Lessons from NaNoWriMo + Novel Plotting Spreadsheet (Downloadable)

downloadWhew! Did you make it past the goal line? If you didn’t, did you write more than you did in October? What things did you learn from the experience? This is my third year participating and my third year winning, finishing two days early!

This year was different for me as it’s the first one I’ve done since I’ve started taking my writing seriously and the first one since I participated in FastDrafting with Candace Havens (in which you have to write twice as much in half the time). My first NaNo in 2009 was an historical mystery and is accreting dust balls under my bed (it really is, I looked the other day when I swept my room). But, it did teach me that I could complete a novel-length project. I was so scared to participate, thinking there was no way I could write that much in that amount of time. In 2010 I still didn’t know what I was doing, and with a premise and a vague sense of what was going to happen, I wrote what became MUST LOVE BREECHES. Took me almost two years to learn even more about my craft and what things needed fixing with that manuscript, but I finally got it in shape and have hopes for it finding a home next year.

In May, I took an even scarier plunge and participated in Fast Draft and wrote 56K in 14 days (STEAM ME UP, RAWLEY). BUT, this time I’d spent a month plotting out my story and getting to know my characters’ GMCs. That experience taught me several things which I realized at the time, but several things came to light only when I participated in NaNoWriMo this past month.

I’m a Plotser

What’s a plotser? A cross between a pantser and a plotter, with maybe a wee bit more emphasis on the pre-plotting. With Hurricane Sandy and other circumstances, my new agent (signed only on Oct 4) and I weren’t able to coordinate on what direction to take for a sequel to MUST LOVE BREECHES. So for most of October, I wasn’t even sure if I was participating in NaNoWriMo. Then at the end of the month, I decided to take up a premise that had nothing to do with BREECHES so I wouldn’t waste my time writing a sequel she didn’t want. However, that meant I’d not spent time plotting at all. I had what I thought was a fun premise and a sense of who the H/h were and so started one day late on November 2. I caught up with everyone over the weekend and was doing swimmingly until about Day 5, then my word count dribbled downward and things ground to a halt. I had no idea where I was going with this and I didn’t like feeling that way. This wasn’t the normal ‘what I’m writing is drivel’ feeling, I really felt like all my characters were just spinning their wheels waiting for something to happen. Like the plot. Ugh. A local writer friend sagely advised me to take a break for a week, two weeks, to figure out the plot and then do a FastDraft blitz at the end. So I did! I ended up creating a spreadsheet to help myself stay focused on what I needed to discover, and I’m going to share it with you at the end of this post.

Confidence

Her advice was great, because I knew from my experience with FastDraft how much I could write in a day if I really pushed. So I took four days off and just brainstormed (and created the spreadsheet) and I didn’t feel panicked that I was getting behind.  I knew I could write 3500-4000 words in a day if I had to and so I took as many days as I needed. I kept an eye on the NaNo ticker of how much I’d need to write in a day to finish and when it got a  little past 2K and I felt good about my plot and characters, I dived back in.

My goal

The reason I didn’t wait until 3500? Before I started, I’d decided to see if I could do NaNo without interrupting my normal life of seeing friends and watching the few TV shows I follow, etc. I didn’t want it to be all consuming. And it worked. Thanksgiving wasn’t harried at all as far as my writing went. I took off Thursday and had enough words banked where I could write below 1667 for Friday and Saturday (and just snatched an hour during the day to do it), and on Sunday I did my word goal in the morning before I had breakfast with my brother and sister-in-law and hit the road to head home.

The spreadsheet

Since I didn’t have the leisurely month to pre-plot and sit in front of my physical storyboard with sticky notes brainstorming scenes, I was searching for something to help me kick start this premise into a story. The storyboard/sticky note was too detailed of a process and I needed something more high level than that, but not as high level as the one sheet beat sheet created by Blake Snyder in Save the Cat. So this spreadsheet I created during that 4-day hiatus of plot brainstorming.

storyengineeringworksheet

The genesis of the spreadsheet is from Jami Gold. I took her spreadsheet, which is a beat sheet for your plot all on one page, but I added to it as I worked through what I needed to discover and there were also other plotting devices I wanted on there. So after a lot of fiddling, I came up with a Story Engineering Worksheet. It takes a page for each Act/Part (four total) and is based heavily on Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering, with spaces for you to scribble in the H/h’s default third dimension of character and what the new third dimension will be at the end (their character arc). I’m also heavily influenced by Alexandra Sokoloff‘s Writing Love: Screenwriting Tricks for Authors II and so I created spaces for you to write in the thematic words/image system you want to use for each act. The guts of it, however, comes from Jami Gold and her beat sheet, which pulls from Elizabeth Davis’ Save the Cat Beat Sheet. Thanks you two!

If you haven’t read any of these books, you need to! And some of the things on this worksheet will not make as much sense without having read them. If you have, then this worksheet will help pull all that knowledge into one spot and remind you what you need for each phase of the story.

