Are you tempted by Nanowrimo – the completion of a novel’s first draft in just 30 days – but find it hard to stay on track once the initial rush of frenetic writing has worn off? Do you find it hard to sustain your energy for the required 50,000 words in just one month? Do you end up with a story that’s front-heavy, with lots of setup and character development, and then a rushed ending so you can meet the 30th November deadline? Or if you’re a pantser like me, do you reach the middle of your story and realise you have no idea what will happen next? If any of these apply to you, read on for my simple suggestion to conquer your plot for a successful Nanowrimo.
At its most basic, you need to do one task before you begin typing on November 1st. Just one. From that, all other novel-development tasks will stem.
Here it is:
Write a list of 30 chapters.
This is the simplest way to plan Nanowrimo. A chapter list tells you what you need to do each day, and for how long. You already know that part – 1667 words. That’s quite a short chapter, but more than doable if you’re a fast typist with an hour to spare each day. (If you’re not that person, Nanowrimo may not be for you. Some people do hand-write, or type slowly, but it’s much harder to meet your goal if you have any Real Life commitments to manage as well.)
Writing a 1667 chapter every day in November will result in a finished novel with 30 chapters. Easy, right? But what do you put in those chapters?
Conquer your plot, part 1
Start with the extreme basics
Your book needs certain unmissable sections. You already know them:
I’m not kidding. Put those as your overarching chapter headings for now. Add some detail of the things that must happen. Usually this is the high-level shape of your story.
- Beginning – a sleuth has a murder to solve
- Middle – the sleuth has trouble catching the murderer
- End – the sleuth finds an unusual way to solve the crime
This is OK but not enough to propel you forward over 50,000 words. In fact this is little more than a genre definition. Think of Jane Eyre:
- Woman is alone, poor and friendless
- Woman finds love but is betrayed
- Woman is married, rich and cherished
Even Charlotte Bronte, whose novel meets this overall shape, would struggle to write 50,000 words with only that for guidance.
We need more.
Conquer your plot, part 2
Sketch out the must-haves
So flesh out some more detail about the events which must happen in order to drive you from Beginning to End. Find the must-haves for your book. What are the elements which, if you took them out, would change the genre of your book, or mean that the reader is left thinking, but how did they get from here to there? Click To TweetThese must-haves are also high-level, but not quite as high level as the first 3. They demonstrate how the character moves from Beginning to End, and also why.
- Beginning.Meet the main character doing something which shows what kind of person she is.
- Show the villain and show why he/she/it is a threat to the main character’s continuation.
- Show a change which offers the main character a choice – stay or fight.
- Show the main character’s biggest weakness and link it to the potential fight with the villain.
- Force the main character to choose to stay or fight (clue: she must fight or there’s no story).
- Take the main character on a journey as she begins the fight.
- Have an initial showdown with the villain or a subset of the villain’s friends.
- Show the effect of the first battle on the main character.
- Middle. Take the main character as far from where she started as possible.
- Betray her in every way while the villain grows ever stronger.
- Force her again to give up or fight. (Clue: there will be a fight).
- End. Big battle – the final struggle for victory over the villain.
- Aftermath – show how characters have survived or not, and what the new world might be.
This very basic setup might equally apply to a literary Jane Eyre or a popular Poirot:
- We meet Jane, lonely and needing to make a friend.
- We are shown the brutality of life for a single woman without money or position.
- Jane has the chance to leave her school and she takes it even though the job offer is mysterious.
- We see Jane’s weakness, her lack of faith in herself and her willingness to be influenced by others. (See here for an investigation into Jane Eyre as a so-called Strong Female Character).
- Jane literally journeys to her new job, and meets Mr Rochester and his unpleasant servant Grace Poole.
- Initial showdowns occur with both the strange servant and Blanche, a potential rival for Mr Rochester’s affections.
- Jane continues to manage her job and her employer and the two become closer. It seems as if she will marry Mr Rochester and escape poverty and her low social status forever.
- Then Rochester betrays her – first by revealing his lunatic wife and then by suggesting Jane remains as his mistress.
- Jane makes a choice – to marry StJohn, the man who saved her after she fled Rochester. But this marriage is also a betrayal – of Jane’s desire of happiness and love. Meanwhile Jane has become wealthy – but it’s meaningless without love.
- At last she decides to fight for her own happiness, and decides to leave her fiancé and return to Mr Rochester.
