November is National Novel-Writing Month, aka NaNoWriMo. If you haven’t come across it before, it’s a worldwide cyber-event where writers tie themselves to their keyboards and aim to bash out 50,000 words before December. What makes it an event is that they cheer each other on through websites, blogs and forums. You can even join real-life local groups for writing blasts with other participants in your area.

Who does it?

Everybody. NaNoWriMo is great for first-time writers who need the push to get started. But established writers also use it to get a draft running. Novelist Sara Gruen began her New York Times #1 bestseller Water For Elephants one NaNoWriMo. Yes, what you start in NaNo can go on to great things – here’s a list of all the NaNo novels that have made it into print.

But 50,000 words in just 30 days - is that even possible? Ignore those boggling zeroes; it certainly is. I’ve never formally participated in NaNoWriMo because deadlines haven’t aligned. I hoped to this year but I’ve already started my current book (working title The Mountains Novel). But I have ghostwritten several first drafts of 50,000 words in just 30 days - and this is how I did it. The key is to plan in advance.

Do your research

You don’t want to stop your output to do factual research. We all know how easy it is to amble off into Google and never return. Do your basic research early. If the novel is set in a special world (eg the circus or international espionage in the eighteenth century) read enough about it so that you can make the most of its story potential. Get a rudimentary knowledge of your geographical location so you can pluck scenes out of your head.

If you do need more research while you’re writing, consider if you can leave it until later. If the story doesn’t depend on those details you can edit them in at the revision stage. For instance, if you stage a scene in a historical building you hadn’t thought to research, insert a tag like [findout] and write the characters’ actions and dialogue as if you already knew.   

How much should you plan the story?

We all need different levels of planning. Some writers like a step-by-step map so they can settle back and perform the story on the page. Others want the joy of discovery while their fingers are flying.

However much detail you require, a good plan needs to tackle these fundamental questions.

1. Why is this story going to grab a reader?

All stories need to dangle a lure – an element of intrigue, the remarkable, the sense of something unstable, a disturbance. That could be:

  • a literal outrage such as a murder
  • a dilemma that puts a character in an impossible position
  • an event that appears ordinary to you or me, but is a profound challenge in the character’s life.

Unless you are deliberately exploring the ‘anti-remarkable’, ask yourself; what will make the reader curious from the start? Is there something exciting? Something weird? Something horrifying, unjust or wrong? Something comical? An event the readers will recognise as part of their own life struggle? This will probably be your way to connect with the story too.

2. What do the main characters want?

Why are your protagonists and antagonists compelled to take part in the story? Why couldn’t they just shrug and give up?

3. What is the first change that starts the story rolling?

Why does the story begin where it does? Is that the best beginning? Have you started too soon, in order to explain the set-up? Might you be better cutting those scenes and filling in the back story at natural moments further in? Or have you started too late and missed some moments the reader will enjoy?

4. How does the story escalate?

No matter how bad the situation looks from the start, it needs to get worse or the story will seem stuck. As the narrative goes on, the events and actions must matter more. The danger or consequences must deepen. The price of failure must rise. If you’re writing in conventional three-act structure, which movies follow, there will be definite points where the story shifts into new gears – these will be the quarter, half-way and three-quarter marks. But even if you aren’t, you need a point where the characters feel the worst has happened.

5. I never would have thought…

The story must take directions the reader wouldn’t have guessed – and even though they are surprising, they must still seem to play fair.

6. How does the quest change between start and finish?

Most stories start with the main characters wanting or needing something, but that goal can change. A character who begins the story searching for their lost dog might end up embroiled in a crusade against the fur trade. Or perhaps your characters end up wanting the opposite to the thing they desperately wanted at the start. Stories where the characters’ priorities shift are very powerful. Stories where they don’t can seem predictable.

7. In the end…

Your ending must be a resolution, although it doesn’t have to be positive and neatly tied. What does your ending resolve? How has the characters’ world changed? Can the story really go no further? Is anything left unresolved – and if it is, does that suit your needs?

Develop your characters  

It’s much easier to write characters when you’ve spent time getting into their skins.

Do you know a few trivialities about their daily lives? You might need a hobby for them to do in downtime, or a commitment that might put them in a particular location when a story event happens. Have a list of a few likely trivialities about your characters, and then when you need one you don’t have to stop the flow.

But if you don’t have time for that, write [findout] and come back to it in the revision.

It’s essential to know how the characters feel about each other in the story – because the best plot moments will grow from friction and alliances. Do you know who gets on with whom (or who would if they met)? Which characters would never understand each other? If you gave them all the same challenge, how would they show their different mettles? Which story events will really push someone’s buttons?

Find support

You don’t slog through NaNoWriMo on your own. That’s one of the beauties of it. You’ll find communities on the NaNoWriMo website, Twitter, and bloggers who will be displaying NaNo badges and blogging (if they have any mileage to spare). And here on the W&A website there will be a series of events to help you along.  

Remember it’s a first draft

If your draft is imperfect that doesn’t matter. All first drafts are rough (or worse), but you emerge with a manuscript you can hone and polish. If you’ve never completed a first draft before, NaNoWriMo is a great opportunity to build writing habits and experience.

And that, my friends, is why NaNoWriMo starts now. Prepare, prepare... then let your fingers fly.

Have you done NaNoWriMo? Do you have any tips? If it’s your first time, how are you preparing?


Roz Morris is a bestselling ghostwriter coming out of the shadows with novels of her own. Her debut as herself channels her love of music into an unsettling tale: My Memories of a Future Life. A more detailed version of its Undercover Soundtrack, with music links, is here. She is also an editor and writing coach, and has a successful series for authors and a writing blog, Nail Your Novel.