NaNoWriMo prep, part three: Notes and plans

A hand writing notes on pieces of paper

Photo via Visualhunt.

You’ve committed to NaNoWriMo this year, you’ve determined your goal for November (to have fun, to reach a word count goal, to finish a story, to make friends with other writers, etc.), and you’ve begun a daily writing routine to prepare yourself. That’s a great start!

But to further increase your chances of meeting your goal successfully, it’s time to make a plan.


You are a planner if—before writing—you need to figure out not only who you’re writing about and the general premise, but also all of the secondary characters and their backstories, the history of the world, the characters your protagonists know well (even though they never show up in the story), how your protagonists would react in scenarios that aren’t even a part of the plot, and so on. And of course you know the beginning and the end of the story, because you also know all of the scenes that will happen along the way. The climax is a given.

If this sounds like you, you’re a planner. My main tip for you is to not go so far into your prep that you get tired of the story before the story is even written. It’s okay to leave some things unknown, as inevitably things will change as you write, even with the best laid plans. Also, be aware that you tend to use research to procrastinate on writing.

If this doesn’t sound like you but you wish it were, it can be! I am a convert just like you. A lot of things contributed to the change in my writing habits, but the book 2k to 10k by Rachel Aaron played a big part. She focuses on how to write faster, but she teaches in detail how to plan better so that you can write faster. Faster is only possible because of the planning.

I have always been and probably always will be a slow writer. When competing in word sprints (write the most words in 15 minutes) with other writers at NaNoWriMo write ins, I am almost always last place. But learning to plan in detail before writing has enabled me to write the rough draft only once. No more writing the same story over and over, trying not to write myself into a corner this time. No more multiple chapter deletions! Because I’m prepared, I can write the whole first draft in one go.

I love editing—tweaking, polishing, making the good even better. But I loathe slaughtering large swaths of words. I hate to have wasted the effort it took to write them.

Another influence in changing my habits has been Gail Carson Levine’s blog post “Taking Notes.” She mentions her notes process in many other posts as well.

If I do have to kill an otherwise amazing sentence or paragraph, I put them in my notes so they’re removed, but not gone. If I need to remind myself to insert something earlier in the story or pay attention to something during editing (anything to be taken care of later so I don’t lose my groove now), I make note of it there. If I need a place to keep track of details I’m not as familiar with, such as the MC’s sister’s boyfriend’s name that I just made up while writing, I keep it there for reference. If I’m daydreaming and suddenly think of a new scene I want to work in or some witty dialogue I want to use later, I keep them safe there until I can get to it later. And so on.

The great thing about these notes is that they are completely flexible and can hold whatever you need it to, and also completely private. No one but me will ever see these, so I don’t have to worry about complete sentences or typos. They’re also a safe place to rant when I’m struggling with something, like a difficult scene or some negative feedback. I usually feel better after writing down my frustrations.

So, when I write, I always have three windows open: my detailed plans for reference, my notes to type in as I write or edit, and my current draft.


If all of that sounds like way too much prep and not enough story for you, consider chucking it all out the window and becoming a pantser—someone who writes by the seat of their pants. This is the best option for someone who wants to write during NaNo for fun and has no intention to publish the end result. The point is to see where the story goes and to just enjoy the process.

It can be great fun! Often your characters will say and do things you never expected them to say or do, and you will learn things about them and from them. Just don’t be surprised if you don’t reach the end of the story. You might, but pantsers often get entranced by new ideas before they can see old ones through. If you’re okay with that, have at it.

Some published authors use this method all the time though, not just for NaNo. They love to revise, so exploring the plot and characters through the narrative instead of on a page of notes is more interesting and fun for them. They have the patience to see the story to its end, even though they’re taking the longer, more scenic route.

They feel more creative with this method, and maybe you do, too. But when I try to pants my stories, my plot becomes predictable and I often don’t reach the end. You can use NaNo to try this method and see if it works for you. It took me several years to realize it didn’t work for me.


