Robertslaughter's Blog

October 18, 2009

My Approach for NaNoWriMo

Filed under: NaNoWriMo — robertslaughter @ 8:07 pm

The Basics on National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)


  • Runs from November 1 to November 30
  • The object is to create a 50,000 word draft of novel during the 30 days. This requires 1500 to 200 words of effort every day.
  • More information here:

So, how would one approach this project, and hope to accomplish it? What follows is my approach to handling this. It is just one way, and may not work for you.


My process for this is based on two articles I found through the NaNoWriMo forums in 2003 and 2004:

I saw where the two methods could overlap, with using Lazette’s outline ‘inside’ Randall’s process at Steps 8 and 9.
Once you have established some ideas in your head, you can start the process of capturing the novel ‘formally’ on paper (or on computer).

You should read, or at least familiarize yourself with the two articles before proceeding further.

Key Point!

It doesn’t have to be perfect; in fact, the draft won’t be perfect! And that is a good thing; progress is far more important than perfection. Establish and maintain your forward momentum! You can (and will) come back later and fix things as you understand the overall story better.

[And in all honesty, this is where I get stuck every year. I’m trying so hard to “get it right” from the very beginning, that I don’t actually do anything. This year is going to be different.]

One Sentence Summary

The first thing to do is write a single-sentence summary of you novel. This one sentence will prove to be useful as your ten-second explanation of your novel. This should be a short, simple sentence; it is the equivalent of the triangle that starts the snowflake in Randall’s article. If you’ve ever looked at the New York Times bestseller lists, you’ve seen novels reduced to a simple yet clear sentence. That type of sentence is what you’re trying to create here; someday, your sentence will be used in the NYT list entry for your novel.

One Paragraph Summary

Once you have your sentence, the next task is to create a one-paragraph summary of your novel. Your paragraph should have about five sentences in it: the first sentence gives the backdrop and introduces the story, then one sentence each for your three turning points (or three acts, if you’re using that model), then a final sentence to set the ‘hook’ or close the paragraph. If this sounds like the type of paragraph you would see on the back of a paperback book, or on the flap of the dust-cover of a hardback, that’s because that is what it is.

Character Summaries

Now shift gears, and create short biographies of each character. Keep it simple:

  • The character’s name
  • A one-sentence summary of the character’s storyline
  • The character’s motivation (what do they want abstractly?)
  • The character’s goal (what do they want concretely?)
  • The character’s conflict or obstacle (what is between them and their goal?)
  • The character’s epiphany (what will with they do or learn? how will they change?)

While using index-cards for your character notes, go ahead and use a full page of paper if doing this in ‘hard-copy’. You will need room for additional notes later. If doing this in digital form, keep it simple for now, as you will come back and flesh out the characters later.

Short Plot Summary

Now, return to the plot and develop it further. Take each sentence of your one-paragraph summary, and make each sentence a full paragraph of its own (a similar method for writing essays is here: If you have five sentences, this summary should have five paragraphs. If you have written more than two pages, you have written too much.

Character-view Plot Summaries

Now, return to the characters. For each of the characters, write a short description of the story from their point of view (one page for major characters, one-half page for secondary characters). Tie in their motivations and goals, describe their obstacles. As such, these will start describing the “why” of the story.

Character Portfolios

Staying with the characters, detail as much as you can about each character. In addition to the basic parts like birth date, parents and family, physical description, history, etc., also consider expanding and expounding on story-related details like motivation, goal, beliefs, etc. Be sure to capture how they will change as the result of your story. Not every detail may show explicitly in your story, but by being available, you will a more complete understanding of each character.

Phase Outline

Now we return to plot development, and integrate Lazette’s Phase Outline with Randall’s process. Starting with the five-paragraph plot summary, take each sentence and separate it out into a ‘paragraph’ of its own (ignore the cries in your head from your English teacher saying “a paragraph must have more than one sentence.”) These will be your starting phases per Lazette’s essay.

Usually a phase-item will run to no more than twenty to fifty words; for now, keep them short. Typically, for a 50,000 word draft, you will need about 200 to 250 phase-items. As she says, phases are written as key phrases or short sentences, which could be clues to dialog, a short description, or a set of actions — whatever it takes to advance to the next phase-item. Start creating new phase-items between the existing ones, until you get your count to where you want it. Then go through it once, making sure the ideas flow from one to another, but do not start expanding the phases themselves beyond their initial length. Yet.

STOP!!! (for a little while)

Take a break, put the writing someplace safe, and walk away. Do not do any more work on it until November 1. If it is already after November 1, take at least three days off. You can think about and ponder what you have written, but please do not look at it.

It will amaze you how well you will be able to spot the “good stuff” from the “needs work” even after a short break, but if you do not take a break, you will carry these issues forward into your writing, where they will be much more time consuming and difficult to clean-up later.


Now that you finished your break, take a look over everything you have written so far. Make any adjustments you need to keep the work whole. For example, did the phase outline reveal new character details? Write them down in the character portfolio. Did one of the character-view summaries simply not happen in your story? Add it to the phase outline. Do not spend too much time tweaking your preparation.

NaNoWriMo-GO! On or after November 1: Phase Expansion

Now you can start NaNoWriMo proper. Take each phase statement and start expanding them out to full sentences, or short paragraphs. When you have gone all the way through, go through the outline again, making each phase into a full, proper paragraph, or even two or more as needed (though they still count as one phase). As you work through the outline, move the phrasing from ‘outline’ form to ‘prose’ form, by working on techniques such as transitions, textual flow, change-of-voice, and other appropriate writing practices. Look for logical chapter breaks based on your story. Keep working through the outline from top to bottom repeatedly, until you are no longer making significant changes. When you reach this point, and it will happen much more quickly than you thought it would, check the word count. You should have your 50,000 word draft in your hands; if not, you should find you are a lot close, a lot sooner, than you originally expected.


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