Hope you like it! Please feel free to ask me any questions you might have!

So what incidental goals did you have for NaNo? What things did you learn about yourself and your writing process?

 

So you want to NaNoWriMo? Plotting and Fast-Drafting

This was prepared by me as a presentation for this month’s Mobile Writer’s Guild monthly meeting and cross-posted on their website. I thought it could be useful to those outside their reach, so thought I’d post it here too.

First: What is NaNoWriMo? It’s an acronym for National Novel Writing Month, which is a project spearheaded by the Office of Letters and Light and happens every November. It’s fun, it’s crazy, and it’s a great way to get you unstuck from the dreaded writer’s block. You pledge to write 50,000 words in 30 days.

This is compiled from my experiences in participating and “winning” NaNoWriMo both years that I participated, as well as from taking Candace Havens’ FastDraft class, which aims to write more than 50,000 words in just 14 days.

On board? Here’s what you can do ahead of time to help you succeed:

In October:

Plot (Yes, plot. Keep reading)

Use October to plot as much as you can stand. I pantsed my way through NaNoWriMo, but there were definite moments, er, days, of panic when I wasn’t contributing to my wordcount because I was stuck. For FastDraft, I plotted out as much as I could the month prior and boy did that make a difference. I’d conceived my idea and then started storyboarding it. Even if you believe down to your very tippy toes that you are not a plotter, try it. You might be surprised how much you can stomach. You might find that you fall somewhere in between, where you can come up with your turning points and some scenes all the way to the end, but that conducting character interviews is going too far. That’s okay. Experiment and push to see how far your muse will let you dabble in plotting before it protests.

PANTSERS: See if you can do any of these beforehand:

  • Write your logline. Can you boil your characters and conflict into one sentence? See if you can fill this out (from author Holly Bodger): “When [MAIN CHARACTER] [INCITING INCIDENT], s/he [CONFLICT]. And if s/he doesn’t [GOAL] s/he will [CONSEQUENCES].” This is not the only way to construct a logline, but you must have character, goal and conflict and hopefully a dash of irony. This will come in handy when you’re ready to pitch your story. For more on this, see Kristin Lamb’s Structure Part 5–Keeping Focused & Nailing the Pitch–Understand Your “Seed Idea”
  • Write your main characters’ GMCs (Goals, Motivations and Conflict). See if you can fill out the following for each character (especially your main character(s)).  ___________ (name) wants ______________________(goal) because __________________(motivation) but _____________________________(conflict). And see if you can do it for their internal and external GMCs! (Internal is emotional and external is the external plot—external is what the character thinks they want and internal is what they really need.) For more information, Debra Dixon wrote an excellent book (don’t pay the exorbitant price on Amazon, go here). And here’s a blog post that goes into more detail.
  • Identify your opening scene, first major turning point, second major turning point, dark moment and resolution.
  • Brainstorm scenes that could fill in between these
  • Write a two page synopsis that covers the main turning points and ending.
  • See if you can identify your theme (it’s okay if you don’t, sometimes this happens organically)

Of course you plotters do WAY more than this, so this isn’t geared to you. You already have your system ;) Pantsers, keep experimenting with how far toward the plotter end of the spectrum you can push yourself. It will save time during revisions and make your first draft go much smoother. It will enable you to write faster because you already know where you need to go.

With me so far?

Prep your physical and mental space

Okay, in between running around getting Halloween costumes and candy, see if you can clear the decks as much as possible. By that I mean, alert your friends that you might not be around so much, stock up on food and snacks, clean your desk and get whatever you need ready.

Do you write to music? Make your playlist! I have a playlist called “NaNoWriMo” actually.

For FastDraft, I was using Scrivener and so I entered in all my scene cards that I had mapped out.

Another important step is to get prepared mentally:

  • Believe in yourself. Here’s what Candace Havens says, “You have to throw out all those preconceived notions about how fast you write. This is different. NEGATIVITY in any form is not allowed. Let go of the past and move forward with your writing. We are thinking positive. We are thinking how cool it will when we have a first draft done [in thirty days]”
  • You have no time to polish. Give yourself permission to write crap. Yes, crap. You’d be surprised at how much more creative you are when you’re not censuring your words as you type.

Don’t forget to actually join NaNoWriMo. Go to NaNoWriMo.org and sign up. It’s free. You’ll find lots of support in their forums, but during November, don’t get lolled into the forums too much! But it’s a great way to ask quick questions and find other participants in your area. Mobile might have a team you can join and meet with them for “write-ins.” Having other people share in your journey is a great motivator.

November

All right. So November 1st dawns. What do you do? Here’s some tips:

Tip #1 – Think in pages, not words.