If you like the idea of pantsing (the rush! the excitement! the mystery!) but want a little more structure (prevent loopholes or writing yourself into a corner), the middle ground is for you. Planner-pantsers, or plantsers, have a general outline they follow with some notes about the important things, but figure out the spaces in between as they go.

When trying this method, make sure you have your key scenes planned. The beginning (how the adventure starts), a few hurdles (what’s at stake), the climax (when everything goes to pot), and the end (how it all gets resolved). This will guide you in the right direction when you explore as you write so that you don’t end up stuck. If you feel stumped, jump ahead to the next key scene and work backwards to clear your way. (Remember, there’s no such thing as writer’s block.)

As a NaNo plantser, you’ll want to do some basic research ahead of time, but you won’t be as thorough as a planner. Take some time to consider what you might need to know.

Is this a fantasy world? Go to the library and check out some kid books on horses, swords, medieval fashion, or what have you. Nonfiction books for kids are great because they’ve been fact checked and have reliable information, but are quick and easy to digest.

Is this a contemporary world? Use Google Maps to explore the city you plan to base it in. Use Pinterest to look up outfit ideas for your characters. Go to a place that people of similar age to your characters hang out and just listen to the way they talk (and what about).

Let all of this mull around in your brain during October. Come November, you’ll be able to write with the confidence of a planner and the freedom of a pantser. Just watch out for either extreme of this style—too much research, or writing an impossible scene out of ignorance. Plantsers have a narrow balance beam to walk.

Have fun

No matter what method of writing you prefer, don’t forget that NaNoWriMo is supposed to be fun. It’s supposed to stretch you as a writer, so though there will be times that you struggle, it isn’t supposed to make you hate everything. Try different methods and see what works for you. And enjoy your story, no matter how it comes out of you.

Next week we’ll talk about what you can expect during your NaNo journey. That first week will be so exciting as you begin the race, but what about when your enthusiasm wanes? What about Thanksgiving??? I’ll have some tips for you. In the meantime, start daydreaming about your potential story, and maybe check out a few books from the library to help you plan. You can even check out the official NaNo prep page they encourage participants to look at. Also, if you’re lucky, your region might be hosting a pre-NaNo meet up (either for prep or just for fun). Be sure to check the forums to find out!

This article is the third in a series about NaNoWriMo.
To see the other posts, click one of the links below.

NaNoWriMo prep, part one
Part two: Getting started
Part three: Notes and plans [that’s this post]
Part four: What to expect

Only nine plots exist

Stacks of books in a store

Photo via Visualhunt.

As of this writing, Google tells me there are 129,864,880 books in the world. Mentalfloss tells me there are 134,021,533. The actual count is probably higher since neither figure was calculated this year and it’s impossible to accurately count self-published books, since not all of them have an ISBN.

So, how can I be so brazen as to say there are only nine plots—only nine basic stories—in this world?

Here’s an example:

An orphaned child is abused by relatives. The child dreams of different life but cannot fight against their fate. A person wielding magic steps in and gives the child a chance to be whisked off to a castle, where the child is able to see their self-worth. They are eventually forced back home and the relatives fight hard to keep the child from returning to the castle, but thanks in part to good friends and a bit of magic, they are able to make it back and leave behind their abusive childhood home.

Am I talking about Cinderella? Or Harry Potter?

Obviously that is a simplified example, but you get my meaning. A better example would be all the novels based on the same fairy tale, such as Cinderella. They are all so unique and different (and there are plenty more than I’ve just linked to), and yet they follow the same plot.

And that’s just ONE plot!

But there are nine, and it is the writer’s job to choose one and make it unique with their own characters, details, and voice.

The only nine plots in existence

Character vs Character
Character vs Him/Herself
Character vs Culture/Society
Character vs Setting
Character vs Situation
Character vs God(s)
Character vs Fate
Character vs the Unknown
Character vs Machine

All stories have their plot based in one of these conflicts. So, if you’re wrestling with your story because it sounds tired and overdone, consider how you might make it fresh and exciting. Every plot has been done multiple times, and when stripped to its bones, yes, your story may sound familiar.

