Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

A modest proposal for NaNoWriMo

with 5 comments

Not the author's typewriter

As God, in the form of George Burns, once said: “To tell you the truth, I spent the first five days thinking and created everything on the sixth.” That isn’t a bad approach to any creative act, even if you have a somewhat more modest goal in mind—say, to write an entire novel in four weeks. Yes, it’s National Novel Writing Month, and while I don’t intend to offer much here in the way of comprehensive advice, I wanted to share a few things I’ve learned about writing, and particularly finishing, an ambitious project on a deadline. (If you’re looking for additional resources, this post from WordPress is a good place to start.) I’ve never written a novel in a month myself, but in some ways, every month of my life is like NaNoWriMo: I’ve had to write two novels on highly compressed timelines, I try to write my short fiction at a similarly efficient rate, and I often average upward of 2,000 words a day. This is partly the result of external factors, partly of the habits of writing I’ve developed, partly of my own obsessive nature. But If there’s one thing I’ve learned along the way, it’s that productivity is close to a virtue in its own right, but it doesn’t mean much if you can’t finish what you start.

As a result, my modest proposal for anyone thinking about jumping into a novel this month is that you spend the first few days, and maybe even the first week, on an outline. This won’t come as a surprise to regular readers of this blog, for whom my love of outlines should be abundantly clear by now, but it might seem counterintuitive in a setting when every day counts. Yet I’ve found that any time spent on planning, even in a rudimentary way, is more than compensated down the line by the support and momentum it provides. To write a 60,000-word novel in a month requires cranking out 2,000 words per day. If you spend the first five or six days on planning, your daily output rises to 2,500, which isn’t a trivial difference, but it’s far from insurmountable. Speaking from experience, I can say that 2,500 words written with the help of an outline fly by infinitely faster than half that number written without some kind of plan. And while part of the point of NaNoWriMo is to encourage participants to get words down on paper without looking back—which is a skill that every writer has to master—there’s no rule that says you can’t spend a few days looking forward.

Initial notes for my second novel

What I’d suggest, at minimum, is an outline that fits on a single index card. Forget about the inciting incident, rising action, climax, or denouement, which are all things that emerge over the course of revision, and aren’t particularly helpful at this stage. Instead, I’d start with the following:

  1. A protagonist with a problem to solve. This by itself should take up at least your first day of planning. You may already have a protagonist in mind, and maybe a problem, which is wonderful, and if that’s the case, you’ll want to spend that first day refining it further. In particular, you want the problem, or some aspect of it, to appear in the first chapter, and for the protagonist to take a logical action to address it. When you finally sit down to write, on your first day, that’s what you’re going to be writing about. This is the beginning of your novel.
  2. A solution to the problem. This solution may change along the way, and if it does, that’s fine. All that matters is that you have some kind of resolution in mind, and that it arises from another logical action taken by the protagonist. This is your ending.
  3. Two or three intermediate complications that make the problem harder to solve. These are your second- and third-act turning points. (For the sake of convenience, we’re going to assume that your story follows a three-act structure, which is a reliably useful assumption to make.) And again, for each complication, you’ll give your protagonist something logical to do in response. To paraphrase David Mamet in On Directing Film: “We don’t want our protagonist to do things that are interesting. We want him to do things that are logical.”

When you’re done, you’ll have a little card with eight or nine pieces of information: a protagonist, an initial problem, two or three complications, and a solution, each accompanied—and this is the crucial part—by a logical action that the protagonist takes in pursuit of his or her immediate objectives. In short, you’ll have an outline, and don’t let its simplicity fool you: it’s the fundamental structure that gives a story purpose and direction. (Don’t underestimate the time it takes, either. These bullet points may be few in number, but they should be chosen with care, and I’d devote at least a full day to each step.) And what’s nice about this structure is that it works for all kinds of novels. The story you write can be highly personal, introspective, even apparently plotless, but as long as you orient yourself with an initial problem and a series of logical steps, that basic throughline will see the reader—and the writer—all the way to the end. An outline is a bridge that can be blown up once the troops have made their way across, and the final draft will almost certainly look very different, especially once you’ve gone through the necessary stages of revision. But taking the time to draw yourself a map, even a rudimentary one, will enormously increase the odds that you’ll end this month with a manuscript, and not just thirty days’ worth of good intentions.

Written by nevalalee

November 4, 2013 at 8:44 am

5 Responses

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  1. Reblogged this on Henri van de Zee.


    November 4, 2013 at 8:50 am

  2. An outline is a bridge that can be blown up once the troops have made their way across

    This little quip should be on a poster. Just a suggestion. ;)


    November 4, 2013 at 2:37 pm

  3. I wish I could take credit for it—but James Joyce said it first!


    November 4, 2013 at 3:07 pm

  4. Excellent advice. However has anyone ever written a GOOD novel in a month? I still think the old addage is the most important – revise and revise and revise. (My latest book took ten years in between other stuff – but then that’s going too far the other way!).

    November 5, 2013 at 4:35 am

  5. That’s why I’ve always preferred National Novel Editing Month!


    November 5, 2013 at 11:51 am

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