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How to Prepare for NaNoWriMo:
To Outline or Not To Outline

Categories: Brian Klems' The Writer's Dig Tags: Brian Klems, nanowrimo, online editor blog.

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November is almost here, which means two things: 1) You’re going to be seeing a lot of mustaches and 2) it’s time to start preparing for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo).

Over the coming weeks, with the help of my friend and author Kevin Kaiser, I’m going to offer some tips on how to prepare for and accomplish the NaNoWriMo goal of writing 50,000 words in 30 days. Let’s get this started with this guest post from Kevin on outlining your story before the November 1 start date.


Kevin Kaiser is the author of @WriMo: A 30-Day Survival Guide for Writers, the profits of which go to support the future of NaNoWriMo. He blogs about how to write for a living without losing your soul. Follow @KevinSKaiser on Twitter.


Should You Outline Ahead of Time?


It’s an age-old debate: Should writers meticulously outline a story before beginning or should they simply sit down at the keyboard and start typing, blindly trusting that the characters will reveal what should happen next?

Like most things in life, I believe it’s both/and, not either/or. Even the most fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants writer has a general idea of where things are going, if only in her head. But what is a NaNoWriMo participant supposed to do? After all, thirty days goes by quickly.

1. Realize that NaNoWriMo is, above all, about finishing.

About 250,000 people began NaNoWriMo last year, according to the Office of Letters and Light, the non-profit behind the writing program. Only about 33,000 people actually finished the challenge and put 50,000 words to paper—that’s just 14 out of 100 people!

NaNoWriMo is about finishing, and not creating the next great American novel. It’s about proving to yourself that you can lay down at least 1,600 words per day for a whole month even if they’re a spectacular mess.

I wonder how many of the 86% that didn’t finish spent so much time overthinking their story that they simply didn’t write it. In the case of NaNo, do not allow perfectionism or fear creep in and paralyze you.

2. Identify the story arc.

Knowing what your story is about is very important, and you should have an idea where it’s heading. That simple knowledge will solve many of your problems when you feel the story beginning to lock up.

Once you have a sense for what your story is about, break it up into three “acts” and write a few sentences about what happens in each one. For example:

In Act 1, the protagonist sees herself on a missing person’s database and realizes her life is all a lie. She escapes her captor, who happens to be her husband, but he takes their two-year old daughter hostage.

In Act 2, the protagonist is the on the run because we learn her husband famed her for a murder. Now the FBI is pursuing her. At the end, she hunts her husband down.

In Act 3, she saves her daughter and gets her life back. The husband dies.

3. Once you have the arc, break the story into chapter “sketches”.

Again, keep it simple. Write two or three sentences for each chapter that give you a general direction when you sit down to write. Be flexible. The story will present itself in detail as you go, but this approach will give your imagination a springboard.

For this story, we’ll shoot for an overall word count of 50,000 words that’s broken into 30 chapters, one for each day of NaNoWriMo. That’s 1,667 words per day, which is roughly five and a half pages. Here’s what it might look like:

Chapter 1: Liz, the protagonist, is online one day and discovers her profile on a national missing persons website. She shows it to her husband, who begins acting manic.

Chapter 2: Liz realizes that it must be true. She puts the pieces together and decides she should go to the police. When she tries, her husband knocks her out.

Chapter 3: Liz awakes in a box. A coffin? She’s been buried alive and tries to get out.

Thinking through the book in broad terms like this will help you envision it more fully as you go forward.

4. Act. Start writing and don’t look back.

Once you have a skeleton framework, start. Act. Write. Don’t get preparation paralysis. The only way to write a novel is one word at a time. The only way to write each of those words, however unsatisfactory they might be, is to write them. Books don’t write themselves.

From the beginning, realize that it’s okay to stray from your sketched-out story. In fact, you should as you dive into it. Stories have a way of evolving as they unfold in the process, buy you must be in motion, moving the story forward, in order for it to present itself.

To help you further we’ve set up a page filled with resources to help you prepare for the event, and you can check them all out here: Gear Up for NaNoWriMo

If you are looking for suggestions, I highly recommend the Novel in a Month Premium collection (if there are any left). If not, definitely check out Write-A-Thon and Write Your Novel in 30 Days.

Good luck to all of you who take on the challenge this year and participate. Keep me posted on your success and feel free to share any tips you may have right here!


Follow me on Twitter: @BrianKlems

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2 Responses to How to Prepare for NaNoWriMo:
To Outline or Not To Outline

  1. cygnetbrown says:

    I discovered this trick the first time that I did NaNoWriMo. This type of outline helped me know exactly what I had to write about that day. I knew where my story started, what was the problem (plot) and where the story would end. I knew exactly where my story was going that day. All I had to fill in was the dialogue, scenery, emotion, and movement within the story line that I assigned for that day. The best part is that I’m never looking at a blank page. Everyday there is not just a goal of 1667 words, there is specific ground to cover within the story that day. By the end of the month, the first draft has been written and ready for the expansion of the second draft.

  2. Heart2Heart says:

    Hi Brian,

    Useful info, particularly like the Act and Chapter breakdowns! Happy Writing!

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