But you are the only you that there is. Only you can make your story different than all of the others, because no other writer has your voice. What changes can you make to reenergize your plot and to give it a beat of its own to march to?

Finish that story and up the total count of books released into the world. I know you have it in you!

Do you tend to gravitate toward a certain plot for most of your stories? Or are each of your stories different from the others? I really like character driven stories with lots of interpersonal conflict, so I tend to write Character vs Character or Character vs Culture/Society stories. What’s your favorite to read? Is it different than what you like to write?

The Canon

Stack of books

Photo via Visualhunt.

I read an interesting article today by a literary agent about the importance of reading the canon. These are the books that “one must have read to be considered well-educated” in your genre or category.

Because she is an agent who represents books in the crime/thriller category, her top five books are:

The Mirror Crack’d by Agatha Christie
The Prince of Thieves by Chuck Hogan
The Key to Rebecca by Ken Follett
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
When the Sacred Ginmill Closes by Lawrence Block

She says the point isn’t to only pick five, but rather to “figure out what works in a novel that appeals to you for YEARS. A novel that you’d use to illustrate essential elements of a novel. … A novel that can be YOUR signpost for moving ahead.”

I thought it would be fun to try my hand at determining the canon for my category, which is YA fantasy romance, with an emphasis on fairy tale retellings:


Beauty by Robin McKinley Beauty by Robin McKinley

A strange imprisonment

Beauty has never liked her nickname. She is thin and awkward; it is her two sisters who are the beautiful ones. But what she lacks in looks, she can perhaps make up for in courage.

When her father comes home with the tale of an enchanted castle in the forest and the terrible promise he had to make to the Beast who lives there, Beauty knows she must go to the castle, a prisoner of her own free will. Her father protests that he will not let her go, but she answers, “Cannot a Beast be tamed?”



Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine

Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine (technically Middle Grade, not Young Adult, but still a classic)

At her birth, Ella of Frell receives a foolish fairy’s gift—the “gift” of obedience. Ella must obey any order, whether it’s to hop on one foot for a day and a half, or to chop off her own head! But strong-willed Ella does not accept her fate…

Against a bold backdrop of princes, ogres, giants, wicked stepsisters, and fairy godmothers, Ella goes on a quest to break the curse forever.





The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale

The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale

Anidori-Kiladra Talianna Isilee, Crown Princess of Kildenree, spends the first years of her life listening to her aunt’s stories and learning the language of the birds, especially the swans. As she grows up Ani develops the skills of animal speech, but is never comfortable speaking with people, so when her silver-tongued lady in waiting leads a mutiny during Ani’s journey to be married in a foreign land, Ani is helpless and cannot persuade anyone to help her. She becomes a goose girl and must use her own special, nearly magical powers to find her way to her true destiny.





East by Edith PattouEast by Edith Pattou

Rose has always felt out of place in her family. So when an enormous white bear mysteriously shows up and asks her to come away with him, she readily agrees. The bear takes Rose to a distant castle, where each night she is confronted with a mystery. In solving that mystery, she finds love, discovers her purpose, and realizes her travels have only just begun. As fresh and original as only the best fantasy can be, East is a novel retelling of the classic tale “East of the Sun and West of the Moon.”




My Fair Godmother by Janette RallisonMy Fair Godmother by Janette Rallison (and the subsequent books in the series about the unconventional Godmother)

After her boyfriend dumps her for her older sister, sophomore Savannah wishes she could find a true prince to take her to the prom. Enter Chrysanthemum Everstar: Savannah’s gum-chewing, cell phone-carrying, high heel-wearing Fair Godmother. Despite a few wish-granting mishaps, Savannah’s fairy-tale ending might not be as far off as she imagined.






I was reminded of a book I used to love that better fits this list of fairy-tale based stories, and so have added East to this list. I originally included Crown Duel by Sherwood Smith—which I still love—but it’s an original fantasy, not a fairy tale retelling.


What do you think? Do you agree with my list? Would you choose different books? If you have any to recommend, I’m all ears. If you haven’t read one of these… well, what are you waiting for? You need to get started ASAP!