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.


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.


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?


26 Replies to “Lessons from NaNoWriMo + Novel Plotting Spreadsheet (Downloadable)”

  1. LOL, I wrote nearly the same kind of post on my blog back in the middle of November. I always thought of myself as a heavy plotter (of course, I’m still on my first WIP, so what do I know?), but I discovered during NaNo that many of my best ideas come while I’m writing. So I plot, then write, then realize how much the plot needs to change, then replot, then write again… over and over again in an endless loop. My NaNo story required so much replotting that I only managed 25K words. Still, I learned much about my writing style and now have a much better story to work with. Congratulations from a fellow plotser!

    1. Looks like we’re the same but coming from different ends: I’m a reformed pantser 🙂 And contests on your word count–It’s definitely great to always not only learn about writing but also learn more about yourself your approach to writing! Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Congrats on NaNoWriMo! This a wonderful worksheet. I have read Story Engineering and this is the second time today I have heard about Save The Cat. I guess I should check it out. Thank you for sharing what you learned. I just printed off your worksheet!

  3. What a great idea! Like you, I’m a plotter with a dose of pantser thrown in for good measure. Thanks for sharing this terrific plotting tool.

  4. Thanks for the shout out! Ooo, shiny spreadsheet. Thanks for sharing!

    Which book/section was that “third dimension” from? It’s not ringing a bell (at least in that wording), so I’m not sure if it’s from a book I haven’t read, something I forgot (entirely possible), or something I skimmed a -little- too fast. *blush* 🙂

    And I love what you said about knowing how much you *could* do, and how that gave you the confidence to take time off to get things in order. I can see that attitude helping me as well, now that I know more about my word count potential. Congratulations on your win! 🙂

      1. Ah, then I definitely have a homework assignment to review that section. It was probably one of those things that struck me as “duh,” so the terminology didn’t sink in. 🙂 Thanks!

  5. I love Jami’s spreadsheet and this on is just creamy rich cake, thank you!! I’m almost finished with edits on a MS and then I’ll be diving into surgery on a 3/4 written MS and this will most certainly be helpful. Congrats on Nano!!

  6. Hey, Angela, great stuff. Now I have an excuse to go buy more writing books. Yeah! I finished Nano but had a similar lack of prep problem….only I didn’t stop to realign. I can tell now if I had, I would be doing a lot less rewriting. Good advice. Oh, by the way, it seems to be snowing on your page. You might want to put out a weather advisory. 😉

  7. I didn’t make it this year. Got over 30,000 in, but I knew when if I didn’t get there by the 14th, the day hubby arrived, followed a few days later by my MIL and niece, that I wasn’t going to. Last year I did got it all done by the 15th.

  8. My goasl for NaNo were to participate without driving my family crazy or losing my mind, and win if possible. I pulled it off, so I’m pretty happy overall. My lack of neurotic behavior indicates that I have grown as a writer and as a person, I think. That or the antihistamines give me a zen quality. 😉 I didn’t create any world records for speed, but I was fairly consistent. If I can apply this in the off-season I will get a lot more writing done.

  9. Save the Cat was my ah ha book that taught me story structure. I participated in NaNo for the first time and won, but I didn’t write on the weekends (due to kid activities) and took 11 days off over Thanksgiving due to a family emergency and a camping trip. What I learned is that I can easily write 3,000 – 3,500 words in under two hours – if I plot before writing and know what the scene has to accomplish. Like you, I discovered I do much better as a plotser than a pantser. Thanks for sharing your worksheet.

    1. You’re welcome and congrats on your awesome NaNo record. It’s a god feeling isn’t it, knowing what your writing strengths are?

      Sokoloff was my aha book on structure and she turned me on to Save the Cat…. Hope you like the spreadsheet!

  10. Great discussion of the intermediate ground between plotter and pantser. And yeah, love the spreadsheets. All writing is improv; it’s just a matter of how elaborate you like your prompts. I use plot sketches as prompts, along with copious help from the Muse of History and other good friends. After the fact, I reconstruct a work log from the date-stamps in my draft bouts, and figure out what NaNo process looked like this year.

    And yes, each year it’s different. I actually use my NaNo data logs as a tool in mentoring writers on production process. As in “thirty-minute bouts, applied repeatedly, do in fact get the job done.”

  11. I can’t even describe how strange it is to use your spreadsheet, because it syncs up so closely to what I already had outlined! Makes me feel much better about my plot.

    1. Hmm, it works for me… Email me if you’re still wanting it and I’ll email the Excel spreadsheet to you. My contact info is on my Contact page…

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