NaNoWriMo 101 or Some Planning Tips for Writing in November

Guest blogger Steve Liskow

Instant Novel (Just Add Writer): NANO, or National Novel Writing Month, begins November 1. If you’re a writer or think you might want to become one, it’s a great place to hone your chops or dip a toe in the water…er, ink.

The basic idea is that you sign up at the Web site ( and commit to writing 50,000 words in thirty days. It sounds like a lot, and it is, but it’s also well worth the effort.  If you’ve got a WIP, this gives you the incentive to make major progress.  If you’ve never written much before, this activity can show you how to do it best. Through trial and error, you can find whether you work better in the morning, afternoon, or evening; whether you produce a first draft more easily with a PC or a pencil; whether you do better in one long session or several shorter ones throughout the day; whether you’re better with an outline or flying blind. Down the road, these lessons matter.

People have asked me for a psychological boost to keep them working at this for thirty days, and I wish I had some to share.  Nobody else can make you plant your butt in the chair and put the words on paper, but maybe a little perspective can help. In the first place, 50,000 words isn’t REALLY a novel.  It’s a solid beginning, though.  So don’t worry about the name of the site or the challenge. You won’t write a novel in thirty days.  In the second place, even if you do finish the whole book in that month, you’re going to have to revise it several times to make it the best novel you can write. Trust me. I don’t even print anything out until my fifth draft because the early versions are such a mess.

So just chill, OK?

There are two ways to make the goal more manageable, too. 50K words divided by 30 days is not quite 1700 words a day, which translates to about six pages. That doesn’t sound as threatening, does it? Promise yourself that you’ll write six or seven pages a day, even if it’s absolute garbage (you’re going to revise it anyway, remember?), and there you are.

Writers tend to fall into two categories: planners and pantsers. I’m a planner. I find it’s a lot easier if I come to my desk with a fairly good idea of what I plan to write, too. Robert Crais covers his wall with ideas on note cards and post-it notes before starting his book. A lot of writers use story boards and post-its so they can move things around.

About half the writers I know outline and the other half consider that an unnatural act akin to rough sex with a porcupine.  With that in mind (the difference, not the porcupine, which is over in the corner smoking a cigarette), here are two ways to generate an idea to carry you through the day, and maybe through the whole month. The first is for writers like me who like to plan and outline. I love outlines and character bios and timelines and all the rest of the pre-writing because it gives me the illusion that I actually know where I’m going and what I’m doing.

No matter whether you’re writing a mystery, a romance, SF, or a literary work, you need characters.  They generate your plot once you know what they want and how they behave clearly enough to understand how far they might step over the line to get it.

So… Let’s create a CHARACTER. Give your character a NAME.  You can change it later (heck, you

In which Steve's character is a teenage hooker.

can change EVERYTHING later), but now give him or her a full name, first and last, maybe even a middle name, and maybe a nickname. Now, explain how and why she or he has this name (and nickname).  It’s a family story and will show your character’s values, even if they’re unconscious.

In The Whammer Jammers, my protagonist is a cop named Tracy Hendrix. His grandfather admired actor Spencer Tracy, and his father liked guitarist Jimi Hendrix enough to change his name from Hendricks. Tracy grew up with the unspoken expectation that he would excel.  His cop partner is Jimmy Byrne, and everyone calls Tracy “Trash” because it’s punchier and because it makes the duo “Trash and Byrne.”

In genre fiction (mystery, SF, Romance, Western), your MALE character’s first name should have at least one strong consonant sound and be no more than a couple of syllables.  This seems to be less of an issue for females because many evocative female names are multi-syllabic. In literary work, a name that has thematic or symbolic content can help, too: a biblical, mythological, musical or Shakespearean allusion is good if it’s not too heavy-handed.

In my Zach Barnes series, Beth Shepard appears at romance book signings as “Taliesyn Holroyd.” It’s a reference to King Arthur’s bard, who was male, but the name sounds feminine if you don’t know the source. A continuing joke in the series is that the REAL writer is a man, but Beth shows up because people expect a romance novelist to be a woman.

OK, now that you’ve given your character a name and an implied history, give him or her TWO TRAITS, one that seems to fit what you would expect from a person with the name, and one that contradicts it. A very feminine name might suggest beauty, shyness, or fragility, for example.  “Butch” suggests that the guy is fairly physical.

Give two FACTS about your character, one that he or she is proud of, and one that is a secret, maybe something he’s ashamed of (this is even better if it will become an issue in your story, like a DUI or a secret abortion). Give your character a specific and concrete GOAL.  This has to be clear enough so we can tell if he succeeds or fails by the end of the book. He doesn’t want “a date.”  He wants to take Guinevere to the senior prom. She doesn’t want to ‘be a detective.”  She wants to solve her sister’s murder. Knowing how your character acts will help you figure out his or her course(s) of action to achieve his goal.  If you know what she or he would NOT do, you’re ready to rock.

