on anybody else’s site, without my permission.  Which I didn’t grant.   If it isn’t pulled off the site within a day, legal consequences will ensue. 

Ignorance or ignore-ance… violation of copyright is stealing, either way.  


Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

28 Responses to NaNoWriMo Rescue

  1. Patrick Sullivan

    Good grief, what’s with people blatantly ripping off copyright lately. If you missed, it, here’s a link with info and other relevant links [] Apologies for the size.

    Onto the bulk of the post – I continue to agree whole heartedly. I JUST wrote plot point 1 at the ~20k word mark, with a story that’s likely to be 90-100k, and everything is just working. If you are still crazy enough to not be sure about this advice, and because of that you didn’t plot out your story fully, trust me. I’m pumping out 3k+/day average and the end is easily most of the month away.

    Best of all? I like my odds of having a REAL rough draft, ready for editing when December first rolls around. Something I suspect I can be proud of, if I put enough post-first draft work into it.

    Even one day of plotting can speed up your writing by enough to likely make up for the difference, with over 20 days left to play with. To ‘steal’ that ever awesome phrase from Nike, just do it.

  2. A ‘little’ pissed? I admire your restraint.

    I’ve built the structure in Scrivener, with four sections called:

    1) Setup/Orphan
    2) Response/Wanderer
    3) Attack/Warrior
    4) Resolution/Martyr

    The only problem I’m having now is putting the laptop down in the morning (I get up at 4 to write) to go to my ‘real’ job. Here’s hoping that changes soon.

    Thanks again.

    And Peter, shame on you.

  3. Crispini

    I love your site. Your articles have been so much help as I try to figure out plot. This one is no exception. My problem is that I find the plot bullet/outline style oh so very uninspiring. I just can’t sit down and outline in cold blood. Writing a scene is what gets my fingers rolling. So I’ve sort of been switching back and forth between outline and scene as I go (bearing in mind the principles of plot, of course!) and this seems to help; at least, it imposes more order than straight-up pantsing it does! 🙂

  4. Brooks just described my week perfectly in his bit about the ‘rescue strategy.” Before I even typed a single word, I plotted out my story – major points and all – and was smoking along to the FPP (15K words/15 scenes), when I hit a wall. NOT b/c I wasn’t in the right place, but b/c the FPP was so much more interesting than I expected that I realized the other points were not up to snuff.

    But I didn’t panic. Knowing story structure, thanks to the most dog-eared, annotated printout of Larry’s e-book on the planet, and only feeling a little stressed about not writing (can’t help it :-), I stopped what I was doing, and subjected my husband to a whole weekend of brainstorming (God bless that man!). Now I have an even better structure and the motivation to keep writing. Storyfix saved me! (Can I get an ‘Amen!’, from the congregation?)

    Now for something completely different: I’ve always found it a bit confusing that the third major plot point is called the Second Plot Point. I know the mid-point is a slightly different beast, but it is one of the three tent poles. Ever consider calling the SPP the LAST Plot Point? This way there’s no numbering confusion (or maybe it’s just me,) and you capture the idea that also it’s the author’s last opportunity to inject any new info. Just my opinion

    Thanks again for all your wisdom and insight!

  5. I hit my 25k words this weekend, FPP waving at me merrily from my little tent diagram covered with notes as I went past.

    Last year for Nano I wrote a lot of words. Only some of them useful. This year, the goal was an actual working draft that would be worth editing. Realize there’s a long way to go even after I’ve finished here in Nov., but I’m looking forward to it. 🙂

  6. Martha Miller

    A pox on Peter Cary, whoever he may be!

  7. You know, until I read this post I was feeling like my story was a little on the light side. I’m at 8,000-plus words currently, and I’m about five to six scenes away from plot point one. I was starting to think I didn’t have enough to say. But then I read this post and realized that I am writing the bare bones of my story–the 50,000 words that get the basics down on paper. Then after NaNoWriMo, I will go back and add another 20,000 words or so to make the story stronger. And I’m OK with that.

  8. Curtis

    Peter Cary, you are pathetic.

  9. Larry! I’m stunned! An entire post from a NaNoWriMo skeptic! (poking you in the ribs) Love this post because I’ve barely gotten moving and I think your post and comments like Patrick’s will help me maintain my composure and know that there is hope. Albeit, not a lot! 🙂

  10. Rio

    Curiousity go the better of me and I had to google it… Goodness, the book is only $15 (not that at any price someone should do that), and you can basically read all the info on the blog for free anyways.

    I doubt that “Peter Cary” is even the offenders real name, if it were me I would just file a DMCA copyright infringement takedown notification at the offending site without waiting (I wont link to the offending site but scroll to the bottom and click on copyright)

    By the way, I love the way you write about writing. I’ve wanted to write novels for years but it seemed like to overwhelming of a task, but your blog & ebooks have inspired me and I’ve already started fleshing out one of my story ideas.

    I’ve bought your first 3 ebooks (I’ll buy the one on publishing once I have a completed manuscript) & I’m looking forward to when Story Engineering: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing comes out in Feb. Thanks for all the great info, this blog is a new writer’s dream!

  11. Larry,

    Bear with you? I think you’re being generous.

    Story structure is working for me. The end. 🙂

  12. Katherine Adams

    NaNoWriMo this year is much more pleasurable because of your tips … which I’m finally attempting to use. Yee-haw! There’s hope for me yet. And this Peter Cary character … I say we form a mob — complete with torches — and get him. What the heck? Go after him … he should be pummeled for stealing what’s yours.

  13. Rio

    oh and your post from august on Visual Story Development is super helpful makes it really easy to jump around and really get things set up

  14. Well I’m destined to be a regular here – there’s such good information available. I’m at 21,000 on my Nano (aiming for 90,000) and past my FPP going over your notes on the second part and dreaming up all the nasty things to throw at my characters (are all writers sadists?). The beat sheet is an interesting concept – I’m a pantser by nature and wonder if that would be too much outlining.

    I really appreciate learning the pacing by scenes toward and away from each major point. I tend to write chapters of 3-4 scenes instead of short chapters essentially one scene each. Is there a logic behind the short chapter method, or is it personal preference.


  15. nancy

    Can you help us visualize by telling us the word count in your last novel. We can hold it in our hands and see the number of pages, but how many words does it have?

    (If you’ve already given out this info., forgive my redundancy. I’ve been in Indonesia dodging volcanoes.)

  16. @Nancy — it was 80,397 words… 360 manuscript pages (standard format, Times New Roman 12)… 363 published pages (trade paperback). Hope this helps. L.

  17. Patrick Sullivan

    Wow I thought words per page it skewed lower than that, interesting. I guess 100k words goes farther than I knew…

  18. Jules B.

    hey hombre… while I appreciate your aggravation w this dude stealing your work, calling him & the pirated work out by name only makes his pirated version more easy for the lazy / amoral to find. It’s a perverse fact of internet life, but I guarantee you that every day this post is up, it leads more & new people to his stolen copy of your work.

  19. This is advice that I will have to explore when I do NaNo. I can say that writing quickly, with a goal count of WPD, can and will lead to a finished piece of work. If that PoW will not turn out to be a PoS, that’s up to you. Writing out an outline right now isn’t a horrible idea. If your characters fight your outline, don’t try to force them. Let it be natural. If it isn’t, the characters will tell you what way the story will go. Great article.

  20. @Dale –

    I’m a slightly reformed pantser, and in my experience the beat sheet isn’t too much outlining coming from that (and I’m not saying that just because I came up with a few templates for people to use). 🙂

    I make sure I’ve filled out the main plot points and pinch point ideas, and have a few notes as to scenes that might work to fill in the rest of the space. I don’t plan everything out, but just enough that I know where that first draft is going to go.

    Pretty much I look at it as taking a trip. My destinations are set points on the map – but the route I take getting to them isn’t set in stone. I’m still pantsing, but with enough structure under me to not waste a lot of time on too many extra discovery drafts.

    That’s the plan anyway. Still trying to find a good medium between it all. This Nano experiment is going rather well I think.

  21. @ Rachel – thanks for the info. I guess I’m looking for that same balance. I’ve reading the beat sheet article and that’s kinda what I do now. I break down the chapter into scenes and keep an outline as I move along – or normally I would, but working and Nano means I’m struggling to keep up the side docs like an outline. I love the idea of setting the story out as a trip – with little side trips along the way.

    I working on ‘beating’ out the second part of the book now. Thanks.

  22. This is awesome. Most of the things I know about story structure today came from here. Keep it up, Larry.

  23. Sheyla

    I just bought your book. And that After going to the archive and reading the whole Story Structure series and the Six Core Competency series.
    I just have to say, Larry, that I have always been one of those organic, let-the-writing-lead-you, fly by the pants writers. And then I annoyed the living daylights out of my writing buddies by asking them what could possibly get me out of that corner/ dead end I was stuck at. A few years of getting stuck and I let Real Life pull me off my writing, focusing on something that would pay the bills.
    Then one fine day I got an e-mail about your site and I finally realized why it had happened.
    I’m writing again. So thank you so much. I am finding a bit difficult to adapt my old way towards a more structured way, but i am hopeful with a little discipline, I will find my rythm. Even if I dont cross the line at Nano, i have found my passion again.
    Thank you.

  24. @Sheyla — thank you for this. This is why I write Storyfix, which has led me to many wonderful things, not the least of which is feedback like yours. Let me know how else I can help… I wish you great success! Larry

  25. I just wanted to say thank you. I’m doing my first Nano and was pleased I realized I needed an outline before I started. Things were going well, but I had already realized my story was going to need some beefing up. I read this post and thought, aha! That’s okay, I’ll just get a rough draft and add another 20k words later. Today I reached the end of my outline, only 18500 words in, and realized I was at my first plot point, not the end of the story. I have some more outlining to do, but you’ve helped me understand story structure enough so I know where I am and what I need to do to fix it instead of just panicking and throwing in the towel. So thank you.

  26. Pingback: Friday Free for All for November 12th, 2010 | T.N. Tobias

  27. nancy

    I really appreciate your taking the time to answer my question. I would have guessed you had at least 100,000 words because your story was so complete. I guess I really need to start chopping.