Writer's Workbook: NaNoWriMo Newbie Toolkit

October 21, 2014



NaNoWriMo is almost here!  Here's what this writing challenge involves:
  • the self-policed agreement to write a 50k-word novel in November (1666 words a day),
  • the online or real-life encouragement of people who have agreed to do the same thing,
  • a 30-day excuse to tell your friends and family, "Bugger off, I'm writing a novel",
  • the satisfaction of having a hot little draft in your hands by December 1, and
  • a badge to put on your website that says "Winner!"

There's a sweet zaniness to NaNo that's perfect for people who have always wanted to write a novel.  My Los Angeles WriMo group schedules events and "write-ins" with tea and cookies.  Our mascot is a Flying Lemur and we stage battles to see who can write the most words in a thirty or forty-five minute period.  One WriMo accoutrement is a horned viking helmet, which we don while
writing.   Most importantly, there's no pressure to write deathless prose.  All you have to do is write.  Everyday.  

This week, I started reading Raymond Obstfeld's Novelist's Essential Guide to Crafting Scenes.  So far, it is fantastic, providing in-depth discussions about what makes scenes in a novel essential, memorable, and unexpected.  The author acknowledges that such scenes don't spring fully-formed from the brain:
[When you have a sudden idea for a scene]...it's best to just start writing.  Don't overthink or overplan it.  Jump in with fingers flying.  Don't worry that you aren't sure what will happen or why the characters are there.  It's enough that you think it would make a good scene in the book.  In other words, just write it...A weak writer will be satisfied with that.  A good writer will then transform the "neat idea" into a fully realized scene, rich with nuance, texture, character and theme.
This passage expresses what I believe is NaNo's value to aspiring writers.  NaNo empowers people to allow themselves to write down their stories in a world where the prevailing message is "don't."  Don't be a writer.  Well, fuck that!  I say yes.  Be a writer.  And not just that--be a good writer, as Obstfeld says above, who takes that NaNo draft and transforms it--through careful analysis and editing and rewriting--into a fully realized story.

Okay.  That said, there are tons of tools to help prepare NaNo newbies for their thirty-day sojourn into the wild.  Here are some of my favorites.

The Snowflake Method
This is the plotting method I used for my first NaNo.  Its basic premise is that your plot begins as a single sentence and grows in complexity from that point on.  The general idea is that all traditional plots are nothing but "three disasters and an ending."  Very user-friendly.

The Periodic Table of Storytelling
Genre fiction like romances and mystery novels traffic in beautiful things called tropes.  These are common themes or devices that we see again and again in literature, movies, and T.V. shows.  Tropes become cliches when writers employ them in lazy, predictable ways.  But when a writer uses a trope in a fresh, unexpected way, he or she will connect with the audience on a very deep level.  Jung explains why this happens.  Anyhow, this interactive graphic contains links to the most popular tropes on the website T.V. Tropes.  If you want to fall into a rabbit hole for a few hours, go to this website.  Pick and choose the tropes you want to employ, then get that story going!

The movie Guardians of the Galaxy employs a classic trope called Five-Man Band. Image from screenrant.com.

Debra Dixon's Goal, Motivation, Conflict (GMC)
There are two plots in every story: an external plot, involving immediate, concrete events in the real world, and an internal plot, involving the invisible, emotional journey of the protagonists.  Debra Dixon provides writers with a way to map out clear, robust internal and external plots employing the Goal, Motivation, Conflict (GMC) system.  For example, let's map out John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath.
External Plot
Goal: To get to California.
Motivation: They have lost their family farm in Oklahoma and they need to find work.
Conflict: Their car breaks down, they're running out of money for food and fuel, they're unwelcome wherever they go because they're "Okies," no jobs are available, the weather is bad.

Internal Plot
Goal: To keep the family whole and secure.
Motivation: Their sense of strength and identity originates in the family staying together.
Conflict: Family members are leaving, getting sick, and dying.
Note that if you are writing a romance, you will have to create a separate external and internal plot for both protagonists.  Why? Because romance writers like to do things the hard way (har har).

Chuck Wendig's 25 Ways to Plot, Plan, and Prep Your Story
There are plotters (writers who plan) and pantsers (writers who write by the seat of their pants) and those of us who exist somewhere in between.  Whatever your poison, Chuck Wendig has amassed 25 slamming ideas to help you get you on the right track for writing your novel.  I love his blog with whatever drops of juice are left in my little dried fig of a heart.  Each article is a "booze-soaked, profanity-laden shotgun blast of dubious writing advice."

NaNoWriMo Prep Page
Of course, one of the best resources to use is the NaNo website itself.  The preparation section contains a rich selection of tools for writers who are getting ready for November.  Two of my favorite items here include the all-powerful NaNoWriMo Character Questionnaire and this piece, related to GMC above, on creating physical and abstract antagonists.