This exercise may give you enough to start figuring out where the first few days of your story are going to go, and maybe generate your entire plot.  Or maybe those few days will give you a few more, and so on.  So now you can sit down every day with some idea of what you’re going to spend those 1700 words telling about.

Now, let’s write a SCENE. A SCENE occurs in ONE location in CONTINUOUS time from ONE POV. In this time and place, your POV (usually your protagonist) character tries to achieve a goal and meets resistance. He responds to the resistance and the scene ends when he either succeeds or fails. My scenes usually run 6-7 pages, and that seems to be fairly typical. It’s also your day’s quota. (See how this all fits together?)

Scenes have a few essential ingredients, and here they are: Your character has a specific GOAL (this is like what we talked about a few minutes ago). Cinderella wants to go to the Prince’s big bash and win his heart. He or she has a PLAN or TACTICS to accomplish this goal, for example, Cinderella sews a killer gown. He or she meets RESISTANCE or OBSTACLES, which we call CONFLICT.  For about the first 70% of the story, these obstacles should cause your character to fail. The resistance should be external (meaning outside the character’s own mind/personality), and if you can make them both logical and unexpected, even better. Cindy’s step-mom says she has to stay home, and her bitchy step-sisters trash her gown.

Your scene finishes with a clear RESOLUTION so we know whether your character succeeded or not. There are only four possible resolutions: 1)Yes, the character gets what she wants (don’t use this one except MAYBE at the very end). 2) No, the character doesn’t get it (ditto, because it can limit your possibilities). 3) Yes, BUT (This is common in myths and fairy tales, and leads to more conflict. The character doesn’t understand that she’s giving up something important in the trade-off.  It might increase the stakes, too. 4) No, AND FURTHERMORE  (This is common in suspense because it makes things even worse) The resolution leads to a NEW PLAN/TACTIC until we reach the end of the story. Cinderella speed-dials her fairy godmother.

Easy, right? Your scene is a self-contained piece, so the people who don’t like too much planning can write it with no further prep, but it can point the way to the NEXT scene, tactic, whatever. And that leads to the next.  You don’t have to know anything beyond the end of this scene, but it may show you other characters or sub-plots. So here’s your SCENE exercise:

Write the skeleton of a scene that contains the following:

1) The character has a specific GOAL

2) He or she has a PLAN or TACTICS for achieving that goal

3) He or she meets a concrete external RESISTANCE or OBSTACLE (person or condition or event)

4) The scene ends with either a “Yes, but” (He gives up something to get what he wants without                   realizing the potential consequences later) or “No, and furthermore” resolution.

In other words, things get worse instead of better. I’m guessing this will take you six or seven pages. Now do it 29 more times over the next four weeks.

If you’ve signed up for NANO, I hope these suggestions will help. If you haven’t signed up, you still have time.

Bio: Before joining Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America, Steve Liskow was an English teacher, actor, director, machine operator, and encyclopedia salesman. His stories have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and several anthologies, including Vengeance, edited by Lee Child for the Mystery Writers of America. He won the Black Orchid Novella Award in 2009. His novels Who Wrote The Book of Death?, The Whammer Jammers, Cherry Bomb and Run Straight Down take place in central Connecticut, where he lives with his wife Barbara and two rescued cats. To feed his teaching Jones, he conducts writing workshops for both MWA and Sisters in Crime. Visit his Web site at!/steveliskowcrimewriter

And for something completely different, here are some tips from Pat Marin, about getting your life in order in anticipation of NaNoWriMo:

1) Prepare in October. Not so much your novel unless you’re an avid outliner, but your life. Do the fall cleaning, make sure all laundry is done by Nov 1st, food shop, cook and freeze meals (Thus avoiding very supportive Hubby handing you a hot dog and calling it dinner.), and purchase a Crockpot. Stock up on coffee, tea, Coke, Pepsi, or whatever your caffeinated drink of choice is.

2) Make notes on characters and plot ideas before you start writing. I didn’t always to this. I start a couple of time with no idea at all, but it bothered me to not know where I was going until day 5 or 6.

3) Don’t worry about secondary character or supporting character names. “Miss front desk person at whatever police headquarters” or “female next door neighbor” adds to your word count. You can brainstorm for a name later during edits and rewrites. How many of you know that March is National Novel Editing Month?

4) In the beginning your story is fresh and exciting and if you are like me you will get on a writing roll. Use this time to stock up on word count for the times you will only write 250 or 435 words in a day. Trust me, this does happen.

5) Falling behind. Sign up for a 5K challenge on a day when you will have time to sit at your computer. If you sign up you will do it. Why? Do you really want to admit to the writers in your area challenge that you didn’t do it? Nope, not me. If your area doesn’t offer a 5k challenge, offer it on a forum yourself. There will always be someone else who needs to boost their word count.