- The aftermath of this decision is shown in her happy marriage to Mr Rochester, whose mad wife had died while Jane was away.
So these broad-brush novel events apply to a classic literary novel; they can also apply to a typical genre novel – for example, a mystery in the style of Poirot:
- Meet the sleuth being eccentric and brilliant.
- Show the villain (there has been a murder) and show why the sleuth must solve this mystery or suffer – e.g. professional humiliation, loss of income, etc.
- Show a change which offers the main character a choice – stay or fight. Perhaps the sleuth is warned off the case or forcibly retired by a senior officer.
- Demonstrate the main character’s biggest weakness and link it to the potential fight with the villain. Sleuths have a tendency to drink, self-hatred and antisocial behaviour like gambling or misanthropy, which means they are not always able to work to their best abilities. Maybe they isolate themselves from colleagues who might otherwise help them.
- Force the main character to choose to stay or fight (clue: she must fight or there’s no story). Maybe the sleuth longs for retirement but must pay off drinking and gambling debts.
- Take the main character on a journey as she begins the fight. Maybe the sleuth travels to a new part of town, or another country. Away from her or his comfort zone!
- Have an initial showdown with the villain or a subset of the villain’s friends. The murderer strikes again and evades the sleuth.
- Show the effect of the first battle on the main character. The sleuth becomes determined to solve the mystery. But her social networks don’t trust her and help is hard to find.
- Take the main character as far from where she started as possible. The gambling misanthrope must enter a strict religious institution to solve the murder, and give up all vices in the process.
- Betray her in every way while the villain grows ever stronger. A witness is found to have lied, showing up the sleuth’s investigation as hopeless. Better, a friend is found to have lied, and might the murderer.
- Force her again to give up or fight. (Clue: there will be a fight). The sleuth fully adopts a virtuous lifestyle to fool the murderer (and maybe even the reader) into thinking she’s given up.
- Big battle – the final struggle for victory over the villain. The sleuth leaps out from behind the nun’s veil to strike down the murderer as she hovers over her next victim. In the struggle the sleuth shows she has overcome her vices to transform into a stronger detective than ever.
- Aftermath – show how characters have survived or not, and what the new world might be. The sleuth still enjoys a quiet tipple, but has forsworn gambling and is making an effort to socialise with her colleagues. She’s brought back into the fold and the future looks rosy.
OK so I made all that up on the spur of the moment, but you can see how it might form the bare bones of a novel. Actually that’s a great title – Bare Bones. Or given its religious setting, maybe The Bare Cell, reflecting both the sleuth’s early lack of success and the nun’s cell where she must overcome her weaknesses…
So use these 13 headings to give your story some basic structure, and test-drive your battle and ending before you begin writing.
There are only 13, you’ll notice. Not the 30 I mentioned at the start of this post. But some of these will cover several scenes, and several chapters. For example, in my mystery above, there will be a lot happening between (9) and (11). So you’ll want to include a line or two about the specifics of this,and build up your chapters to the suggested 30.
Note: you may have many more chapters than this, or you may find that 30 chapters gives you a 100,000-word book. That’s all fine. Plan how you need to for your November. As an 18-year Nanowrimo participant, I can honestly say that the point of Nanowrimo is not to complete a 50000 word novel – it’s to write, to form a habit of writing every day, to be creative, to let go and see what happens. It’s a creative endeavour attached to a goal and a deadline, which is what a lot of us need to get off our backsides. So plot your creative endeavour in a way that gives you what you want to get out of Nanowrimo.
As a lifelong pantser I would resist doing much more than the chapter list above for plotting before November. You need room to breathe when you write. If you bullet-point every scene, it will feel a lot like work when you come to write it out in full. After all, you’ve already told the story. That’s usually when I am tempted away by a new, shinier idea which seems like fun. So I advise keeping your novel-structure planning pretty high level. Avoid over-specifying as it leaves little room to be creative. In fact, you might take it further – see here for why you should not plan your novel.
The structure above should keep you on track during Nanowrimo and make sure that however rushed your writing, you emerge on December 1 with a completed story. You know where you’re going from chapter to chapter and how to reach the end. You can proceed with confidence.
That’s your first task done – the absolute minimum to conquer your plot. But don’t worry, new writers and lifelong planners. There’s more to do before you start typing, and I’ll be back tomorrow with what.
Want some book recs for plotting? Try here.
More Nanowrimo resources on sefchurchill.com: