During National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), thousands of people work on writing a rough draft of a novel in the month of November.
Why? How could you possibly write an entire novel (defined, for the purpose of this month, as 50,000 words or more) in a single month? More importantly, how could you possibly write a good novel in a month?
Writing a good novel is not the point. Maybe writing poorly sounds like a bad idea, but taking on this intensive challenge for a month has several advantages. The time pressure forces you to put aside your editor and critic hats and instead focus on getting words on paper. This helps some people avoid the insecurity that can come with starting a new project, or the temptation to endlessly edit the first few chapters instead of moving forward. Writing fast quickly gives you material to develop.
It also encourages you to schedule writing time – plenty of it, every week. It’s easier to give up TV, reading, and other hobbies for a single month. It’s also easier to get family members to adjust their schedule to yours if you are requesting a favor for a month, not forever. (You may even discover that your family, and the world, can function with less of your attention than you thought.)
So NaNoWriMo can get you jumpstarted on idea, give you a big, messy draft to work with, and help you establish new habits Even if you can’t devote the same amount of time to writing after November, maybe you can carve out some time every week.
Finally, the challenge provides a strong sense of community. You can network with other writers, encourage each other, and find inspiring blog posts or helpful tips to keep you moving for your project. (Just don't spend all your time reading about writing and talking about writing, rather than actually writing.)
Are You in?
The first step is establishing your own goal. Maybe you don't want to attempt the official goal of 50,000 words. For a middle grade novel, 30,000 words may be more realistic. That's *only* (?) 1000 words a day for the month! (Of course, you have to consider whether you can actually write seven days a week, and if you're in America, don’t forget Thanksgiving break.) Or maybe there's a cool that's better for you – writing for 15 minutes every single day, or making progress on a novel you've already started.
Making the Most of an Idea
If you want to be ready to write a novel in November, it’s best to start brainstorming and planning in advance. Even if you are a "pantser" who prefers to dive in and figure out your story as you go, you might avoid some time staring at a blank screen by brainstorming your basic idea and a few things that could happen. If you're a plotter, you might want a more developed plot outline before you begin.
Here's a condensed excerpt from my book Advanced Plotting to help you get started.
A story has four main parts: situation, complications, climax, and resolution. You need all of them to make your story work.
The situation should involve an interesting main character with a challenging problem or goal. Even this takes development. Maybe you have a great challenge, but aren’t sure why a character would have that goal. Or maybe your situation is interesting, but doesn’t actually involve a problem.
For example, I wanted to write about a brother and sister who travel with a ghost hunter TV show. The girl can see ghosts, but the boy can’t. That gave me the characters and situation, but no problem or goal. Goals come from need or desire. What did they want that could sustain a series?
Tania feels sorry for the ghosts and wants to help them, while keeping her gift a secret from everyone but her brother. Jon wants to help and protect his sister, but sometimes feels overwhelmed by the responsibility. Now we have characters with problems and goals. The story is off to a good start.
· Make sure your idea is specific and narrow. Focus on an individual person and situation, not a universal concept. For example, don’t try to write about “racism.” Instead, write about one character facing racism in a particular situation.
· Ask why the goal is important to the character. The longer the story, the higher the stakes needed to sustain it.
· Ask why this goal is difficult. The level of difficulty will vary depending on the length of the story and the age of the character, but the task should be believably hard.
· Even if your main problem is external, give the character an internal flaw that contributes to the difficulty. This adds complications and also makes your character seem more real. For some internal flaws, see the seven deadly sins: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride.
· Test the idea. Change the character’s age, gender, or looks. Change the POV, setting, external conflict, internal conflict. Choose the combination that has the most dramatic potential.
Building the Middle
If a character solves his goal easily, the story is boring. To keep tension high, you need complications.
Try the “rule of three” and have the main character try to solve each problem three times. The first two times, he fails and the situation worsens. Remember: the situation should worsen. If things stay the same, he still has a problem, but the tension is flat. If his first attempts make things worse, tension rises.
This can play out in many ways in novels. In my first Haunted book, The Ghost on the Stairs, I made sure each ghost encounter felt more dangerous. As Tania tries to get closer to the ghost in order to help her, Jon worries that she will go too far and be injured or even killed. With enough variety, you can sustain this kind of tension indefinitely (witness the ongoing battle between Harry and Voldemort in the seven-book Harry Potter series).
You can worsen the situation in several ways. The main character’s actions could make the challenge more difficult. In my children’s mystery set in ancient Egypt, The Eyes of Pharaoh, a young temple dancer searches for her missing friend. But when she asks questions at the barracks where he was a soldier, she attracts dangerous attention from his enemies.
The villain may also raise the stakes. In my Mayan historical drama, The Well of Sacrifice, the main character escapes a power-hungry high priest. He threatens to kill her entire family, forcing her to return to captivity.
Secondary characters can cause complications, too, even if they are not “bad guys.” In The Ghost on the Stairs, the kids’ mother decides to spend the day with them, forcing them to come up with creative ways to investigate the ghost while under her watchful eyes.
Finally, the main character may simply run out of time. At her first attempt, she had a week. At her second attempt, she had a day. Those two attempts have failed, and now she has only an hour! That creates tension.
Tip: For each turning point in the story, brainstorm 10 things that could happen next. Then pick the one that is the worst or most unexpected, so long as it is still believable for the story.
For more help, see my blog posts on Developing Ideas and Plotting on my Write like a Pro! blog. You might also be interested in the Time Management tips. Or check out my book Advanced Plotting for the advice on getting started and various ways to outline your novel.
Don't worry if you wind up with a big messy draft. That's what National Novel Editing Month (NaNoEdMo) in March is for. You even get to rest for a couple of months before doing that.
Still, if you've developed some good writing habits… try to keep them going!
Chris Eboch’s novels for ages nine and up include The Eyes of Pharaoh, a mystery in ancient Egypt; The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan adventure; The Genie’s Gift, a middle eastern fantasy; and the Haunted series, about kids who travel with a ghost hunter TV show, which starts with The Ghost on the Stairs. Her writing craft books include You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers, and Advanced Plotting. Learn more at www.chriseboch.com or her Amazon page, or check out her writing tips at her Write Like a Pro! blog.