I’m going to adapt the FastDraft method here. For NaNoWriMo, you must write 1667 words a day to meet your goal. I remember thinking that it sounded so unattainable (I’d been struggling to write a novel for almost a year at this point and had only written five chapters.) The idea of writing that amount EVERY DAY scared me. So I signed up precisely because it did. I never dreamed I’d actually do it. But I remember both years pulling words out almost one at a time and looking at that word count and thinking I had SO MUCH more work to do to get to that number. I’d write a little and check my word count. Only 55 words? Ugh, I still have 1279 to go!! But I’d update my wordcount on the NaNoWriMo so I could see the daily goal line go up infinitesimally. But with FastDraft, Candace asked us to make the number of pages we write a day our goal. I committed to 15 a day. And did it. That’s 3000-4000 words a day! And you know what? I found it easier to push myself to write another page (roughly equal to 250 words) and another, and see that hey, I just wrote 8 pages I only have 7 more to go. Seemed somehow more attainable. So for NaNoWriMo, make your daily page goal 8 pages double-spaced and then when you’ve written that, tally up the word count and you probably either made it or gone over! And going over is great, as you’ve now banked those words for when you might not be able to make your daily goal.

Tip #2 – Blanks are your friend

If I didn’t know something and couldn’t find the answer in two minutes of Google-Fu, I just typed in brackets things like [look up how they did this] or [describe this better] or even used _____ for place names or names of things I didn’t know yet, and kept typing. I also used the Document Notes in Scrivener for each scene and typed out things I’d need to look up in revision for that scene.

Tip #3 – Use Twitter’s #1k1hr

Seriously this hashtag on Twitter I owe a serious debt to. I made many new friends that way too. I think almost every hour I wrote I used this tag. It really helped me focus and cut down a ton on my compulsion to check out what’s happening on the web. I knew that when that hour was up, I had to say my word count, and I really wanted it to be over 1000 so it made me push. One time I wrote 1858 words in one hour, but typically I averaged around 1200-1500. So for NaNoWriMo, you could possibly make your goal with just ONE HOUR of writing! At the most, two.

Tip #4 – Choke Your Inner Editor

We covered this earlier in how to mentally prepare, but it’s worth repeating here because it WILL haunt you in the beginning. If you’re not making your goal, it’s because of your inner editor who is sitting on your shoulder telling you the words you’re typing are crap, that the plot is crap, that the characters are crap. Take it by the throat and say, “Yep, it is! Got a problem with that?!” and then mentally shut it up somehow. At the end of the month, when you go to reread, cringing with dread about what a big stinking pile of poo you created, you’ll actually be pleasantly surprised at how bad it wasn’t. You can fix ALL OF IT in revisions. That’s when you can invite your inner editor back. But at least you’ve got the bones of the story down and you can flesh it out and decorate it in revisions.

Tip #5 – Make Time

Don’t have a solid hour or two to make your goal? Do it in 15 minute increments. Get out your pad and pen while waiting at the doctor’s office. You can write in many more places than you think you can.

Tip #6 – Keep Going Forward

In FastDraft, Candace was way more strict than you need to be for NaNo. She didn’t allow you to reread or edit ANY previous day’s writing! However, when I was doing NaNo, I found that if I just went back to the previous day’s writing and quickly read it to put myself in scene again and flesh out sparse description, I could add 100-300 words easy. The trick is not to let your editor start rewriting sentences. DO NOT DELETE ANYTHING. If you can’t resist, and it’s just really bugging you that something is there, use your Strikethru button in Word so that it’s “deleted” but not really. Any words you write during NaNo on your story contribute to your word goal, so this way those “deleted” words still count. In December you can then delete them. Many who do NaNo as well as FastDraft recommend ending the day mid scene so it’s easy to pick up because you know what’s happening next. I was afraid I might forget some new idea, so I made sure to jot notes down at the end of my session so I wouldn’t forget the next day.

Tip #7 – Pair up with others

In this instance, peer pressure is great. Make it work for you. Get others you know to join you and cheer each other on.

Resources:

Are you participating in NaNoWriMo? I’m not sure yet if I am, it all depends on what happens in the next week or so with my agent and what she wants me to do. Have you participated before? Do you have tips to share?

Blog going into low-wattage mode

Hello, I just wanted to do a quick post to say that for the next two weeks, there won’t be my regular posts to the blog. You might have noticed there was no Monday Hunk Who Reads post today.

I joined Candace Havens Fast Draft class at the last minute as a kick in the pants to get my new steampunk romance, STEAM ME UP, RAWLEY, rolling. She’d like us to output 20 pages a day for 2 weeks, which is about 70,000 words! More hardcore than NaNoWriMo! However, we are allowed to set our own goals, and mine will be 15 pages a day. Today was the first day, and I did 3559 words which came out to 16 1/2 pages!

So, until this is over, the only regular blog post I will be doing is Six Sentence Sunday.

If you’d like to do word sprints with me in the morning or evenings, look for me on twitter. I’ll be using the hashtag #1k1hr and #fastdraft.

See ya on the flip side (or on Sundays)…