6) NaNoWriMo helps your typing speed. It is amazing how many words you can type during the commercials in your favorite TV show or while adding all ready cut up vegetables to a pot of homemade soup (set the timer for each addition and type in between. I’ve added 1800 words to my project while doing this on my AlphaSmart at the kitchen table.)

7) If you get stuck or need inspiration to finish, don’t be afraid to reach out to your local area. I’ve met and made many friendships over the years.

8) Get into the spirit of NaNoWriMo. Go to the Kick-off Party and Thank God It’s Over Party.

9) Be proud of yourself even if you don’t reach your goal.



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10 Responses to NaNoWriMo 101 or Some Planning Tips for Writing in November

  1. Tina Swift says:

    Thank you SO much! Ever since I signed up for NANO in a sleep deprived haze, I have obsessed over this challenge. In my area, all of the other participants (but one) are 20 something students — heck, they can do this challenge in two all nighters! Thanks again for the tips.

  2. Karen Hall says:

    Thanks for these, Steve and Pat. I’m not sure I’ll sign up for NaNo this year, but my crockpot is ready to go! I’m the cook in the household, but laundry, cleaning and shopping will be farmed out to my husband should I choose to participate. Good luck to both of you on reaching your goals.

    • Pat Marin says:

      Karen, sign on anyway. Even if you don’t get to 50K to win, you will have a lot more words for your WIP then you had before November. I know people who only did 20K but admitted it was a lot more than they’d normally write in 30 days.

  3. Pat Browning says:

    EXCELLENT post! Just what I need. Printing it out.
    Pat Browning

  4. Wonderful tips, Stephen and Pat! I did my first NANO last year, hoping to get back to my writing and learned that writing a novel is nothing like writing a short story except that it looks kind of like a short story and has a lot of the same elements, characters, storyline. I think that certain kinds of stories almost require knowing where the plot is going, but perhaps if I wrote messier drafts, I could circumvent that. Still learning what is going to work best for me. I also met Lee Child at the Writers’ Police Academy and after reading his foreword to Vengeance, bought it. I’m highly impressed with the pieces I’ve read so far by writers I didn’t know before. I also met Alexandra Sokoloff at WPA, too, and am using her Screenwriting 101 e-book to plan for NANO this year. Pat, I have to admit I LOVE the little out you gave us on names (they are my curse, for some of the reasons Stephen said: they mean so much) because we can up our word count if we haven’t named them yet. I’ve done it with locations/city names at times, but not the characters. May help with writing 1-page synopses or queries for later. Thanks for sharing this on SinC online, Stephen!

    • Pat Marin says:

      Diane, if it wasn’t from tips from my college writing students, I’d never been able to complete my first NaNoWriMo and win. They, a mother and daughter, had succeeded the year before and talked me in to signing up. Even if I end up with a novella or a 50-65k novel after editing, I’m happy.

      I always tell NaNoWriMos, write what you can. Even if you don’t hit 50K, you’ll still have added to your new work and you have a WIP to work on later.

      Once I hit 50K, I write the end of my story. Thus my novel is complete and I can go back and add to the almost finished middle. Doing this makes it a completed draft in my eyes.

      Good luck.

  5. Judy Copek says:

    I’m amazed that anyone involved in the New England Crimebake (3 days in November) can contemplate NaNoWriMo. And consider cooking Thanksgiving dinner. And shopping for it. The whole NaNoWriMo thing seems like an exercise in, well, bad writing. I know people who have half a dozen 50,000 work MS on their hard drives, none of them finished novels, so oolor me curmudgeonly.
    That being said, if it’s the kick in the pants you need to produce something, never mind the qualify, well, go for it. With the understanding that writing is rewriting, and you need SOMETHING to rewrite. Avanti!!!

    Good luck to all who are making the journey. I’m going to chug along on my WIP and hope for maybe 12,000 good words.


    • Pat Marin says:

      Judy, first let me say that after participating in 8 NaNoWriMos, I learned I want the best draft possible. Why? Those stories usually flow the best and bring the reader right into the story.

      As far as making the time. You do it. I’ve written while take sister to kemo and rehab, while suffering from a rotten cold, on 4 1/2 and 9 hour drives to Arlington and Fort Bragg to bury and honor a fallen godson-in-law. Thanksgiving dinner, not so much, my son does that these days. It’s all in how much you want it, how you can put things aside for the time. I knew I had to write on the way to Arlington because I knew when I got there I’d be a basket case. This was also a time when I had stacked up my word count the first few days. On my first NaNoWriMo, I spent the last four days with only 4 hour sleep a night trying to finish. I never drank so much tea and Coke in my life as that year.

  6. MCWriTers says:

    Judy….it’s just a way to jump start the writing. And yes, as Anne Lamotte reminds us, we do need that bad first draft. It helped me finish a novel the last time (yes, I know. I broke the rules) and this time, it will help me finish one.


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